Death and the Epic of Gilgamesh
I first read The Epic of Gilgamesh when I was around 19 years old and a young university student. I was determined then to know the history of the world in detail and Gilgamesh epic seemed like a very good place to start.
I didn’t get it. So, I read it again thinking there was some deep, mysterious secret encoded in its pages that only more careful study would disclose. I read scholarly commentaries on the epic, dived into works on Mesopotamian archaeology, cult, and mythology, and read the works of authors known to have been influenced by the mood and themes in The Epic of Gilgamesh.
I still didn’t get it.
Eventually I dropped it and the quest for the hidden secret. I realise in retrospect that back then I was too young for its “secret”, which was really not hidden at all. Only with age and experience is that secret now manifest to me.
It’s about death and how to die. And until you are personally tapped by death — which is something usually very far removed from the mind of a 19 year old — the mystery doesn’t voluntarily reveal itself. When you are young, death and mortality are abstract, or something that happens to other people.
So, I poured over the epic and books about the epic looking for the occult secret that seemed to resist and frustrate penetrating insight. It was really no secret at all, but the mystery and mood of death itself.
The secret of the epic was, Gilgamesh was me.
Gilgamesh, brazen and arrogant king of Uruk, was like that 19 year old university student, full of “piss and vinegar”, as they say, and death was far from his mind. Eventually, Gilgamesh is confronted by the transience of life and the tragedy of mortality in the death of his feral friend Enkidu (first ambiguous representation of “natural man” versus “civilised man”?, or Hyde and Jekyll?). Fear and horror awakens in the fearless heart at this demonstration of human mortality, and Gilgamesh sets off in quest of the secret of immortality — the quest for eternal life.
To make a longer story shorter, he finds it but then loses it again, and is compelled to accept his lot as a mortal being dooomed to die. Gilgamesh is defeated. But in his defeat a remarkable transformation occurs. In accepting death, he thereafter becomes a good and wise king, and so ironically achieves a kind of immortality and eternal life. He is remembered. He is defeated in his quest to become a god, but victorious in becoming a man.
The Epic of Gilgamesh is the story of man tapped by death and of the transformative power of that touch. And until you are tapped by death yourself, and really know that you are a mortal being doomed to die, that “secret” in the tale is elusive. In my case, the tap of death was a shudder that went through my entire body, from crown to foot — something like an electric shock of recognition. It is more than just the idea of one’s personal death. It is the feeling of one’s death, this kind of knowing.
The touch of death brings with it instant sobriety. A tremendous about of pettiness and crap simply falls away, like a snake shedding its skin. In an instant you know what matters and what does not matter. Without the consciousness of death, you had merely been sleepwalking through life until the moment when death taps you.
I know I am on the last leg of my journey, and that now I must travel light and tight. There’s a certain degree of joy and lightness of being in knowing that — a dancing, liberated kind of spiritedness. It is not difficult for me to understand the mood of Nietzsche, or William Blake, or even Carlos Castaneda too because they, too, were tapped by death and knew what mattered, just as Gilgamesh was tapped by death and learned what mattered.
It’s ironic that the hidden secret of The Epic of Gilgamesh was never really hidden at all, but was revealed only with age. So, it was hidden yet also in plain sight.
King Gilgamesh is everyman. There are no “winners and losers” in life. We are all defeated by time and death. Humility is knowing this — really knowing this as the inescapable and inevitable truth. This is a world of death. Death is the teacher. Death is the liberator.
“To conquer death, one only has to die”. This paradox is profoundly true. What did death teach me? That I am, inherently, formless awareness — a “wakeful presence” in Jean Gebser’s words — that is transiently and conditionally identified with a human body but is not identical with this body. This formless awareness intends the body as the physical expression of its spiritual reality. Consciousness creates form. That is the principle of intent, and this should not be too difficult to understand in these days of the quantum paradox of “observer generated reality”. And as consciousness becomes more adept at manipulating physical form, it will also intend the body differently in future, which will appear in our terms as “mutation”.
The body is a marvelous musical instrument. But it isn’t the music. That’s the proper way to think of it. You want to keep your instrument well-tuned. Your life is like a music lesson. We are learning to master our instrument. This is what I mean when I say that the purpose of life is “value-realisation”. Every part of your body is, in fact, the physical image of a spiritual truth, reflected and echoed in matter, that often only the poets perceive directly.
The player is not the instrument. It actually makes sense to say that, in some ways, you can never really die because, in some ways, you have never really been born completely into physicality in the first place. “The Being of the world is not in the world”, says Rumi, and William Blake seconded that paradox by insisting that the physical body was only a “cloud”, an image of “soul” as it imagined itself living and acting under physical conditions.
All Bibles or sacred codes have been the causes of the following Errors.
1. That Man has two real existing principles Viz: a Body & a Soul.
2. That Energy, call’d Evil, is alone from the Body, & that Reason, call’d Good, is alone from the Soul.
3. That God will torment Man in Eternity for following his Energies.
But the following Contraries to these are True
1. Man has no Body distinct from his Soul for that call’d Body is a portion of Soul discern’d by the five Senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age
2. Energy is the only life and is from the Body and Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy.
3 Energy is Eternal Delight
For Blake “Imagination” is the source of all. By this Blake means something far more fundamental than fantasy, wish or willing. It is precisely what we have been calling “intent”, or consciousness creates form. “Imagination” is the power that takes raw energy and shapes it into worlds, including the physical. That formative work is the work of the “four Zoas” who are, as earlier explored, the four psychic functions or modalities of consciousness: thinking, feeling, willing, and sensing, for all do their part in shaping an event into something discernible in physical terms (“concretion” or “presentiation”). Your ego consciousness — your “selfhood” — is actually only a spectator of much of this activity, even if it fancies itself as “cause”.
In this world of time and entropy, the body instrument ages and wears out. But it’s important to understand that the instrument is not the player any more than the tool is the craftsman who wields the tool.