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Western Literature 101: First Leader Who Tasted the Bitterness of Immortality


Western Literature 101 articles serve as one of the academic courses in the field of English Language and Literature. The course which is a fundamental guide within the scope of general knowledge compared to the technical knowledge of English literature also addresses the readership besides students. With this goal in mind, the author has opted to write the article in very plain and basic English to convey just the necessary understanding of Western literature by making the article merely an outline introduction. Western Literature 101 is divided into seven chapters:

1. Western Literature 101: First Leader Who Tasted the Bitterness of Immortality

2. Western Literature 101: Genesis of All-Encompassings and Annihilation of Many Things

3. Western Literature 101: Winning a Battle & Losing the War at the Phalanx of Homer's Retention of West

4. Western Literature 101: Agony of Lost Desires Cries Silently on Poseidon's Hammock

5. Western Literature 101: Western Roots of Comedy: Greek Comedy

6. Western Literature 101: Western Roots of Tragedy: Greek Tragedy

7. Western Literature 101: Fall of Troy & Birth of Rome

First Leader Who Tasted the Bitterness of Immortality

Western literature's origins date back to 2100 BC with Epic of Gilgamesh, which is accepted as the root of western literature. Many of the people all around the world must have heard of Gilgamesh as a Sumerian destiny in their early childhood. Some people read about him in history, literature, and even in civilization lectures, but never have known how crucial it is for western literature. One of the most important historical and linguistic factors about Gilgamesh is that it is a story that has traveled from person to person and has been in the oral transition process. It always evolved and evolved with another society's marks on it until the arrival of Sin Leqe Unnini. With the arrival of Sin Leqe Unnini, the story has been transformed into stone tablets as written, which formed its final point of the evolving stage and became Epic of Gilgamesh.

The story itself begins in Mesopotamia, one of the oldest civilizations that have lived on earth. In the city of Uruk, there lives the protagonist, Gilgamesh. With his mighty strength and shivering intelligence, no man nor woman can confront his abilities. With his superhuman powers, he makes sure to build the city of Uruk, worthy of civilization, and protects it. But no matter how strong and wise he is, his 2/3 god and 1/3 human side keeps his human characteristics and mondain, mortality which striped out of supernaturality, alive. However, after a while, he gets bored with his kingship and starts taking male citizens to duel and ends up killing every single one whom he fights with. One of the interesting things about this epic is the details of the civilization. In the city of Uruk, people worship at temples. These temples carry religious and also scientific values for the city. Clergymen not only work for the faith of God but also work to advance in the field of science. As Mesopotamia is a flood area, the city has a ringing bell system to warn people against danger. Many religious people of the city see these negative natural outcomes as a message and punishment of the gods and the result of the geographic truth on the region. People in temples who do research for geology have foreseen natural disasters and connected them as negative messages from the gods. Natural disasters that occurred in the area lead to their point of view being more pessimistic. This view of thoughts affects the way they perceive the world. Their god is contradictious as the god of love and the god of death are the same gods. This is the same for other gods, too. For instance, the god of fertility and the god of misfortune, the god of light and the god of darkness. Their gods carry dualism in their characteristics which creates Yin and Yang effect for their belief system. People of the kingdom accept floods and earthquakes as punishment even if they believe they did well for the gods.

Gilgamesh uses this bell to frighten people and he enjoys seeing them run across the city. This act of Gilgamesh represents the egoistic behavior of monarchs who cannot be matched with any other power. People of Uruk pray to the gods to stop Gilgamesh from his dangerous acts. They pray to Aruru to stop Gilgamesh. The importance of the prayer of people is that Aruru is a female goddess. From this detail, one can easily have the observation of power as matriarchy in the living society. No matter how patriarchal effects can be seen in the way Gilgamesh rules the city of Uruk, the high worshiped power, unbreakable ruling force is accepted as the mother goddess's matriarchy. This is an important factor as after Epic of Gilgamesh, all western literature poems, novellas, stories follow the patriarchal order. Mother goddess Aruru hears the prays of her people and decides to create an equal of Gilgamesh in power and makes this created person's characteristics the same as Gilgamesh's, which would be Gilgamesh's own reflection.

Gilgamesh is receiving the royal ring from gods to be a king.

