The following essay was written as part of a series of historical analyses attempting to understand lesser known impact mechanisms of what is considered today as “popular history.” The essay was written in 2001, at North Park University, for a course in World History taught by Professor Theodora Ayot.
The Epic of Gilgamesh deals with several universal themes, although the most important of these themes are of the mystery of death and the conflict of friendship. As I sit here and write out my thoughts, I am barraged with a sense of a message beyond an ordinary story – a message that reaches out and connects with even my own life. The Epic of Gilgamesh deals with some concepts that are prevalent even today, in our modern society. Our modern world, just like the ancient world, deals with suffering, death, love, and friendship – these universalities that create what we call humanity. And the Epic of Gilgamesh contains some valuable lessons for us, even in an age where the past seems like an idyllic barbarism.
I remember an argument with one of my best friends when I was growing up in San Francisco. We were part of a choir, and the time of the year came when all of the choir members needed to raise money for a summer, international singing tour. The competition was fierce – and most of the tension was between my friend David and myself. At the end of the competition, I had made the most money, and David did something peculiar. He did not speak to me for six months, quiet as stone. I remember feeling betrayed. I was continually haunted by his silence, and I thirsted to understand why something like competition could drive a person to abandon something as great as what we had.
In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the gods create Enkidu the savage man, to compete with the monumental and harsh King Gilgamesh. Within this tale of friendship and conflict, we see the beauty of competition and of the forgiving and bridging of friendship. Enkidu was created because the people were afraid of Gilgamesh, and requested to the gods that they be given some relief from his magnificent personality. Enkidu provided exactly that – an outlet for Gilgamesh and his energy. Enkidu approached Gilgamesh and challenged him on his brutal and insensitive activities, and the two of them began to fight. They fought so hard that buildings shook like an earthquake moving through the land, and they fought throughout the entire city. The Epic states, “the doorposts trembled and the wall shook.” Eventually, Gilgamesh won the fight, and Enkidu lowered his anger and the two embraced and became friends. This perhaps, was Gilgamesh’s only friend, for Enkidu was the only one who had the power to challenge Gilgamesh, and Gilgamesh knew this.
David and I eventually made up, and admitted to each other how silly our silence had been. I had been afraid to speak to him because I believed him angry with me, and he was afraid to speak to me because he was afraid that I was afraid of him being angry. Our competition brought us farther apart, but when we were willing to sit down with each other and work out the details of the problem, we realized how silly our conflict had truly been. Gilgamesh reveals a true secret of life: most conflict is rather silly, and problems can be amended with a simple embrace and a courtesy of friendship. After Gilgamesh and Enkidu fought, they held a respect and awe for each other than transcended the deepest hate they could have had. David and I continued our friendship, and we overcame many obstacles in our path of friendship through the simple embrace of love.
David’s parents were strict, and his father perhaps the strictest and most stubborn father I ever knew. David and I used to square off with him, especially when his father would tell David he was not allowed to participate in certain activities or act in a certain way because of a challenge of superiority with the father position. David and I used to wrestle his father, until he laughed so hard that he eventually gave up his claim.
In the same way, Gilgamesh and Enkidu overcame many obstacles. Both of these men were children of the gods, more than mere mortals. Gilgamesh was a demigod, born from the union of an immortal and a mortal, and Enkidu was sculpted directly into being without a mother or father. They constantly struggled with the gods and the superior attitude of the gods. Humbaba, the guardian of Cedar Mountain, symbolized a victory for Gilgamesh and Enkidu against their parents, the gods. Humbaba was the form of the strength of the gods, and the two friends, through many trials, overcame the great beast and cut off its head. The gods were angered, but the two friends relished in their victory, and became well known in the land for the victory. They stood for independent thought and freedom from the oppressive gods.
David overcame his father at times, and seemed to rise above the small being that he was often cast as being. Although we both knew that his father still cared deeply, just as the gods did in the Epic, we also knew that a victory for David meant that he could step up to his father and look him in the eyes and tell him he was strong and he was not weak. Gilgamesh and Enkidu, perhaps, strove for the same thing – recognition from their parents for their strength. After Gilgamesh and Enkidu had cut down the tallest tree, Enkidu said, “My friend, we have cut down the towering Cedar whose top scrapes the sky… let them carry it to Nippur, the Euphrates will carry it down, Nippur will rejoice.” They searched for meaning in their lives – and they found it by revealing their true strength, that of independence.
