The Epic of Gilgamesh Theme of Death
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
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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
Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.
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.
The last words of The Epic of Gilgamesh repeat (with a slight variation) the opening words of the poem. Just like the opening of the poem, they are an invitation to look at the city of Uruk, to take in its splendors, see how excellently it is constructed. Yep, the story comes full-circle; just the way we like it!
The situation at the end of the poem is that Gilgamesh has returned home from his voyage beyond the ends of the earth. Returning home is always a good ending to a story about a quest—but not if everything has just stayed the same, right? As it happens, something has changed. Gilgamesh went on his journey to find out the secret of immortality, and now's he found it: only two human beings have been granted immortality (Utanapishtim and his wife), and Gilgamesh isn't one of them.
In other words, he'd better learn to live with the knowledge that he will die. From this perspective, Gilgamesh's words about the city could be a sign of growth and maturity. Before, he didn't appreciate such things; now, though, maybe he realizes that human accomplishments on earth are all we've got—so we'd better give credit where credit is due.
The Same But Different
There's one cool difference that we want to talk about. In the opening of the poem, the identity of the speaker is unknown and we, the readers, are the ones being addressed, whereas at the end of the poem Gilgamesh is clearly the speaker, and he is addressing Urshanabi the ferryman. So, here's one thought about that:
Gilgamesh is really about the process of confronting and overcoming the fear of death—which grants a kind of immortality. Like a true hero, Gilgamesh has to go off and learn this secret for the good of humanity. When the poem opens, he's already learned it, and the speaker is able to clue us in right away. The moment at the end when he speaks to the ferryman is the moment that he truly gets it—and that realization is what we get at the beginning. In other words, the beginning of the poem universalizes the individual experience that Gilgamesh has.
Confusing? Yeah. But also kind of cool—and super sophisticated. What are your thoughts?