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The Epic of Gilgamesh

Text by: Novantyo Komintas

We oft describe time as cruel, autonomous, and unforgiving. It is arguably one of the inhumane subjects of thought. Now suppose time were a person, an individual human we could chat away with over tea and cheese crumpets. In my mind, he or she would be the rudest, least caring, most indescribably uncompassionate companion I could ever meet in my life. Time wouldn't care a thing about my latest projects and milestones, would accompany me for long periods when I don't need him or her to do so, and would always be running out at the most crucial moments of my life. Worst of all, I cannot be rid of them from my life, without morbidly ending my life. Still, this is one companion I would prefer to keep around for as long as I can. Because frankly, who wouldn't want more Time around in life, even if only for the sake of more living? It's the eternal desire of humanity to seek more time for itself.

And in the cradle of civilization, 6500 years ago, was told a story, an epic, of a kindred soul that embarked on a legendary adventure to seek more time, unlimited time, in his fear of the great equalizer that is death. They called him Gilgamesh, and his journey to seek the gift of immortality is known as the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the earliest examples of recorded literature. By retelling the story of the mighty demi-god and king, we can learn from his tragic fate (oh yes, it's a sobering ending) about humanity's relationship with that rude companion of ours, time.

This story begins with people, specifically with the ancient Sumerians, the folks living in the Fertile Crescent between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers around 4500 BC. These people were among the first recorded instances of advanced civilization of our species. Gifted with the fertility of their land, they made innovative advancements in agriculture, writing, trade skills, and artisan professions. From this rich bounty of food and knowledge, they erected great city-states to pool their populace into and to further distance themselves from the old system of hunting and gathering. Within each of these many city-states, further advancements of thought emerged, such as mathematics, economy, tools and weapons, architecture, and music.

One could see the bedrock of modern civilization being formed each day within the Fertile Crescent. The Sumerians were free thinkers and first thinkers, and as such, it shouldn't have stretched their minds too far to ponder all this life when compared to the inevitable mortality of man, especially when they could jot down thoughts in cuneiform. If anything, being in the life blooming environment of the Crescent made the contrast between life and death even more powerful. So many tales were spun, between temple preaching and the boredom of the workday, about what mortality meant and the relationship between mortals and time. But a truly epic myth needs an equally epic protagonist in it. Thus enters stage right the 5th king of the grand city-state of Uruk: Gilgamesh.

The religious hierarchy of ancient Mesopotamia was simple: Gods were immortal and mortals were, well, mortal. Gilgamesh walked the boundary left of center, as he was two-thirds god and one-third man. Sure the 2/3 divinity part gave him legendary strength and stamina, but it's the 1/3 part humanity where lies the source of his many troubles. He was, at his worst, a womanizer, a bully, and a boorish danger to every person around him. Whether this was due to the augmentation of his divine powers, his natural persona, or the fact that Uruk was the holy city of Ishtar, goddess of love and fertility, no one knows. His citizens, though grateful for his powers for protecting their beloved city-state, could no longer tolerate his uncivilized antics and prayed to the gods for a miracle.

Their prayers were answered by their deities in form of the creation the wild man called Enkidu). The plan was for Enkidu to befriend Gilgamesh, as they both were of similarly wild natures and strong, or so they thought. Enkidu's persona was more beast than man, and he caused more wild problems for Uruk than even Gilgamesh had. Gilgamesh worked with his citizens to trap the wild man, who eventually developed the god's intended kinship with Gilgamesh. For a time there was peace, as Gilgamesh worked to slowly civilize Enkidu. He, in turn, became a friendly outlet for Gilgamesh's wild drives. This powerful duo embarked on a quest for fame and glory, seeking to kill the guardian of Cedar Forest, Humbaba. After a fearsome battle, they overcame the giant, and Enkidu slew him with his spear.

