The Epic of Gilgamesh

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Civilization and the Fall from Innocence Theme Icon
Heroism in Nature vs. Comfort in the City Theme Icon
Friendship, Love, and Sexuality Theme Icon
Mortality and Meaning Theme Icon
Pride and the Gods Theme Icon
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Mortality and Meaning Theme Icon

The Epic of Gilgamesh confronts a number of important themes, but none is more prominent than that of confronting one’s mortality. As is famously portrayed in Percy Shelly’s poem Ozymandias, even the works of great kings and heroes turn eventually turn to dust.

At the beginning of the epic, Gilgamesh seeks to make a name for himself: he wants to accomplish heroic feats so that he will be remembered forever. This drives him, but ultimately leads to Enkidu’s death as punishment for his hubris.

Importantly, it is Enkidu’s death that makes Gilgamesh face his own mortality. The epic shows that through our relationships with others, we can wake up to life as it really is, as opposed to being deluded in thinking that our accomplishments will last forever. At first, Enkidu’s death causes Gilgamesh to become obsessed with overcoming his own mortality. This motivates his search for the secret to everlasting life. After he loses the plant that restores youth, though, he comes to accept that he will remain mortal and the best he can hope for is to do good deeds and share what he’s learned with the people of Uruk. This realization is a direct result of his friendship with Enkidu, which teaches him that there is more to life than heroic accomplishments or achieving physical immortality.

On his return to Uruk, Gilgamesh accepts his mortality; his name may not live on forever, but his feats and story will inspire the people of Uruk (and, ironically, in accepting this Gilgamesh’s name has lived on—his epic is the oldest written story known to humankind). The Epic does not provide clear answers on how himans can create meaning in the face of death. Rather, it wrestles with the question, looking at it from all sides, challenging the reader to reconsider whatever it is they believe.

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Mortality and Meaning Quotes in The Epic of Gilgamesh

Below you will find the important quotes in The Epic of Gilgamesh related to the theme of Mortality and Meaning.
Part 2 Quotes

The meaning of the dream is this. The father of the gods has given you kingship, such is your destiny, everlasting life is not your destiny. Because of this do not be sad at heart, do not be grieved or oppressed. He has given you power to bind and to loose, to be the darkness and light of mankind.

Related Characters: Enkidu (speaker), Gilgamesh
Page Number: 70
Explanation and Analysis:

Enkidu functions, here, as an oracle for Gilgamesh, using the dream to make sense of the the will of the gods. Here, he interprets the visions Gilgamesh had the night before as a sign of Gilgamesh’s mortality.

To explain the dream, Enkidu contrasts the gift Gilgamesh has been given to rule—“kingship”—with what has been withheld: “everlasting life.” Despite the power he has from being two-thirds divine, Gilgamesh remains one-third human and thus will die like all mortals do. Yet Enkidu cautions Gilgamesh not to be distraught at this realization, for he still maintains impressive abilities. “To bind and to loose” points to his dominion over other humans, whereas “to be the darkness and light of mankind” stresses the way he can be a symbolic leader—an inspiration for how other men should live. Note that Enkidu stresses both the positive and the negative sides of Gilgamesh’s power: “bind” is balanced by “loose,” “darkness” is contrasted by “light.” At this point in the story, Gilgamesh seems to have largely employed the harmful sides of his power, and Enkidu subtly points out that his mortality offers him a choice of how he will use these precious years and how he will be remembered.

Dreams are an important motif throughout this epic. They offer a way for the gods to connect directly to the characters, and they foreshadow events that are to pass. But they can also, we should note, function as plot devices that drive—instead of just narrating or foreshadowing—the action of the events. Here, Gilgamesh is impelled, because of the dream, to leave the city of Uruk and make a name for himself.


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Gilgamesh replied: ‘Where is the man who can clamber to heaven? Only the gods live for ever with glorious Shamash, but as for us men, our days are numbered, our occupations are a breath of wind. How is this, already you are afraid!’

