Study Guide

The Epic of Gilgamesh Death

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Chapter 2, Tablet 2

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?

Chapter 7, Tablet 7

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?

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?

On entering the House of Dust,
everywhere I looked there were royal crowns gathered in heaps,
everywhere I listened, it was the bearers of crowns who in the past had ruled the land,
but who now served Anu and Enlil cooked meats,
served confections, and poured cool water from waterskins.
In the House of Dust that I entered
there sat the high priest and acolyte,
there sat the purification priest and ecstatic,
there sat the anointed priests of the Great Gods.
There sat Etana, there sat Sumukan,
there sat Ereshkigal, the Queen of the Netherworld.
Beletseri, the Scribe of the Netherworld, knelt before her,
she was holding the tablet and was reading it out to her (Ereshkigal). (7.183-195)

Here, Enkidu is still going on about his spooky dream. This time, the emphasis isn't so much on how the underworld totally stinks, as much as on the fact that absolutely everybody has to go there. When the most powerful people on earth are reduced to the role of table servants in the underworld … well, that's a powerful message about the equalizing power of death.

Chapter 8, Tablet 8

My friend, the swift mule, fleet wild ass of the mountain, panther of the wilderness,
after we joined together and went up the mountain,
fought the Bull of Heaven and killed it,
and overwhelmed Humbaba, who lived in the Cedar Forest,
now what is this sleep which has seized you?
You have turned dark and do not hear me!"
But his (Enkidu's) eyes do not move,
he touched his heart, but it beat no longer. (8.38-46)

Even though Gilgamesh's words are about how Enkidu is dead, it still doesn't seem like he totally accepts this fact—he is still talking to a dead guy, after all. This becomes even more clear at the end of this passage, when Gilgamesh touches Enkidu's heart—as though he were trying to see if, by some miracle, Enkidu wasn't actually dead. Ancient Sumerians: they're just like us.

May the …, the cypress, and the cedar which we destroyed(?) in our anger mourn you.
May the bear, hyena, panther, tiger, water buffalo(?), jackal, lion, wild bull, stag, ibex, all the
creatures of the plains mourn you.
May the holy River Ulaja, along whose banks we grandly used to stroll, mourn you.
May the pure Euphrates, to which we would libate water from our wineskins, mourn you.
May the men of Uruk-Haven, whom we saw in our battle when we killed the Bull of Heaven,
mourn you.
May the farmer …, who extols your name in his sweet work song, mourn you.
May the … of the broad city, who … exalted your name, mourn you.
May the herder …, who prepared butter and light beer for your mouth, mourn you.
May …, who put ointments on your back, mourn you.
May …, who prepared fine beer for your mouth, mourn you.
May the harlot, … you rubbed yourself with oil and felt good, mourn you.
May …, … of the wife placed (?) a ring on you …, mourn you.

May the brothers go into mourning over you like sisters;
… the lamentation priests, may their hair be shorn on your behalf.
Enkidu, your mother and father are in the wastelands,
I mourn you … (8.14-30)

Is someone cutting onions nearby? This is Gilgamesh mourning Enkidu, obvs, and boy does it bring a tear to our eye. Does the fact that Gilgamesh is calling on animals and plants to lament his friend undercut his argument that being remembered after you die makes dying OK? After all, if Gilgamesh is calling on the entire universe to lament Enkidu, doesn't that suggest that it isn't enough for ordinary people to lament him?

Chapter 9, Tablet 9

I am going to die!—am I not like Enkidu?!
Deep sadness penetrates my core,
I fear death, and now roam the wilderness—
I will set out to the region of Utanapishtim, son of Ubartutu, and will go with utmost dispatch! (9.2-5)

This is major, Shmoopers: Gilgamesh is actually changing. For starters, he's shifting from lamenting his friend to lamenting for himself, because he will have to die too someday. This also shows a shift from his attitude near the beginning of the poem (see the first quotation from this section), when he seemed to think that death really wasn't a big deal. But accepting death is the last thing on Gilgamesh's mind at this point. Instead, he is determined to do something about it: he will go see Utanapishtim, the one human being who received immortality. Does Gilgamesh's decision to go see Utanapishtim make sense, or is it just another way of refusing to accept the inevitable?

Chapter 10, Tablet 10

Six days and seven nights I mourned over him
and would not allow him to be buried
until a maggot fell out of his nose.
I was terrified by his appearance(?),
I began to fear death, and so roam the wilderness. (10.61-72)

This is Gilgamesh filling in Siduri, the tavern-keeper in the underworld. What's cool here is the complicated interweaving of feelings of grief over his friend and grief for himself—plus, check out that gritty realism. Maggots!

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(?)? (10.290-301)

Utanapishtim is trying—and failing—to satisfy Gilgamesh's curiosity about death. Basically, it's impossible to know what death is, and human life is incredibly brief, so you've just got to deal. But Gilgamesh isn't listening—not yet.

Chapter 11, Tablet 11

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 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? (11.196-205)

If you've ever watched the legendary HBO crime series The Wire, you may be familiar with the practice known as "juking the stats." This is when the bosses at police force decide that they've had it with high crime rates, and tell all the division commanders to bring the numbers down. So what happens if the division commanders can't deliver? They monkey with the statistics, that's what. Robberies get reclassified as petty larcenies, fights get reclassified as loitering, and on down the list until—presto!—the statistics say that crime is down. And evidently, it's an old technique. Here, Enlil, the king of the gods, had wanted to destroy the entire human species with the Flood. But now the Flood is over, and two human beings have survived. So what does Enlil do? He jukes the stats, that's what. By reclassifying Utanapishtim and his wife as immortal, and hence not human beings, he gets to preserve his perfect record.

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