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Free Epic of Gilgamesh: Underlying Meaning

Last time, we introduced the ancient mythical tale, The Epic of Gilgamesh. You read a brief account of the tale and learned a little of its origins and discovery. Now we are going to get into the tale itself and have a deeper look in an effort to decode some of its hidden or underlying meaning. We will explore the notion of “The Double” and the quest for immortality in our search for the meaning of life. We remember from the epic tale that Enkidu, the wildman, was Gilgamesh’s beloved friend. So what can Enkidu’s injection into the story reveal to us then? Let’s look more closely at this figure.

Enkidu is an innocent savage, a wildman, content to live among the beasts. After an encounter with a trapper he undergoes a kind of culture shock and is tamed by a harlot or sacred prostitute. Here, sex is sacred; it is a civilizing force that separates humans from Nature for the animals now reject Enkidu. Paired with Gilgamesh, the two figures represent the Double. Enkidu embodies the instincts while Gilgamesh represents the intellect. Both of these aspects make up humankind. Through his friendship with Enkidu, Gilgamesh learns much about what it is to be human.

He learns love and compassion, as well as death and loss as Enkidu dies. But Enkidu rages against his death! It is human instinct to fight death, to fight to live! Enkidu is soon appeased though by the sun god Shamash who gives death meaning in remembrance of those who have passed on, of Enkidu who will pass on. So we find in this story a meaning for death – meaning in being remembered. Gilgamesh, however, is not so easily appeased in Enkidu’s death. He grieves heavily over the loss of his dear friend and vows to find the key to everlasting life.

So he sets out on his journey, his journey through the underworld, through the otherworld. Is Gilgamesh now just intellectual man without instinct, without Enkidu? Death, loss, mortality are too much for Gilgamesh to bear. Why toil on earth to end up in a terrible afterlife? Gilgamesh will have none of it. He seeks to become immortal like the gods, after all, he himself is 2/3 god. He does find answers to the questions of life and death on his journey. Siduri, the wine-maker, tells him that immortality is for the gods alone so he should find the joy in life.

But Gilgamesh is not ready to accept this. He struggles on, as many of us struggle on to find a meaning in death. Finally he finds Utnapishtim and his wife. They are the survivors of the Great Flood and have been given the gift of immortality. As you know from the tale, they tell him of the flower of everlasting life and Gilgamesh finds it then loses it to the sneaky serpent. Immortality is lost. But is all lost? Gilgamesh has indeed travelled where no other dares venture. He travelled the underworld and met the Great Survivors of the Flood.

He held the secret to everlasting life in his hand for a brief moment. And he has lived to tell about it. Thats it! That is the key to life! To live! Siduri was right, but Gilgamesh had to live and lose in order to realize it. Death is inevitable and immortality truly is reserved only for the gods. So life must be lived and enjoyed. One must take advantage of all that life has to offer otherwise life isnt worth living for death will soon come. Live a life worth remembering. Gilgamesh may have begun his journey 2/3 god and 1/3 mortal, but he returned fully a man, realizing his own inevitable mortality.

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