by Samantha Stallings
In the ancient Greek poem, The Epic of Gilgamesh, a major turning point in the text is Gilgamesh’s mourning of his good friend, Enkidu. He grapples and toils over the loss of his friend, and traverses the Earth looking for hope and answers in his uncertainty and fear of death. He finds this hope in his ancestor, Utanapishtim. Utanapishtim was chosen at one point in time by the gods to build an arc and survive a great flood with his wife and livestock. Utanapishtim and his wife are blessed with immortality. Because of Utanapishtim’s burden of watching mankind as he knew it get killed off by the gods (for no just reason), he is the ideal individual for Gilgamesh to speak to about his fears and hardships concerning death. The poet uses Utanapishtim as a symbol of time and its consistency, as well as death’s perfect correlation with time, in order to soothe Gilgamesh’s mourning over Enkidu’s passing at the conclusion of the poem.
The first lengthy conversation Utanapishtim has with Gilgamesh consists of his explaining how life continues to go on after death. The uncertainty of death weighs heavily on Gilgamesh’s psyche, and Utanapishtim acknowledges this by stating, “no one can see death, no one can see the face of death, no one can hear the voice of death, yet there is savage death that snaps off mankind” (90). This points out how Utanapishtim is aware of and empathetic to the substantial fear mankind has with grasping the idea of eternal rest, mentioning how it “snaps off mankind,” regardless of said fear. The poet is aware that without fail, death happens every day and individuals have a difficult time grasping this. Utanapishtim’s character is also conscious of the absolute certainty of time passing and death, and must illustrate this to the audience.
Utanapishtim mentions to Gilgamesh how humanity goes on after death, “For how long do we build a household? How long do we seal a document? For how long do brothers share the inheritance? For how long is there to be jealousy in the land? For how long has the river risen and brought the overflowing waters, so that dragonflies drift down the river?” (90). The poet elected for Utanapishtim to recite laborious and emotionally tolling moments that everyone (at the time) has faced, yet he concludes his issue with a natural recurrence, the river overflowing. This specific example illustrates how Utanapishtim is mindful of all toils one faces in a lifetime, yet in this same lifetime of hardships, the ever-steady river will continually flow and overflow. This example of a natural reoccurrence symbolizes time’s perpetual nature of life, death, toils, and fortunes.
Utanapishtim has witnessed a great deal of time pass by after being made immortal, and visually displays this inevitable passing of time to Gilgamesh while he rests. In The Epic of Gilgamesh, the biblical story of Noah is recreated, however the poet creatively takes Utanapishtim’s character, and places him as a survivor of such a flood, then uses his character to contemplate how one would cope emotionally with witnessing all of mankind being killed. Utanapishtim challenges Gilgamesh to stay awake for one week, but Gilgamesh immediately falls asleep and does so for one week. Utanapishtim demands that his wife bake one loaf of bread for every day Gilgamesh is asleep. These loaves naturally rot away as the days go on. When Gilgamesh awakes, he is shocked to discover how long he has rested for. Utanapishtim mentions “how alike are the sleeping and the dead. The image of death cannot be depicted. After Enlil had pronounced the blessing, the Anunnaki, the Great Gods assembled…They established Death and Life, but they did not make known ‘the days of death’” (90). Utanapishtim correlates sleeping and death, because one who is sleeping is unaware of the life that continues on around them, until after they awake. The poet uses Utanapishtim’s loaves of bread as an example that one be aware that life will go one once they have passed on. This is a difficult message for Gilgamesh, as well as all of humanity, to digest, and he immediately flees on Urshanabi’s ferry.
The poet uses Utanapishtim’s backstory of the great flood wiping out humanity, and the gods’ lack of reason for creating it, as a symbol that death is often viewed as swift and unfair in their loved one’s eyes. Utanapishtim recalls how “The gods were frightened by the Flood, and retreated, ascending to the heaven of Anu. The gods were cowering like dogs, crouching by the outer wall,” demonstrating how the gods appear to be regretting their idea to kill off all of humanity (93). In death, a grieving individual feels hate towards the gods that took away their loved one, but in “reality,” the gods themselves could have made a rash mistake. This is a relatable feeling to Gilgamesh because his good friend has passed away and he cannot cope with the sudden loss. Utanapishtim describes his overwhelming emotions after viewing the loss of life after the flood, “I fell to my knees and sat weeping, tears streaming down the side of my nose,” detailing how he was struck with the remorse of surviving all of his friends and family in this strange act of nature called down by the gods (93). The poet uses this moment in the story as a symbol for the injustice one feels when a loved one dies suddenly.
In The Epic of Gilgamesh, the loss of a good friend and the grieving process that goes along with it is illustrated as a long and difficult journey for the main character. The poet places Utanapishtim’s presence at the conclusion of the poem, to show how death CAN be unfair. However Utanapishtim builds the hero back up from his mourning, and presents the idea of the continuation of time that goes on regardless after death: the time that everyone must savor while they are buzzing with life. This is a difficult concept for humans to wrestle with for an entire lifetime. Utanapishtim, in The Epic of Gilgamesh, eloquently points out the beautiful, powerful continuation of time, as well as its hand-in-hand relationship with death.
“The Epic of Gilgamesh.” The Longman Anthology of World Literature, 2nd ed., vol. A. Ed. David Damrosch. New York: Pearson, 2009. 56-97. Print.