The Search for Eternal Life in Mesopotamia TVT 1 T THE EPIC OF GILGAMESH Humans share many basic concerns. Two such concerns are finding meaning in life and confronting the reality of death. In Mesopotamia, where life and human fortune were so precarious, people deeply probed these issues and made them the subjects of numerous myths. Eventually, Mesopotamia evolved its classic answer to these questions in the form of its greatest work of literature. The Epic of Gilgamesh. A myth is not a deliberate piece of fiction or simply a story told to amuse an audience. It represents an attempt by a prescientific society to make sense of the universe. Whereas the scientist objectifies nature, seeing the world as an "it," the myth-maker lives in a world where everything has a soul, a personality, and its own story. A raging river is not a body of water responding to physical laws but an angry or capricious god. In the same manner, the fortunes of human society are not the consequences of chance, history, or any laws discoverable by social scientists. Rather, the gods and other supernatural spirits intervene di- rectly in human affairs, punishing and rewarding as they wish. The insight thus gained into the ways of the gods largely satisfies the emotional and intellectual needs of the myth-maker. The most complete extant version of The Epic of Gilgamesh was discovered on twelve clay tablets in the ruins of the late seventh-century B.C. library of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal. Other, earlier versions of the epic show, however, that the story, at least in its basic outline, is Sumerian in origin and goes back to the third millennium B.C. (2000s). The hero, Gilgamesh, was a historic figure who ruled the city-state of Uruk sometime between 2700 and 2500 B.C. and was remembered as a great warrior, as well as the builder of Uruk's massive walls and temple. His exploits were so impressive that he became the focal point of a series of oral sagas that recounted his legendary heroic deeds. Around 2000 B.C. or shortly thereafter, an unknown Babylonian poet reworked some of these tales, along with other stories, such as
The Ancient Worldthe adventure of Utnapishtim which appears in the selection that followan epic masterpiece that became -widely popular and influential througSouthwest Asia and beyond.The epic contains a profound theme, the conflict between humanity'sand aspirations and its mortal limitations. Gilgamesh, "two-thirds a godone-third human," as the poem describes him, is a man of heroic proporand appetites who still must face the inevitability of death.As the epic opens, an arrogant Gilgamesh, not yet aware of his humatations and his duties as king, is exhausting the people of Uruk with hisenergy. The people cry to Heaven for relief from his abuse of power, angods respond by creating Enkidu, a wild man who lives among the animEnkidu enters Uruk, where he challenges Gilgamesh to a contest of strenand fighting skill. When Gilgamesh triumphs, Enkidu embraces him as
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- Spring '08
- The Epic of Gilgamesh