Mortality in The Epic of Gilgamesh
Gilgamesh took a quest in order to find someone who he knew was granted immortality by the Gods. On this quest he eventually found the immortal man who is known as Utnapishtim. Gilgamesh then asked the question which he had traveled great distances to ask: How did Utnapishtim, become a god? And can I, Gilgamesh ever hope to become the same?
Utnapishtim proceeded to tell his story of how he was granted immortality. Utnapishtim was told by Ea (the god of wisdom and crafts) that the gods were planning to produce a massive flood to wipe out all of mankind. From this Utnapishtim build a boat with great dimensions with the ability to carry the seed of each living thing and his family. When the storm came, the gods released the flood. After seven days, Utnapishtim released a dove. When it couldn’t find a dry place to land, it returned to the boat. Utnapishtim released a swallow. It too returned. Then he released a raven, and it never came back. After the boat hit ground on a mountain top Utnapishtim made a sacrifice to the gods. Enlil the god listened and understood why Ea betrayed him and took Utnapishtim and his wife, touched their foreheads and blessed them, turning them into gods. For saving humanity, he granted them eternal life.
When Utnapishtim finished his story, he looked at Gilgamesh and asked if he really thought he was worthy of becoming a god and living forever. He proceeds to tell Gilgamesh that, as a test, he should try to go a week without sleeping. Gilgamesh accepts the challenge, but when he sits down to begin his test he falls asleep. Utnapishtim shows his wife how Gilgamesh sleeps. She tells him to wake Gilgamesh and let him return out the gates that he came. Utnapishtim said to his wife, “‘All men are deceivers, even you he will attempt to deceive; therefore, bake loaves of bread, each day one loaf, and put it beside his head; and make a mark on the wall to number the days he has slept.’ This will be proof to Gilgamesh that he had fallen asleep.” After seven days, Utnapishtim wakes Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh said he had just barely fell asleep when he had touched him. Utnapishtim then showed Gilgamesh the seven pieces of bread. He said, “Count these loaves and learn how many days you slept, for your first is hard, your second like leather, your third is soggy, the crust of your fourth has mold, your fifth is mildewed, your sixth is fresh and your seventh was still over the glowing embers.”
After failing this test and on his journey home Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh about the thorny plant that grows beneath the water. Gilgamesh takes the boat that Utnapishtim provided him and takes it out on the sea where he ties stone weights to his feet and dives into the ocean. When he finds the thorny plant he cuts the stones from his feet, and drifts ashore. He then proceeds home to Uruk to share this plant of immortality with the population. On this journey home Gilgamesh decides to stop for a bath. During this bath a snake comes up and steals the plant from Gilgamesh leaving him with nothing. He was distraught and weep.
The significance is that no one deserves to live forever unless they do an act that saves mankind. Gilgamesh goes through two stages in his journey. He assumes that if he dies doing something heroic then people will remember him forever (or in battle) leaving a destiny behind is kind of like living forever (immortality), but then his best friend Enkidu dies and seeing death up-close Gilgamesh changes his mind and starts on an adventure to find immortality. He is scared of death now, not wanting to die or be heroic, he just wants to live forever.
After Gilgamesh experiences Enkidu’s death there is a significant change in his view of life. Gilgamesh cannot bear the loss of someone so special to him. Gilgamesh weeps for seven days and nights, believing that his friend would come back: “On this very day I myself shall mourn you! Hear me, O young men, hear me! Hear me, O elders of teeming Uruk, hear me! I shall weep for Enkidu, my friend, like a hired mourner-woman I shall bitterly wail”. The amount of grief Gilgamesh experiences has exceeded his amount of pride that he had previously displayed to the people of Uruk as well as to Enkidu. The death of his friend makes Gilgamesh afraid of his own death. Which is similar to my beliefs. I am scared of the day I will die, just like Gilgamesh, but knowing that I have a place next to God after I leave this earth comforts me. I often think about death and what it would be like. There are days where I sit alone and think about dying, and what heaven would be like. I believe what Paul said when he said, “For to me, to live is Christ, to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). This verse really makes me start to re-evaluate my thought on mortality because in that verse Paul considered death to be his friend and not his enemy. No one ever thinks of associating death with gain. Most people think of death as a loss as did Gilgamesh, and not as a gain. Unfortunately, “no one can live forever; all will die. No one can escape the power of the grave” (Psalm 89:48). There is no escaping it. In the text Gilgamesh comes to this same conclusion; that there is no escaping it. That’s when Gilgamesh accepts his mortality, knowing that his name may not live on forever, but the people of Uruk will talk about his epic quests. He decides to live out the rest of his life the way he wants to, in order to gain everything that life has to offer him.