Two-thirds they made him god and one third man,
is how the Mesopotamian Gilgamesh Epic describes Gilgamesh in its prologue. Like its sister texts, the Mesopotamian creation myth the Enuma Elish, in which the gods also fashion human beings after their image, and the Hebrew book of Genesis, in which, in the first chapter, the head of the Elohim (council of the gods) says, “Let us make man in our image, and in our likeness,” so the Gilgamesh Epic makes of Gilgamesh a being with god-like attributes.
But what of that “one third man” part? That “one third” seems to allude, perhaps entirely, to what is common to all men: mortality. Gilgamesh, like all of us, is a “god” nevertheless destined to die. This recalls to the modern ear Shakespeare’s own eloquent description of humanity in Hamlet:
What a piece of work is a man . . . in form and motion how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! . . . and yet what to me is this quintessence of dust?
This too is the great question of the Gilgamesh epic–what does it mean to be born with attributes so different from animals, and yet be fated to nevertheless die like one of them?
The Gilgamesh Epic is thus not a morality tale–though there are moral lessons one can read out of the epic–but a mortality tale. In other words, it is perhaps our earliest surviving human text in which there is a sustained existential grappling, in mythic form, with ultimate questions of meaning, change, life, and death.
Most notable among Gilgamesh’s attributes is that, though mortal, he nevertheless possesses knowledge or gnosis. Gilgamesh was one who “was wise, he saw mysteries and knew secret things.” In other words, the Gilgamesh Epic links Gilgamesh and the gods in an ambivalent relationship between knowledge and death.
This is, of course, also the formulation in Genesis, in which knowledge and death are entwined in the garden of Eden. We also see this in other places in Genesis, such as in the story of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9), in which the realm of the gods must not be approached too directly lest the gods act to remind humans of their limitations, and put them in their place again:
And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they may begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.
Likewise, Gilgamesh, in his quest for the realm of the gods and immortality, must inevitably be thwarted, despite getting closer to this realm than other mortals. He may be two thirds god–a kind of Mesopotamian superman–but he is still mortal and subject to the vissitudes of change. Utnapishtim, the mythic Noah-figure in the Gilgamesh Epic who survived the great flood, tells Gilgamesh in language that sounds like the pre-socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus,
There is no permanence. Do we build a house to stand for ever, do we seal a contract to hold for all time? Do brothers divide an inheritiance to keep for ever, does the flood-time of rivers endure?
Thus the Gilgamesh Epic, at least in part, is a meditation upon, and a grappling with, impermanence.
In the 1980s film, Moonstruck, a woman tells her husband,
No matter what you do, Cosmo, you’re still going to die.
This is also one of the messages to take away from reading the Gilgamesh Epic.