Gilgamesh

IN FLESH AND SPIRIT: THE QUEST FOR HUMAN IMMORTALITY

The search for immortality seems has fascinated mankind throughout history. Although the thought of everlasting life is mythical, most of us hope for some form life after death. While we tend not to dwell on this subject because we are uncomfortable with the unknown, on those rare occasions when we allow ourselves to think about the fact that our days are numbered, we wonder if death can be cheated and immortality gained. Some have suggested that being remembered is just as enduring as living forever. Thoughts of destiny and the here after are not new. They have engaged the hearts and minds of men for ages. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, a king investigates the possibility of immortality following the saddening death of his friend Enkidu and ultimately discovers the method to obtain it.

Gilgamesh, the ruler of ancient Uruk, is blessed with the gift of foresight. He has numerous dreams about his destiny and has accepted his mortal fate. In interpreting a dream given to Gilgamesh by the gods, Endiku states that the gods have "given you kingship, such is your destiny, everlasting life is not your destiny." (70). With this early revelation, Gilgamesh accepts the gods choice to not give him eternal life. Instead, Gilgamesh is determined to make himself famous so that his name will be set in the place where the names of famous men are written (70-1). It is here that the epic first toys with the notion of spiritual immortality. Throughout the story Gilgamesh first battles with and then adapts his own definition of eternal life.

Gilgamesh succeeds obtaining fame by first defeating the guardian of the forest, Humbaba, and shortly after, the bull of heaven. During these battles Gilgamesh declares that "there is nothing to fear! If I fall I leave behind me a name that endures." (71). Having reconciled himself to the fact that fate has indeed determined when he will die, he still desires that his name live on eternally. It is not until the death of his friend Endiku, by the gods' decree that he questions the concept of human mortality with the knowledge that "What my brother is now, that shall I be." (97).

Endiku, himself grapples with the meaning of immortality and his death serves to both act as a catalyst for Gilgamesh's own quest and to foreshadow Gilgamesh's eventual findings. After cursing the house of Gilgamesh for being the forbearer of his death, Shamash reminds Enkidu that he will be mourned by the people of Uruk and by Gilgamesh himself ["when you are dead [Gilgamesh] will let his hair grow long for your sake, he will wear a lion's pelt and wander through the desert," (91)]. Hearing Shamash, Enkidu changes his curse to a blessing. Bitter as his death is to him, and to Gilgamesh, it gives meaning to his life, for only upon death can on be remembered in whole.

Upon Enkidu's death, Gilgamesh insists that immortality is attainable, and he is driven by fear to learn how from the one human who apparently will live forever, Utnapishtim (95). The revelation of Utnapishtim changes the implications of the story; it gives credibility to Gilgamesh's new goal of eternal physical life as opposed to his past acceptance that life may continue in perpetuity only through the memories of others. Gilgamesh states,…