Gilgamesh (left) and his friend Enkidu kill the Bull of Heaven. Gilgamesh who has killed many powerful opponents, is himself overcome by Death

Death of Gilgamesh

The poem, “The Bull is lying down”, describes the death of Bilgames (the Sumerian name for Gilgamesh). The hero has been seized by Namtar, the Angel of Death, and lies sick and delirious on his deathbed.

Enki the god of wisdom appears and shows Bilgames a vision, in which he finds himself in the assembly of the gods. The business in hand is his own destiny. The gods review his heroic career, his exploits in the Forest of Cedar, his journey to the end of the world, and the ancient knowledge he learned from Ziusudra, the survivor of the Deluge. Their predicament is that Bilgames, although a man, is the son of a goddess: should he be mortal or immortal?

The final judgment seems to be voiced by Enki, and this is appropriate, for it is this god’s role to solve problems. The only mortal, he says, to achieve immortality is Ziusudra (Uta-Napishti, whom Gilgamesh encounters in his quest for immortality), who survives the Great Flood.

Despite his divine birth Bilgames must descend to the Netherworld like other men. But there he will have a special position as the chief of the shades, sitting in judgment over the dead like Ningishzida and Dumuzi, two divine residents of the Netherworld.

Not only this, but after his death Bilgames will be commemorated among the living during the annual Festival of Lights in the fifth month of the Babylonian year (roughly August). On the ninth day of the month, the young men of the city fight in their doorways in wrestling matches and trials of strength.

Then Enlil, god ot the Earth, appears and explains in simpler terms the message of the dream thus far: Bilgames was born to be a king but he cannot escape the inevitable fate of mortal man. Even so, he is not to despair. In the Netherworld he will be reunited with his family and with his beloved comrade, Enkidu, and he will be numbered among the lesser deities.

Bilgames awakes, stunned by what he has seen. He seeks counsel. The reply of the interlocutors is that he should not be sad. Death is inevitable, even for a king, and he should be pleased with the exalted status that he will enjoy after death.

Prompted by Enki, Bilgames then sets to work on building his tomb. Enki tells him where to site his tomb so that it would be inviolable. As a result of Enki’s wisdom Bilgames has his labour force divert the river Euphrates, and the tomb is built of stone in the river bed. The royal harem and entourage take their places in the tomb and prepare to accompany their king in the afterlife.

To ensure that he and his retinue receive a favourable reception in the Netherworld, Bilgames presents gifts to the deities of Ereshkigal’s court (just as he does on Enkidu’s behalf during Enkidu’s funeral. Then Bilgames lays himself down. The doorway is sealed with the great stone fashioned for the purpose and the river is returned to its bed so that the site of the tomb cannot be discovered.

The people of Uruk mourn for their king. Two different endings of the narrative survive. One, less well preserved, simply voices the praise of Bilgames, the greatest of kings. The other, more didactic, explains that men past and present live on after death in the memories of those alive. First, the practice of placing votive statues in temples ensures the continued invocation of the name of the dead individual, providing as it does a focus for his funerary cult. Second, the gods have so arranged matters that men beget families, whose function is to continue their line.

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