Gilgamesh: Becoming Human

I just finished reading Herbert Mason’s beautiful rendering of the Gilgamesh Epic in blank verse, and personally I think this is the most touching and most human of all the epics that I have ever read. Indeed, in the first verse of the poem, it is already stated that “it is the story/of their becoming human together.”

This theme of “becoming human” looms largely over the entire epic, and it touches on the human condition in a way that is poignant, celebratory, and wise. It is both an elegy for human morality and an affirmation of human achievements.

First, human life is viewed as ultimately a corruption, or a fall from an original state of innocence. And this is the first part of the epic, when Enkidu, an immortal human being who lives with animals and communicates with them, becomes “human” by sleeping with a prostitute. After the sexual act, Enkidu “felt a strange exhaustion/as if life had left his body.”

Then Enkidu goes to Uruk, the city ruled by Gilgamesh, and upon encountering each other, they fight to a stalemate because they are both equals. And the moment of recognition of each other as equals is something that Nietzsche would have liked: “He turned to Enkidu who leaned/Against his shoulder and looked into his eyes/And saw himself in the other, just as Enkidu saw/Himself in Gilgamesh/In the silence of the people they began to laugh/And clutched each other in their breathless exaltation.” The meeting of one’s equal, therefore, is essential to “becoming human.” The poem argues that without friendship of one’s equal, one is not fully human.

After becoming best friends, Gilgamesh and Enkidu go to vanquish a monster, and in the battle, Enkidu is mortally wounded, but he weakens the monster enough so that Gilgamesh could win. But death approaches, and in one of the most agonizing passages that I have ever encountered in literature, Enkidu describes mortal existence in very stark terms. I’m going to quote the whole thing:

“Everything had life to me, he heard Enkidu murmur,
The sky, the storm, the earth, water, wandering,
The moon and its three children, salt, even my hand
Had life. It’s gone. It’s gone. I have seen death
As a total stranger sees another person’s world,
Or as a freak sees whom the gods created
When they were drunk on too much wine
And had a contest to show off
The greatness of the harm that they could do,
Creating a man who had no balls or a woman
Without a womb, a crippled
Or deliberately maimed child
Or old age itself, blind eyes, trembling hands
Contorted in continual pain,
A starving dog too weak to eat,
A doe caught in a trap,
Wincing for help,
Or death.”

And if you thought that was depressing, listen to what Enkidu says about the survivor, any survivor who must live with the knowledge that their loved one is gone:

“You will be left alone, unable to understand
In a world where nothing lives anymore
As you thought it did…She made me see
Things as a man, and a man see death in things.
That is what it is to be a man. You’ll know
When you have lost the strength to see
The way you once did. You’ll be alone and wander
Looking for that life that’s gone or some
Eternal life you have to find…
Why am I to die,
You to wander on alone?
Is that the way it is with friends?”

That is an utterly devastating passage about the mortal nature of human existence, and anyone who has ever lost someone he has loved would undoubtedly recognize the crushing truth of that passage. After Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh is enveloped in a world of grief, and this passage once again describes, with stunning accuracy and insight, what it is like to be caught in a private world of grief:

“Until one learns acceptance of the silence
Amidst the new debris
Or turns again to grief
As the only source of privacy,
Alone with someone loved.
It could go on for years and years,
And has, for centuries,
For being human holds a special grief
Of privacy within the universe
That years and waits to be retouched
By someone who can take away
The memory of death.”

Gilgamesh refuses to believe that Enkidu is dead, and he goes on a journey to find Utnapishtim, an immortal who has survived the flood (and this flood myth is probably the ur-myth of Noah’s Ark) and knows the secrets of immortality. When Gilgamesh finally finds Utnapishtim, he tells Gilgamesh:

“…I would grieve
At all that may befall you still
If I did not know you must return
And bury your own loss and build
Your world anew with your own hands.
I envy your freedom.”

That right there contains, for me, the essence of the Gilgamesh epic: human mortality is devastating and painful, but there is always the hope that human beings can rebuild their lives, a possibility which is denied to someone who is immortal.

But moved by Gilgamesh’s sorrow, Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh to find a flower who will make him immortal and bring back Enkidu to life. But while falling asleep, a serpent comes and takes the flower away. Once again, one can clearly see just how much the Book of Genesis is influenced by the Gilgamesh epic. Upon waking, Gilgamesh weeps because he has lost immortality and once again “human.”

Dejected, Gilgamesh goes back to Uruk to his people, and in the last verse of the epic, he looks at his city:

“He looked at the walls,
Awed at the heights
His people have achieved
And for a moment–just a moment–
All that lay behind him
Passed from view.”

I cannot think of any better way to end the poem than that: Gilgamesh finally realizes that becoming human is to accept human mortality, with the misery, suffering, and tragedy that human existence inevitably entails–but becoming human is to also create, to achieve, to realize that even as beautiful things never last, they are nonetheless beautiful.

To me, this is indeed the oldest human story, and perhaps the only one, there is to tell. Even after thousands of years of being written, this poem still resonates because of its penetrating psychological insight and its firm grasp of the human condition. I highly, HIGHLY recommend reading the Gilgamesh epic, because it will get you to really think about what it means to be human. And plus, it is very short: you can finish it in an hour. But within this short poem, it contains the essence of being human.

And in reading this poem, I have finally understood what Nietzsche meant in the Birth of Tragedy when he says that life must be reaffirmed because of its tragedies, not in spite of them.


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