In my last post on the Epic of Gilgamesh, I talked about the threat that Gilgamesh and Enkidu pose together – a threat they would not pose apart. Their repeated battle cry against the demon Huwawa is, “Two people, companions, they can prevail together against the terror!” But Enkidu’s death, decreed by the gods, removes that threat and at the same time erases that beloved friendship.
“A demon came and took away the companion.
You are asleep. What has taken you into your sleep?
Your face is dark. How was your face made dark?”
Enkidu’s eyes were unmoving in their sockets.
Gilgamesh touched the heart of the companion.
There was nothing at all. Gilgamesh covered
Enkidu’s face with a veil like the veil of a bride.
He hovered like an eagle over the body,
or as a lioness does over her brood.
Gilgamesh mourns for his friend, wandering in the wilderness and wearing the skin of an animal — signs of his deranged state, of course, but these are also things that bring him close to his wild friend. He is terrified, mourning himself almost as much as Enkidu, repeating, “Enkidu died. Must I die? Must Gilgamesh be like that?” He decides to find out how death can be avoided, from the one man who has ever avoided death: Utnapishtim, a man who was granted eternal life for his wisdom. But there are dangers in store.
For me, the most striking passage of the book comes next. Gilgamesh travels under the mountain Mashu, in the caverns of the earth, nine leagues of utterly lightless terror. The text is repetitive and oppressive. Gilgamesh is weeping and fearful, companionless, terrified, alone, “struggling for every breath” in the blackness. One league. Another. Another, without a companion, struggling to breathe. At the end of the eighth league, he tries to cry out, “Two people, who are companions, they…” but cannot finish the sentence.
He emerged from the mountain into a wonderful garden.
Gilgamesh looked at the garden and wondered at it.
The fruit and foliage of the trees were all
the colors of the jewels of the world,
carnelian and lapis lazuli,
jasper, rubies, agate, and hematite,
emerald, and all the other gems the earth
has yielded for the delight and pleasure of kings.
And beyond the garden Gilgamesh saw the sea.
If you have ever suffered grief yourself, or read a particularly good book that gives you a portrait of what it’s like (C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed, for instance, or Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking) you will recognize this passage as a stunningly vivid insight into the way grief feels and works. Day after day, blind, alone, struggling to breathe, occasionally even forgetting that the person you’re mourning isn’t there — and then one day you arrive at a clearing, and beyond there is a glimpse of the sea.
Gilgamesh’s mourning isn’t over, however, and neither are his trials (and that’s a good reflection of how grief works, too.) He takes a long, dangerous journey with a boatman to find Utnapishtim, and when he arrives, it’s to hear the story of how Utnapishtim earned eternal life. It’s not a feat Gilgamesh could repeat (in fact, it’s the story of the flood, familiar from the Bible) and when Gilgamesh is given a task to prove his worthiness — to stay awake for a week — he immediately fails it. Gilgamesh begins to understand that he will have to die, and he despairs.
Just as he is about to leave, Utnapishtim gives him one last chance: a plant that gives eternal youth. Gilgamesh finds and plucks the plant, planning to give it to his people (and keep a share for himself), but at the last moment, a serpent snatches it away and devours it. At this, Gilgamesh finally realizes that he cannot live forever. He will have to live in his achievements, his created things, his buildings and monuments: the beautiful and enduring city of Uruk.
But of course, Uruk didn’t endure. It’s an ancient site on a former channel of the Euphrates. What endured was Gilgamesh itself, the literature that tells us about what these people thought and knew. And what this work tells me is what classics always tell me: we moderns, despite the benefit of Freud and Darwin and Marx and Proust and Derrida, are not the only ones to have an understanding of human psychology. We are not the only people to understand how the mind wages war against itself, or to see the stages of grief, or to wrestle with our mortality. Earlier ages were not populated with children; they did not comfort themselves with legends. They knew. Sometimes, reading things like this, I wonder if we know half as well.