Herbert Mason’s retelling of the Sumerian epic poem Gilgamesh, is about a king who learns that he is not capable of having eternal life. Throughout his journey, Gilgamesh comes to realize the harsh realities of life, the power of acceptance, impermanence, and transformation. He discovers that moving on from death does not mean overcoming death, and because Gilgamesh has the blood of man, he will never have the ability to live like a god. Ultimately, although Gilgamesh has to learn to accept death as a part of life, he needs to first live life in the present, instead of living in the past with Enkidu, or in the fear of his future.
Gilgamesh is unable to face the death of his friend or accept his own mortality. When the gods bring their wrath upon Enkidu, Gilgamesh does not accept that his friend’s death is inevitable because he had never looked at death before Enkidu saw in him a helplessness To understand or speak, as if this were The thing the other had to learn And he to teach. (Mason 47) Because of Gilgamesh’s isolation from his people, he has never needed to understand death. He is ignorant of the fact that he will eventually die, unlike his immortal mother.
Being king, Gilgamesh shuts himself behind the walls of his kingdom and hides from the ultimate reality that life indeed has an end. When Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh realizes nobody but the gods are spared from the fate of mortality, yet he still wants to bring Enkidu back to life. His solution to overcome the death of his dearest friend turns into a conquest to overcome death itself, which is why Gilgamesh tries, “to bring Enkidu back to life / To end his fear of death… ) To find the secret of eternal life” (55).
He believes that overcoming death means living forever, which in turn means he will never have to learn to accept and move on. Gilgamesh wants to make sure that his legacy will live on forever, and will never be forgotten. His fear of being forgotten quickly transforms to a fear of dying, and since he does not understand the power of impermanence, Gilgamesh believes that he and Enkidu should last forever. When Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh realizes that the gods have no qualms with striking down anyone without any second thought or hesitation.
When Enkidu is the next victim of the gods, it is Gilgamesh’s quest “to bring Enkidu back to life- / Recognizing now the valley was deaf/ To loss known only to himself” (61). Another illustration of Gilgamesh’s desire to never be forgotten is his opinion that the only thing worse than death is a dishonorable death, one that no one remembers (91). Enkidu’s death is not a memorable one, and Gilgamesh realizes that he is the only one of in whom Enkidu’s legacy will live on. From the way Gilgamesh reacts to his dearest friend’s, Enkidu, death, it is clear that he believes he is the only one who has suffered a loss of an extremely close friend.
Trying to cope with his loss by searching for the key to life, Gilgamesh is no different from any other man who suffers from loss. On his search for immortality, Gilgamesh meets Siduri who tries to tell him to forget his dead friend, and says that the dead should stay dead. Siduri knows that Gilgamesh has to learn his lesson by living it, and that nothing she says will stop him from continuing his quest. She also realizes that he is no different from any other man looking for life, he would “repeat repeat the things men had to learn. / The gods gave death to man and kept life for / Themselves.
That is the only way it is” (65). What Siduri says, is a lesson Gilgamesh has yet to learn; the gods have no mercy on mortals. When he meets Urshanabi, the boatman, Urshanabi asks Gilgamesh, ‘What have you known of loss / That makes you different from other men? ” (67). Gilgamesh has not grasped the fact that he has no power over immortality. However, he has learned everyone is susceptible to death, even a king like himself, and an equal like Enkidu. Because Gilgamesh is ignorant of his people’s losses, when he experiences loss himself, he goes to great lengths to stop feeling so much grief.
Gilgamesh needs to learn his lesson from the pain of loss, instead of doing everything he can to hide from it and refusing to accept his fate. Utnapishtim tries to teach Gilgamesh that there is a reason the the gods are the only ones who possess immortality. When Gilgamesh finally gets to Utnapishtim, his exhaustion catches up to him and he passes out. After he wakes up, Utnapishtim shows him nothing but scorn for wanting to have eternal life.
He tells Gilgamesh, “You have slept for seven days… / How will you bear eternal life? It is not easy to live like gods” (82). Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh that he will never be strong enough to be able to hold the kind of responsibility that the gods do, and completely shuts down Gilgamesh’s plea for the secret of immortality. However, Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh, I know your pain too well to lie… There is a plant in the river. Its thorns Will prick your hands as a rose thorn pricks But it will give to you new life. (83-4) Gilgamesh finds the rose, and because of his irresponsibility, he leaves the plant of life unguarded and it is eaten.
For all his life, Gilgamesh has been finding ways to cope with his mortality, and he wants to believe immortality is possible for a man like him, so much so that he has himself convinced. When he discovers the missing rose, Gilgamesh finally fully comprehends that he was never meant to possess the power of infinite life. What he needs to understand is that even though all humans die, humanity still has life. In the beginning, Gilgamesh was scared of death, and in turn, wanted to conquer it. Now that he accepts it, his fear of passing has gone away. Gilgamesh starts out as a mortal, living in the shadows of death.
Following the passing of Enkidu, his closest companion, he transforms into a man with a new purpose. Throughout his life, Gilgamesh has ruled his kingdom from afar, never connecting with his people. He has always been envious of the immortal gods because, though he is two-thirds god, he will never be immortal. Along his journey, he constantly grasps with chances to prove his equality to the gods, depicted perfectly in his defeat of Humbaba. With that in mind, it is clear Gilgamesh demonstrates his power as a king whenever he is given the opportunity.
Though Gilgamesh may think that demonstrating his power prove his equality to the deities, it actually makes him more human in many ways. After Enkidu’s death, Gilgamesh begins to truly and deeply understand the capabilities of the gods he has strived his entire life to become. When he loses the plant of life, Gilgamesh realizes that he is not fit for immortal life and that he should move on because the dead will stay dead. Finally, because of this new found enlightenment, Gilgamesh is finally able to forgo his past desires and live freely without the weight of death, specifically Enkidu’s, on his shoulders.
From Gilgamesh’s story of painful lessons turned positive, people can conclude and learn that at the end of every difficult journey, there will be development. However, in order to obtain the acceptance that although generations go by and people pass away, the cycle of life and the hand of time never stops, in essence, humanity never fades away. People going through hardships similar to that of Gilgamesh’s, need to learn the extremely difficult lesson, and undergo the journey, about life and more importantly, self-discovery. For Gilgamesh this means living in the moment, not in the past or the future.