The foundation of existentialism in the oldest story ever told: The Epic of Gilgamesh.
The Epic of Gilgamesh is considered as one of the first stories
ever told, which dates back to approximately 3,000 B.C. Yet, this
ancient story addresses some of the basic premises of existentialism,
particularly as explored in the works of Kierkegaard, Buber, and
Heidegger. This paper is an existential analysis of the story, its hero,
and the deeper messages of this timeless portrayal of grappling with
death and search for meaning, whose many lessons pertain aptly to the
struggles of the 21st century human existence. It also, convincingly,
conveys the message that what we refer to as existentialism is perhaps
as old as humanity itself, and not simply a product of the 19th or the
20th century. This 'voice' from the distant past calls us to
approach life in an engaged, passionate manner, while fully remaining
aware of its uncertain, ephemeral nature.
Anxiety, Authenticity, Buber, Death, Gilgamesh, Heidegger, Kierkegaard, The Absurd.
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Publication:||Name: Existential Analysis Publisher: Society for Existential Analysis Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Psychology and mental health Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2010 Society for Existential Analysis ISSN: 1752-5616|
|Issue:||Date: Jan, 2010 Source Volume: 21 Source Issue: 1|
|Topic:||NamedWork: The Epic of Gilgamesh (Folk tale)|
|Persons:||Named Person: Buber, Martin; Heidegger, Martin; Kierkegaard, Soren|
|Geographic:||Geographic Scope: United Kingdom Geographic Code: 4EUUK United Kingdom|
Many of the messages of existentialism are vividly depicted in the
oldest story ever told: The Epic of Gilgamesh. While Rilke viewed it as
an exploration of the fear of death (Mitchelle, 2004), there is so much
more to this ancient masterpiece, which continues to call our attention
to its timeless teachings about humanity, about life. In the
introduction to Buber's I and Thou, Kaufmann captures the essence
of timeless books by proposing that, 'Most books die unnoticed;
fewer live for a year or two ... Books that survive their authors do not
weather time like rocks. They are reborn without having quite died and
have several overlapping lives. Some fall asleep in one country, come to
life in another, and then wake up again' (in Buber, 1970, p. 20).
Such is the case with The Epic of Gilgamesh. This remarkable work of history, philosophy, and storytelling dates back to perhaps 3000 B.C., as some archeologists have estimated (Kovacs, 1989). Yet, the essence of what it endeavors to convey is just as germane to the happenings of the twenty-first century as it was to the ages past, even back to the first time when it was told. Rexroth (1968) suggests that this is a story that can be best called '... a spiritual adventure, a story of self-realization, the discovery of the meaning of personality, of a type that would never change down the four-thousand-year-long history of human imagination' (p. 1).
In Gilgamesh, we see that the key to living life is to integrate the lower and the higher in order to gain the needed strength so as to deal with the great and ominous challenges of life. Indeed, this is a story that reveals much about the constant struggle between the intellect and the passions, and the transformation that emerges when the two are united. It is a story about arrogance, humility, life, ethics, love, friendship, the absurd, the meaning of life, or its meaninglessness, and death. The multitude of messages of this epic are just as poignant today as they were for Gilgamesh, or whoever told his story. In a way, I propose that Gilgamesh is the perplexed seeker, wanderer who lives within all of us, who has a timeless message. The message he shares with us was brought forth in the midst of uncertainty and despair when he had to learn to rely on his naked self to grapple with the absurd. It echoes the words of Sartre who once suggested that '.human life begins on the far side of despair' (Sartre, 1955, p.123).
Gilgamesh: An Existential Analysis
Gilgamesh is the undefeatable king of the city of Uruk. He is a powerful, demanding, oppressive, highly sexual ruler who is two thirds deity and one third human. No one can challenge him, as he is a relentless, matchless warrior who is well aware of his own prowess, to the point that he considers himself undefeatable, even immortal. With all the power at his disposal, he has no need for self-reflection; his choices are guided by whim and impulse. Nevertheless, there is a latent lack in him. His life is a testimony to a vast collection of many experiences, but what does he know of life? Buber (1970) so cogently captured this lack when he suggested, "Those who experience do not participate in the world. For the experience is 'in them' and not between them and the world" (p. 56).
