Can the Epic of Gilgamesh still speak to us?

The real test of literature is whether it continues to speak to us, after generations or even millennia. We’ve almost finished our examination of the Epic of Gilgamesh and its account of the Great Flood. All that’s left is to ask what enduring truths, if any, we find in this poem. Is this poem simply an archaeological curiosity, or does it still have something to offer modern readers?

Disney's dream of having
himself cryonically preserved
was overruled by his survivors --
his remains were cremated.
At first glance, it might seem not. The world that gave rise to this poem is very remote from us, not only in time but in culture. Its human figures seem barbaric and its callous and capricious gods are inscrutable — even Utnapishtim does not  try to explain their actions. But when we consider enduring truths, we have to move past cultural differences, which can be distracting. As a whole, it seems to me, the poem is about learning to accept our human limitations, something that can be especially difficult for a man like Gilgamesh, who excels ordinary mortals in so many ways. He has power, wealth, wisdom, beauty, strength in abundance, making him believe that he can (and should be able to) grasp at immortality as well.

Our modern world may not have the kind of super-powerful kings that dominated the ancient Near East, but that is not to say that we don’t have plenty of rich, powerful people who try to exercise godlike power over us “mere mortals.” Are those who use their wealth to limit population in parts of the world that they deem over-populated (Africa, Asia, Latin America) so very different from the Mesopotamian gods who decided that humankind had become too populous and needed to be destroyed by a flood? The daily news seems to be full of stories of the rich and famous who feel free to seduce innocents and crush the weak, much as Gilgamesh before Enkidu humanized him. So it would seem that the problems posed in the Epic of Gilgamesh are still with us.


The quest for immortality

During his friendship with Enkidu, Gilgamesh’s excesses were not so much restrained as they were redirected to more constructive ends (killing monsters that had been terrorizing the countryside). In his last days, though, Enkidu  infected Gilgamesh with despair by sharing his visions of the afterlife in the House of Dust:
… 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, there lies dust.
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 …
(Tablet VII, Kovacs translation)
This vision is what drives Gilgamesh to seek immortality — he does not intend to be like all those kings who now dwell impotently in unending darkness. Today’s rich and powerful may not believe in a dreary afterlife, but their materialist assumptions nevertheless drive them to use their wealth to pursue a physical immortality, which medical technology promises is just around the corner.

Science is the modern god that
promises us immortality.
Probably the first attempt to literally escape mortality came over the horizon in the late 1960s and early 1970s: cryonic preservation, an attempt to preserve the body at the moment of death by storing it at very low temperatures, until such time as medicine comes up with a cure for whatever had brought the person to death’s door. The fad may have passed, but there are still companies today that promise this kind of “immortality,” and these companies store thousands of bodies waiting for the resurrection that their original inhabitants believed science could offer.

Then, there are those, such as the 2045 Strategic Social Initiative, who propose “to create technologies enabling the transfer of a individual’s personality to a more advanced non-biological carrier, and extending life, including to the point of immortality.” Even if one trusts in the promises of such measures, however, most of us would find these alternatives as repellent as the House of Dust envisioned by Enkidu.

When Gilgamesh learned that immortality was out of his reach, he settled for “second best,” a plant that could provide continual physical rejuvenation. Modern medical technology seems to offer us a similar alternative, promising that, any day now, we will be able to rejuvenate our joints, organs, bones, blood, and even DNA so that we will be able to attain fabulous ages without the physical debility associated with old age.   In the mean time, many rely on cosmetic surgery, bizarre diets, and relentless exercise to keep their bodies “young.”

How many, though, stop to think what benefit they are getting from the extra months or years of life they may attain by these methods? Are they using them to create anything of lasting value? Perhaps they, like Gilgamesh, fail to consider what the real purpose of life is — and, like Utnapishtim, they may realize the foolishness of this oversight only when it is too late.

Having your mind uploaded to a holgraphic avatar? I don't think even Gilgamesh would have gone for that.
It seems to me the Epic of Gilgamesh is not so much about the unattainability of literal immortality as it is about the wisdom of accepting and appreciating the limitations of our mortal life. Utnapishtim clearly intends his story about the Great Flood as a warning against the mad pursuit of immortality — and he speaks as one who knows. Even if Science, the modern, materialist god we have created for ourselves, should be able to confer literal immortality upon us, should we welcome such a gift? Utnapishtim would say No.

What do we stand to lose if we insist on making ourselves into immortal, godlike creatures? Will such godlike immortality come only at the price of our humanity? These are questions that need not be relegated to science fiction for, as we have seen, such questions were raised by heroic epic, as long as four thousand years ago. It has been said that those who remain ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it. We might say something similar about ancient poetry. If we fail to read it and to heed its wisdom, we will continue to make the same mistakes, age after age. The modern-day Gilgameshes of the world should take heed.

Next: The flood in Ovid’s Metamorphoses

We’ll continue our “adventures in comparative mythology” when we take up the account of the Great Flood in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. If you haven’t read the poem, you can find it online in both a poetic English translation and a modern prose translation. The account of the Great Flood is found in Book I. To put the story in context, I strongly suggest reading at least Book I in its entirety (it’s less than 800 lines).

As you read, you’ll undoubtedly be thinking about what Ovid’s flood tale has in common with its Mesopotamian original. But, more importantly, you should consider what its distinctive features are and what they seem to suggest. How do they respond to the theme of the poem announced in the opening lines? What view of gods and man are set out in this early part of this lengthy poem?

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©2015 Lisa A. Nicholas

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