Study Guide

The Epic of Gilgamesh Death

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We hate to break it to you, but it's been thousands of years since Gilgamesh was written down, and there's still no cure for death except cryonics—and we think that is just weird. The Epic of Gilgamesh is largely the tale of one man's quest to outsmart death, and, oddly, our priorities haven't changed much. At the beginning of the epic, Gilgamesh is too much of a hot-shot to really be worried about death. He figures if he dies doing something really cool, then people will remember him forever and that will be almost as awesome as living forever. Once he sees that maggot fall out of Enkidu's nose, though, all bets are off: he embarks on an expedition to find the secret of eternal life. We aren't spoiling the ending to tell you that that doesn't work out.

Questions About Death

  1. In Tablet 2, when Enkidu tries to talk Gilgamesh out of going to fight Humbaba, Gilgamesh replies, "We all die anyway, so I might as well accomplish great, risky deeds, and make a name for myself. That way, my fame will live on after I'm dead—even if I have a short life." What do you think of Gilgamesh's reasoning here? Is this attitude still widespread today?
  2. At the end of the poem, when Gilgamesh brags to Urshanabi about all the sweet features of Uruk, it looks like he has gotten over his worries about death and can enjoy human accomplishments. But has he learned anything about death aside from the hopeless picture painted by Enkidu's dream in Tablet 7 and Utanapishtim's bleak description in Tablet 10? If, for all Gilgamesh knows, death is still completely bad, how can he accept that?
  3. Utanapishtim sure does blab on and on about the Flood in Tablet 11 of the poem. Is this story even relevant to Gilgamesh's quest to find out the truth about mortality? If so, how?
  4. It's clear that Gilgamesh's thoughts about death at the end of the poem are different from his thoughts right after Enkidu dies, when he becomes totally terrified of death. But how different are his thoughts at the end of the poem from his thoughts at the beginning? In other words: what has Gilgamesh learned about death over the course of the whole poem?

Chew on This

The Epic of Gilgamesh has a happy ending: Gilgamesh realizes that while death is inevitable, immortality can be achieved through one's actions while they are alive.

Gilgamesh ends tragically: the hero ultimately fails in his final quest for immortality.

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