“Must I die too? Must I be as lifeless as Enkidu? How can I bear this sorrow that gnaws my belly, this fear of deaththat restlessly drives me onward? If only I could find the man whom the gods made immortal, I would ask him how to overcome death.”

Such questions lie at the heart of our humanness, obscured by denial until confronted by a significant loss, either our own or a loved one. Anguish ensues, toppling our worldview. Stripped of the predictable, wildness devours us within splintered energies. The gnashing continues until fresh lessons are learned. With the return of contentment, we breathe again and remember that we are not alone.

Many have survived such upheavals and lived to tell the tale.

One of these is Gilgamesh, historic king of Uruq (Iraq), who reigned around the year 2750 CBE. In this epic poem, he anguishes over the death of his heart-friend, Enkidu, a companion the goddess Aruru had fashioned to tame his savage ways. It had worked.

Inflamed by grief and the terror of his own mortality, Gilgamesh tears off his regal garments, dresses in animal skins, and voyages to the end of the world in search of his ancestor, Utnapishtim, immortalized by the gods for his role in preserving mankind from the ravages of the flood. After crossing the great ocean and the Waters of Death, Gilgamesh finally arrives on the shore, half dead from multiple trials. To his surprise, his ancestor sets him another trial. He fails.

A changed man, Gilgamesh (whose name means “The Old Man is a Young Man”) then returns to Uruk and rules his people with temperance, piety, and wisdom.

For centuries, oral tradition spread this story throughout the Mesopotamian area until first recorded in Sumerian from 2100 BCE, with later additions in Akkadian, 1700 BCE.

Through the genius of Stephen Mitchell’s Gilgamesh – A New English Version (2004) we have an intriguing portal into this human issue of diminishment and restoration.

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