Related Characters: Gilgamesh (speaker), Enkidu, Shamash
Page Number: 71
Explanation and Analysis:

To rally Enkidu to hunt the giant Humbaba with him, Gilgamesh offers this inspiring speech on human mortality. He takes their eventual death as a justification for not fearing death due to any particular cause.

Gilgamesh here responds explicitly to the way that Enkidu differentiated him from an immortal god. He asks rhetorically if any man can “clamber to heaven”—that is, whether a mortal could somehow become equal to the gods. But he quickly answers his own question, vanquishing any potential for men to gain immortality. These observations could easily lead him to a state of hopelessness (as in fact they will later in the Epic), but a striking turn comes with the phrase “our occupations are a breath of wind.”

In that line, human endeavors are trivialized due to their transitory and small-scale nature. And in triviality, Gilgamesh finds solace rather than panic. The giant Humbaba need not be feared, because the fight against him is just a breath of wind, and even if Gilgamesh and Enkidu do die, they will have simply hurried an already eventual fate. The passage also foreshadows the importance of accomplishing deeds that will be repeated for future generations and written down: to have a historical legacy, Gilgamesh implies, would be one way to escape being just a breath of wind.

O my lord, you do not know this monster and that is the reason you are not afraid. I who know him, I am terrified. His teeth are dragon’s fangs, his countenance is like a lion, his charge is the rushing of the flood, with his look he crushes alike the trees of the forest and reeds in the swamp. O my Lord, you may go on if you choose into this land, but I will go back to the city. I will tell the lady your mother all your glorious deeds till she shouts for joy: and then I will tell the death that followed till she weeps for bitterness.

Related Characters: Enkidu (speaker), Gilgamesh, Ninsun, Humbaba
Page Number: 80
Explanation and Analysis:

Having finally arrived close to Humbaba’s lair, Enkidu and Gilgamesh are both beset by fear of the giant. Yet while Gilgamesh rouses himself and ignores these instincts, Enkidu gives in and expresses his wish to return to civilization.

This speech represents an important turn in the relationship of Enkidu and Gilgamesh. Before, Gilgamesh’s bravery was represented in purely positive terms, for it allowed him to overcome the fear of mortality and to journey into the wilderness. Yet here, Enkidu implies that his bravery may be the result of ignorance rather than wisdom: he claims that Gilgamesh is only “not afraid” because he does “not know this monster.” Enkidu, who had intimate access to the wilderness and can recount specific physical details and actions of Humbaba, seems more qualified to speak on the relative danger. Perhaps, the text implies, Gilgamesh's hubris will lead to his downfall.

Enkidu’s lines also give great import to the act of storytelling. He becomes here an emissary for and proponent of Gilgamesh’s deeds by promising to tell of both his triumphs and his death. This pledge reiterates how Gilgamesh’s legacy will be marked not by the acts themselves, but rather by the way they carve out a place for him in history.

Part 3 Quotes

‘Who is there in strong-walled Uruk who has wisdom like this? Strange things have been spoken, but why does your heart speak strangely? The dream was marvelous but the terror was great; we must treasure the dream whatever the terror; for the dream has shown that misery comes at last to the healthy man, the end of life is sorrow.’ And Gilgamesh lamented, ‘Now I will pray to the great gods, for my friend had an ominous dream.’

Related Characters: Gilgamesh (speaker), Enkidu
Page Number: 93
Explanation and Analysis:

Enkidu has just told Gilgamesh about a recent horrifying dream, which he has interpreted as his own impending death at the hands of the gods. Gilgamesh is deeply moved by the tale, and reflects on the terror of what it professes—but also on the value of that terror.

Gilgamesh’s response shows a striking shift in his character away from arrogance and toward personal reflection. He puts emphasis on the “wisdom” that comes from the dream by implying that it is poignant beyond the comprehension of those others in Uruk. There is an inherent strangeness to the dream that defies his understanding, and thus makes him humble enough to “pray to the great gods” to render the situation more coherent. The tone of Gilgamesh’s speech also focuses on his compassion as opposed to his previous bravado, demonstrating that his deep friendship with Enkidu is what has led him to be more reflective.

