A Mortal’s Sense of Immortality
To fear death is to fear life itself. An overbearing concern for the end of life not only leads to much apprehension of the final moment but also allows that fear to occupy one’s whole life. The only answer that can possibly provide relief in the shadow of the awaited final absolution lies in another kind of absolution, one that brings a person to terms with their irrevocable mortality and squelches any futile desire for immortality. Myths are often the vehicles of this release, helping humanity to accept and handle their mortal and limited state. Different cultures have developed varying myths to coincide with their religious beliefs and give reprieve to their members in the face of irrevocable death. The same is true for the stories in the Book of Genesis and the Mesopotamians’ Epic of Gilgamesh. In these two myths similar paths are taken to this absolution are taken by the characters of Adam and Gilgamesh, respectively. These paths, often linked by their contradictions, end with the same conclusion for each man on the subject of immortality; that no amount of knowledge or innocence, power or humility, honoring or sinning, will achieve them immortality in the sense of a life without death. Eternal life for a mortal lies in memory by one’s friends and family after one’s death.
When Adam is created in the second chapter (and second creation story) of Genesis out of the dust by the newly created world of God, he is the most innocent being ever known. It says of he and Eve, ‘they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed (Genesis 2:24)’;, and why should they be, having no knowledge that their state was indecent? The opposite is true for Gilgamesh, who Anu grants ‘the totality of knowledge of all (Gilgamesh 3)’;. Through the course of the epic we discover that Gilgamesh indeed does not have knowledge of all things, namely a grasp upon death. Adam does not even know that such a thing exists, thus his life, without the threat of death hanging overhead, is originally one of tranquility, happiness, and perfection. He is humble before his Lord God, with whom he shares the unique relationship of aiding him in His creation of all things. Adam’s life is full in this passive innocence and he has no need for anything more until something forbidden and mysterious is presented to him. Gilgamesh, on the other hand, as in a state of unrest. He seeks to justify his existence through the attainment of widespread fame and unmatched power. Nothing is said of his thoughts on death before he meets his soul-mate Enkidu, but one can draw from the utter fear and turmoil Gilgamesh feels after the passing of Enkidu that he thought his might and accomplishments placed him above the rules and limits of other mortals.
It is somewhat surprising to me how readily Adam eats the fruit of the tree of knowledge, given his present blissful existence. The temptation of being on the same intellectual level as God in knowing both good and evil appears to be too much for Adam and his wife. Most likely their profound innocence also leaves them somewhat weak, and since before eating of the tree they know not what evil is, they couldn’t possibly know of the consequences of their crime and the severity of God’s punishment. His exile of the pair from the Garden of Eden seems to be out of fear (or perhaps this was not what his plan was for man) as well as disappointment and rage, for He says in Genesis 4:22, ‘Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever’;, and thus Adam and his wife are exiled. Their sin to achieve self-awareness has robbed them of any hope of immortality and presented them with the dilemma of death. Gilgamesh experiences death firsthand as his dear friend Enkidu, with whom he conquered all fears of dying while in battle with Humbaba, and is thus once again plunged in the shadow of fear of life’s end. This dread, revisited, comes about as the indirect result of his insubordination in the face of his gods and their punishment of his partner in crime, Enkidu. Seeing his beloved companion dead brings Gilgamesh to the realization that, ‘I am going to die!—am I not like Enkidu?! Deep sadness penetrates my core, I fear death, and now roam the wilderness…(Gilgamesh 75). This is a stark contrast to his earlier thoughts, as illustrated when speaking to Enkidu before they face Humbaba, saying, ‘Your heart should burn to do battle;#8212;pay no heed to death, do not lose heart’;, and, ”A slippery path is not feared by two people who help each other.’ ‘Twice three times…’ ‘A three-ply rope cannot be cut.’ ‘The mighty lion—two cubs can roll him over’ (Gilgamesh 37)’;. Gilgamesh’s earlier belief that immortality may be attained through fame is destroyed upon seeing Enkidu, his partner in glory, dead and gone. He is forced to accept that he is as all man are; bound by the certain fate of life coming to an end. Death and its finality is now a bleak reality, and thus he sets out on a journey to find eternal life in some other form, much like Adam’s exodus from the Garden of Eden.
