There is only one certainty in life: death. From the moment we are first ejected screaming from our mothers’ wombs the sands of time began to slip through our fingers until the last grain drops and we reunite with the earth that nourished us in life. From time immemorial, humankind has sought ways to evade the predator that stalks our every footfall. Some turn to religion, hoping that it will grant an eternity beyond this ephemeral plain of existence. Others turn to the sciences, begging the laws of nature to bend for one more day. The rest of us pray that our legacies will endure beyond those who knew us in life. The signs of this desire to achieve immortality are found in the dusty ruins of forgotten empires and the cobwebbed tombs of nameless kings. Desperately they carve their names into stone so that we may remember them long after all they have ever been is swallowed by the gaping mouth of history.
On 11 fragmented stone tablets from 2100 BCE, a story of such desperation is chronicled in near-forgotten cuneiform. The epic of Gilgamesh follows the personal journey of the king of fabled Uruk, a city nestled between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers of old Sumer. In this story of gods, kings, monsters, men, and women, Gilgamesh’s wanton hubris and hedonistic abandon are challenged by the gods.
To tell the story as succinctly as possible we must start with the man himself. Gilgamesh was an oppressive ruler. He worked his people night and day without rest in order to build Uruk’s great walls. In those days an impressive set of walls was a status symbol that physically manifested a city’s wealth and its ruler’s power. The people cried out to the gods for relief and their prayers were answered. Anu, the patron god of Uruk, requested that Aruru, the goddess of creation, fashion a champion to save Uruk from Gilgamesh’s tyranny. So Enkidu, a wild man, was born. Enkidu was the protector of the natural world. He saved wild animals from traps, chased away hunters, and guarded wolves as they stole from farmers’ flocks.
Upon hearing of this wild man, Gilgamesh sent a temple harlot (yes that is what they were called) to tame him. With bread, wine, and a little bit of that Bronze Age good-good (wink wink) Enkidu was tamed and brought to the city where Gilgamesh challenged him to a wrestling match. They became friends after seeing they were equally matched and decided to set out on great adventures together. The most notable of these adventures was their victory over the monster Khumbaba. After vanquishing the creature, they cut down the entire cedar forest it guarded and kept the lumber as their prize.
Having borne witness to Gilgamesh’s proud exploits, Ishtar, the goddess of war and sex, fell in love with him and invited him to be her consort (I am sure the excessive body oil and Sumerian chest hair had something to do with it). Gilgamesh poetically likened her to the village donkey (bicycles did not exist yet) and disrespectfully declines. Ishtar, a woman scorned, sent the bull of heaven to stomp Gilgamesh into a bloodstain. The bull failed at this task. However Enkidu, Gilgamesh’s best friend, is grievously wounded in the fray and later succumbed to his injuries.
Gilgamesh was beside himself with grief. Having been confronted with the grim reality of his mortality, the king set out to find the secret of eternal life after Enkidu’s funeral. Gilgamesh found a magic island and underwent a test administered by an immortal, which he failed miserably. He received one last opportunity to win immortality by swimming to the bottom of the sea and finding the herb that grants eternal life to whoever consumes it. He successfully acquired the herb, but soon after fell asleep and lost his prize to a hungry animal. Defeated, he returned to Uruk. On his return, he looked up in awe at the great walls and assured himself that his legacy would live on in his works. Gilgamesh became a better king, and we continue to tell his story today.
What does this story teach us? The Epic of Gilgamesh confronts us with the reality of mortality. One day we will all die. No matter what we do, it will happen. In the prime of his youth with near absolute power over his people, the thought that he might die never occurred to him. It was said that “His lust leaves no virgin to her lover…” In his mind there were no consequences for him, only conquest and pleasure. The world was his and the thought that it could ever change never entered his mind. He was untouchable. This was further bolstered by his ability to flout the attempts by the gods to bring him to heel by befriending the very wild man they created to stop him.
When Enkidu was taken from him, he faced an existential crisis. If Enkidu, created by the gods to be as powerful as he in mind and body could be called from the land of the living, what hope did Gilgamesh have? The fact that we might die at any moment is not a thought that many of us care to entertain. We go about our daily lives assuming that tomorrow is guaranteed. Losing that high school friend or that former college roommate to unforeseen circumstances shakes us to the core. As we hear memories of the deceased shared by family members we are confronted with the fact that this person no longer has a future. What they left behind is all that they are, and soon that will also disappear. With the passage of time, and the passing of the people that knew the deceased, all will fall into oblivion. Their headstone will disappear behind overgrown foliage and their body will return to the earth. This vital, living person who impacted real lives will fade into nothingness.
In the same way that people often rediscover religion, relationships, and half-hearted dreams in the wake of a death, Gilgamesh embarked on a journey to find immortality. He cannot be forgotten, his life mattered, he was important. He was the protagonist of his own story. What he found after this grand sojourn was nothing. For all of his effort, for all of his schemes, his strength, his desire, and his resilience, Gilgamesh still had only his two empty hands. In much the same way, in these desperate attempts to find new meaning to the brief flicker that is our existence, we often find nothing but a temporary salve for the sting of reality. Our attempts to re-establish meaning through the external are fool-hardy at best. We can only return to who we really are.
Gilgamesh returned to Uruk: defeated, depressed, dejected, and in despair. When he sees the great walls of his sand-coloured city standing high under the Sumerian sun, his spirit is revived. He found his meaning again. Gilgamesh looked on the walls, the monuments, and the gardens that were built in his name and he was filled with pride. He looked at the temples made to glorify the gods and his heart was warmed. He learned to appreciate what he had and accept that he will pass one day. His immortality was assured in the lessons he left for future generations. Gilgamesh has his story recorded for posterity, and instead of returning to his rabid consumption of earthly pleasures, he instead sought to be a better king. For this he was well remembered after his death by his people.
Thousands of years later, we are here discussing the lessons that he left for us. As Gilgamesh came to realize the importance of the legacy that he built, so we must look to what we choose to leave behind in the world. What lasting lessons can we bequeath to the generations that follow? What example can we offer? What we build for others will endure long after our names and faces have faded from the collective consciousness of the world we once inhabited and echo through the generations.
We become what we leave behind us. What we leave behind us is our gift to the future. Looking for some quick external fix to our existential quandaries is fleeting and a waste of our time and energy. Instead, let us look within and build a legacy by being our most authentic selves. Build your own monuments out of your passion: share that recipe, dig that garden, write that book, and love the people in your life with wild abandon. This if any is the best way we can tell the future that we were here, we mattered, we were alive.
Be good to yourselves, and each other.
Adam H.C. Myrie
More on the Ancient Sumerians: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lESEb2-V1Sg
Image credit: https://blogs.baruch.cuny.edu/eng2800hmwa2015fall/?p=341