The Epic of Gilgamesh
Wisdom and Knowledge Quotes
How we cite our quotes:
"No one can see death,
no one can see the face of death,
no one can hear the voice of death,
yet there is savage death that snaps off mankind.
For how long do we build a household?
For how long do we seal a document?
For how long do brothers share the inheritance?
For how long is there to be jealousy in the land(?)?
For how long has the river risen and brought the overflowing waters,
so that dragonflies drift down the river?
The face that could gaze upon the face of the Sun
has never existed ever." (10.190-301)
Here, Utanapishtim is trying to explain to Gilgamesh the nature of death. What is it about his message that makes it so hard to accept? Uh, maybe it's because Gilgamesh has journeyed beyond the ends of the earth to find out what death is, and Utanapishtim has said, "Eh, who knows?" And yet, even if this answer is unsatisfying, it does seem to be the final answer about death that the poem gives us.
"After Enlil had pronounced the blessing,
the Anunnaki, the Great Gods, assembled.
Mammetum, she who fashions destiny, determined destiny with them.
They established Death and Life,
but they did not make known 'the days of death." (10.302-309)
Here, Utanapishtim keeps going with his "nobody knows what death is, we don't know when we die, so just deal with it" shtick. This time, it maybe becomes a bit clearer why Gilgamesh might not accept the message. Doesn't Utanapishtim's way of putting things really leave him open to somebody saying, "Where do you get off telling people to just 'get over it?' That's easy for you to say, since you were granted immortality by the gods." Is there something about wisdom that makes us need to trust the person who is passing it on to us?
"Enlil went up inside the boat
and, grasping my hand, made me go up.
He had my wife go up and kneel by my side.
He touched our forehead and, standing between us, he blessed us:
'Previously Utanapishtim was a human being.
But now let Utanapishtim and his wife become like us, the gods!
Let Utanapishtim reside far away, at the Mouth of the Rivers.'
They took us far away and settled us at the Mouth of the Rivers."
"Now then, who will convene the gods on your behalf,
that you may find the life that you are seeking?
Wait! You must not lie down for six days and seven nights." (11.196-204)
Check out the lightning quick transitions in this speech from one topic to another. At first, Utanapishtim is explaining how he was granted the gift of immortality. But then he shifts immediately to the moral of the story, when he asks "who will convene the gods on your behalf, / that you may find the life that you are seeking?" Utanapishtim's question may be rhetorical, but we know the answer he's driving at: "Nobody. Nobody is going to bring all the gods together and have them grant you immortality, Gilgamesh." Now that we hear the story and its moral, we might start to realize that Utanapishtim has a point. But, then again, we didn't make the journey beyond the ends of earth to get this answer, Gilgamesh did. And for Gilgamesh, this still might not be satisfactory. Could this be why Utanapishtim makes his next swift change of topic, when he challenges Gilgamesh to a staying-awake contest?