The Walls of Gilgamesh

We 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. Without this knowledge, the city of Uruk is like a ship without a rudder.

However, Gilgamesh 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.

Uruk is wayward. It has become a city that has lost its own knowledge, the people of Uruk have forgotten their own origins before the great deluge. If the people have forgotten who they are, could they forget their leader, too? What will become of a king who is forgotten? Gilgamesh is cursed with the inability to remember, and he is haunted with the prospect of being forgotten. Enkidu, on the other hand, is cursed with the troubling knowledge of Shamhat, a civilized woman. He was a wild man who was tamed by the city. His bestial power is lost once he knows Shamhat carnally, and eats the city’s bread, and drinks the customary wine of Uruk. His fate is sealed upon sleeping with a woman. Both men are troubled by their state in life.

Together, Gilgamesh and Enkidu set out in search of something that is enduring, or knowledge of something that lasts. Their quest for knowledge extends far beyond the finitude of human life. They search for immortality.

However, without the knowledge of life before the great deluge, they are forced to stumble into one faux pas after another. They commit sacrilege by killing Humbaba and angering Enlil. Gilgamesh commits an affront to Ishtar by refusing her hand in marriage and insulting her. He does this by proudly displaying his great power for recollection by listing his past lovers, only to find she is offended. These missteps cause the death of Enkidu which leaves Gilgamesh distraught. He becomes so sorrowful that he dresses himself in animal skins and refuses to bury Enkidu’s corpse. Perhaps even Gilgamesh can retreat into the natural world, to forget and become ignorant, as Enkidu once was?

However, his fear of death is stronger than his desire for ignorance, and Gilgamesh journeys to Atnupishtim, the man who lives at the place where the sun transits. Atnupishtim does not reassure Gilgamesh, reminding him that “there is no permanence,” 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 the 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 that “there is no permanence” but perform his role confidently for the sake of the city.

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. He 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, the “Bull of Heaven.”

As in the beginning of the first tablet, the epic ends when the strong walls of Uruk are celebrated upon Gilgamesh’s return, because he can recall the seven sages who laid its foundations.

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