Before I left for college in the summer of 1999, David was diagnosed with lymphatic nodal cancer. He felt alone. His friends didn’t visit him anymore, and everyday he listened to the voices in his head that told him he was dying. I visited David anytime I possibly could. Instead of going home like I normally would, and watching television or reading a book or going out, I visited David and tried to be the best friend that I could be. I could tell that inside he was very confused, but didn’t release that anxiety, especially around me. I was going through something similar – how could a friend of mine be dying, so early, so young, and so innocent? The answer wasn’t logical, or even acceptable. Therefore, I contained myself to visiting him anytime I could, so that I could understand and perhaps by my presence, soothe his pain. Questions blazed through my mind – what was death, and what happened after death, and what kind of being had the authority to prescribe something like this death? I couldn’t answer any of these questions. The only comfort I had was visiting David, taking him out to lunch, and having the kind of conversation we had before this happened. Sometimes I would ask him how the treatments were going. I was sympathetic, and confused.
In the Epic, Enkidu becomes very sick, for the gods curse him. Gilgamesh goes through similar trials as I faced – confusion, misunderstanding, and silence. Gilgamesh tried to be a friend to Enkidu during this time, although he found the process very hard. Enkidu is also confused and angry – he curses even the door, and he curses every friend he ever had in the world, from his lover, to his parents, to his best friend. Gilgamesh is beside him most of the time (for awhile he disappears because he is unable to approach Enkidu), and tries to be a comfort. And when Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh mourns his death deeply, so deeply that he prescribes a vast, new life to live – the quest for immortality.
David survived his cancer. He is still going through the fading stages of the sickness now, and must maintain his diet and visit the doctors every now and then to receive a new statement. My story was different. I was changed, because my best friend almost died. This left a gap within me – an understanding of not understanding. I became almost obsessed with understanding death and the purpose of death. A few years later, I took a job at a local funeral home, where my work was the gathering of dead bodies and the transportation of bodies to morgues. This was my journey, and perhaps where I learned my finest lesson about death. Everyday I was forced to view the face of someone who had lived, and now has died, and I was forced to touch them and bind them in a ceremonial outfit, noble enough for the afterlife.
Gilgamesh searched the world for immortality. He traveled to the other side of the world, to the world of the dead, beyond the River of the Dead, to find the one man granted immortality by the gods. He traveled through mountains that contained no light, he traveled through the realms of the scorpion kings, he traveled through the gardens of the divine winemaker, and he traveled to the ferryman who ferried souls across the River of the Dead to meet the immortal Utnapishtim. And when he met this immortal, Gilgamesh learned that immortality was not something that could be gained by human effort, but only by the will of the gods. Gilgamesh went through several trials, and failed every trial before him. Utterly, at the end, Gilgamesh was left with the singular lesson of the mystery of death.
Life is a beautiful and glorious thing. Friendship offers a person a sort of enhanced life, like a drug that is so strong that when it leaves, the bond is broken and death seems almost too inevitable. Gilgamesh felt this with Enkidu – he learned to love his life. He was still King Gilgamesh, but his energies were not devoted to ruining the lives of his people, but rather were funneled into a friendship that he believed would last forever. But that friendship dissolved, and he became distressed by the concept of death. He received a different kind of death – that of separation, and felt the inevitable of such things coming to him. So he searched for immortality, perhaps to alleviate his worries about Enkidu, or perhaps to prove that he still could be above the gods and stand equal with his parents. But in the end, Gilgamesh realized that death is not anything that can be controlled by a work of man. Death comes when death comes, and is not for the decision of the mortal who awaits it. Gilgamesh’s final thoughts rested on his mortal accomplishments. “Go up Urshanabi (the ferryman), onto the wall of Uruk and walk around. Examine its foundation, inspect its brickwork thoroughly – is not even the core of the brick structure of kiln-fired brick, and did not the seven sages themselves lay out its plan!”
I came to the same realization during my own discovery and travels. That death is inevitable, and is not something we can control. My older brother died when he was two years old, as a baby in his sleep. My grandmother lived until she was 95 years old, in perfect health. However, when she was sent to the hospital because of a cold, she died because of too much lactose and sugar consumption. The Epic of Gilgamesh brings out some of the most important questions in life – the vast importance of friendship, the inevitability of death, and the acceptance of life as being beautiful and treasured.