In true Great Books fashion, Mr. B and I had a moment today to reconsider our positions taken during our initial conversation on The Epic of Gilgamesh. Though Mr. B was largely in agreement about what was written and the general historical overview of the text, he had two very important questions to further the conversation: (1) Is it Gilgamesh’s humanity (mortality) which subjects him to moral codes, and therefore (2) are the ancient Sumerian/Babylonian gods subject to morals or simply to force? The final question which will be considered is why exactly is Gilgamesh denied immortality, and what lesson does that lead to him, and us, learning?

To the first question, let us first consider the nature of Enkidu and his purpose on earth. Enkidu, made from water and clay, is made in order to temper and redirect the energies of the wildly ostentatious Gilgamesh. And in fact, it was Anu, the king of the sky, heavens, and gods who ordered Aruru, the creator of man, to create Gilgamesh’s “double”, “a man who matches his strength) (P. 72 Mitchell tr.) because “the people of Uruk cried out to heaven,” and the gods “were touched” (Ibid). Therefore, it is precisely because of Gilgamesh’s behavior that his “second self” was created and sent down to “balance each other perfectly, so that Uruk has peace,” (P. 80). So, why is it, exactly, that Gilgamesh’s behavior necessitates actions from the gods? What is it, exactly, that he lacks, or has too much of which makes it (1) impossible for him to moderate his behavior, and (2) makes his behavior monstrous and seemingly immoral.

The answer to the first question lies in the nature of Gilgamesh. Because he is 2/3 divine and has consort with humans who are 3/3 human and 0/3 divine, he knows himself as the greatest being on the earth. Although he has knowledge of the gods, their strength, and their place above him in the heavens, the only place that Gilgamesh knows is the world and Uruk within it. He is essentially ignorant of how a 2/3 divine creature must act, fully of divine gifts, but surrounded by ordinary mortals, and honestly, as he is sui generis, one of a kind, who could blame him? It takes a second divine, yet mortal, creature and his interaction with him, to temper and tame the tastes, attitudes, and behaviors of Gilgamesh, though the two do perform further ostentatious acts together (Killing Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven). How though does this behavior connect to the fact that Gilgamesh and Enkidu are mortals?

Apparently in the Sumerian pantheon as well as amongst the mortals, there was a certain recognition of hierarchy which in general led to peace. Amongst the gods, Anu, was highest, and he, Enlil, and Ea formed something of a primordial triune governing the skies, winds, and waters, respectively. Though occasionally the Loki-like Ea (Enki) cleverly subverts the will of Anu (by cleverly allowing Atrahasis/Utnapishtim to hear how to survive the deluge which will wipe out most of humanity), this respect for order, keeps the gods in line. The humans too, though, there is a war against Uruk from the old Sumerian version of the Gilgamesh epic which is left out of the 11-plate version, seem to have some common notions of law and decency. Is the root which dictates how each manner of being acts reducible to force? In this case, yes, and that is precisely the problem for Gilgamesh. In his world, though the gods are more powerful above, they do not directly interfere with Gilgamesh, and the humans subject to him are incapable of over-throwing him or of denying his will. This is precisely why Enkidu is made–not to defeat Gilgamesh, but to have him direct  the force of his will away from his people and his “natural right” (of primae noctis), and towards something more appropriate to his semi-plus divine station.

That said, though Enkidu redirects Gilgamesh’s attentions towards “higher” pursuits, like heroic conquests of Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven, Enkidu is also there to show Gilgamesh that he is a mortal and not a god. When Enkidu and Gilgamesh kill the Bull of Heaven, Enkidu has a dream that Anu called a council of the gods together and said that one of the two mortals must die, and Enlil decided that Enkidu must be that one (141). Now, it is possible that Enkidu is decided upon because he convinced Gilgamesh to strike the killing blow on Humbaba (125-126), and Humbaba curses Enkidu to die (127), and it is also possible that Enkidu warranted further disdain from the gods for throwing the thigh meat of the Bull of Heaven into the face of Ishtar (138), and those seem like convincing reasons until one considers that Gilgamesh himself killed Humbaba, spurned Ishtar, and killed the Bull of Heaven. If acting against the gods was crime enough to warrant death, why did Gilgamesh survive when Enkidu did not?

The reason is that Gilgamesh, not Enkidu, must learn what it is to be mortal and to suffer fully all that mortals suffer. He must experience the heights of leadership, arrogant pride, and tremendous accomplishment just to find himself leveled by sorrow and the realization that his power is not only too little to save his friend, but eventually, even too little to save himself. Because Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh goes on the journey to find Utnapishtim, learns “ancient customs” and rituals, but also he continues the limits of his strength and mortality. When Utnapishtim challenges Gilgamesh to stay up for seven straight days, “Now, Gilgamesh, who will assemble the gods for your sake? Who will convince them to grant you the eternal life that you seek? How would they know that you deserve it?” (190), Gilgamesh does not even make it one night, but rather sleeps for the entire seven days, and he sees 6 stale loaves of bread, having been cooked daily, to mark his failure when he wakes up. Then, Gilgamesh is told of a “small spiny bush” in the “Great Deep” (194), which will give Gilgamesh immortality, and perhaps lead us to the moral, against my thesis, that Gilgamesh, like Herkles long after him, will receive immortality (or the secret of youth (196)) by virtue of his acts. This is not to be, however. Gilgamesh finds and pulls-out the bush, but while he is bathing, a snake eats the plant, and that is why snakes can grow new skin (odd addition), and Gilgamesh must return to Uruk, now fully conscious of his mortality. Is this perhaps a much greater gift than if he had been made an immortal, though?

Because Gilgamesh realizes he is mortal, even though quite mighty, he must return as a cultural hero to Uruk and continue to rule in full knowledge that he will die like all other men. This effectively teaches the entire culture, not just one man, the moral necessity of being good to each other–of having a human morality. Had Gilgamesh been made fully immortal, the message would have been: a mighty 15 foot man, already nearly immortal, may become immortal through mighty acts. As the story stands, however, the message is this: a mighty and near-divine man attempts to win all glories for himself, but in the course of his life, he loses his best friend and the promise of immortality, and because of this, the story ends with him describing the city he has built, and the culture he has preserved to the ferryman Urshanabi: “This is the wall of Uruk, which no city on earth can equal. See how its ramparts gleam like copper in the sun. Climb the stone staircase, more ancient than the mind can imagine, approach the Eanna temple, sacred to Ishtar, a temple that no king has equaled in size or beauty, walk on the wall of Uruk…”(197) In realizing that he shall die, Gilgamesh realizes what all humans must realize: that it is not preservation of one’s physical body and self which makes one immortal; but rather it is one’s contributions to one’s people and culture which will live on long after a man dies. These contributions form the immortal aspect of man.

In summation: force is the reason for morality in humans and gods. And Gilgamesh does not receive personal immortality in order to show humans that cultural immortality for something greater than one’s self (one’s civilization) is an even greater immortality to strive towards than physical immortality, which serves only one’s self.

**All page numbers are from Stephen Mitchell’s Gilgamesh.


One thought on “An Addendum to the Conversation on Gilgamesh: What is the Nature of Morality?

  1. Hello ,
    Happy to eavesdrop upon a conversation concerning Gilgamesh- a great personal favorite. Andrew sensed I would enjoy your posts and I do. I have posted on Gilgamesh off and on myself-essentially every time I re-read Mitchell’s excellent translation:
    I knew immediately from your last post that you were a Johnnie, i’m married to one ; I can sense them from quite distance 🙂
    Be well,


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