Fighting Off Death in ‘The Epic of Gilgamesh’

When was the moment your impending death became real to you? When did the brevity of life and the passing of time become known to you? Perhaps you were young when this happened or maybe later in life. Perhaps you have yet to have this moment. But regardless of whether or not you’ve reached this milestone, you have been fighting to put off the inevitable. You have been trying to be successful and make a name for yourself. You have sought friendship and recognition. Why? Because you want to extend your life as long as you possibily can and these things give you that feeling.

I sat down to read The Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the oldest known stories in all of literature, not expecting such ruminations on life and death. I prepared myself for a sweeping epic full of battles and derring-do. Instead, I was greeted with a character who begins as a tyrannical king, softens through friendship, and ends in a desperate journey to procure eternal life so he doesn’t have to die. That spectre Death hangs over the whole narrative, whether explicitly or subtlely. Early on, the titular hero is trying to establish a name for himself. He builds a great city and challenges his own subjects to fights to prove his superiority. When he meets his match in Enkidu and the two become brothers, Gilgamesh turns his sights out into the world. He and Enkidu travel to a dark forest and battle that realm’s guardian in a bid for great glory. His motivation then is to win honor before they die and he constantly rallies his companion through speeches hinging on that point.

Then tragedy strikes and Death takes center stage. Enkidu is struck down by the gods and dies a slow, painful death due to sickness. The effect on Gilgamesh is devastating. Suddenly the hero realizes his own mortality and flees the city to track down a sacred garden of the gods in the hope of securing eternal life for himself. As he constantly tells the gods (or whomever he meets), “Because of my brother I am afraid of death; because of my brother I stray through the wilderness. His fate lies heavy upon me. How can I be silent, how can I rest? He is dust and I shall die also and be laid in the earth for ever.” Death is near to each of us and when we are suddenly aware of his presence, we despair and echo Gilgamesh’s cry.

The Mesopotamian hero goes to great lengths to fight off death, but the gods reject him at every turn. They will not give him what he seeks. Eventually he, too, succumbs to Death and part of the lament raised over him is, “The king has laid himself down and will not rise again…He overcame evil, he will not come again; though he was strong of arm he will not rise again…” If Gilgamesh was a real king, his name lives on alongside other epic heroes like Odysseus and Beowulf, but he died like any other man. He fought with Death and lost.

As I type this post, it has been eight years to the day since my dad passed away from battling brain cancer. He, like Enkidu, did not fall on a battlefield but in a bed after a lengthy sickness. I watched him recede from humanity and fade away. I was there when Death’s cold hand reached into the hospice room and took his last breath. But the weight of my own mortality did not sink in then as it did in Gilgamesh’s circumstance. Yes, I wrestled with grief and was more aware of Death’s presence, but my awareness of my own passing life didn’t dawn on me until recently. Now, as a married man and a father, I see how much I have to lose in dying. I feel my father’s weight upon me. He is dust and I shall die also.

There is some hope and resolution to Gilgamesh’s story. Though he does not obtain his coveted prize, he does return home and admires the city and his accomplishments. In effect, he reconciles himself to his own fate. But this ending doesn’t bring one much reassurance. Is Death so powerful that all must be laid low and the best one can do is simply accept this? As a Christian I don’t believe this to be so. I believe Jesus is the King who laid Himself down and did rise again. He overcame evil and will come again. I don’t have to strive to the ends of the earth to beg for eternal life, Jesus offers it freely wherever one may be and I have it for myself now. This gives me some comfort to know that He fought Death for me and won and I benefit from His victory. My father benefitted from that victory. Death may still hang over me and encroach on my thoughts, but his power is feeble for all that. In all likelihood I will be laid in the earth one day, but, thanks to Christ, I won’t lay there forever.

Quick Critique:

A surprisingly engaging and human tale! It’s a little disjointed and the story flow doesn’t always make sense, but that’s not the fault of the storyteller per se (we may not have all the pieces to the story). Worth reading, if for nothing else, from a historical standpoint. It’s short too, which makes for an easy read (unlike Homer’s Epics for instance).

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