In the Epic of Gilgamesh, questions that have plagued humanity are raised regarding meaning of life, death, and humanity’s purpose. In Gilgamesh, the supernatural is intertwined with reality, with actions of entities in one world often crossing the threshold into the other world. When discussing the question of whether or not it was possible that these gods really existed, it seemed that the general sentiment of my peers was that the supernatural in Gilgamesh’s world were completely fictional. This baffled me, because I saw my peers applying their reasoning capabilities and rationality to make such a determination, when the majority of people today accept equally irrational claims in religions that have survived to this day. This led me to ask the question, what causes the human mind to reject sensory evidence? How have my classmates come to believe that the unobservable truly exists? How have our authority figures managed to reshape our minds into rejecting the evidence of the senses? We can choose to closer our eyes to things we do not want to see, but it would seem that we can’t choose, when opening our eyes, not to see at all. As science has progressed, continuing to open new doors, expanding human knowledge through the use of our sense, those religions which have survived simply reinterpret their scripture, slightly altering their belief system by moving into the door just beyond the current boundaries of our knowledge.
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The message that this text conveys is that death is an inevitable, inherent aspect of human existence. No matter how Gilgamesh struggles to overcome death, his fate is sealed. After failing to transform himself into an immortal, Gilgamesh returns to the city with a new understanding of reality. He sees his city for its beauty, a paradise on earth that should be admired for as long as life lasts. Despite Gilgamesh’s failure to achieve his original goal, his journey transformed him from a frustrated, ruthless tyrant, into a king who appreciates the beauty in humanity. After failing to complete Utnapishtim’s challenges for immortality, and losing the magical plant, Gilgamesh curses himself, “What shall I do now? All my hardships have been for nothing. O Urshanabi, was it for this that my hands have labored, was it for this that I gave my heart’s blood? I have gained no benefit for myself.” But when the king finally reaches Uruk, something in his journey has helped him realize the immense beauty of life and its creations.
The epic of Gilgamesh emphasizes the importance in enjoying life to the fullest, rather than looking forward or preparing for an afterlife. While Gilgamesh grieves over the loss of Enkidu, the goddess Shiduri offers a token of wisdom, “”Until the end comes, enjoy your life, spend it in happiness, not despair. Savor your food, make each of your days a delight, bathe and anoint yourself, wear bright clothes that are sparkling clean, let music and dancing fill your house, love the child who holds you by the hand, and give your wife pleasure in your embrace. That is the best way for man to live.” (Mitchell, 168)
Death is inevitably coming for all of us, whether we suffer through life or discover its pleasures. If follows that one should enjoy life while it lasts, not necessarily seeking to prolong our existence but simply make the best of the time that we are here (no matter how long that may be). In the words of Utnapishtim:
Man’s life is short, at any moment it can be snapped, like a reed in a canebrake. Though no one has seen death’s face or heard death’s voice suddenly, savagely, death destroys us, all of us, old or young. And yet we build houses, make contracts brothers divide their inheritance, conflicts occur as though this human life lasted forever. The river rises, flows over its banks and carries us all away. (Mitchell, 178)
Unfortunately, Gilgamesh refused to accept the inescapability of death. He instead chose to embark on a quest for immortality, to defy a basic aspect of human nature:
When Gilgamesh leaves his city and goes into uncharted territory in search of a way beyond death, he is looking for something that is impossible to find. His quest is like the mind’s search for control, order, and meaning in a world where everything is constantly disintegrating. The quest proves the futility of the quest. There is no way to overcome death; there is no way to control reality. ‘When I argue with reality, I lose,’ Byron Katie writes, ‘-but only 100 percent of the time. (Mitchell, 63)
Desperate for answers, Gilgamesh turns to the gods to understand how he can cheat death, a desire shared by all humans as we are born with the instinct to survive. Many religions have taken advantage of this thirst to survive, promising society an afterlife filled with eternal bliss. The reason why these religions are so successful is because they prey upon the deepest desires of humanity: if we subscribe to their creed, in return their gods (who happen to be outside the realm of reality and observation) will reward us by satisfying humanity’s evolutionary needs.
I will now return to the question of how we have convinced the powerless youth to ignore their senses, and accept the irrational teachings of authority figures. First, in order to corrupt a child’s mind, parents must convince them that things which they cannot see truly exist, by speaking about them with great passion and reverence. At first, the child will be baffled at your obsession with things that aren’t really there. Unfortunately, parents are in a position in which they can abuse the power they hold over a child. Evolutionarily speaking, if a child was to reject the wishes and teachings of their parents, and fight against this authority figure, they would have no chance of survival. Biologically, children who defined the moral absolutes and commandments of their parents would not survive due to their dependence on these authority figures. Parents are ready and willing to turn their backs to children in the name of abstract moral concepts, and this has been evident throughout history for as long as people have been engaged in wars.
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A young child just beginning to get a grasp on reality, is bewildered when he discovers that his parents worship something which does not exist in the material world. The child looks for God, but cannot see Him. He reaches his small, fragile hands out hoping to feel what his family is constantly describing as the most powerful feeling imaginable, but the child feels nothing. This kind of ‘gaslighting’ is a form of psychological abuse that forces children to second guess reality. There are only two options at this point for the child: either they are unable to process sensual information, or their brain is functioning perfectly well but everyone around them is lying about the invisible man in the sky. Because the child is surrounded by people, all of whom claim to be able to have some kind of interaction with the divine, the child is essentially forced to accept that their entire brain has ceased to function correctly. It would be unprecedented for a child to claim that everyone around them is insane, and that there is no supernatural being there to see or feel.
The reason why we are afraid to question supernatural claims is because nearly every religion includes an unquestionable moral component. The authority figures stop children from arguing against supernatural teachings by claiming that only unbelievers, or those who go against the moral teachings of the religion cannot experience God. If a child called his parents out, and told them that there was no evidence of a higher power, he would be directly challenging their morality, accusing them of lying to him, manipulating him, and trying to destroy his sensory connections with reality. Authority figures raise the stakes so high by including a moral dimension that a child would have to be willing to call them evil in order to escape their dogma.
Thus, the child is faced with the eternal quest to become a “good” person. They spend their whole life trying to see that which is non-existent, like a dog chasing its own tail for the rest of its life. Like Gilgamesh chasing after immortality, looking for supernatural answers that simply don’t exist. The child will become so obsessed with their inability to feel what everyone around them seems to feel, that they never stop and question whether or not everyone around them is in fact deluded. The child is forced to accept that he is in fact living in an insane asylum, in which he is the one and only sane person; or, he has to force himself to believe that he is insane and all of the people around him have actually discovered some greater truth.
Children become conditioned to accept a belief system that is not based upon sensory evidence, or objective reality. Because of this, it becomes incredibly difficult for them to question it. In the words of Dr. House, from the popular medical drama by the same name, “If you could reason with religious people, there would be no religious people.”
An understanding of truth and reality, and an acceptance of these concepts is fundamental for one who seeks true happiness. We can go on quests for immortality,
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