Gilgamesh is anxious. Despite every advantage in the world, he’s unsettled because it will soon be reduced to nothing. He will die. He knows it and he’s not happy about it.
The Epic of Gilgamesh is profoundly pessimistic. The text is one of the world’s oldest – pieced together from a number of tablets unearthed from the Sumerian era. It tells the story of a king with ennui. Like all men, he can’t come to grips with the fact that his glory is fleeting and his name is impermanent.
You want to tell Gilgamesh to stop whining – welcome to life, Gilly, you’re not special. Except, that he is. He’s been composed of two-thirds God and one-third man. It’s his creators who have intentionally forced the issue on him.
They’ve given him the slightest taste of omnipotence. He’s destined to reap earthly rewards like no equal, all the while knowing that his time will come and that his mortal one-third will overcome the whole. He has achieved the status of a God without its final reward.
When he’s first brought to terms with his mortality, he strives to make a permanent name for himself on earth by felling great cedars and killing a legendary giant. This enables him to build the strong walls of Uruk, which are repeatedly mentioned as proof of his greatness.
He does so with the help of Enkidu, his only peer and fierce companion. Enkidu is born of the forest, “uncivilized” and carefree. His struggles begin with a woman – a prostitute brought to lay with him, feed him wine and give him the knowledge of man. In this, though, he loses himself. Sex has made him weak and an outcast from the forest. Once he befriends Gilgamesh, Enkidu exists only as an example of impermanence, and to show Gilgamesh its impact as a forerunner in death.
When Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh goes into great mourning. In his self-centered grief, he completely forgets what their friendship taught him. He undertakes a great journey to find the fountain of youth. He’s chosen to forget or ignore his fate.
He’s scared. Mighty Gilgamesh – king of strong-walled Uruk, who Adad the god of the storm endowed with courage, who has slain the Bull of Heaven – is scared shitless. Except, he won’t act like it, even when he appears to have reconciled his rendezvous with death.
“Our days are numbered, out occupations are a breath of wind,” he says. “Whoever is tallest among men cannot reach the heavens.”
His stoicism seems superficial, because he immediately sets out to “reach the heavens” both figuratively and literally. These are fools errands and he knows it. He’s been told his fate. Explicitly.
Listen: Gilgamesh has become unstuck in time.
But unlike Billy Pilgrim, Gilgamesh rages against the dying of the light. He undertakes quests no mortal would ever dream. He comes painfully close to returning the source of youth from the Garden of the Gods, but can’t. And then, weary from his travels and with very little ado, “The king has laid himself down and will not rise again.” So it goes.
So, “regard the foundation terrace and examine the masonry: is it not burnt brick and good?” our unnamed narrator instructs us. Though they have been lost to time, the imperative and detailed tone of the question makes that fact immaterial. His legacy has been set in stone, literally, and unearthed a few millennia later.
The great ruler of strong-walled Uruk lives after all. He was an animal, like Enkidu, who gained the knowledge of man, who drank, who struggled and who died. But his death gives his story meaning. If he had reigned from the firmament for eternity, those strong walls would be meaningless; the recantations of his epic would be superfluous.
Instead, he died. Es muß sein. It must be. And we shouldn’t want it any other way.