As far as his countrymen, his subjects, are concerned, there is no one who can possibly reform this dictator who fatally challenges young men, puts old men to work, and has to have intercourse with every young bride before they are allowed to sleep with their husbands. His life is a matter of routines. He sees no restrictions, no duty, no obligations, no commitments--a life full of activities without the exploration of possibilities (Heidegger, 1993). So far as he is concerned, he is the only one who is free in his vast kingdom. But is there freedom without responsibility? In reality, he will soon discover that the lack of restrictions in his life do not render him free at all; that, in the end, he cannot escape the 'existentials' that define the human experience, such as the reality of mortality (Cohn, 1997).
In search of some semblance of solace from the king's tyranny, his people beg the gods for their intervention. Perhaps the gods could reform their impetuous son who is endowed with many gifts but lacks compassion. Would the gods kill this unruly child after hearing the incessant cry of the puny humans? No, many gods love Gilgamesh and protect him from all manners of harm. However, in his wisdom, the chief god Anu, commissions the goddess Aruru, who allegedly created the human race, to bring to life a new man who could challenge Gilgamesh; one who could match his 'stormy heart,' who could match his strength and stature. The gods, it appears, do not wish to directly affect the affairs of human beings; perhaps it was them who 'condemned' us to be free.
Aruru gets to work with a marvelous plan to create a worthy challenger for Gilgamesh; but not just any challenger, for this new creation is a primitive double, who is to be called, Enkidu; a powerful creature who, unlike Gilgamesh, is two thirds animal and one third human. Indeed, Enkidu is very much at home living among other animals. He lives and acts as one of them and enjoys life with all of its day-to-day excitements and challenges. He does not exploit the world around him but joins with it in a state of harmonious co-existence. While Gilgamesh appears civilized, Enkidu appears barbaric; while Gilgamesh is arrogant and desirous of subjugating others, Enkidu lives in unity with nature, eats, drinks, and sleeps with the other animals. And while the great king behaves in a most narcissistic fashion, it appears that Enkidu, this primitive double, follows a form of natural ethics. He frees those animals which are trapped by the hunters and destroys their traps. He also exhibits a sense of felt morality. For Enkidu, nature is home; there is no sense of alienation. He is not conscious of his own being, he simply lives his own everydayness (Heidegger, 1962). There is a curious juxtaposition here as the animal-like Enkidu seems to demonstrate the type of higher morality that Schopenhauer referred to as 'just,' while the civilized Gilgamesh shows the signs and tendencies of a lower, 'egoist,' form or morality, a type of morality that sees oneself as more important than others (Schopenhauer, 1995).
One day, a hunter, in great awe and amazement, discovers the two-legged monster-man from afar. He quickly reports his observation to his father who suggests a trip to Uruk to report the presence of the creature to the king. After all, this 'thing' was destroying their livelihood, as he was freeing the animals from the well fashioned traps. Upon hearing about this new creature who roams the forests while surrounded by animals, Gilgamesh orders the temple priestess, Shamhat, to be sent to the forest in order to have an encounter with Enkidu, to seduce him, make love to him; after which, the king suggests, the animals would avoid him altogether. Shamhat follows the command of her king and with no fear or trepidation has an intimate encounter with Enkidu, who makes love to her for seven days, after which the animals no longer have anything to do with him, just as the king had predicted.
What caused this change in Enkidu's relationship with animals? What happened to him that suddenly made him less of an animal and more of a human? This passage offers much wisdom about the nature of human relationships, the kind of wisdom that is of particular interest to existentialists. Buber (1970) asserted that the self develops and evolves in relation to another person. Indeed, relationships play a significant role in our gaining self-consciousness. In Buber's words, 'Man becomes an I through a You. What confronts us comes and vanishes, relational events take shape and scatter, and through these changes crystallizes, more and more each time, the consciousness of the constant partner, the Iconsciousness' (p.80).
