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Epic of Gilgamesh The Two Journeys
The Journeys of Gilgamesh
When one reads the "Epic of Gilgamesh" it becomes clear that the story can be broken down into two separate journeys. In the broadest of terms the first journey is one of life, and the second one of death. When examined closely, these two journeys reveal much wisdom, and impart much truth about the nature of life.
In the journey of life Gilgamesh, who is said to be part divine, has one flaw: hubris. His selfish and arrogant ways cause his people to pray for help from the gods. Hearing the prayers, the gods create a companion for Gilgamesh. They create an equal for Gilgamesh, and his name is Enkidu.
Enkidu arrives in Uruk after living in the wilds and challenges Gilgamesh to fight. After wrestling each other for days the two of them realize they are equals, and become best friends in a bond of brotherhood. As their friendship grows they decide that they will go slay Humbaba, the monster god that rules over the cedar forest. They journey to the far off lands and slay Humbaba. After the mighty battle Ishtar, the goddess of love and war, decides that she wants some of that Gilgamesh action, but Gilgamesh turns her down. This rejection makes Ishtar very angry. She sends the Bull of Heaven to get revenge, but Enkidu and Gilgamesh defeat the mighty bull. Ishtar is even more outraged by this and has a council with the other gods. The gods are then swayed by Ishtar's arguments and decide that Enkidu must die. The defeat of the bull marks the ending of the journey of life, for soon after that Enkidu dies.
In the beginning, of this journey the character of Gilgamesh represents childhood. He is a young brat who takes what he wants without thought of other people. "…who hordes the girls of other men for his own purpose?"(Column ii, 56) His Hubris is evident as Gilgamesh takes pleasure in whatever woman he wants without regard for the other men of Uruk. Gilgamesh is filled with hubris. Though he upsets the men in his kingdom, Gilgamesh's hubris remains unchecked because there exists no man who can stand up to Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh has no one to fear or learn from and feels free to take what he wants and to do what he wants.
Because he is uncontrollable, the gods create his companion, Enkidu, for him, one who could be his equal in all things. When Enkidu arrives there are immediate and evident changes in the behavior of Gilgamesh. He no longer represents the brat of childhood, but instead resembles a mature young adult. He no longer hoards women and forces them to betray their future husbands. Gilgamesh has found a true friend in Enkidu, and is discovering himself through their relationship.
Gilgamesh, like most young adults, is filled with the fearlessness of immortals. He is not afraid to die, but he admits to Enkidu that all men must die eventually. He says, "Only gods live forever with Shamas, my friend; for even our longest days are numbered."(Column IV, 57) With these words Gilgamesh admits that there is nothing an individual can do about death.
Gilgamesh not only admits that his days are numbered, but displays his young adult outlook by embracing death. He says, "Fear not. Even if I were to fail and fall in combat, all future clans would say I did the job."(Column IV, 61) Gilgamesh makes it clear that glory is more important than life. Enkidu accepts these words from Gilgamesh and the two set out on the perilous quest. They decide to take on the greatest of challenges together, and go off to kill Humbaba.
After the quest is completed the gods decide that Enkidu must die. It is through the death of Enkidu the Gilgamesh's character becomes middle-aged. The death of his best friend and truest companion cause Gilgamesh to question everything. He is, in a sense, having a midlife crisis. Gilgamesh starts to ask why and what was it all for? The death of Enkidu not only causes this midlife crisis, but also marks the beginning of Gilgamesh's second journey; the journey of death.
Gilgamesh is so heart broken by the death of Enkidu that he mourns for a longtime, and resolves to attempt to find answers to death and search for immortality. Gilgamesh seeks out Utnapishtim, a character that modern-day people know as Noah. Gilgamesh's journey proves cruel and unforgiving. He is alone, cold and his face becomes thin and weathered. He refuses to sleep, walking ever forward towards his goal, Utnapishtim.
When he finely reaches Utnapishtim, he asks for the secret of immortality. Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh the story of the flood, and how it came to be that he, Utnapishtim, became immortal. Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh that he can become immortal if he keeps a vigil for seven nights, but Gilgamesh falls asleep. After this failure Gilgamesh is sent home, but he is given a gift. Utnapishtim reveals that a plant exists which will give him eternal life. After getting the plant Gilgamesh plans to take the plant home to his people, but he loses it to a snake and is denied his immortality. The journey Gilgamesh pursues for immortality proves to lead to death.
One can see in this journey of death that the character of Gilgamesh represents old age. After walking through frozen mountains, Gilgamesh appears drawn and thin; his youth has left him. A woman asks Gilgamesh, "Has chance worn out your youth or did some wicked sorrow consume you like food?"(Column I, 25)
As with most people who are no longer youthful, Gilgamesh now looks for explanations to life's questions, and begins to fear the inevitable. He realizes that he will eventually die as his friend did, and this scares him into action. The most ironic aspect about the action he takes is that he actually finds solutions to his questions. Gilgamesh is given two opportunities to secure eternal life, and he wastes them both.
The first is when he falls asleep during his seven-night vigil, and the second is when he is given the plant and subsequently loses it to a snake. The first is understandable as Gilgamesh has already not slept in days, but the second is inexcusable. Utnapishtim offers Gilgamesh plant, but rather than using it, Gilgamesh decides he will try to share it with everyone. Utnapishtim says, "That plant contains eternal life for you."(Column VI, 262) With these words Utnapishtim offers Gilgamesh eternal life, but not the people of Uruk. It is through Gilgamesh's grand designs with the plant that causes him to lose it, and he returns home to his people empty handed. Gilgamesh is now fated to die, and no longer has a way out.
The "Epic of Gilgamesh" teaches us many things about life. Through the character of Gilgamesh we are shown the various stages of human life. It teaches that every human must die and that this fact should be embraced, not feared. However, the fact that Gilgamesh dies does not mean that he has failed in his journey. Utnapishtim never told Gilgamesh that he would never die. Rather, he told Gilgamesh that the plant contains eternal life for him. In some ways the plant worked, and Gilgamesh is still alive to this day.