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The Revealing Relationship of Gilgamesh and Utanapishtim - Research Paper Example

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Angela Landor Professor Justin Windham World Literature 26 March 2011 The Revealing Relationship of Gilgamesh and Utanapishtim The Epic of Gilgamesh is perhaps the oldest known piece of literature available to us today. Engraved on stone tablets about four and a half thousand years ago in ancient Mesopotamia, it details the story of Gilgamesh, an Uruk king, and his quest for immortality…
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Angela Landor Justin Windham World Literature 26 March The Revealing Relationship of Gilgamesh and Utanapishtim The Epic of Gilgameshis perhaps the oldest known piece of literature available to us today. Engraved on stone tablets about four and a half thousand years ago in ancient Mesopotamia, it details the story of Gilgamesh, an Uruk king, and his quest for immortality. Gilgamesh is immature by nature, although he grows up over the course of the epic, and it is notable that he is two-thirds god and one-third human – human enough to condemn him to eventual death, the fate of mankind. After the death of his “soul-mate” (Day, 36) Enkidu, Gilgamesh undertakes a long journey to meet Utanapishtim. Utanapishtim and his wife (who remains unnamed) are the only two immortal humans in existence, and Gilgamesh is desperate to know their secret and thus achieve for himself everlasting life. Gilgamesh's quest for immortality, and his interactions with Utanapishtim, are at the climax of the story; their relationship demonstrates the message that the only form of immortality available to humankind is through creating great things to be remembered. Utanapishtim has the misfortune of being one of the lesser-studied characters in an epic which is mostly about the close relationship of Gilgamesh and Enkidu, but his interaction with Gilgamesh shows how Utanapishtim's demeanour reinforces the epic's moral. Although Utanapishtim has been compared to the evil serpent in the Biblical creation story (Sharpes, 91), this essay will show that he is a far more rounded and generous character than the Genesis snake, though he is just as important. Utanapishtim “the Faraway” (Tablet X) was the king of Shurrupak; his immortality was granted him after a god arbitrarily chose him to survive the mass drowning of humanity. When he appears in the epic poem, he lives at the “Mouth of the Rivers” (Tablet XI) where the sun rises (Sharpes, 91), with “twelve leagues” (Tablet IX) of darkness separating him and his wife from mortal humanity; hence Gilgamesh's journey to him was long and fraught with danger. In an example of verbal irony, Utanapishtim's name translates as “he who saw life” (Sharpes, 91); surely “he who saw death” would be far more appropriate. The circumstances of his survival of the flood are psychologically difficult circumstances for an individual to undergo – Utanapishtim asked the people of Shurrupak to help him build a vast boat, promising that once they had done so the gods would honor them with “a profusion of fowl, myriad fishes”, “loaves of bread” and “rains of wheat” (Tablet XI). The Akkadian words for 'bread' and 'wheat' are, respectively, very similar to the words for 'darkness' and 'misfortune' (Maier, 24), making Utanapishtim's promise a cruel pun. The modern reader assumes that Utanapishtim must be deeply disturbed by his experiences, or at the very least to be racked by survivor's guilt. Although this is demonstrated in some measure – for example, Utanapishtim recounts that he “fell to [his] knees and sat weeping” (Tablet XI) once the storm had subsided, but no further mention of this is made, and we segue immediately into his challenge of Gilgamesh. This reflects Utanapishtim's harsh nature, which Gilgamesh manages to soften over the course of their interaction. Utanapishtim's tone when speaking to Gilgamesh is very abrupt, and even reveals a lack of trust: he tells his wife that Gilgamesh “will deceive” (Tablet XI) her, and speaks of mankind as innately deceptive even though the couple were both born mortal. This suggests that Utanapishtim might resent his own fate, and that he thinks less of Gilgamesh for desiring immortality. He challenges Gilgamesh to remain awake for seven days – after all, if one cannot conquer sleep, how can we expect to conquer death? – and as soon as Gilgamesh fails, Utanapishtim mocks him: “Look there! The man who wanted eternal life!” (Tablet XI). He then refuses his wife's request to wake the sleeping hero, effectively keeping him an unconscious prisoner for one week to prove a point. Utanapishtim comes across as a hardened and heartless man, interested only in one-upping Gilgamesh rather than helping him. What can be discerned from Utanapishtim's anger? It is relevant because it reinforces the moral of the epic, which is that individuals must die, but their legacy will survive – as will humankind. Immortality is not a desirable choice: it is a lonely one, and especially so as Utanapishtim and his wife only have each other for company. Even in hyperbolic literature, the company of just one other person is a sure recipe for sadness. Only once Gilgamesh renounces his quest for immortality does Utanapishtim show him any sign of kindness. He orders the boatman to “bring [Gilgamesh] to the washing place” (Tablet XI) to restore him to his rightful royal grandeur; later, at the urging of his wife, Utanapishtim gives him a secret plant called “The Old Man Becomes a Young Man” (Tablet XI). Although this will not grant him immortality of itself, eating the plant would grant Gilgamesh with more years of life (that is, if he did not misplace it before consuming it). Utanapishtim cannot share the secret of eternal life, but he can – and does – share the secret of extended life. Despite his anger he is compassionate; he understands Gilgamesh's plight and makes an effort to alleviate his pain. When Gilgamesh meets Utanapishtim, he says: “I have been looking at you, but your appearance is not strange – you are like me! You yourself are not different – you are like me! My mind was resolved to fight with you, my arm lies useless over you.” (Tablet IX) Although it is not exactly clear why Gilgamesh would have wanted to fight Utanapishtim – possibly just because he is of a violent and immature nature for most of the story – this quote explains why Utanapishtim characterizes the bad side of immortality. Utanapishtim is like Gilgamesh. In the tablet previously, Gilgamesh is said to look like a “murderer”; he is “emaciated”, “wretched” and “haggard”, and describes himself variously as “terrified”, in “mourning” and “oppressed” (Tablet X). It is hardly surprising that Gilgamesh was filled with pity instead of violence at their meeting, as he saw a mirror-image of himself; nor is it too shocking that Utanapishtim treats the hero disrespectfully until he gives up his dream of immortality – the dream which ruined Utanapishtim himself. The relationship between these two kings reveals the nature of loneliness, of kindness, and of authority. The younger king learns wisdom from the older, and in turn induces him to remember his humanity, in a form of relationship which may have been very common amongst the Mesopotamian people, and still exists today. Works Cited Maier, John R. Gilgamesh: A Reader. Illinois: Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers, 1997. Print. Sharpes, Donald K. Lord of the Scrolls: Literary Traditions in the Bible and Gospels. New York: Peter Lang, 2007. Print. “The Epic of Gilgamesh.” Ancient Texts, n.d. Web. 26 March 2011. Tower Hollis, Susan. “Ancient Examples of the Potiphar's Wife Motif.” Gender and Difference in Ancient Israel. Ed. Peggy Lynne Day. Minneapolis: Augsberg Fortress, 1989. Print. Read More
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