The exact content of that reflection also bears some consideration. When Gilgamesh claims that “we must treasure the dream whatever the terror,” he implies that negative, even deathly, consequences are not to be hated or feared. Rather, there is a poetic and philosophical significance that can be extracted from mortality, and thus an indication of that significance should be treasured. Here, the lesson is to reiterate the “misery” that comes even to the most vibrant man or warrior. And Gilgamesh’s response has notably shifted from taking mortality as the impetus to accomplish great deeds to instead reflecting on how it equates all men.

Part 4 Quotes

How can I rest, how can I be at peace? Despair is in my heart. What my brother is now, that shall I be when I am dead.

Related Characters: Gilgamesh (speaker), Enkidu
Page Number: 97
Explanation and Analysis:

After Enkidu’s death and funeral, Gilgamesh enters the wilderness. There, he once more becomes consumed by grief and the fear of his own mortality.

Gilgamesh's return to the wilderness represents a rejection of the artifice of human civilization, and also renders him closer to Enkidu’s original state in nature. Yet having already experienced the human revelation of mortality, Gilgamesh can find no “peace” in the wilderness. The “despair” cannot be removed by changing his physical environment because it is lodged in his “heart.” Again, the text stresses the importance of the friendship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu. Whereas Gilgamesh responded bravely, even brashly, to his mortality before, watching Enkidu helplessly die has made him entirely shift his perspective. These lines show that it is the identification between the two men that is the main source of his anxiety: the fact that Gilgamesh will be “what my brother is now.” Thus the text presents Gilgamesh’s ensuing quest to pursue immortality less as an arrogant search for self-empowerment, but rather as a response to a personal tragedy.

Now that I have toiled and strayed so far over the wilderness, am I to sleep, and let the earth cover my head for ever? Let my eyes see the sun until they are dazzled with looking. Although I am no better than a dead man, still let me see the light of the sun.

Related Characters: Gilgamesh (speaker), Shamash
Page Number: 100
Explanation and Analysis:

Having traveled through twelve leagues of darkness, Gilgamesh arrives at the sea that borders the garden of the gods. Though he is told by Shamash that his quest for immortality is foolhardy, Gilgamesh refuses to give up. Instead, he expresses this striking desire to continue regardless of whether or not the quest itself is successful.

Gilgamesh juxtaposes the darkness of the “wilderness” he has experienced thus far with the divine light he sees upon approaching the garden. Though the gods caution him to avoid the light, Gilgamesh presents abstention as cowardly and akin to death. To avoid the light would mean being covered by the earth and forgotten by history. Instead, Gilgamesh values the overwhelming power of the sun, even if he is “dazzled with looking.” This image marks a subtle shift in the tone of Gilgamesh’s quest. He no longer claims to be able to conquer the sun, a symbol for Shamash. Instead, he values the mere experience of its splendor even if he is bested by that splendor in the end. His rationale rephrases his earlier fatalistic reflections, for Gilgamesh points out that he may as well “see the light of the sun” even if it will kill him. That is to say, if he fails in the quest for immortality, he will die anyway: Every man, as we know by now, is a “dead man” eventually.

She answered, ‘Gilgamesh, where are you hurrying to? You will never find that life for which you are looking. When the gods created man they allotted to him death, but life they retained in their own keeping. As for you, Gilgamesh, fill your belly with good things; day and night, night and day, dance and be merry, feast and rejoice. Let your clothes be fresh, bathe yourself in water, cherish the little child that holds your hand, and make your wife happy in your embrace; for this too is the lot of man.’

Related Characters: Siduri (speaker), Gilgamesh
Page Number: 102
Explanation and Analysis:

These lines are spoken by a god of wine, Siduri, whom Gilgamesh meets as he approaches the sea. As others have before, Siduri tells Gilgamesh to abandon his quest, recommending instead that he experience the mortal leisures available and appropriate to humans.