Existence in the wilderness is not easy for Adam or Gilgamesh. Adam has been stripped of having his every need met, his time unrestrained, and is now forced to provide for himself as a result of his sin. Gilgamesh’s earlier glory is nothing but a mere afterthought, overshadowed by preeminent death and the harsh reality that the world will continue on once he is gone. Humanity will survive with or without him. Adam, on the other hand, has a new purpose of which to dedicate himself; the bearing of an entire human race. Through procreating with his wife and raising children a small share of Adam will live on following his eventual death. Through his offspring Adam will achieve immortality, perhaps the only way a mortal being can possess a portion of everlasting life. Gilgamesh’s travels lead him to the one mortal person who has ever attained immortality, Utanapishtim, and fails the test of staying awake for six days and seven nights and is thus refused immortality. In despair, he cries, ‘The Snatcher has taken hold of my flesh, in my bedroom Death dwells, and wherever I set foot there too is Death! (Gilgamesh 105)’;. However, the ferryman tells Gilgamesh of another way of attaining perpetual youth in the form of a plant in Apsu, which Gilgamesh retrieves. The intentions that Gilgamesh has with this plant are somewhat uncertain, but I believe he means to share it with those of Uruk, for upon losing it to a snake he weeps, ‘For whom have my arms labored, Urshanabi? For whom has my heart’s blood roiled? I have not secured any good deed for myself, but done a good deed for the ‘lion of the ground’! (Gilgamesh 107)’;. He is a transformed man, one with a compassion and care which he did not possess before. Gilgamesh could have eaten the plant as soon as he obtained it, but instead was taking it with him to Uruk. He feels he has failed his people, and undoubtedly will not be the demanding and hard ruler he was originally. The epic ends abruptly, but it is feasible to imagine that Gilgamesh attains a sense of peace in being a fair and considerate king and thus a piece of everlasting life.
How ironic it is that both Adam and Gilgamesh have their best chances at real immortality snatched from them by the same creature. The snake has become a loathsome creature, feared and hated by many and often seen as a symbol of evil and death. This is probably so because of how often it is represented as sly and wicked, if not at least hurtful, in its relations with the characters of myths such as the creation story in the Book of Genesis and in the Epic of Gilgamesh. However, if I were either Adam or Gilgamesh I think that, upon reflection, I would find that I owed somewhat of a debt of gratitude to the serpent, which set in stone my mortality. To life forever would deprive a being of the most valuable aspect of human existence, personal and intimate relations with others. Being an immortal mortal would set one in no man’s land, being not quite a God and no more a human. Also, to watch those dear to us age and eventually die would lead to the revelation of how futile it is to have loved ones when they ultimately die and the immortal person is left alone, forlorn and mourning. Thus, as ironic as it is, the only way in which a mortal man can achieve any sense of immortality (through children and personal relationships) would be the Achilles heel of one who had attained immortality.
So both Adam and Gilgamesh discover, having immortality snatched away from before them, that the only way mortal humans can possess a sense of immortality is through personal relationships, be those relations with children or subjects. Their paths to this enlightenment are either amazingly similar or exact opposites, beginning with Gilgamesh’s knowledge versus Adam’s innocence and ignorance, followed by Gilgamesh’s fame and power to Adam’s humbleness, then their shared punishments and voyages/exoduses and finally their collective discovery about immortality. I find Adam more honorable in his quest, for he searches after unknowingly defying God, rather than Gilgamesh’s looking through defying the gods. Adam knew not what evil he was doing when he ate the fruit of the tree, pressed upon him by Eve and the serpent, for he did not know the subject of evil even existed. Gilgamesh, on the other hand, was arrogant and overbearing in his knowledge and strength, acting more like a spoiled brat than one who was two-thirds a god. His one major saving point is that he does realize humility in the face of death and after failing to find a means of immortality. I can associate much more with Adam and his innocence and meekness for the wills and works of God(s), whatever they may be and if they even exist, are above and beyond the likes of me, a mortal being. I will live my life, the only one given to me, as best I can, not letting issues like inescapable death and unattainable immortality exhaust my limited time.