Gilgamesh and the Quest for Immortality
The stories of the hunt for immortality gathered in the Epic of Gilgamesh depict the conflict felt in ancient Sumer. As urbanization swept Mesopotamia, the social status shifted from a nomadic hunting society to that of a static agricultural gathering society. In the midst of this ancient "renaissance", man found his relationship with the sacred uncertain and precarious. The Epic portrays the strife created between ontological nostalgia for a simpler time and the dawn of civilization breaking in the Near East. In this Epic, Gilgamesh is seen trying to achieve immortality through the methods of both the old and the new. His journeys through the sacred and the profane in many ways characterize the confusion arising from the unstable social climate. Therefore, the society, by writing the story of Gilgamesh, guarantees not only his immortality, but the immortality of the new order being established.
The beginning of the Epic finds Gilgamesh hunting immortality through the ways of old. He is trying to achieve everlasting life through the fertility of young virgins promised to another. This action by Gilgamesh caused the people of Uruk to call for the gods to restore the order which the traveler from abroad had destroyed (pg.62). From the sacred order of the goddess Aruru's mind Enkidu emerges from the profane wilderness (pg. 63). It is told that a trapper came "face to face" with the chaotic ways of Enkidu and was "frozen with fear". It is only through the love of one woman that order is brought to the life of Enkidu. He is then declared wise enough to challenge Gilgamesh and restore the order to "strong walled Uruk" (pg.65). So, when Gilgamesh is headed to the bridal bed to partake of his first rights, he is met at the gate by Enkidu and prevented from entering. In the resulting chaotic battle the doorway to immortality was broken and Gilgamesh's fury died (pg. 69).
The next chapter finds Gilgamesh growing restless to "establish his name stamped on bricks" as his destiny decreed (pg. 70). He then decides to hunt the giant Humbaba, who is responsible for keeping the forest orderly. Gilgamesh and Humbaba are equally equipped with chaotic weapons supplied by the gods, but Gilgamesh also arms himself with the weapons of civilization (pg. 75). When the first cedar is felled creating chaos Gilgamesh falls with weakness and is overtaken by sleep (pg.76,79). It is at that point that the god Shamash deserts him creating profane space. It is only by the mention of his mother, the goddess Ninsun, and the city square that Gilgamesh regains consciousness of the sacred. Shortly thereafter, the battle between Gilgamesh and Humbaba ensues, and by the weapons of the gods Humbaba is beat into submission. Enkidu, who was committed to changing the old order (pg.68), petitions Gilgamesh not to leave Humbaba alive and together they use the weapons of civilization to overturn the old order. From the resulting...