Theme Of Death In The Epic Of Gilgamesh Essay

Death is something that every human must face. It is the inevitable conclusion to life and is something that humans have had to come to terms with since the dawn of their existence. This is very clear in many of the writings and stories that human beings have told throughout history. This obsession about the ultimate culmination of life is heavily expressed in literary works like The Epic of Gilgamesh, Virgil’s The Aeneid, and Beowulf.

The first half of The Epic of Gilgamesh deals with the king Gilgamesh and his friendship with Enkidu, a duplicate of the king, while the second half of the epic poem deals with Gilgamesh coming to terms with Enkidu’s death and his own mortality. Gilgamesh was a king who “surpass[ed] all other kings, heroic in stature” and was depicted with superhuman strength (George 2). This, by most accounts, would seem to be qualities of a much fulfilled life. However, this all changes when Gilgamesh’s newfound friend and carbon copy, Enkidu, dies.

The king is deeply saddened by his death and also faces the fact that he too will eventually die. So, in order to cheat death, Gilgamesh decides to search for Uta-napishti and ask how he can live forever. He tells Gilgamesh to do different tasks, but Gilgamesh fails every time. Gilgamesh realizes that if he cannot complete these tasks there is no way he can beat death. Gilgamesh accepts his fate and returns home. Gilgamesh’s story concludes with him seeing his city’s walls which “will be his enduring monument” (George 88).

It is important to note that The Epic of Gilgamesh, quite possibly the earliest work of literature, has a central theme of mortality, because it is at the very core of the human experience. This story greatly depicts a dilemma that most humans will eventually face in life. Death is something that is guaranteed and there is nothing that anyone can do about it. However, there is something that one can do; something that will metaphorically make one live forever. That something is making a notable impact on the world. The ending of the epic makes this very clear and puts the entire story in perspective.

Death is inescapable, however, one has the ability to create a legacy for oneself. Gilgamesh seemingly finds comfort in this, because it gives his life meaning and purpose. It is reassuring to know that people from that distant time period faced the same issues that we do. Death, the main foe that Gilgamesh faced, is the major adversary for all man. Virgil’s The Aeneid has a slightly different approach to life and death. Written nearly two millenniums after The Epic of Gilgamesh, it could be argued that humans have more accepted that death is unpreventable.

Furthermore, there is much more value on life because of death. Also, there is much more honor that comes with the death of greats. For the anniversary of his father’s death, Aeneas organizes funeral games for his soldiers to compete in. As stated in the text, this event caused a stir: The longed-for day arrived as the horses of Phaethon brought the ninth dawn on through skies serene and bright. News of the day and Acestes’ famous name had roused the people, round about, and a happy crowd had thronged the shore, some to behold Aeneas’ mean, some set to compete as well. (Virgil 5. 25-129) The games were much more of a celebration of life than death.

Though the games were in the name of Aeneas’s late father, most of the people were using the event for showcasing physical prowess and spectacle. Shortly after, Aeneas meets his the ghost of his father when in the underworld. There, Aeneas talks with his father about his journey. Anchises, the father, tells Aeneas that he is destined for greatness and that his actions will lead the creation of the great empire of Rome. Also shown in this story is that there is very little meaning or happiness in death, and that one should find those in life.

Similar to The Epic of Gilgamesh, Virgil’s The Aeneid has a central theme that one’s accomplishments outlast one’s own life. Like Gilgamesh and the city of Uruk, Aeneas’s life will have meaning with the founding of Rome. The main driving force behind much of Aeneas’s, as well as many others, actions is the pursuit of honor. It is shown to be honorable to die in battle, similar to The Epic of Gilgamesh. This is because you have given precious life to a noble cause. The certainty of death forces one to find meaning in life and many cultures, including Rome from the representation, find that meaning in what they leave behind after they are gone.

Honoring one in death was the ultimate respect that one could receive in Beowulf. Likewise, dishonoring one in death was the ultimate disrespect that one could receive. In the epic, Beowulf seeks glory by killing the monster Grendel who is terrorizing a mead hall. This point alone showing many of Beowulf’s themes. In Beowulf, there is an emphasis on the good things in life like songs, beer, and victory in battle. This shows a slightly different belief that depicted in The Epic of Gilgamesh and The Aeneid.

Just like the previous works, Beowulf depicts death as inescapable, however, it puts much more emphasis in finding happiness in life than the other works. Unlike the other heroes, Beowulf initially accepts his fate and does not change. He knows that at some point he is going to die and is at terms with that, however, which gives him reason to indulge himself in the “good things. ” As Beowulf states before facing his final foe, the dragon: I won’t shift a foot when I meet the cave-guard: what occurs on the wall between the two of us will turn out as fate, overseer of men, decides.

I am resolved. (Heaney 2524-2427) Beowulf knows that fate has a plan for him, something that Gilgamesh and Aeneas had to learn, and accepts it. In his final words, Beowulf accepts his death, saying “Fate swept us away, / sent my whole brave high-born clan / to their final doom. Now | must follow them” (Heaney 2814-2816). Those who lived and died in valor are honored forever. But, if you impede on other’s living a full life like Grendel, his mother, and the dragon, then you perish in vain.

Beowulf, the story’s hero, finds glory and justice in slaying the monsters. This shows that death is merely a culmination and reflection of the life you lived. Beowulf, like society as the time progressed, has accepted death as part of the human experience. Eventually everything is going to end, so the characters of Beowulf view this as a reason to live for happiness and to find meaning along the way. There is still an emphasis on leaving a legacy, however, there is even more of a value on just living a good life while you are still alive.

Life and death is depicted as less clear-cut than previous works because of this, however, that is makes it even more understandable. As time goes on, we as humans still understand that death is unavoidable, however, our feelings toward it becomes ever more multi-faceted. Everyone will eventually come face-to-face with death. This is guaranteed. Humans have grappled with this from the dawn of their existence as shown in the works that they left behind. The works themselves seems to be symbolism of the themes expressed in the stories. After death, what lives on is the legacy you leave.

History may have forgotten many of the authors’ names, but they and their civilization’s ideas live on forever. As shown from the progression of the attitudes toward death from The Epic of Gilgamesh to The Aeneid to Beowulf to today, death has become a very complex idea that is viewed many different ways. However, there are many similarities that unite us as humans even across time. We cannot escape death, so it is up to us to find a meaning in life. Our consciousness of death and our mission to find meaning to life is one of ways that makes us humans. Everybody dies.