>It is an old story
But one that can still be told
About a man who loved
And lost a friend to death
And learned he lacked the power
To bring him back to life.
It is the story of Gilgamesh
And his friend Enkidu.
Gilgamesh was king of Uruk,
A city set between the Tigris
And Euphrates rivers
In ancient Babylonia.
Enkidu was born on the Steppe
Where he grew up among the animals.
Gilgamesh was called a god and man;
Enkidu was an animal and man.
It is the story
Of their becoming human together.
— Gilgamesh: A Verse Narrative
Copyright, 1970, Herbert Mason
What else would the oldest known narrative be about but the full range of emotions: love, hatred, fear, arrogance, joy, determination, survival, friendship, death, grief. These are the emotions that make us human. Gilgamesh is the story of how we experience these emotions.
I knew little about Gilgamesh before I read it this week. I knew that was considered one of the oldest narratives. I knew that it had a story of a great flood in it. When my son went to sell his copy after completing an AP Lit class 2 years ago, I pulled it out of the pile, and promptly forgot about on the shelves. When I opened it recently and read the first lines, I was captivated.
On one level, you can read Gilgamesh as a fairytale, an epic, or a myth. It can be read as a tale of hubris, with a fall and a recognition of one’s own mortality told through the story of an arrogant king who meets, fights, and then befriends, his equal, but, in his headstrong desire to be triumphant, brings about his friend’s death. It can be considered a story of a journey, with the hero, in typical epic fashion, learning a truth through his quest. Or, one can view it as the timeless and universal story of how grief can change one’s life.
After Enkidu’s death, Gilgamesh grieves for his friend. He wants to fight the course of fate, to change the outcome of his life so that he may continue to have the presence of his friend. Without it, he is not sure how he can go on.
Reading of Gilgamesh’s desolation, I thought of a modern description of grief, Auden’s poem, Funeral Blues:
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.
He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.
The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.
There were no phones or airplanes in ancient Mesopotamia, but Gilgamesh would have understood that Enkidu was his compass, his “working week and Sunday rest”, and like the speaker in Auden’s poem, he wanted everything to stop because of his grief. Gilgamesh, experiencing grief for the first time, feels that his sorrow is different from others. “The word Enkidu/Roamed through every thought/Like a hungry animal through empty lairs/In search of food. The only nourishment/He knew was grief, endless in its hidden source/Yet never ending hunger.”
Gilgamesh’s grief is what keeps him going in his quest to find a way to defeat death and bring his friend back to life. When he finally finds it, he is joyous and refreshed. But when he leaves the plant of eternal life alone for a few minutes, a serpent smells its fragrance and devours it for himself. Gilgamesh knows that this is the end of his quest and is filled with the sorrow of defeat. He returns to Uruk, fearful that people will not remember his friend. Gilgamesh recognizes that his pain is his own. He looks at the city walls and is awed by his people’s achievements and he goes on, despite his personal sadness.
Grief is overwhelming, and friendship is personal and intimate. When we first encounter grief we want everything to stop — clocks, telephones, barking dogs, life — because everything has changed. We look at the world with different eyes because things are radically and irreversibly changed. And yet, eventually, we go on, somehow.
Love and Sorrow makes us human. Grief is private and universal. It is why the epic of Gilgamesh, written 2150 BCE, is relevant today.