The Experience of Grief within the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Iliad - by Morg Daniels

Key Terms:

Ancient Mesopotamia: An ancient region and centre of culture between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates.

Uruk: An ancient city of Sumer, a civilisation in southern Mesopotamia.

Aruru: Ancient Mesopotamian mother goddess, goddess of fertility, and rulers, commonly known as Ninhursag.


What is the Epic of Gilgamesh?

The Epic of Gilgamesh is an ancient Mesopotamian epic poem about the ancient hero Gilgamesh, compiled from a number of different sources. Its history begins in c. 2100 BCE with five independent stories featuring ‘Bilgamesh’, the king of Uruk. These stories were combined into an Akkadian epic with the hero’s name translated from the Sumerian ‘Bilgamesh’ to the Akkadian ‘Gilgamesh’, as he is known widely today. The story is written in Akkadian cuneiform (a type of writing system) and survives in two versions, the first known as the ‘Old Babylonian Version’ dates to the 18th century BCE and the later Standard Babylonian version was compiled by Sin-liqe-unninni between the 13th and 10th centuries BCE. Around 15,000 fragments of cuneiform were discovered in the 1850s, which were first translated by George Smith in the 1870s. The story has been compiled and revised consistently ever since, with tablets being discovered as recently as 2015. Every discovery or translation adds to the complex history and story which has captivated listeners and readers for thousands of years.


The story follows Gilgamesh, the king of Uruk, and his companion Enkidu, a primitive man created out of clay by the goddess Aruru at the pleas of the citizens of Uruk whom Gilgamesh torments. After Enkidu is civilised by Shamhat, a sacred temple prostitute, Enkidu is persuaded to join civilisation and they travel to Uruk. Here Gilgamesh and Enkidu become bonded companions and they journey to the Cedar Forest to slay Humbaba, the god-appointed guardian of the Cedar Forest and cut down the sacred Cedar.


Gilgamesh Statue Sydney University
Gilgamesh Statue Sydney University

This act marks Enkidu for death, and he is killed by the gods. This drastically changes the tone and meaning of the poem as Gilgamesh struggles to process his grief and his own mortality. He undertakes a journey to find the secret for eternal life and meets Utnapishtim and his wife who are the only humans to have been granted eternal life by the gods. Utnapishtim recounts his story of surviving the Great Flood, and how his gift of immorality was a unique gift as grief and death is something which must be faced by every human. He tells Gilgamesh: ‘You will not find the eternal life you seek. When the gods created mankind, [they] kept eternal life in their own hands’. (OBV, tablet 5, column 3, lines 2-5.)


The Grief of Gilgamesh.


The death of Enkidu has an overwhelming effect on the character of Gilgamesh. He refuses to bury him for 7 days and openly weeps and laments for him. He cries out: “What is this sleep that holds you now? You are lost in the dark and cannot hear me.” (SV, tablet 8, column 2.) He remains in complete denial of Enkidu’s death and is fuelled by anger, refusing to bury Enkidu in the belief that he can bring him back to life through the sheer power of his grief. As he’s struggling to come to terms with the death of his closest companion Gilgamesh wails, tears off his clothes and rips out his own hair in anger before roaming the wilderness, hopelessly drowning in his grief. His grief envelops him and never leaves him throughout the poem, spurring him on a quest for immortality as he is left so terrified at the thought of death that he is unable to accept his own mortality. The phrase ‘grief has entered my innermost being’ is repeated frequently throughout the last four tablets of the poem, whenever he meets someone new on his journey they remark on this also. The sheer frequency with which this is remarked upon is rather true to life of the overwhelming effect that comes with grief and its ability to take over a person.


The Universality of Grief for Gilgamesh and Achilles.


There are a fair number of similarities between the Iliad and Gilgamesh: they both follow demi-god warrior kings and their companions, and feature the presence and influence of deities, for example. The most obvious similarity is the profound grief that both protagonists feel at the death of this companion – indeed, it is generally assumed that the death of Enkidu and the grief of Gilgamesh is the model that Patroclus’ death and Achilles’ grief is based upon. Enkidu and Patroclus both die in the place of their semi-divine companion, adding to their immense guilt and causing both of them to unable to process and move on from the grief that they are feeling. Neither Gilgamesh nor Achilles are able to process their grief until the body of their companion has started to decompose, and this process of their grief causes them to go through phases of immense anger. This rage causes them both to act recklessly - once he meets Urshanabi, the ferryman of the Waters of Death, Gilgamesh destroys the Stone Things which are his companions, and Achilles rage-fuelled destruction of Hektor’s body, for example. They both have a period of lamentation before the deaths of their closest companions trigger an inability to come to terms with their own mortality and eventual death:


‘My friend whom I love has turned to clay. Enkidu my friend whom I love has turned to clay. Am I not like him? Must I like down too, never to rise again?’ (Tablet 4, Column 5)

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‘And I too, if the same fate waits for me… I’ll lie in peace, once I’ve gone down to death.’ (Iliad Book 18 lines 142-3).


The deaths of their dearest companions mark a turning point for both Gilgamesh and Achilles – it spurs Gilgamesh to find the secret to immortality and encourages Achilles to face his death. Both stories begin by following the heroism of their protagonists. This point marks where they are now more interested in exploring their personal tragedy and process of grief. Their losses inspire both Gilgamesh and Achilles to seek help in the form of an older man – Utnapishtim and Priam - who helps them to experience a deep pathos and enlightenment. Alongside this, both of these meetings heavily revolve around the experience of grief and how universal it is - Gilgamesh is informed by Utnapishtim that ‘[death is inevitable at some time, both for Gilgamesh and for a fool’ (SV, Tablet 10, Column 5). Only once they have these conversations about grief are they able to accept their fates and mortality: Gilgamesh can return to Uruk and regard his city with new appreciation, while Achilles is now confidently able to face his own oncoming death in battle.


Gilgamesh’s Acceptance of his Grief.


Throughout the poem, Gilgamesh repeatedly attempts in vain to source immortality for himself. When his final attempt fails and the plant of immortality is stolen by a serpent, he breaks down and cries. He weeps for a number of reasons, for the overwhelming impact of the grief he is still feeling, at the futility of all of his acts to escape the inevitability of death, his fear at the certainty of his death. He weeps openly to Urshanabi, until they reach the city of Uruk once more. Gilgamesh stops his weeping and instead regards his city, and remarks upon the strength of its walls and foundations to Urshanabi in a repetition of the opening lines of the epic. Where he once was a cruel and unjust ruler, once he goes on his journey of enlightenment over the course of the epic, he is able to return as a humbler king, newly at peace with his city, his citizens, and most importantly, his self.


Sources

Dalley, S. Myths from Mesopotamia, Creation, The Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others. 1989.

Schein, S. L. The Mortal Hero: An Introduction to Homer’s Iliad. 1984.

Mark, Joshua, J. The Eternal Life of Gilgamesh. 2018. Mason, H. The Death of Enkidu: From Gilgamesh. 1970-1. 138-141.


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