The Walls of Gilgamesh

We encounter our hero, king Gilgamesh, plagued by dreams and haunted by the prospect of dying a forgotten man. Gilgamesh, the Apollonian counterpart to his Dionysian friend and comrade, Enkidu, is given immense power over his city, Uruk. As the “shepherd of the city,” his agency is to distinguish the light from the dark, to give grounds to the knowledge of good and evil. Without this knowledge, the city of Uruk is like a ship without a rudder.

However, Gilgamesh is unsatisfied. All he can think about are the bodies of men that float in the river, knowing that, one day this too will be his fate. He has not yet embraced his amor fati because he is afraid of death.

Uruk is a city that is devoid of knowledge, absent of the capacity to recollect their beginnings before the great deluge; What will become of a king who is forgotten? Gilgamesh is cursed without the ability to recall, and faced with the prospect of being forgotten. Enkidu, on the other hand, is cursed with the knowledge of Shamhat, of civilization. His bestial power is lost once he knows her carnally, and eats the city’s bread, and drinks the customary wine of Uruk. His fate is sealed upon sleeping with her.

Together, Gilgamesh and Enkidu set out in search of something that is enduring. Their quest for this knowledge extends far beyond the finitude of human life. They search for that which is enduring: immortality.

However, without the knowledge of man before the great deluge, they are forced to stumble into one faux pas after another. They commit sacrilege by killing Humbaba and angering Enlil. Gilgamesh commits an affront to Ishtar by refusing her hand in marriage and insulting her. He does this by displaying his great power for recollection, by listing her past lovers. These missteps cause the death of Enkidu which leaves Gilgamesh distraught. He becomes so sorrowful that he dresses himself in animal skins and refuses to bury Enkidu’s corpse. Perhaps even he can retreat into the natural world, to forget and become ignorant, as Enkidu once was?

However, his fear of death is stronger than his desire for ignorance, and Gilgamesh journeys to Atnupishtim who lives at the place where the sun transits. Atnupishtim does not reassure Gilgamesh, reminding him that “there is no permanence,” but when Gilgamesh asks how he attained immortality, Atnupishtim tells him the story of the great deluge, of his own origins. By recollecting this story, Atnupishtim reminds Gilgamesh of the the terror of the gods, and the dangers of the life of the city. What the city needs more than anything, is a “shepherd,” one who unites the flock and reminds them of their collective memory.

Without the narrative of man’s origins, Gilgamesh is ignorant of the city’s own customs. Without his guidance, the city will become unruly, or will become the catalyst for its own demise. He returns to Uruk armed only with the knowledge of man before the flood, and at his ceremony, this knowledge is what is celebrated rather than the killing of Humbaba or the Bull of Heaven.

As in the beginning of the first tablet, the epic ends when the strong walls of Uruk are celebrated upon his return, because he can recall the seven sages who laid its foundations.


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