Grief in The Epic of Gilgamesh

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In this mystical tale of friendship and the quest for immortality, the theme of grief is emphasized when Gilgamesh is forever changed by the death of his dear friend Enkidu. Gilgamesh is confronted by the struggles of mortals and is profoundly effected by the injustice that was Enkidu’s untimely death. For Gilgamesh, Enkidu is a symbol for the natural world.

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His character is vital to the transition that Gilgamesh goes through and his search for immortality is sparked by the grief he experiences. Gilgamesh begins the epic as a rash, arrogant young king who takes what he wants with little regard for anyone else. He forces himself on women, and forced men to do his biddings for him. He saw himself for the fraction of a god that he was, and for him that put him in a position higher than noblemen and peasants alike. Though he is the hero of this epic, he had to go on a long journey and underwent many hardships (Norton 1.29) to become the great king he left in his legacy, including the loss of his friend. Through themes of grief and friendship and symbols of nature and mortality, it is clear that Gilgamesh must experience this tragedy in order to learn the lesson that death is inevitable and the only way achieve immortality is to live fully.

The friendship that builds between Gilgamesh and Enkidu in undeniably symbolic of the relationship between man and the natural world. His death causes a major disruption for Gilgamesh mentally, and changes the way he envisions humanity and life in general. Enkidu is born from nature, raised by nature and only becomes interested in the fruits of civilized life when he encounter’s humanity. Since he can no longer connect with nature in the same way again, which is privy to the complexity of the relationship between the Sumerians and nature, he proceeds to making his mission seeking to fight Gilgamesh. Once the two eventually become friends and set out on their quest to kill Humbaba, it is clear that Enkidu encourages Gilgamesh to take the life of Humbaba. The fact that Gilgamesh agrees shows that there is trust between them, so their bond is very influential to Gilgamesh and his decision making. After Enkidu gets word of his sentencing, he curses everyone for playing a part in taking him out of the wilderness and removing him from nature, which ultimately lead to his death. It is only after the god Shamash enlightened him did he realize that if it hadn’t been for Shamhat meeting him, he would have never met Gilgamesh. Enkidu becomes content with dying because he gained a beautiful friend to whom he was totally devoted. His death effected Gilgamesh so greatly because he had found a true friend in Enkidu. Even Ninsun, when interpreting Gilgamesh’s dream, told him that Enkidu was a companion who rescues a friend (1.295) implying that he was in need of that kind of relationship. With a kinship this strong, Gilgamesh would naturally be heartbroken at his death. The theme of grief is heavily shown through the dark tones in the dialogue of Gilgamesh over Enkidu’s body.

“”May the Roads of Enkidu to the Cedar Forest mourn you and not fall silent night or day.

May the Elders of the broad city of Uruk-Haven mourn you.

May the peoples who gave their blessing after us mourn you.

May the men of the mountains and hills mourn you.

May the pasture lands shriek in mourning as if it were your mother.”” (8.8-13)

In this passage, Gilgamesh speaks and calls upon all living things, humanity and the natural world to mourn his passing. Before, Gilgamesh was irreverent towards the earth and humanity, yet after experiencing loss and grief, he cries out to the mountains and plains like family to mourn Enkidu. He wanted the entirety of the earth to lament his lost friend. This tragedy causes a major change in the way that Gilgamesh sees life, death and mortality.

Gilgamesh tries desperately to answer the eternal question that is death. He struggles to understand the finality and experiences very human emotions, and contemplates existence. Through Gilgamesh is two-thirds a god, his morality is shown through his grief. On his journey, he encounters Siduri, who could be interpreted as a character symbolic of truth. She gives Gilgamesh a different perspective on life. As he changes by simply coping with the idea that life is never promised, she also introduces to him the idea that his life could inevitably be short as well. She encourages him to be happy day and night (10.72) she does not necessary believe in trying to leave behind any kind of legacy but rather to only focus on the time he has on earth. Though it would seem to be an answer to his quest, to not pay mind to death because it is inevitable, but Gilgamesh does not listen to her and feels there is still more knowledge to be had. He seeks this further knowledge in Utanapishtim, who gives him the secret to the magic youth flower. The fact that the flower is bitten by the snake and then dies, is symbolic of the themes of death and loss because it serves as yet another illustration of the truth about life and death. Though Gilgamesh left him empty handed, it is possible that Utanapishtim serves the purpose of teaching and reiterating this lesson to Gilgamesh.

As Gilgamesh journey’s home he comes to the realization that his legacy already thrives in Uruk which is his pride and glory. He transitions from seeking the truth and meanings of life to coming to the acceptance of his mortality. As he looks upon the city, he says to Urshanabi Study the foundation terrace, and examine the brickwork, (11.314-315) and marvel at the beauty of his many creations. The theme of grief is present throughout this epic through the death of the symbolic character Enkidu, and his death not only changes Gilgamesh, but also teaches him a valuable lesson that eventually allows him to fulfil his life journey. Perhaps if Enkidu had never been sentenced to death, and Gilgamesh would have never learned the lesson, he would never have been able to become a great king.

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