Gods create Enkidu in the middle of a forest out of the wild. His body is rough, he has long hair, and his body is covered with matted hair like wild animals. Enkidu's creation in the middle of forest out of nowhere, out of civilization, or any humankind carries similar characteristics to Ancient Greek myth of the creation of the first humans. With no human or civilization around, Enkidu adopts animalistic behaviors. Soon, he becomes friends with wildlife and starts hunting farming animals that belong to Uruk's farmlands. He destroys the traps for animals to be saved from humans and hunts against humans. He is wild and inhuman. This news goes out from a shepherd to Gilgamesh. With his superior intelligence, Gilgamesh goes to the temple and talks with a harlot. He decides to seduce Enkidu with a harlot to weaken him and capture him.

In the following plan, the harlot encounters Enkidu and has sexual intercourse with him. This sexual activity between a man and woman results in a big change in the character. Enkidu becomes more like a human in characteristics, his body starts to weaken and animals start to refuse him. This results in a negative change in Enkidu's psychology. The harlot tells him about Gilgamesh and the city of Uruk. Enkidu decides to confront Gilgamesh. He has to change the old order to show he is the strongest here. The fight ends with the victory of Gilgamesh and results in the friendship of both. This is of great importance for Gilgamesh as he is a lonely figure with superior powers. With the companionship of Enkidu, he finds a remedy for his loneliness and stops bullying his people.

This theme carries a crucial place in western literature: loneliness and longing for a companion. It starts with the first epic poem, Gilgamesh, followed up with the Bible's Adam and Eve, and goes with the Iliad and the Odyssey. Western literature cannot be simplified into two themes of emotion, however, it can be pointed out with high caliber importance of these two emotions.

Gilgamesh is passing through the gate of sun, in search of eternal life.

Gilgamesh is finally happy with his mutual powerful close friend Enkidu who is a remedy for his loneliness. He now has a friend who is almost equal to him and understands being alienated from other people due to his abilities.

Due to his superior intelligence and physical strength, Gilgamesh, the king and ruler of the city Uruk, is able to manage all the needs of the city perfectly while protecting it against any threatening outcome. He uses his intelligence to build canals for the city, using mud for wall construction materials to build a defensive wall for outcomes, and he makes his city a safe place that can be livable for his people. After building a stable life in the city, due to Mesopotamia region's fertility, people of the city of Uruk start to export excess goods that they have gathered, and they start to exchange for the growth of the city. With the pieces of information from walls, production and export, early remarks of civilization details reveal themselves for Mesopotamia in Epic of Gilgamesh with great details.

Two heroes are fighting with the giant of Cedar Forest.

Like humans, cities are living organisms and they need structural needs. For the city of Uruk, it is a support system for gates against flood. Gilgamesh finds a way to support the gates in the best possible way with Cedar Forest. As a strong leader, he wants his name to be written where famous names are written and where no man's name has ever been written before. It is a cedar forest that no man have ever been to and he finds a chance to achieve glory and resources for his people. However, they need to go out of the city to have the resources. The outside of the city is accepted as darkness, unknown by the people of Uruk so it is accepted as a lethal danger to go outside to the unknown. When Gilgamesh and Enkidu go to the forest, they are faced with its protector Humbaba who is a representation of nature. Humbaba is the guardian of the Cedar Forest, where the gods live. He is assigned to be a terror to human beings to keep them away from nature. Gilgamesh tricks Humbaba and with the help of other gods, defeats him. Humbaba asks for mercy but Enkidu convinces Gilgamesh to slain him as he knows where Humbaba is coming from, just like him. Gilgamesh cuts its head off and brings the head to Enlil who is the king of gods that gives immortality to Utnapishtim, and Gilgamesh also carries a desire to achieve immortality. This is a symbolization of humans' conquest of forests and wildlife. Many civilizations are kept small in the area where they live, away from forest areas as forests were unknown for societies of the era but with Gilgamesh's victory against Humbaba, this action can be also interpreted as human advancement to have authority to rule and benefit from the forest areas. Now the problem of the city which is tree drought in the city becomes a solution by the defeat of Humbaba and they would be able to reinforce their walls with that, too.

Gilgamesh is rejecting Ishtar
Gilgamesh is rejecting Ishtar.

