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“The Epic of Gilgamesh” is one of the oldest literary works to have survived the modern era. It is a story that revolves around the kingship of Gilgamesh the king of Uruk who seemingly abuses his power. The people in the kingdom cry to the gods and the god Aruru creates Enkidu who lives in the wild until he is brought to Uruk by a harlot. He forms a friendship with Gilgamesh and together they travel to the Cedar Forest to slay the demigod Humbaba. During their journey, Gilgamesh is accosted by nightmares which he misinterprets to be good omens in his quest despite earlier warnings from both Enkidu and the elders. When they meet Humbaba, they overpower him with the help of the sun god Shamash. They also kill Gugalanna the Bull of Heaven and the gods promise to finish one of the heroes. Enkidu is cursed and finally dies. Gilgamesh leaves to seek the divination of mortality in a faraway land seeing the inevitability of death. Utnapishtim tells him that he cannot escape that which was meant for every human being. The story ends with a poem that narrates the end of Gilgamesh as he was not at one time meant to experience eternal life. “The Epic of Gilgamesh” is a story that takes the reader through the world of fantasy and reality. With several mentions of gods and goddesses as well as supernatural happenings such as the dreams, it is quite apparent that the story buys deeply into the fantastic to elaborate the main theme which is the inevitability of death and the power of the gods.
Perhaps one of the reasons “The Epic of Gilgamesh” has lasted quite long in the literary world is because it offers insight into the religious arrangement of people millenniums ago and human overwhelming desire to be immortal. The fear of death and the yearning for eternal life is an aspect that looms throughout the story within a backdrop of supernatural forces. From the beginning of the story, it is rather obvious that the gods are centrally placed in the life of the people of Uruk. Every paradigm in their society seems to have a god ascribed to it. For instance, Aruru is the god of creation who creates Enkidu to counter the strength of Gilgamesh. Fantasy surrounds the existence of the gods with the reader being taken through a series of extraordinary things commissioned by the gods. For instance, Aruru creates Enkidu from clay and makes him live with the wild animals. Enkidu feeds with the gazelles and drinks with the bucks as he helps them to escape the traps set by the trapper (who assumes anonymity throughout the story). It is these fantastic deeds such as the ability to give life that first alludes to mortality in the story. Mortality is first preceded by fantasy – mortality is a product of the fantastic actions of the gods (Rogers and Stevens 28). The central theme is thus grounded on the backdrop of fantasy.
After the death of Enkidu, Gilgamesh goes on a journey in the search for everlasting life. Enkidu’s death highlights the inevitability of death and as Gilgamesh gets into this reality, he sets out to beat the fate of humans. At first, he denies the truth but seeing how close Enkidu is, he is willing to set out into a fantastic adventure to escape it. He states that "And he-he does not lift his head.’I touched his heart, it does not beat'. “Me! Will I too not die like Enkidu? Sorrow was come into my belly. I fear death; I roam over the hills. I will seize the road; quickly I will go to the house of Utnapishtim, offspring of Ubaratutu. I approach the entrance of the mountain at night. Lions I see, and I am terrified. I lift my head to pray to the mood god Sin: For...a dream I go to the gods in prayer: ...preserve me! (Sanders 16)'". During his trip to the faraway land, he comes across a myriad of happenings. He travels under the sea, through a tunnel that no man had ever been through and, passes under the mountains along the Road of the Sun. Utnapishtim’s recount of how he got eternal life alludes to the Biblical story of Noah (Dalley 2). This story influences fantasy as well. It puts the stage in the middle of a Biblical allusion as he is the only human to have escaped death and survived the flood. He and his wife are deified by the god Enlil and it is rather obvious that in his divinity he is able to ascertain the fact that Gilgamesh may not escape the inevitability of death. Utnapishtim leads the reader to yet another world of fantasy when he sends Gilgamesh to pick a plant that would keep him youthful but not guarantee him immortality. When he gets the plant, however, he loses it to a serpent and it is rather obvious that the serpent confirms the allusion that the plant actually does maintain youthfulness when it sheds its skin.
