Sunday, November 27, 2011

Gilgamesh III: the Death of Enkidu

The night after their return and the triumphal feast, Enkidu awakens in terror. He has dreamed that the gods have held a conference. Because Enkidu and Gilgamesh have slain Humbaba (who guarded the Cedar Forest for the god Enlil) and disrespected Ishtar, they must be punished. Because Gilgamesh is two parts god and one part man, while Enkidu is half-man and half-beast, they decide that it is Enkidu who must die.

Soon after his dream, Enkidu is overcome by a grievous illness. As he grows weaker, Enkidu curses the trapper and the harlot who brought him to Uruk. In giving him the knowledge of civilization, they have also given him the knowledge of mortality: instead of the clean death of a wild animal, he now faces a shameful death on a sickbed.  But then Shamash, God of the Sun, calls to him from the sky and reminds him that, even though his life was short, it was happy. He has known the pleasures of the countryside and city both, but most importantly:
Now Gilgamesh is your beloved brother-friend!
He will have you lie on a grand couch,
will have you lie on a couch of honor.
He will seat you in the seat of ease, the seat at his left,
so that the princes of the world kiss your feet. 
Thus reassured, Enkidu withdraws his curses and replaces them with blessings. After twelve days of suffering, the once-wild man departs this earth for the place where the dead dwell, a grim land where they "drink dirt and eat stone" in eternal darkness. Gilgamesh is inconsolable: for a week he keeps vigil beside Enkidu's corpse, trying desperately to awaken him. Finally a maggot falls from Enkidu's nose as Gilgamesh shakes him. Realizing at last that the situation is beyond hope, the heartbroken Gilgamesh allows his friend to be buried and commands his whole kingdom to mourn.

As the days pass, Gilgamesh's sorrow only grows greater. No longer does he wash himself, comb his hair or shave: instead of his royal robes, he dresses himself in the skins of wild animals. His mourning is combined with a deep, existential terror. In seeing his friend die, he has been confronted with his own mortality: he knows now that all his treasures and all his achievements must ultimately turn to dust. Turning away from his castle and his kingdom, he takes to wandering in the wilderness, crying bitterly.

Exercise 1-3: Grief
We all experience loss. Grieving over a lost child, a beloved pet, or an irredeemably broken relationship is not necessarily a sign of self-indulgence or weakness. Rather, it is a lamentation. There may be lessons to be learned from this experience, but right now there is only pain. Give yourself permission to feel that pain and express that pain. If it brings tears, cry: if it brings anger, rage. Let the pain speak until you have gained what the Greeks called catharsis – the purging of pent-up emotions and release of tension.

We place a great emphasis on keeping a stiff upper lip, on holding oneself together and being strong in the face of adversity. Expressions of pain and suffering are unseemly. Boys don't cry, and neither do women who wish to be taken seriously. Those who don't "get over it" and go on with their lives – those who are still mourning after some set period of time or who are too open about their suffering – are shunned: at best their efforts to share their pain are met with uncomfortable silences and efforts to change the subject.

In many other cultures lamentation for loss is not only acceptable but expected. In Haiti it is believed that the dead will not rest unless they receive their due of mourning: those who do not cry and show their grief at funerals run the risk of being haunted. Keening, haunting wails of pain and loss performed by hired mourners, was customary at traditional Irish funerals. Orthodox Jews who have lost a parent, child, sibling or spouse perform keriah, the ceremonial rending of the garment, to give vent to anguish by means of a controlled, religiously sanctioned act of destruction.  Gilgamesh's mourning is extreme even by Sumerian standards, but so too is his loss. His actions are not presented as a sign of his weakness but as a sign of his love and a fitting response to the death of his beloved companion.

Grief is recognition that one's life has been irrevocably changed. A part of your identity has been torn away: wife becomes widow, son becomes orphan, spouse becomes divorcee. The challenge is to create a new way of life while incorporating the old. For the grieving Gilgamesh, it is important that his friend be remembered. He orders that a monument of gold and lapis lazuli – the most precious materials known to Sumerian culture – be erected in Enkidu's honor: he also commands his subjects and all of creation to join him in his mourning.

Often grief is accompanied by a profound sense of guilt. When we lose a loved one to a disabling chronic illness, we may feel a sense of relief at their passing: their troubles are over, and so are ours. No matter how sad we feel, we may think that we are not sad enough: our happiness and healing become weapons we can use to flagellate ourselves for not loving our deceased enough. We may treat our loss as a sign of failure: if only we had done things differently, it wouldn't have come to this. The mighty Gilgamesh is not used to failure, and yet his strength and cunning cannot save Enkidu.

Elizabeth Kübler-Ross has defined various stages of grieving. First we see Gilgamesh going through denial as he sits with Enkidu's corpse and refuses to accept his friend's death. Then, as he realizes that Enkidu is gone, he enters the anger stage. His pain manifests itself in his refusal to attend to his duties as king and ruler. Much as "cutters" use self-mutilation to express their anger, Gilgamesh's unshorn beard, dirty face and filthy animal-skin clothing are outward signs of his internal suffering. From here comes bargaining: frightened by the presence of death, Gilgamesh resolves to conquer it by gaining immortality for himself.