Wisdom of Death

When the gods determine that Gilgamesh’s rival-turned-buddy Enkidu must die, he goes through some soul-searching. He not only regrets the battle with the bull of heaven, but begins to regret the storming of the cedar forest that that led to the destruction of Humbaba and the ambition that drove him to it, and the lust that led to the seduction by Shamhat.

“Enkidu began to speak to Gilgamesh: ‘My brother, this night what a dream [I dreamed!] The gods Anu, Enlil, Ea and celestial Shamash [held assembly], and Anu spoke unto Enlil: These, because they slew the Bull of Heaven, and slew Humbaba that [guarded] the mountains dense-[wooded] with cedar, so said Anu, between these two [let one of them die!] ‘And Enlil said: Let Enkidu die, but let not Gilgamesh die! Celestial Shamash began to reply to the hero Enlil: Was it not at your word that they slew him, the Bull of Heaven – and also Humbaba? Now shall innocent Enkidu die? Enlil was wroth at celestial Shamash: How like a comrade you marched with them daily!”

The dream fills him with grief: “Enkidu lay down before Gilgamesh, his tears [flowed] down like streams: O my brother, dear to me is my brother! They will [never] raise me up again for my brother. [Among] the dead 1 shall sit, the threshold of the dead [I shall cross,] never again [shall 1 set] eyes on my dear brother.”

Death has brought Enkidu to recognize the folly of all his achievements, desires, and drives. He has grown from the natural man, nearly an animal, through sexual initiation and battle into a civilized man. In the end, confronted with death, he becomes sad, which is to say, a sage.

After Enkidu’s death, Gilgamesh goes through a similar epiphany. He becomes fearful of death himself. He mourns so long that the body begins to decay. Finally, he arranges a splendid funeral for his dead friend. Because of his encounter with Enkidu’s death, he begins to worry about his own mortality. This drives hm on a quest for immortality, and that is what leads him to the secret place of Ut-Napishtim, the one mortal believed to have advanced to immortality. Tablet 9 says, “For his friend Enkidu Gilgamesh did bitterly weep as he wandered the wild: I shall die, and shall 1 not then be as Enkidu? Sorrow has entered my heart! I am afraid of death, so I wander the wild, to find Ut-napishtim, son of Ubar-Tutu.”

There is also an element of Ecclesiastes in the epic. Despite his visit to the immortal human, Ut-napishtim,Gilgamesh finally cannot win immortality, and he is left with the wisdom of loving what comes to him. Shiduri the barmaid famously tells him: “But you, Gilgamesh, let your belly be full, enjoy yourself always by day and by night! Make merry each day, dance and play day and night! Let your clothes be clean, let your head be washed, may you bathe in water! Gaze on the child who holds your hand, let your wife enjoy your repeated embrace!”

Vapor of vapors, all is vapor. Therefore eat and drink and rejoice in the wife of your youth. It is the wisdom of death.

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