Gilgamesh – The Quest for Immortality

The Epic of Gilgamesh provides an account of a leader’s relationship between his subjects’, his friend, the gods, and himself. Through the relationships, Gilgamesh sets out on a quest to find immortality and ends up finding much greater virtues, which are respect and the understanding that although he himself is not immortal, civilization is.

In the beginning Gilgamesh ruled as a tyrannical leader, which was self-seeking and extremely oppressive over his subjects in his kingdom of Uruk. He was a cruel leader whose strength was feared and he forced labor upon his people in order to expand his kingdom.

“He walks around in the enclosure of Uruk, like a wild bull he makes himself mighty, head-raised (over others). There is no rival who can raise his weapon against him. His fellows stand (at the alert), attentive to his (orders?), and the men of Uruk become anxious in…”

It is clear that through this epic story, in the beginning Gilgamesh is a man who is self-centered and is focused on what is in the best interest of him and his place in the universe. This way of leading as a tyrant shows the disrespect he has toward his people and the naive mindset he holds on what is important in terms of his role as a leader. He truly does what he wants, when he wants, including raping women, which is consequently why his people dislike his way of rule. Through their cries, the gods created Enkidu, an influential character in the book, who is threatening to Gilgamesh due to his similar stature and presence. Enkidu is vital to Gilgamesh’s transformation from his old practices as a tyrant to his new outlook on what is important in a leader and what is ideal for the well being of his subjects.

Enkidu was created as a threat and adversary to Gilgamesh, who in the end, unknowingly, became his strength and motivational muse to seek a deeper understanding of his life, as well as what is important for his kingdom and his people. Gilgamesh and Enkidu were equal in strength and stature, but Gilgamesh represented civilization, while Enkidu represents nature. Although opposite, these two compliment each other through bringing out a deeper understanding of themselves and the world around them. This is the first time in both of their lives that they have a companion that is worthy and capable of affecting them in a way that not only changes their outlook on life, but that they can push each other to new heights both physically and mentally.

“Now you are afraid of death-what has become of your bold strength? I will go in front of you, and your mouth can call out: `Go on closer, do not be afraid!’…You were born and raised in the wilderness, a lion leaped up on you, so you have experienced it all! I will undertake it and I will cut down the Cedar. It is I who will establish fame for eternity! Come, my friend, I will go over to the forge and cast the weapons in our presence!”

Through this it is clear that the two have a serious impact on each other and for the first time push for each to step outside their boundaries to accomplish something that neither has achieved before. This is important because this is the start of the events that lead Gilgamesh to the realization that there is more his life then his tyrannical rule. Although he is still far from his total progression through the story, it is clear that Enkidu has a serious effect on his journey and moral growth as a person and as a leader.

After the successful slaying of Humbaba, the guardian of the cedar forest, the chief gods decide that, because of their actions Enkidu must die. This is crucial to the development of Gilgamesh due to the fact that he as never felt loss before, which is an emotion that is critical in the successful ruling of a monarchy.

“Enlil said: `Let Enkidu die, but Gilgamesh must not die!’…His tears flowing like canals, he (Gilgamesh) said: `Oh brother, dear brother, why are they absolving me instead of my brother?’ Then (Enkidu said:) `So now must I become a ghost, to sit with the ghosts of the dead, to see my dear brother never more?”

Gilgamesh is broken over this thought of the loss of his friend as well as the idea that he too someday will die. This thought of death and the death of Enkidu is the catalyst that forces him to seek eternal life. What is so important about this part in the story is that for the first time you see Gilgamesh thinking about his surroundings and a very sensitive and humbling issue of death. Utnapishtim is the person that Gilgamesh looks for to find the answers of how to obtain eternal life. Gilgamesh hopes that Utnapishtim will have some insight into how he too can obtain eternal life so as to escape the pain and suffering that he has felt through the death of Enkidu. The story of the flood, which is how Utnapishtim received his immortality from the gods, shows the idea that although men will die; humankind lives on, which is exactly what Gilgamesh’s whole overall enlightenment is about. Through this journey it is clear that even now in the search for eternal life Gilgamesh has slowly evolved from a self-centered cruel leader, who is more involved with himself then that of the lives of the civilization he rules over.

Upon returning home to Uruk, Gilgamesh, although, empty-handed, has gain so much more not only as a person but also as a leader. What is clear about his journey overall is that he has come to terms with his mortality and has been shown and understands exactly what is important in life and that is humankind. He is enlightened to the fact that although one man like himself can be very powerful and god like, that he himself will not live on, yet his civilization will through the people. This shows him the importance of his people who up until this point he has not only neglected but he has also been cruel and unjust to, due to his self-indulging qualities. On return he sees his city in a new light, which shows the idea that a leader, through developing a more moral basis, can change from a tyrant to a person who is ruling in the interest of not only his people, but also the idea that he wants his people to live on and prosper generations and generations after death. This idea of, for the greater good, is a very important lesson that Gilgamesh learns and needs if he is to run his kingdom as a monarchy. This whole story is based around the fact that one man through his own development and the development of his moral structure can turn his rule from that of a tyranny to that of a monarchy where he is truly in touch with his people, their wants and needs, as well as the overall importance of man as a whole as apposed to the individual.

Through this story of Gilgamesh it is clear that a tyranny can, in fact, be changed to a monarchy based on the developing inner-morality of its leader. This story of Gilgamesh has been passed down since the time of Mesopotamia and holds great value to the ideals and needs of a civilization of that time. It is important to realize the meaning of self-worth versus the greater good. Through the relationship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu and understanding of the needs of ones people, Gilgamesh ends up finding great virtues, which are respect and the understanding that although he himself is not immortal, civilization is. What is clear about this story and its lessons is that a tyranny is not going to change for no reason, due to the leader being too engulfed in their own self worth and interest. The way in which it does change however is through the development of a leaders morality and the importance that leader puts on the peoples’ lives and the push towards the great good for the civilization.