World Literature’s First Existentialist Musings: Before Ecclestiastes, Hamlet, Dostoevsky, and Camus, There was The Epic of Gilgamesh

At the start of Part 2 of the Epic of Gilgamesh, when Enkidu and Gilgamesh have now become friends, Enkidu tells Gilgamesh:

The father of the gods has given you kingship, such is your destiny, everlasting life is not your destiny.

In other words, Enkidu is telling Gilgamesh: You are a being unto death. What are you going to make of your powers and your impermanent existence?

In general, Enkidu has two suggestions for Gilgamesh, and that is, as king, he should not abuse his power, and he should deal justly with those under him:

[The father of the gods] has given you power to bind and to loose . . . But do not abuse this power, deal justly with your servants in the palace, deal justly before Shamash.

This is all well and good as general advice, but what, exactly and specifically, should Gilgamesh do as an impermanent being unto death?

This is where, I think, the Epic of Gilgamesh should be more broadly recognized as a marker to humanity’s first existentialist musings, for it is here, at the beginning of Part 2 of the Epic, that we get some of the first really sustained reflection on the human problems of idleness, boredom, emptiness, vanity, and nihilism.

Typically, when we think of the literary precursors to 19th and 20th century Existentialism with a capital “E”, from Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard to Sartre and Camus, we reach back to the Bible, and the mooning about of the author of Ecclesiastes:

Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. (1.2)

But the author of the Gilgamesh Epic is equally saavy as to what, ultimately, bedevils Enkidu and Gilgamesh, and drives their quests: the problems of human emptiness and purpose.

Take Enkidu. Enkidu was, at one time, an unreflective animal-like being, innocent, and living in wild Nature. But by Part 2 of the Epic, slowly, gradually, he has become a being of experience. He is reflective, civilized, and now dwells in the city of Uruk with Gilgamesh. In short, his growing consciousness and contact with civilization has both enfeebled his body and set him into an existential crisis of purpose:

The eyes of Enkidu were full of tears and his heart was sick. He sighed bitterly and Gilgamesh met his eye and said, ‘My friend, why do you sigh so bitterly?’ But Enkidu opened his mouth and said, ‘I am weak, my arms have lost their strength, the cry of sorrow sticks in my throat, I am oppressed by idleness.’

Long before there was Shakespeare’s Hamlet mooning about his father’s castle, there was Enkidu mooning about Gilgamesh’s Uruk.

For Enkidu, as for all overconscious, Hamlet-like humans, idleness and the dilemmas of choice threaten to open a vacuum of purposelessness, and a recognition of one’s ultimate mortality and nothingness. Enkidu, made too comfortable in Gilgamesh’s Apollonian city of Uruk, is, like the author of Ecclesiastes, wasting away. Gilgamesh, observing this, has a revelation. Human life, if it is not to fall into despair, needs purpose and action:

It was then that the lord Gilgamesh turned his thought to . . . the Land of Cedars . . . He said to his servant Enkidu, ‘I have not established my name stamped on bricks as my destiny decreed; therefore I will go the the country where the cedar is felled. . . . [W]here no man’s name is written yet I will raise a monument to the gods. Because of the evil that is in the land, we will go to the forest and destroy the evil; for in the forest lives Humbaba whose name is ‘Hugeness,’ a ferocious giant.’

Enkidu and Gilgamesh cutting down and taming a forested land, imperially building a new city with Gilgamesh’s name stamped on every brick, raising a monument to the gods, and fighting the evils and terrors that lie outside the new city’s walls—this is enough purpose and activity for any two mortals seeking to fill up their time as beings moving towards death.

But are all these renewed Apollonian ambitions enough? Do they, ultimately, satisfy? The Epic seems to answer in the negative. When Enkidu dies, for example, Gilgamesh perceives the ultimate vanity of the trappings of success:

This way and that he paced around the [death] bed, he tore out his hair and strewed it around. He dragged off his splendid robes and flung them down as though they were abominations. (from Part 3)

Perhaps the most haunting scene in all of the Epic is in Part 2, where Gilgamesh cries out to the father of the gods, Shamash:

O Shamash, hear me, hear me, Shamash, let my voice be heard. Here in the city man dies oppressed at heart, man perishes with despair in his heart. I have looked over the wall and I see the bodies floating on the river, and that will be my lot also. Indeed I know it is so , for whoever is tallest among men cannot reach the heavens, and the greatest cannot encompass the earth.

Like the Buddha, who, as a young prince, leaves his parent’s palace and sees, for the first time, an old man, a sick man, and a dead man, so Gilgamesh must have his encounter with the dead bodies floating in the river, and think about that.

Those dead bodies floating past in the river of time are what haunts, and drives, Gilgamesh.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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