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The Search for Immortality

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Sandy Drew Carter

Dr. V

World Lit. 201

Sept. 19, 2017                                                                                                                        

The Search for Immortality

        The Epic of Gilgamesh is all about Gilgamesh venturing on a journey in search for immortality. From the beginning of the epic, Gilgamesh is trying to figure out how he can escape death. He is a very strong individual that is “two thirds of him was divine, one third of him human.” (1. 50). Gilgamesh was the son of Ninsun and Lugalbanda. Gilgamesh becomes best friends with Enkidu; however, after Enkidu dies a long drawn out death, Gilgamesh is brought face to face with death. Therefore, Gilgamesh goes on a search to escape death and have eternal life while mourning the loss of his dear friend. Gilgamesh goes on a journey to find immortality; even though he fails in the epic, he develops into a better king for the city of Uruk and becomes content with the life he has.

Throughout the epic, Gilgamesh goes on a search for immortality, because immortality has only been granted to the gods and one other person, Utanapishtim. Gilgamesh goes on a journey, after Enkidu dies, to find Utanapishtim and discover what he can do to be granted eternal life. He first went and talked to the tavern keeper. Gilgamesh states, “I have grown afraid of death, so I roam the steepe, / My friend’s case weighs heavy upon me” (10. 53-54). This is the first time in the epic that Gilgamesh, the strong character, confessing of being afraid of death. After confessing his fears to the tavern keeper, she then supplies advice to Gilgamesh to help him develop into a better leader. The tavern keeper says to Gilgamesh, “The eternal life you are seeking you shall not find. / When the gods created mankind, / And withheld eternal life for themselves. / As for you, Gilgamesh, let your stomach be full, / Always be happy, night and day.” (10. 69-74).  She told him that he needed to be content with what he had because he was not going to be able to obtain eternal life. Gilgamesh was a king of the city of Uruk; he needed to stop being so worried about death and focus on his people, after all he was Uruk’s leader.  This is one of the many times Gilgamesh is confronted with one of his character flaws. The words of the tavern keeper will have an immense effect on Gilgamesh and his character as a whole. After the tavern keeper told Gilgamesh that he would not find immortality, she sent Gilgamesh to go find the stone charms and to find Ur-shanabi. Once Ur-shanabi was found, Gilgamesh attacked him and the stone charms were smashed. The stone charms being shamed showed a character flaw in Gilgamesh, his anger. He allowed his anger to mess up the charms that would have helped him on his journey for immortality. Because of the anger Gilgamesh had towards Ur-shanabi, this then lead to one factor of the failure of obtaining immortality in The Epic of Gilgamesh. 

Upon Gilgamesh’s encounter with Ur-shanabi, Ur-shanabi leads Gilgamesh to Utanapishtim’s wharf, where he learns the greatest advice about life. Gilgamesh begins to question Utanapishtim, asking him how he was the only human, other than the gods, to obtain eternal life. Utanapishtim begins to question Gilgamesh. “Do we build a house forever? / Do we make a home forever? / Do brothers divide an inheritance forever? / Do disputes prevail on the land forever? / Do rivers rise in flood forever?” (10. 232-236). Utanapishtim asks all these questions to Gilgamesh to say that life is a cycle. No one builds a house forever because people die. That is what life is, you live and then one day you eventually die. Utanapishtim told Gilgamesh this to say that immortality was not in the circle of life, because if it was, no one would die at all. Utanapishtim was granted the gift of immortality luckily, it was not something the gods just handed out. Gilgamesh would have to work for immortality if he wanted to obtain it, not just go search for it. After teaching Gilgamesh this lesson on life’s cycle, Utanapishtim finally reveals to Gilgamesh the story of the flood and how he was granted eternal life.

After hearing the flood story, Gilgamesh realizes there is not much that he could do to obtain eternal life, that only the gods could grant him this gift, and it would not be obtained easily. Utanapishtim’s wife then has mercy on Gilgamesh and finally decides to figure out a way to help Gilgamesh become immortal, because she is immortal herself. The couple said to Gilgamesh, “Now then, who will convene the gods for your sake, / That you may find eternal life you seek? / Come, come, try not to sleep for six days and seven nights.” (11. 210-212). All he had to do was sleep for 6 days and 7 nights. If he did this, he would be granted eternal life. It seemed very easy to Gilgamesh, with him being as cocky has he was, and he thought it would be a simple task. Utanapishtim said to his wife, “Sleep swirls over him like a mist…” (11. 217). Utanapishtim said this because he knew Gilgamesh would not be able to stay awake and be granted eternal life. Therefore, Gilgamesh fell into a deep sleep. Once Gilgamesh awakes from his sleep he tries to deny that he slept for 7 days. He says, “Scarcely has sleep stole over me, / When straightaway you touched me and roused me.” (11. 239-240). Gilgamesh failed his test by Utanapishtim and his wife. This failure caused Gilgamesh great disappointment, and he realized he would never obtain eternal life. As a result of Gilgamesh failing the trail, the couple sends him on his way back to Ur-shanabi, the boatman.  



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