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.
Mortality and Meaning ThemeTracker
Mortality and Meaning Quotes in The Epic of Gilgamesh
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.
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!’
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.
‘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.’
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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?
‘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.
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.
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.’
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.
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.