When Gilgamesh and Enkidu return to the city, Ishtar, the goddess of love and war, contacts Gilgamesh and tells him that she wants to marry him but Gilgamesh refuses her marriage proposal due to Ishtar's previous bad actions she has taken against her lovers. Here, the dualism of gods can be seen as Ishtar is the goddess of war and sexual love. Gilgamesh uses his wisdom and rejects her again, which is an uprising against gods once again. Gods send the bull of heaven to confront Gilgamesh's act of disrespecting other gods, killing Humbaba and getting his head back as a trophy. This punishment is in the material world, it is a flood which is a bad sign for the people of Uruk and it is a war between Gilgamesh and the gods. However, with the help of other gods, Gilgamesh and Enkidu manage to defeat it. The reason an animal, Humbaba, is protecting the forest is also a resemblance of how the Forest is not accessible to humans in the destiny. Gods would punish the city of Uruk with an earthquake, being triggered by the death of the bull of heaven. This natural disaster is also accepted as a punishment from gods by the citizens of Uruk, due to Gilgamesh and Enkidu's actions. When one looks at citizens of Uruk, what can be seen is a society that is willing to satisfy gods at all costs but these people are ruled by a king who does not comply with gods' will. With heroic stand against the bull of heaven, city is defended by Gilgamesh and Enkidu but when the war is over, Enkidu leaves the outer rims of city with wounds which will bring catharsis element for Gilgamesh's vision on brotherhood and his super ego boosted individualism.

By the time they have arrived back in the city, Enkidu’s wounds get heavier. Gilgamesh who is afraid of losing his one and only best friend gets worried about Enkidu's future. In the following days, Enkidu loses his battle against his scars and passes away. Gilgamesh loses his joy, craves an adventure and his reason for rebelling against gods changes the reason too. Gilgamesh, who is the wisest and strongest of Uruk, starts to question what is life and death and how one can become immortal like gods. With great sadness and grief, Gilgamesh finds himself in a room, alone and thinking about these philosophical questions. He decides to go to a place where he can find a cure for his lament on immortality and talk with Utnapishtim to learn the secret of the undead. He finds the cave which is protected by the lion-headed, scorpion-bodied mythological creature. He defeats the monster for the sake of saving his friend and finding immortality. He accesses the mountains which are accepted as undying lands.

Beyond dead seas, Gilgamesh is meeting Utnapishtim (the only eternal man).

Gilgamesh who seeks an adventure to find immortality almost finds the cure for immortality, however, he falls on his humanly body’s need to sleep and he fails his duty to achieve immortality. Gilgamesh’s hell is described as a place where the one who dwells around, eats but he/she can taste nothing, there is no difference between king and slave, slave and animal have no difference between them. Gilgamesh returns to the city of Uruk with great sadness and pain of losing his goal. His best friend who is close to his feelings even more than his brother loses his life due to his heavy health condition. He and all the Uruk weeps for him and Gilgamesh grows beard and hair as long as his sorrow and pain for losing his best friend, his brother from another mother.

Gilgamesh is mourning for the death of Enkidu.

During his search, he notes down all his adventure to stone tablets. After completing the stone tablet, the meaning of time loses its value for Gilgamesh, and the sun that shines most beautifully drifts apart from its glitter around the world. Birds who sing with great melody leave their songs unfinished. Darkness takes Gilgamesh's manas and the sun on his skin starts to withhold the warmth of his body. He becomes one with his biggest fear, death. Without realizing it, he achieves what he seeks for most of his life, immortality by the tablets which are written by him during his journey. He achieves immortality in his writings in a different aspect. Even thousands of years later, all readers still carries his pain, suffer, happiness, and many adventures he lived through by his writings in all minds of readers, in every heart. He achieves his immortality in the most influential way as he would wish if he had been around all.

Bibliographical References

  • MacK, M., & Lawall, S. N. (Eds.). (1999). Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces: The Western Tradition, Vol. 1: Literature of Western Culture Through the Renaissance (7th ed., Vol. 1). W. W. Norton & Company.

  • Smith, Z. R. (2019). ELIT 105 Introduction To Western Literature (First ed., Vol. 1). Yeditepe University.

  • Köklügiller, A. (2009). Gılgamış (17th ed.). Can Sanat Yayınları.

Visual Sources

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Doğukan Ejder

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