Peace and glory are not timeless, though, and troubles blossomed anew for the partners in crime. The mighty deeds of Gilgamesh attracted the eye of their city's goddess, Ishtar. She attempted to seduce the king, but he scorned her advances and left her wrought with fury. Ishtar complained to Anu, the sky lord and supreme deity of the Sumerian pantheon. Under threat from the scorned goddess threatened to summon legions of undead to kill humanity, Anu relented and unleashed the Bull of Heaven upon Uruk. It caused massive earthquakes, destroyed many crops, and even swallowed the water from the Euphrates. Left without divine blessing, Gilgamesh and Enkidu battled the Bull in epic combat. The miracle duo succeeds in slaying the beast and even taunted Ishtar by throwing its hind leg at her. But the slaying of a divine beast does not go unpunished, and Enkidu was marked for death by the gods. He suffered from terrible dreams and a deadly illness for twelve days before dying, cursing his fortunes of a death not from battle. Gilgamesh mourned his friend's passing heavily, conducting an elaborate funeral rite and summoning all his subjects and the nearby beasts.

Enkidu's death imparted not only a great depression upon Gilgamesh, who wandered the wild in shabby clothes for years afterwards, but also made him realize the full extent of being one third mortal. Mortals are doomed to die, and even the slightest portion of it inside him meant that he, too, would face death like Enkidu did. Gilgamesh feared death forever more. His new goal, then, would be to seek a fellow exception, Utnapishtim, the legendary survivor of the great flood who was granted immortality by the gods. He traveled to Mount Mashu at the end of the world, seeking information on how to gain immortality. There he met Urshanabi, the ferryman of the dead, who would carry him to Utnapishtim's island. Gilgamesh tells his story to the immortal, but he is reprimanded for attempting to fight the fate of humans and trivializing the joys it brings. Utnapishtim recounts his survival of the Great Flood and how he was granted eternal life as a blessing. But in doing so, he makes a point to Gilgamesh that he is a rare exception of the will of the gods. Utnapishtim challenges the hero to conquer sleep first, to stay awake for seven days. But Gilgamesh fails miserably, falling asleep as soon as he lay down.

Before Gilgamesh returned home to Uruk with Urshanabi, Utnapishtim recanted and revealed to Gilgamesh the location of the flower of immortality, which grows at the bottom of the sea. Invigorated by this knowledge, Gilgamesh swam the depths of the ocean to find the key to endless time. He found the mythical plant in time, but just as he was about to pick it, a serpent emerged from the shadows and swallowed the flower whole. Gilgamesh returned home to Uruk saddened by his inevitable fate. The final blow to the defeated hero was a visit from the spirit of Enkidu who told Gilgamesh of all the horrors of the underworld.

So the promised lesson from this tale? Gilgamesh ultimately discovers he cannot escape death's encroaching grip on mortality and time was never to be his eternal companion. This is a harsh truth we all must learn at some point in our lives. Yet this fact is not the end of our relationship with time. Indeed, Utnapishtim imparted discreet but important lessons in the epic about accepting our mortality.

Utnapishtim reprimanded Gilgamesh for seeking to trivialize the joys of mortal life on his quest for immortality, but what joy could there be in inevitable death? With inevitable death, we can realize that our time on Earth is a valuable and ever diminishing resource. We may not have time as an eternal companion, but when time does accompany us, we can put our precious resource to good use. There's no point in putting our time into making our lives or the lives of others miserable; we're all heading to the same destination, and trying to speed up the trip is simply morbid. Utnapishtim may be immortal, but he was still a man. He could still feel sorrow at watching the world continue to change, as he watched the birth, life, and death of each individual he could see.

Time is not a kind companion to have around all the time, and this is something the immortal must accept. Time is time; humans cannot change their relationship with it. But it would do us all good to accept that statement and continue living despite it! As the adage goes, "You don't know what you've got until it's gone." Time may be a lousy conversationalist who never helps clean the teacups, but it is precious in its own ways. We are precious in our own ways. While we teatime with Time, let's make it count, for others and for ourselves.

One last secret about Gilgamesh: he actually did achieve his immortality. Not in the sense that he expected, though. That his epic tragedy is told and retold, that the elements of this myth pervade countless stories after it, and that the society responsible for the creation of this tale became the cornerstone of modern civilization have all given Gilgamesh eternal life, if only in our memories. One could say that Gilgamesh is timeless without time at all, neither losing time in death nor gaining more time to live. I believe his epic tale will never leave our human psyches, and his failed quest for eternal life has immortalized his character as an eternal symbol of our struggles to make good use of our own time. Cheers Gilgamesh! A swig to you, and to our rude compatriot as well!