In reading this great Mesopotamian Epic, we first encounter our hero, king Gilgamesh, plagued by dreams and haunted by the prospect of dying a forgotten man. Gilgamesh, the Apollonian counterpart to his Dionysian friend and comrade, Enkidu, is given immense power over the city of Uruk. As the “shepherd of the city,” his agency is to distinguish the light from the dark, to give grounds to the knowledge of good and evil, and to lead the people. However, he requires knowledge to lead the people. Without this knowledge, the city of Uruk is like a ship without a rudder.
When we first meet Gilgamesh in the Epic he is unsatisfied. He has become morbid. All he can think about are the bodies of the men that float in the river outside the city, knowing that one day this too will be his fate. He has not yet embraced his amor fati because he is afraid of death. His fear is of dying alone and forgotten, because he cannot even remember the history of his forefathers. Why would anyone remember Gilgamesh? Like King Solomon in Ecclesiastes or Hamlet, Gilgamesh has become depressed at the thought of nothing new under the sun.
In addition, Uruk has become a wayward city. The people have forgotten their origins from the time before a great deluge. If the people have forgotten themselves, could they also forget their leader, Gilgamesh? What will become of a king who is forgotten? Next we meet Enkidu, a former man of the wild (a la Caliban in Shakespeare’s The Tempest). He is an unrecognizable and blissfully ignorant man until he is overcome with lust. He sleeps with Shamhat, a civilized woman, and suddenly his eyes are opened with new knowledge, not unlike the temptation to consume the fruit that yields knowledge of good and evil in Genesis. Now Enkidu eats the city’s bread and drinks the customary wine of Uruk, no longer living like a wild man. Both Gilgamesh and Enkidu are troubled. Gilgamesh stands at the height of human civilization and he looks onward in despair, while Enkidu is troubled by the domestic nature of civilization.
Together, Gilgamesh and Enkidu set out in search of something that is enduring, or at least the knowledge of something that lasts. Their quest for knowledge extends far beyond the finitude of human life. Ultimately, they both search for immortality.
However, without the knowledge of life before the great deluge, they are forced to stumble into one faux pas after another. Perhaps the lesson is that they cannot find immortality without first gaining self-knowledge: the history of Uruk before the great flood. They commit sacrilege by killing Humbaba and angering the sky-god Enlil. Gilgamesh also commits an affront to Ishtar by refusing her hand in marriage and insulting her. He does this by proudly recalling his many past lovers. These missteps ultimately cause the death of Enkidu which leaves Gilgamesh distraught. He becomes so sorrowful that he dresses himself in animal skins and he refuses to bury Enkidu’s corpse. Perhaps even Gilgamesh can retreat into the natural world, to forget and become ignorant, as Enkidu once was? The desire to return to the ‘innocence’ of nature is not merely a new Rousseauian concept.
However, Gilgamesh’s fear of death is stronger than his desire for ignorance, and Gilgamesh journeys to the wise man Atnupishtim, the man who lives at the end of the world, where the sun transits. Atnupishtim does not reassure Gilgamesh, reminding him that “there is no permanence” in life, but when Gilgamesh asks how to attain immortality, Atnupishtim tells him the story of the great deluge, of his own origins. By presenting this story, Atnupishtim reminds Gilgamesh of the the terror of the gods, and the dangers of the life of a city. What the city needs more than anything, is a “shepherd,” one who unites the flock and reminds them of their collective memory. Gilgamesh alone must bear the weight of knowing “there is no permanence” yet he must also fulfill his fate as king confidently for the sake of the city of Uruk. This is the only path to true immortality: to return to the strong walls of Uruk.
Without the narrative of man’s origins in the great deluge, Gilgamesh is ignorant of Uruk’s own customs. Without Gilgamesh’s guidance, the city will become unruly, or will become the catalyst for its own demise. In the narrative, Gilgamesh returns to Uruk armed only with the knowledge of man before the flood, and at his ceremony, this knowledge of origins is celebrated rather than his killing of Humbaba, guardian of the cedar forest, or his killing of the “Bull of Heaven.”
As in the beginning of the first tablet, the epic ends when the strong walls of Uruk are praised upon Gilgamesh’s return, because he can now recall the seven sages who once laid the city’s foundations in the time before the flood.
For this reading I used the late Nancy Katherine (N.K.) Sanders’s 1987 revised translation as featured in the Penguin Classics series. N.K. Sandars (1915-2015) was a British historian and archaeologist who wrote fairly extensively about “Bronze Age” cultures.