Writer’s comment: The most interesting stories invariably are about love and death. These two themes underlie the Epic of Gilgamesh, a mythic tale of the quest for immortality. Gilgamesh, profoundly affected by the death of his friend Enkidu at the hands of the gods, questions the injustice of life. Finding no answer, he of course tries to change—indeed, eliminate—the question by seeking immortality. The following essay examines Gilgamesh and Enkidu’s relationship, and the effect of Enkidu’s death on Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh’s failure in the end attests the intertwining of love and death in a relationship, one that results in a work of art.
Instructor’s comment: In addressing the question "Why must Enkidu die?" Barry Lew demonstrates the timeless power of aspiration to transform our lives. "Heroic Graffiti" displays disarming wit, compression of thought, rigorous sentence structure, and arresting vocabulary.
—Patricia Bulman, Comparative Literature
Woody Allen once stated, “It’s not that I’m afraid to die. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” Even the most stout-hearted soul would admit the truth of that statement. Death—like life—is a mystery. It is also a test. Acting as an immutable deadline, death forces us to confront its inevitable reality. But not everyone deals with it in the same way. Those who lack the strength to cope are consigned to a life of unconquerable fear and insecurity and are the stuff of tragedy. Others, however, do succeed in attaining a measure of immortality, though the journey is long and difficult. These are the culture-makers of society: its painters, composers, and poets. Their common link is the warrior spirit, the part of them that struggles, succeeds...and struggles some more. The Epic of Gilgamesh reflects this spirit of the warrior. Although Enkidu’s death indicates that mortals seemingly are at the mercy of the gods and death is inevitable, Gilgamesh nonetheless embarks on a quest for godhood: Enkidu has to die so Gilgamesh can live.
Gilgamesh and Enkidu’s friendship prefigures Gilgamesh’s subsequent quest for godhood. When the gods create Gilgamesh, he is two-thirds god and one-third mortal. An incomplete being, nearing godhood but still mortal, Gilgamesh must face the possibility of death. When Enkidu is created to oppose him by acting as a counterbalance, an alter-ego, the two men mutually elevate each other above their individual failings as demi-gods. They become heroes, a union greater than the sum of their individual characters. Their initial meeting in front of the bridal house symbolizes this union: they consummate their relationship by wrestling with each other, testing and probing the other’s strength and weakness, trying to find out if the one is worthy of the other’s respect. Although Gilgamesh defeats Enkidu and thereby wins his respect, Enkidu is not ashamed of the loss. The apparent defeat symbolizes the give-and-take inherent in any relationship: Enkidu gives, and Gilgamesh takes.
A common means to attain immortality is to have children, a means for those who lack a special talent to create art; as long as one’s generation of children lives on, one also lives on. Gilgamesh and Enkidu, however, cannot go this route. They must find another way, and deeds of strength and courage best suit their mesomorphic characters. As Gilgamesh puts it, “Only the gods live forever...but as for us men, our days are numbered, our occupations are a breath of wind” (71). So the two quest for immortality by destroying monsters and achieving fame through their success. But Enkidu’s death shatters the hope Gilgamesh places in fame; the spirit may live on, but the body still lies cold. After Enkidu dies, a result of the gods’ decree, Gilgamesh “[lays] a veil, as one veils a bride, over [Enkidu]” (95), a tribute to their profound friendship. By laying the veil Gilgamesh perhaps vows to expunge the shame Enkidu feels about dying less than a warrior’s death. His quest for godhood, then, would be a conjugal effort because love, not selfishness, guides his heart.
After the disaster with the “The Old Men Are Young Again” plant, Gilgamesh finally realizes the futility of the whole adventure and, resignedly, engraves the whole adventure onto the stone walls of Uruk. The irony is that the story is about his failure rather than success. His quest started when he realized “[he had] not established [his] name stamped on bricks as...destiny decreed” (70). He presumably thought his story would be one success after another, victories of strength and fury. How ironic that his tale is of the failure to find immortality, a quest prompted by Enkidu’s death. But as irony takes another twist, his failure is also a success. Gilgamesh learns, one presumes, that although death inevitably comes, one must attempt to foil its icy grasp. That is why Enkidu must die for Gilgamesh to live: his death launches Gilgamesh toward a hopeless task, one that results in a valuable lesson set in stone for all to see.
And the stone still stands.
The Epic of Gilgamesh. London: Penguin Books, 1972.