The reading is also filled with allusions of nightmares – probable premonitions of the fate of the characters – and a warning of possible death. For instance, before heading to the Cedar Forest with Enkidu to kill the demigod Humbaba, Gilgamesh is warned of the likelihood of meeting his death. However, he is led by selfishness to gain fame and to rule the forest as well. During their journey, strange things begin to happen and it is at this point that the Gilgamesh experiences nightmares warning him of the bad omen that lay ahead. Nevertheless, he believes that the dreams are actually good omens and he goes ahead to meet Humbaba. The writer’s description of the demigod is rather bizarre. When he looks at someone, it is the look of death.” "Humbaba's roar is a flood, his mouth is death and his breath is fire! He can hear a hundred leagues away any [rustling?] in his forest! Who would go down into his forest!"Besides, the writer describes the demigod as having an immemorial age to underscore the obsession with long life that forms the central theme of the story (Harris 73). However, despite the long life, it is quite obvious that despite having some aspects of divinity, Humbaba was not immortal either as he is killed by Gilgamesh with the help of the sun god Shamash.
The fantastic in the story also develops the characters in The Epic of Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh as the main characters is surrounded by supernatural happenings. Besides being the child of a goddess, it is quite apparent that in his interactions with the divine, he grows from being perhaps the most loathed individual in the story to one that begs for the reader’s sympathy (Tigay 53). From the beginning, it is quite apparent that the king is a ruthless tyrant who makes his people suffer but his interaction with Enkidu paints a more emotional side of him. It is rather apparent that friendship changes him and how he relates to the subjects in Uruk. His friendship with Enkidu evolves him from the tyrant to the hero that he is and in his quests for eternal life, Gilgamesh implores sympathy from the reader in his struggles. Ehrlich (48) implies that a hero is just as good as his sidekick. In this instance, Enkidu evolves from a wild animal to a human being with the ability to express human feelings such as lust and regret. It is in their fantastic adventures that we see the importance of their friendship and the love he expresses for Gilgamesh. In this regards, it is ostensible that the reaction of these two characters to the fantastic builds them from just mere characters to individuals that the reader can relate to and even feel sympathy.
Through fantasy and the themes of death and immortality, “The Epic of Gilgamesh” brings into the forefront the longtime desire of human beings for eternal life. The story highlights the ideology surrounding immortality that has transcended a plethora of cultures and time. The fear of death and the reality of the same is quite clear throughout the story through various aspects such as the dreams and the divine happenings. Like the people of Mesopotamia clearly feared death, human beings still fear death and it is evident that they are willing to do anything to lengthen their lives just like Gilgamesh. Nothing is glorified about death and as usual people would seek ways to avoid it. Besides, the importance of friendship is quite obvious in the story and it is a factor that highlights the reality that human beings have lived in for millenniums. Friendship in the story is a concept that helps the main characters to beat the odds of the fantastic world. Besides, it is quite obvious that the illusion of dreams as the premonition of what would happen is one aspect in the story that many people fail to notice. According to Blass (67), dreams are usually a message from the subconscious and may perform the duties of warning us of impending dangers and the future.
In conclusion “The Epic of Gilgamesh” is a beautiful story that not only tells about the social and religious organizations of ancient Sumerians. It is also a story that weaves the fantastic aspect of literature to develop the central themes of immortality and death. Besides, it is prudent to note that in the interaction with the fantastic, the characters also evolve from what they are initially presented to be to heroes. “The Epic of Gilgamesh” contains concepts that are relatable to the modern times. These are concepts that the modern person may be oblivious to such as the fear of death and the pessimism associated with it. Additionally, dreams also seem to be important aspects mentioned in the story that are used to pass messages from the subconscious as warnings for things to come. In a nutshell “The Epic of Gilgamesh” skillfully puts into use the aspect of the fantastic to elaborate more than the themes but also the development of characters.
Blass, Rachel B. The Meaning of the Dream in Psychoanalysis. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002. Print.
Dalley, Stephanie. Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others. Brantford, Ont: W. Ross MacDonald School Resource Services Library, 2009. Print.
From an Antique Land. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2012. Internet resource.
Harris, John. The Epic of Gilgamesh: A Prose Rendition Based Upon the Original Akkadian, Babylonian, Hittite and Sumerian Tablets. , 2001. Print.
Rogers, Brett M, and Benjamin E. Stevens. Classical Traditions in Modern Fantasy. , 2017. Print.
Sandars, N K. The Epic of Gilgamesh. , 2014. Print.
Tigay, Jeffrey H. The Evolution of the Gilgamesh Epic. Wauconda (Ill.: Bolchazy-Carducci, 2002. Print.
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