Beneath these relatively straightforward images lies a strong philosophical contention with Gilgamesh’s quest. Siduri explains that “death” is destined for mortals, while “life” remains in the grasp of the gods. She presents immortality, then, as a possession, an object that could potentially be distributed to men but that has not been released. (It is exactly such an object that Gilgamesh is seeking and will temporarily find.) Siduri thus presents a fatalistic, hierarchical view of the world in which certain experiences are appropriate for certain beings, and in which Gilgamesh has overstepped the limits of his identity as a mortal.

Mortals, she explains, should instead immerse themselves in momentary pleasures. The “lot of man” is distilled to: food, dance, and festival—to proper maintenance of clothes, the body, future generations, and one’s beloved. Gilgamesh, up to this point, has scorned such mortal pursuits: he avoids monogamy and rejects the leisurely city for heroic adventures to kill divine beings and pursue immortality. Siduri represents, then, a voice of hedonism: her character grants humans only the pursuits of momentary pleasures that Gilgamesh rejected earlier as a "breath of wind." 

There is no permanence. Do we build a house to stand for ever, do we seal a contract to hold for all time? Do brothers divide an inheritance to keep forever, does the flood-time of rivers endure? It is only the nymph of the dragon-fly who sheds her larva and sees the sun in his glory. From the days of old there is no permanence. The sleeping and the dead, how alike they are, they are like a painted death.

Related Characters: Utnapishtim (speaker), Gilgamesh
Page Number: 106
Explanation and Analysis:

Having finally arrived at Utnapishtim’s island, Gilgamesh questions him on the significance of and route to immortality. Yet instead of offering the secret, Utnapishtim gives this heady speech on how all things in life are ephemeral.

Whereas other characters have cautioned Gilgamesh based on the pragmatics of succeeding on his quest, Utnapishtim opts for a more philosophical explanation. He begins with his thesis statement—not specifically on human life but on the stability of any type of existence. Then he follows with four compelling rhetorical questions on transience, drawing examples from both human and natural realms. A legal contract, he explains, will eventually disappear in just the same way as a river flood. In contrast, he offers the “nymph of the dragon-fly,” who, we imagine, becomes immortal by fully experiencing the divine sun. But even that image is tinged with mortality, for the nymph “sheds her larva” and thus herself undergoes a process of change. Utnapishtim then calls attention to the fact that impermanence is itself an ancient quality, for the world has been this way since “the days of old.”

This is a moving explanation, for it takes the existential despair that has preoccupied Gilgamesh and transmutes it into a beautiful transience of human life. Utnapishtim’s final image, in particular, relativizes the horror of death by rendering it similar to “sleeping.” He does not command Gilgamesh to abandon his quest, but rather offers a voice of serenity and reason that instructs him on the need to accept one’s place in the universe.

I look at you now, Utnapishtim, and your appearance is no different from mine; there is nothing strange in your features. I thought I should find you like a hero prepared for battle, but you lie here taking your ease on your back. Tell me truly, how was it that you came to enter the company of the gods and to possess everlasting life?

Related Characters: Gilgamesh (speaker), Utnapishtim
Page Number: 107
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Gilgamesh is perturbed by Utnapishtim’s appearance and demeanor. He reveals that he had expected Utnapishtim’s immortality to be accompanied by physical vigor and a martial nature, and is surprised to find the opposite.

The first observation on their physical similarity expresses Gilgamesh’s frustration that immortality was bestowed on Utnapishtim and not on him. To Gilgamesh’s eyes, there is no significant difference between the two, and thus Utnapishtim has no greater right to live forever. Recall how frequently the text has focused on descriptions of Gilgamesh’s physical stature and beauty as an indication of his divine power: He has likely come to equate external appearance with internal wisdom and longevity. But Utnapishtim’s character teaches that the two should not be associated so quickly.

Gilgamesh’s second contention reveals a similar prejudice. He assumed that Utnapishtim would be a strong warrior ready to battle. Presumably, Gilgamesh thought he could prove his claim to immortality by besting someone in combat. This line reiterates the way Gilgamesh presumes his physical strength will allow him to overcome any obstacle—a belief that, after all, has allowed him to overcome the gods several times in the epic. Yet here that confidence has broken down: Gilgamesh seems confused as to how one could “enter the company of the gods” if not through brute strength. His conversation with Utnapishtim, then, marks his realization that physical prowess is not the sole metric by which to assess a human’s worth.

