The Afterlife in Gilgamesh

And more, poor put-upon readers.

The ques­tion was:
The tragedy of mor­tal­i­ty — the tragedy gains poignance by the absence ?? of a well devel­oped sys­tem of belief in after­life.


There is an absence of expo­si­tion regard­ing the after­life in the selec­tions we read from the epic of Gil­gamesh. That does not mean, how­ev­er, that there was no “well devel­oped sys­tem of belief in after­life.” If that were the case, why would we read “and there was Erishki­gal, Queen of the Under­world; and Belit-Sheri squat­ted in front of her, she who is recorder of the gods and keeps the book of death.”

In oth­er ver­sions, Enkidu had pre­vi­ous­ly trav­eled to the under­world to retrieve some of Gil­gamesh’s belong­ings. Oth­er sources also state that Gil­gamesh became a judge of the dead.

Gil­gamesh does seem to have been struck by his own mor­tal­i­ty after los­ing Enkidu, who was his match in all ways, his broth­er, lover, and com­rade at arms. As he was two-thirds god and one-third man, to para­phrase the text, he may have thought he was immor­tal. Enkidu, hav­ing been made by a god­dess rather than born, might have been expect­ed to be immor­tal as well. The gods of the time aren’t nec­es­sar­i­ly immor­tal, though. They do not seem to die of ill­ness, but they can be slain, as Enkidu and Gil­gamesh killed Hum­ba­ba (who was a minor deity).

His griev­ing, like every­thing else he did, is car­ried out in an epic fash­ion. His reac­tion to every­thing has been to fight it, so his jour­ney to find the only human he knows to have achieved immor­tal­i­ty makes sense. First, though, he car­ried out rit­u­als that, in that soci­ety, were intend­ed to ensure the per­son in ques­tion a bet­ter life in the nether­world. Hav­ing a stat­ue of Enkidu made served the same pur­pose. If Gil­gamesh did not believe in an after­life and have a fair­ly well-defined notion of what that after­life entailed, the rit­u­als and stat­ue would not have been important.

As I not­ed in anoth­er post, any men­tion of a ser­pent in that soci­ety would be under­stood as a ref­er­ence to the eter­nal fem­i­nine, the divine moth­er god­dess. Gil­gamesh’s loss of the plant that grants immor­tal­i­ty to the ser­pent is like­ly a con­se­quence of his ear­li­er refusal to enter into the divine mar­riage with Ishtar, as was expect­ed of any king.

Cyn is a proud Mommy & Mémé, professional geek, avid reader, fledgling coder, enthusiastic gamer (TTRPGs), occasional singer, and devoted stitcher.
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