The Epic of Gilgamesh on Immortality and Its Ramifications

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As long as humans have lived and died, we have strived to know the meaning of life. We assume that there is a meaning or importance to life, and in doing so try to provide some permanence to our existence so that a greater machine might continue to function. It is only natural, then, for us to be interested in the concept of immortality. If there is purpose to an ending life, a life that does not end must be supremely important. This idea is exemplified throughout time in stories both historical and fictional. The Epic of Gilgamesh is one such story. Gilgamesh deals with immortality on nearly every level, and at the same time points back to mortality, trying to extract a reason for living and dying.

Ostensively, The Epic of Gilgamesh entertains the idea of immortality on a physical plane. The struggle for earthly immortality is meant to seem futile in Gilgamesh because in the story, as in life, all humans die. At first, Gilgamesh shrugs off the fate of living by going to battle Humbaba, saying to Enkidu, "Your heart shall soon burn for conflict; forget death and think only of life." (Gilgamesh 71). When Enkidu falls ill and dies, however, Gilgamesh insists that immortality is attainable, and he is driven by fear to learn how from the one human who apparently will live forever, Ut-napishtim (Gilgamesh 95). The revelation of Ut-napishtim changes the implications of the story; it gives credibility to Gilgamesh's goal. But if eternal life were possible for Gilgamesh, The Epic of Gilgamesh would have no point. The point is, as both Ut-napishtim and Siduri (the tavern keeper Gilgamesh meets on his journey) suggest, "[d]eath is inevitable…" (Gilgamesh 107-108), and so pleasure should be found everywhere it can be in life (Gilgamesh [OBV] 151). So, to look for immortality in life is to waste life entirely. Unlike in the physical world, immortality is regarded as typical of Gilgamesh's spiritual world. Siduri proves as much when she says to Gilgamesh that the gods have...
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