“The Epic of Gilgamesh” is widely considered the oldest piece of literature in existence today, though the original author (or authors) are unknown. From ancient Mesopotamia, the story follows Gilgamesh, a demigod who is both a great warrior and all around good-looking guy. After some questionable escapades at the beginning, the gods create for him a match, as the people can’t really handle Gilgamesh at this point. The gods answer; enter: Enkidu. Enkidu is the epitome of all that is wild and wrought from nature.
Enkidu is an interesting character; he illustrates how close human beings are to simply being beasts. He magically becomes a man after he has sex with the temple priestess/prostitute Shamhat, eats some food, cleans himself up and rubs himself down with oil. These few things are all that it takes to transition from the world of beasts to the world of men. Every war reminds us just how thin this line really is.
Enkidu ends up fighting Gilgamesh as the gods intended — Gilgamesh wins, but the two gain a mutual respect for one another and become close friends. After his loss, Enkidu tells Gilgamesh that, “There is not another like you in the world … your strength surpasses the strength of men.”
Then the two of them begin their adventures together. They kill a great monster after a harrowing battle, explore a deep and dangerous forest in the process, sail down the River Euphrates, among other things. Gilgamesh is proposed to by a goddess with a bad track record with previous mates, and he turns her down. She takes his rejection to heart — long story short, they kill a bull from heaven and disrespect the goddess who proposed to him.
Because of this slight, one of them must die. Enkidu falls sick, and “Ten days he lay and his suffering increased, eleven and twelve days he lay on his bed of pain.” Gilgamesh, the picture of strength and stoicism, openly weeps over his fading friend. Eventually, after much agony, Enkidu dies.
Gilgamesh’s grief is that of a warrior mourning his fallen brother.
He touched [Enkidu’s] heart but it did not beat, nor did he lift his eyes again. When Gilgamesh touched his heart it did not beat. So Gilgamesh laid a veil, as one veils the bride, over his friend. He began to rage like a lion, like a lioness robbed of her whelps. This way and that he paced round the bed, he tore out his hair and strewed it around. He dragged off his splendid robes and flung them down as though they were abominations.”
Some of these might seem a little dramatic, particularly the tearing of hair and clothes, but people express themselves differently in different times and cultures. For example, think of the disrobing this way: at the face of his beloved brother in the clutches of death, all that is civilized, all that is clean and nice — it all seems fake and disgusting now, and he tears it away.
Bitterly Gilgamesh wept for his friend Enkidu; he wandered over the wilderness as a hunter, he roamed over the plains; in his bitterness he cried, ‘How can I rest, how can I be at peace? Despair is in my heart. What my brother is now, that shall I be when I am dead.'”
There is more to the story, as Gilgamesh continues on to seek immortality, but it is these passages of grief that seem most compelling from the perspective of one warrior. Grief and mourning for one’s fallen brother in arms is a timeless feeling, that has changed little since the 4000 years when the earliest surviving versions of “The Epic of Gilgamesh” were written.
Featured image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
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