The Mesopotamian view of death in The Epic of Gilgamesh

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The ancient Mesopotamians had an interesting relationship with death in that they accepted the inevitability of death, and it showed in their mythology. The Mesopotamian view of death is illustrated especially well in The Epic of Gilgamesh, however strange or different it may be from typical mythos. It’s immediately established that Gilgamesh isn’t fully human, rather the offspring of a union between a mortal king, and a goddess. As expected of a demigod (a human who is partially a god) he is much stronger, smarter, and more handsome than the typical human, however he is not immortal. His own mortality and fleeting existence is only made clear to him when his closest companion Enkidu dies at the hands of the gods whom they scorned. Upon his existential epiphany of his own mortality, instead of accepting his death, he takes it upon himself to gain immortality. Eventually after a long journey he finds that the only humans who were ever granted immortality had their humanity fully taken from them in order for them to become immortal. In the end the only way to become immortal is to become a god, however since Gilgamesh is only two thirds a god, he is doomed to share the fate of humanity.

Utnapishtim and his wife were granted immortality by the god Enlil after they built a massive cube ship to serve as an ark when Enlil decided to destroy humanity with a flood. The only reason Utnapishtim thought to build an ark was because Ea, the trickster god, caught wind of Enlil’s plans and “just happened” to tell them to a wall made of vines that Utnapishtim was “coincidentally” on the other side of. Utnapishtim immediately hired every skilled craftsman and laborer he could to begin construction of the massive cube ship. Utnapishtim was generous to the people working under him and treated them to extravagant feasts every night after they were done working for the day. Eventually the titanic ship was created, and Utnapishtim decided to take a number of animals and every skilled craftsman in the town along with his family. The flood lasted six days and seven nights in which time the gods, who were terrified by the massive flood, climbed to the high heavens to escape it. After the last night of the storm, Utnapishtim’s cube ship settled on top of Mount Nimush, and it stayed there for another seven days, and on the seventh day Utnapishtim released a dove and when it returned to him, he knew there was no dry land, he tried again with a swallow with the same result. Eventually Utnapishtim released a raven that did not return, and he knew the flood had ended because the raven found dry land. Utnapishtim then released all the animals from his ship and promptly made sacrifices to the gods, who were pleased, but made sure not to tell Enlil about the feast that they were being given.

Enlil, having been the one who attempted to destroy humanity and the king of the gods, would not be happy that there were humans left due to one of his subjects’ interference. Of course being not only a god, but the king of gods, Enlil shows up and was furious that any humans survived. He immediately correctly guesses who was to blame for the survivors, Ea. Ea, however, makes the argument that Enlil was out of line for committing genocide to punish a few bad humans (a pretty good point) and Enlil, instead of admitting his wrongdoing to Ea, found Utnapishtim and his wife. Enlil made Utnapishtim and his wife kneel beside him and blessed them with immortality, turning them into gods, but forcing them to live apart from humans at the Mouth of the Rivers. This was, without a doubt, a blessing instilled upon Utnapishtim by the king of gods Enlil. Enlil knew he punished humans too harshly for their shortcomings, but refused to admit that to one of his subjects, so instead he granted those who had defied him an infinite supply of what they tried to keep him from taking, life. When Utnapishtim and his wife were given immortality, they weren’t just immortal humans, they were turned into gods. I believe that this distinction was made on purpose to solidify that it’s the inescapable destiny of every human to die, and that only gods are immortal.

The ancient mesopotamians were a polytheistic society, meaning they worshipped multiple gods, rather than one. A lot of polytheistic religions describe the gods simply as humans with supreme power and situational immortality (sometimes they can be killed, and sometimes they can’t). The ancient mesopotamians saw their gods as being very similar to themselves because they modeled the gods after themselves. Their gods were not above petty human emotions like jealousy, anger, wrath, and they would even fall in love with humans from time to time. Their gods were just humans with a whole lot of power, and they were at the mercy of the whims of the gods, much like other polytheistic societies ie. Grecians and Romans. All of this is very much unlike most monotheistic religions whose gods are penultimate, and aloof. Christianity’s god is above humanity as its ultimate creator and ruler supposedly either unwilling or unable to mingle with humans or interfere in our problems.

In The Epic of Gilgamesh written in a polytheistic society there are many instances of the gods interacting with humans, and squabbling between themselves. One thing i noticed about the mesopotamian gods is that they are much more forgiving of humans and more likely to favor humans than gods from the Roman or Grecian pantheons. Gilgamesh is the offspring of a man and a goddess making him two thirds a god and one third a human. When Gilgamesh is seen as a nuisance by his people, they pray to the gods and Anu the father of all gods hears them. Upon hearing their prayers he tells the goddess Aruru to create a human to rival Gilgamesh, so she creates the human named Enkidu and places him in the forest. Not only did a god listen to the people and lend a hand, but the father of all gods went out of his way to help them.

Something I found interesting about Gilgamesh and Enkidu’s fight was that Gilgamesh won despite Enkidu being specifically created by the goddess who created all humans to rival Gilgamesh. It’s possible that the reason Gilgamesh won is that he suffers from Protagonist syndrome (he can’t lose because he’s the main character), but I took it to be a definitive sign that a human cannot beat a god, or even a demi-human considering Gilgamesh is two thirds a god. This points back to the overall theme of death, that being that no human can escape death no matter how epically they may struggle. The ancient Mesopotamians painted a bleak picture of the afterlife, or netherworld, as being close to the opposite of the heavens. The dead just roam about in a “shadow” version of life on earth similar to zombies. It’s no wonder Gilgamesh curses his fate and attempts to defy death. In the end, however, Gilgamesh discovers that death is inseparable from life for humanity, and nothing can be done to stop that.

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The Mesopotamian view of death in The Epic of Gilgamesh. (2022, Sep 07). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/the-mesopotamian-view-of-death-in-the-epic-of-gilgamesh/

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