Love and Death in The Epic of Gilgamesh
Abstract: The most interesting stories invariably are about love and death. These two themes underlie the Epic of Gilgamesh, a mythic tale of the quest for immortality. Gilgamesh, profoundly affected by the death of his friend Enkidu at the hands of the gods, questions the injustice of life. Finding no answer, he of course tries to change—indeed, eliminate—the question by seeking immortality. The following essay examines Gilgamesh and Enkidu’s relationship, and the effect of Enkidu’s death on Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh’s failure in the end attests the intertwining of love and death in a relationship.
Woody Allen once stated, “It’s not that I’m afraid to die. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” Even the most stout-hearted soul would admit the truth of that statement. Death—like life—is a mystery. It is also a test. Acting as an immutable deadline, death forces us to confront its inevitable reality. But not everyone deals with it in the same way. Those who lack the strength to cope are consigned to a life of unconquerable fear and insecurity and are the stuff of tragedy. Others, however, do succeed in attaining a measure of immortality, though the journey is long and difficult. These are the culture-makers of society: its painters, composers, and poets. Their common link is the warrior spirit, the part of them that struggles, succeeds...and struggles some more. The Epic of Gilgamesh reflects this spirit of the warrior. Although Enkidu’s death indicates that mortals seemingly are at the mercy of the gods and death is inevitable, Gilgamesh nonetheless embarks on a quest for godhood: Enkidu has to die so Gilgamesh can live.
Gilgamesh and Enkidu’s friendship prefigures Gilgamesh’s subsequent quest for godhood. When the gods create Gilgamesh, he is two-thirds god and one-third mortal. An incomplete being, nearing godhood but still mortal, Gilgamesh must face the possibility of death. When Enkidu is created to oppose him by acting as a counterbalance, an alter-ego, the two men mutually elevate each other above their individual failings as demi-gods. They become heroes, a union greater than the sum of their individual characters. Their initial meeting in front of the bridal house symbolizes this union: they consummate their relationship by wrestling with each other, testing and probing the other’s strength and...