The Epic of Gilgamesh
How we cite our quotes:
Who, my friend, can ascend to the heavens?
(Only) the gods can dwell forever with Shamash.
As for human beings, their days are numbered,
and whatever they keep trying to achieve is but wind!
Now you are afraid of death—
what has become of your bold strength?
I will go in front of you,
and your mouth can cry out: "Go on closer, do not be afraid!
Should I fall, I will have established my fame.
(They will say:) "It was Gilgamesh who locked in battle with Humbaba the Terrible!" (2.228-237)
Meet Gilgamesh: he lives fast and hard, and doesn't care if he dies trying. Enkidu has been warning his friend not to go on a quest to fight the monster Humbaba; Enkidu fears that Gilgamesh will be walking into certain death. But Gilgamesh points out that death is already certain—for human beings, anyhow. Given that we're all going to die anyway, Gilgamesh reasons, the next best thing is to accomplish great deeds so that your name will live on in people's memory. Is Gilgamesh right? Would it be enough if the people of Uruk remembered Gilgamesh as the one who battled Humbaba? Would there be an epic about him if he had died in that battle?
Now Gilgamesh is your beloved brother-friend!
He will have you lie on a grand couch,
and will have you lie in the seat of ease, the seat at his left,
so that the princes of the world kiss your feet.
He will have the people of Uruk go into mourning and moaning over you,
and fill the happy people with woe over you.
And after you he will let his body bear a filthy mat of hair,
will don the skin of a lion and roam the wilderness. (7.129-137)
Shamash says this to Enkidu, who's just been cursing (1) the trapper who first found him at the watering hole, and (2) Shamhat, the temple-prostitute, who first initiated him into the ways of human beings. Sure, we can see why Enkidu might feel like lashing out. But he's wrong. If it weren't for the trapper and Shamhat, he never would have made friends with Gilgamesh. One of the plusses of this friendship is he'll now have elaborate ceremonies to commemorate him after he dies, and Gilgamesh will defile his own body in memory of his friend. Aw, now isn't that sweet?
Then he … turned me into a dove,
so that my arms were feathered like a bird.
Seizing me, he led me down to the House of Darkness, the dwelling of Irkalla,
to the House where those who enter do not come out,
along the road of no return,
to the House where those who dwell do without light,
where dirt is their drink, their food is of clay,
where, like a bird, they wear garments of feathers,
and light cannot be seen, they dwell in the dark,
and upon the door and bolt lies dust. (7.173-182)
Don't you just hate it when people tell you their dreams? Here, Enkidu describes his frightening dream about being captured by a lion-headed eagle and taken down to the underworld. But unlike our dream about blow-up dolphins (seriously), this dream probably has a grain of truth for Gilgamesh. And it's not pretty: the underworld isn't much better than complete non-existence, and quite possibly worse. If you were living in the ancient Sumerian society of Gilgamesh, how would you react to knowing that the underworld was like this? Does this picture of what waits for us after death explain some of the attitudes toward life and death expressed by characters in the epic?