Part 5 Quotes

‘Alas the days of old are turned to dust because I commanded evil; why did I command this evil in the council of all the gods? I commanded wars to destroy the people, but are they not my people, for I brought them forth? Now like the spawn of fish they float in the ocean.’ The great gods of heaven and hell wept, they covered their mouths.

Related Characters: Ishtar (speaker), Utnapishtim (speaker)
Related Symbols: Water
Page Number: 110
Explanation and Analysis:

As she watches the flood destroy mankind, Ishtar laments her own actions. The other gods follow in turn, saddened that they have slaughtered the very humans they brought forth into the world.

This passage shows a surprising affection from the gods toward humans. Though Enlil may have acted originally out of anger, others such as Ea did not agree with his actions—and still others resent it once they observe the consequences. When Ishtar says, “but are they not my people” she shows that the gods' pity stems from a paternal ownership over humans. Like children, humans were brought forth by the gods, so for them to be mere dead floating “fish” causes an expected emotional pain. Utnapishtim’s story thus reiterates the fact that gods are privy to rash action as well as regret—and it shows them to be less antagonistic toward humans than Gilgamesh’s own narrative might imply.

Ishtar’s prominent role here is far from accidental, considering it was her marriage proposal that Gilgamesh spurned earlier in the text. Utnapishtim’s tale implies that her anger is mixed with a generous and loving nature. So it instructs Gilgamesh that if he were to treat her and the other gods with more courtesy, he might receive better treatment in turn.

Part 6 Quotes

Go now, banished from the shore. But this man before whom you walked, bringing him here, whose body is covered with foulness and the grace of whose limbs has been spoiled by wild skins, take him to the washing-place. There he shall wash his long hair clean as snow in the water, he shall throw off his skins and let the sea carry them away, and the beauty of his body shall be shown, the fillet on his forehead shall be renewed, and he shall be given clothes to cover his nakedness.

Related Characters: Utnapishtim (speaker), Gilgamesh, Urshanabi
Related Symbols: Water
Page Number: 115
Explanation and Analysis:

After Gilgamesh fails the test to stay awake for seven nights, Utnapishtim sends him back with the now-banished ferryman Urshanabi. Utnapishtim instructs Urshanabi to wash Gilgamesh and offers these specifications on the way he should return to human civilization.

This description focuses on the water imagery that plays a key role throughout the epic. Gilgamesh has previously engaged in cleansing rituals, and Utnapishtim’s tale on the flood presented water as a way to cleanse humanity of its hubris (and its life). Here, water is used to extract the “foulness” from Gilgamesh and specifically to the “wild skins” that he has donned throughout the travels. These skins are apparently an indication of his arrogance, for they represent his hunting prowess, and they are a mark of civilization, with all its "sins" of fashion, adornment, and luxury. In contrast to the attire of an extravagant king, Utnapishtim prescribes that Gilgamesh present himself in his natural state: His hair should be “clean” and his body should reveal its inherent “beauty.”

Utnapishtim’s request offers some insight into what Gilgamesh must take away from his epic journey. He should abandon both his decadent life as a ruler and his dreams of immortality and return to the purity and simplicity of humanity. Furthermore, he must serve as a cleansed emissary back to the people of Uruk and carry Utnapishtim’s lessons on water and the flood.

Gilgamesh spoke to him, to Urshanabi the ferryman, ‘Urshanabi, climb up on to the wall of Uruk, inspect its foundation terrace, and examine well the brickwork; see if it is not of burnt bricks; and did not the seven wise men lay these foundations? One third of the whole is city, one is garden, and one third is field, with the precinct of the goddess Ishtar. These parts and the precinct are all Uruk.’

