He does not listen to Shamash, his personal god-friend, nor does he take the advice of Siduri. Gilgamesh, like most humans, has to learn the hard way. He learns from each mistake as the reader follows him through his journey of life. The death of Enkidu is the point at which personal introspection overtakes his bravado. Yet, Gilgamesh is still subject to outbursts of immature rage. He is learning that his will does not create his reality.
The ferryman, Urshanabi, takes him across the waters of death to meet Utnapishtim. Gilgamesh uses his body as the sail to replace the tackle he destroyed. One begins to realize that he is increasingly willing to suffer for his cause. Utnapishtim meets Gilgamesh and explains the reason that he has immortality. Gilgamesh is surprised that Utnapistim is a regular man. He is different from Gilgamesh thought he would be. It is at this point that the hero realizes that his assumptions about life, death, and immortality are incorrect. He assumes that Utnaptistim would be a great king figure, adorned and godlike. This realization is critical to Gilgamesh's growth as a human being. He realizes that his efforts toward greatness have been folly. Utnaptistim has him washed and dressed. In a way, Gilgamesh has been reborn. He accepts the clothing that never ages, allows his body to be cleaned, and hears adoration for his human form. Finally, Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh the secret of the gods.
This is where the Flood story appears. "The flood story, presumably told in the first place because of its intrinsic interest, and serving in Atrahasis to explain the origin of infant mortality and other problems is used in the epic to help explain why the god's gift of immortality to Utnapishtim is not repeatable" (Tigay, p.249). Gilgamesh understands, but is still unwilling to accept death as part of life. Utnapishtim's wife urges her husband to tell Gilgamesh how to gain immortality for him - since this is all he wants to hear. It is interesting that the hero is given great wisdom from those around him, yet only hears the truth he desires.
Gilgamesh dives for the plant of immortality. He throws it ashore, but does not eat it. Now the reader experiences a new hero. Gilgamesh, for the first time, is thinking of someone other than himself. He is bringing the plant back to the elderly of Uruk so that they can become young again. Only after they eat, will he eat. This is an astounding transformation. He has grown from an arrogant warrior- king interested only in his own reward, to an empathetic king who has concern for his subjects. Sadly, a snake steals the plant while Gilgamesh is resting. It sheds its skin, gaining new life, and disappears. Gilgamesh laments that his entire journey has been for nothing. Of course, the reader knows otherwise.
When Gilgamesh reaches Uruk, he realizes that the walls of the city are great. He shows the ferryman everything that he has accomplished, not as an immortal but as a man. He sets down to record his adventures so that everyone can know them. This is not the young warrior-king who first set out in search of glory; this is a mature being who has endured great hardship. He has returned to the city empty-handed, yet he has the wisdom he needs to live as a mortal.
Was there any specific heroic deed performed by Gilgamesh? If one defines heroic as "greater than life" then many of the deeds he performed were heroic. He defeated the evil that lived in the cedar forest. This was important to the safety of Uruk. Its symbolic importance lies in the battle against evil by the powerful and the good, represented by Gilgamesh and Enkidu. Ancient Iraqi society demanded a powerful king to protect itself against invading enemies. If the king was able to defeat something as great as Huwawa, his legend was known throughout the area. It served as a deterrent to random attacks by enemy tribes. Gilgamesh defeated the Bull of Heaven, thereby defeating hunger in the time of drought. He proves to be a god-king who can stand against the forces of nature and succeed for his people.
If one understands the term heroic to embody a selfless act for the betterment of another, then Gilgamesh performed this in his quest for immortality. He endured a nomadic lifestyle while feeling the fears that all mortal men must endure. His success is not that he sought to return with the secret to Uruk, but that he proved that the quest was for naught. He taught, through experience, that life is in the action of living. He became weary and used-up in the quest for immortality, but returned with something more valuable to his subjects, the gift of wisdom. To know how to live with the ever-present knowledge of death was his great gift.
Did Gilgamesh have a sacred place or object? If so, it would have been his mentor god Shamash. Shamash helped him defeat Huwawa. He tried to lead him in his quest for immortality and protected him in the face of overwhelming odds. There were times when Shamash was apparently overruled by other gods, yet he alerted Gilgamesh through dreams as to the meaning of events.
Gilgamesh is introduced to the reader as a young man. In the pattern of the mythical hero, he did experience a miraculous birth, but not one that the reader is witness to. One is not aware of his life prior to his kingship, nor is he given any deeply insightful gifts. Gilgamesh experiences the trials of a mythical hero, but in a more oblivious way than most. His quest did not begin out of a sense of honor, but of greed. He had to learn the reason for his life because he did not believe anything anyone told him. Gilgamesh is not the most sympathetic hero one finds in hero myths. He is selfish, self-centered and deaf to advice.
One learns to identify with Gilgamesh, as one understands the stages of his growth. He prevails against himself and this is the greatest journey of all.
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