Morality in the Ancient Mesopotamian Saga of Gilgamesh as Translated by David Ferry)
"Who is the mortal that can live forever? The Life of man is short. Only the gods can live forever. Therefore put on new clothes, a clean robe and a cloak tied with a sash, and wash the filth of the Journey from your body. Eat and Drink your fill of the food and drink, men, eat and drink. Let there be pleasure and dancing."
Everyone dies. Everyone is mortal. These are not profound and new philosophical revelations. This truth about human understanding as well as human biology is evidenced by the existence of the above quotation from the ancient, heroic saga of "Gilgamesh." Life is short, thus enjoy the bodily pleasures, it suggests. Yet despite this fact regarding the transience of human existence, human beings must still face the world and deal with its finitude, emotionally and intellectually. The saga of "Gilgamesh," as seen in this above quotation, continually contrasts the mundane and the transcendent, to illustrate this fact. Continually, the hash or mundane reality of the world, and the eternal dream-like existence of the heavens are paired against one another.
Thus, even in the introduction to this poetic interpretation of the epic, as translated by the poet David Ferry, the "brick work" and "fortifications" of the mortal, military world are paired with the knowledge that there were "secret things" and a pacific beauty that existed before human time, before "the flood." (3) The central protagonist of the poem, the leader Gilgamesh begins his struggle as "the perfect" and "the terror" and "two thirds a god, one third a man," (4) but this characterization of Gilgamesh as "perfect," is somewhat ironic as soon the events of his life chastises him and brings him, both down to earth in terms of his own self-perceptions, and also up to the world of the divine as he seeks dreams to understand the fate he and his dearest friend have been dealt.
At the beginning of the epic, "there is no withstanding the power of the Wild Ox," who is both human and like a god. (5) At first, nothing seems greater than Gilgamesh. He thinks he fears nothing. "You know what danger is. Where is your courage? If I should fall, my fame will be secure." (17) He mythologizes himself in his own imagination and verbosity. "] It was Gilgamesh who fought against Huwawa!' It is Gilgamesh who will venture into the Forest and cut the Cedar down and win!" (17)
However, when his friend the wild man dies, Gilgamesh realizes that he cannot cheat or ignore death -- or argue with it. "Must I now go to sit among the dead, in the company of the dead without my brother?" importunes Enkidu. "Gilgamesh said: 'must I now sit outside the door of the house of the dead while Enkidu sits in the house of the dead?'"(38) When Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh's originally powerful desires for victory, women, and the blood and heat of battle mean nothing, and gods are cruel and deaf to pleas for mercy, to spare Enkidu, these pleas are "futile. What Enlil has ordained cannot be changed. This is the truth told in the frightening dream. Gilgamesh the brother will pray to the gods, beseeching the high gods to spare the companion," but these prayers will be for naught (39)
Thus, the quote celebrating merriment at the heading of this paper, suggests a kind of Falstaffian response to the woes of the world -- that in the face of the world's blows to one's friends and the unavoidable shortness of human existence, people must eat and drink and make merry. Still, the central protagonist of the poem must go on a physical journey of suffering, to give resonance to this truth, that life is full of both joys and sorrow of the body and mind, of wine and food and death and sorrow at the death of one's companions.
After being confronted with death, Gilgamesh realizes the fragility of his own life and legacy, as well as human joy. Gilgamesh begins the tale unaware of mortality and suffering, except perhaps on an intellectual level. But then, "Gilgamesh wandered in the wilderness grieving over the death of Enkidu and weeping saying:…