Related Characters: Gilgamesh (speaker), Ishtar, Urshanabi
Page Number: 117
Explanation and Analysis:

Gilgamesh and Urshanabi have arrived empty-handed in Uruk, but the narrative suddenly shifts to a more hopeful tone. Here, the speaker recounts how Gilgamesh explained to Urshanabi the wonder of the city walls he had built.

The text shows, then, a striking character shift in Gilgamesh. Having abandoned his previous quest for immortality, the hero can return to Uruk with fresh eyes and notice his true accomplishment: the way he has built a civilization that will endure long beyond his death. These walls are not an indication of his personal strength or of any triumph against the gods. Rather they reveal a strong work ethic, a wish to empower the people of Uruk, and an ability to cooperate with deities. Indeed, the fact that Gilgamesh cites Ishtar shows just how deeply Utnapishtim’s tale has touched him: he no longer scorns the goddess, but rather recognizes her as an important supporter of Uruk's livelihood.

In a way, then, Gilgamesh has acquired immortality—not through his physical or heroic deeds, but rather through cooperation and social betterment. As Enkidu said far earlier, Gilgamesh's status as two-thirds god could allow him to be either light or darkness for humankind. And the text implies, here, that his journey has not given him everlasting life, but rather the moral wisdom to play the role of the light.

This too was the work of Gilgamesh, the king, who knew the countries of the world. He was wise, he saw mysteries and knew secret things, he brought us a tale of the days before the flood. He went a long journey, was weary, worn with labour, and returning engraved on a stone the whole story.

Related Characters: Gilgamesh
Page Number: 117
Explanation and Analysis:

Having established Gilgamesh’s longevity through the legacy of the walls of Uruk, the speaker now references a second way he will endure beyond death: through the myth of the flood he has brought back, and the stone tablets he has engraved with stories.

The language used to describe Gilgamesh has shifted from references to physical power to instead praise of his knowledge and wisdom. His adventures are valued not for specific acts of heroisms, but rather the “mysteries” and “secret things” that are transmitted back to humanity and that can serve as lessons for people in the future. Most notable, though, is not the tale of Gilgamesh’s journey, but rather the tale he hears on that journey: “of the days before the flood.” This story is given great import, presumably, because of the lessons it teaches on how humans should interact with the gods: It reminds them not to be too arrogant, and suggest that if they are loyal, the gods will treat them with kindness and care.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of passage, though, is the sudden reference to the “stone” on which Utnapishtim’s story has been “engraved.” Gilgamesh’s great triumph is to bring back not only oral history, but a recorded textual history, for this will allow it, like the walls of Uruk, to live on past his death. Immortality is ultimately bestowed on Gilgamesh through literature—and the epic was remarkably prophetic in this statement. After all, though the walls of Uruk have long fallen, the metaphorical stone that Gilgamesh brought back has carried him almost five millennia in the future to readers today.

Part 7 Quotes

In those days the lord Gilgamesh departed, the son of Ninsun, the king, peerless, without an equal among men, who did not neglect Enlil his master. O Gilgamesh, lord of Kullab, great is thy praise.

Related Characters: Gilgamesh, Ninsun, Enlil
Page Number: 119
Explanation and Analysis:

These final lines of the epic come after Gilgamesh has died and been honored by gods and men alike. They return to the laudatory tone of the opening, but shift the emphasis from Gilgamesh’s physical prowess to his comportment toward others.

Many of the features of the opening are repeated here. We are told once more of Gilgamesh's divine heritage through Ninsun, as well as his complete uniqueness within humanity. Yet it is also noted that he “did not neglect Enlil his master,” indicating that Gilgamesh has learned the lesson on how to respect the gods. In particular, Enlil was the god in Utnapishtim’s tale who found the humans too raucous and thus sentenced them to death. The fact that Gilgamesh has learned to pay heed to this master in particular demonstrates that he has both controlled his own hubris and ensured that the events before the flood will not be repeated. For by inscribing them in stone, Gilgamesh has ensured that other humans will have access to his wisdom and not make similar mistakes. Gilgamesh’s “praise” as an epic hero and lord is thus ultimately earned by humility and wisdom—as well as by the way he can transmit these qualities to future generations.