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The Epic of Gilgamesh

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In The Epic of Gilgamesh, how does Gilgamesh's epic quest change him?

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Gilgamesh gains from his epic quest an awareness of his own limitations and mortality. Described as two-thirds divine and one-third mortal, The Epic of Gilgamesh begins with a series of triumphs, reflecting his superhuman qualities. However, Gilgamesh is also mortal, and thus his quest for immortality ends in failure.

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What Gilgamesh gains from his epic quest is an awareness of what it means to be human. Throughout the poem, he has reveled in the divine part of his nature, basking in his strength and exercising power over others. When his best friend Enkidu dies, he is made painfully aware of his own mortality. Though he is two-thirds divine, the remaining third that is human will eventually cause him to grow old and perish.

Gilgamesh despairs in the face of this reality and quests to find a way to become immortal. However, this proves impossible. During his quest, he has an interesting encounter with Siduri, the goddess of wine-making. Learning of his intentions, she advises him to give up his fruitless endeavor and instead enjoy life fully in the moment:

As for you, Gilgamesh, let your belly be full,
Make merry day and night.
Of each day make a feast of rejoicing.
Day and night dance and play!
Let your garments be sparkling fresh,
Your head be washed; bathe in water.
Pay heed to a little one that holds on to your hand,
Let a spouse delight in your bosom.

Gilgamesh initially ignores this advice, continuing his quest to find the immortal Utnapishtim, but the advice lingers and echoes throughout the remaining text of the story. Utnapishtim only seems to confirm Siduri's sentiments as he too advises Gilgamesh against any attempt to become immortal. Once Gilgamesh fails in his quest, he ends up returning to his people.

Gilgamesh's epic quest changes him profoundly. He becomes a much wiser, more moderate king, a far cry from the swaggering tyrant who started fights and raped whatever woman he pleased. While he will not physically live forever, he will enjoy his life while it lasts and then live on in the hearts of those who remember his great deeds when he is gone.

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Gilgamesh's most famous and important quest involves his search for the secret of immortality and his encounter with the immortal Utnapishtim. This quest ends in total failure.

Gilgamesh, within The Epic of Gilgamesh, is presented as two-thirds divine and one-third human, a background that is reflected in his achievements. Gilgamesh out-wrestles Enkidu (finding his closest friend in the process), defeats and slays the giant Humbaba, and defeats the Bull of Ishtar. Up to this point, his entire life has been a series of victories and triumphs, and Gilgamesh certainly has the confidence and self esteem to match his achievements.

The death of Enkidu represents what looks like his first taste of real suffering. It is an experience that leaves him reeling, leading him onto his quest for immortality. Utnapishtim, after alerting Gilgamesh to the impossibility of his goal, sets for him a test. He challenges Gilgamesh to stay awake for a span of six days and seven nights, but Gilgamesh swiftly falls asleep. Later, as Gilgamesh departs, he is told about a plant with the ability to restore youth. Gilgamesh retrieves the plant but later loses it to a serpent.

Ultimately, then, for all that Gilgamesh is partially divine, he is also partially human, and if the first part of Gilgamesh is focused on his superhuman abilities and achievements, this last part is primarily focused on his humanity. In this sense, one might say that what Gilgamesh gains is the knowledge of what it means to be human, and an awareness as to his own limitations: that, for all his strength and achievements, he is just as mortal as any other human being, with all the limitations that this status entails. Immortality is the domain solely of the gods.

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The Epic of Gilgamesh ends as Gilgamesh is traveling home from his visit with Utnapishtim. Gilgamesh has lost the magic plant that Utnapishtim gave him that conferred eternal youth, and Utnapishtim has told him that an immortal life is not in store for him. When he returns to his city, Uruk, Gilgamesh has a newfound appreciation for the beauty and sturdiness of the walled city he has built. The epic states, "This too was the work of Gilgamesh, the king, who knew the countries of the world. He was wise, he saw mysteries and knew secret things, he brought us a tale of the days before the flood." Gilgamesh returns with a story of life before the flood, and he shares this wisdom with his people. 

When Gilgamesh returns from his journey, he also realizes that it is his destiny to rule wisely as a king but not to attain immortality. Enlil, the father of the gods, had said of Gilgamesh's destiny, "You were given the kingship, such was your destiny, everlasting life was not your destiny." Instead of trying to achieve immortality, Gilgamesh turns his efforts to ruling as a wise and just king. He realizes that his destiny is to be great on earth, not in a life of immortality, and he appreciates what he can do as a mortal king. 

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Gilgamesh learns in the end that death is the fate of all humans, this life is transitory and what passes for immortality is what one leaves behind.  The epic begins with the author inviting us to look at the great city founded by Gilgamesh, and then proceeds through the tale of the king, his friend Enkidu and their adventures.  In the aftermath of Enkidu's death, Gilgamesh experiences fear and depression and seeks immortality.  After failing at that quest, on his return to his city he tells his companion to look at the great city he has built, repeating the opening scene of the text.

Whether Gilgamesh found peace in this point of view or whether he still feared death the story doesn't tell us.  But the Gilgamesh we see at the end is not the bold, overconfident young man from the beginning of the story.

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