True that relationships can be very much like a two edged sword, they are also critical in helping us in the process of self-discovery. While Sartre (1955) suggested in his play No Exit that 'Hell is other people,' at the same time, relationships are instrumental in elevating our consciousness to a higher plane, with the potential for transforming us to a being who is different than animals, with all the blessings and curses that such a metamorphosis may entail. In his interactions with Shamhat, Enkidu is gaining self-consciousness, a uniquely human characteristic, which make him different than the animals. Civilization should not be merely viewed at by accomplishments in art, language, culture, but also in terms of our ability to relate to others (Buber, 1970).
Enkidu made love to Shamhat for seven days, while with each passing day he was transformed from a beast-like creature into that which was more human. The intense interaction between the two softened the animal side, and brought out the tenderness within him. In the end, Enkidu was permanently changed by his encounter with Shamhat and could not go back to his former existence. True that he had found a beautiful woman in the midst of wilderness, but at the same time he had lost his animal-like innocence. The sense of alienation that humans experience in the midst of the natural world had now become his curse as well. Indeed, once again we see a powerful depiction of the concept of alienation, which plays a significant role in the existential literature (Barrett, 1978; Solomon, 2005). Although we live and satisfy our needs as one of the creatures of this planet, somehow we are, at least, dimly aware that we are not in concert with nature; a sense of 'not belonging' often permeates our thoughts. Unlike the other animals who need no explanations for the purpose of their existence, who are driven by instincts that guide their behaviour, we cannot simply find satisfaction in our instinctive drives; something is amiss (Frankl, 1988; Kierkegaard, 1988).
Meanwhile, the priestess, Shamhat, begins the process of helping Enkidu become a civilized man, for he could no longer return to the wilderness whence he had originated; he needed a new home among people. After shaving his long hair, dressing him, and teaching him how to eat and drink like people, she shows him how to interact with others. Soon, he is one of them. Conformity takes away so much of the anxiety of the 'groundless' nature of human existence (Heidegger, 1962).
We become aware of Enkidu's sense of natural morality, especially after he finds out about Gilgamesh's appalling act of making love to every newly wedded bride before the bridegroom is allowed in the bedroom. He finds such an act most repulsive and infuriating. Just as he protected the animals in the forest, he now wants to come to the rescue of the young brides. Is it possible that one can possess a form of ethical and moral sense without resorting to an intellectual way of conceptualizing right and wrong? As his association with people deepens, he finds it even more appalling to hear about the king's conduct. In words of Heidegger (1962), "This Being-with-one-another dissolves one's own Dasien completely into the kind of Being of 'the Others', in such a way, indeed, that the others, as distinguishable and explicit, vanish more and more. In this inconspicuousness and unasertainability, the real dictatorship of the 'they' is unfolded. We take pleasure and enjoy ourselves as they take pleasure; we read, see, and judge about literature and art as they see and judge; likewise we shrink back from the 'great mass' as they shrink back; we find 'shocking' what they find shocking" (p. 164).
Now it was time for the two giants to encounter each other. They meet at last, and engage one another in a hand-to-hand battle. For the first time in his life, Gilgamesh is challenged in a real fight, when the opponent is not simply thrown to the ground with one swift movement of his arms. This was not an ordinary fight, although it might have appeared that way on the surface. There is so much more to this battle as the two seem to enter into a level of intimacy with each other, while one attempts to pin the other to the ground. At the end, even though Gilgamesh throws Enkidu to the ground, the two giants acknowledge each other's might and strength. The battle is not won in the way the outcome of battles is generally conceived; in truth, a friendship with deep intensity is forged--the opposites desire to be united! Indeed, as Nietzsche (1999) reminds us, it is only in the joining of the two opposing parts that we can become productive. The narrative suggests that a deep love begins to emerge between the two, which deepens as the story unfolds. Enkidu is not just another one of the king's subjects; he is loved and made an equal. In Kierkegaard's words, "For it is only in love that the unequal can be made equal and it is only in equality that an understanding can be reached (in Oden, 1978, p. 42). While it is quite clear in the story that one does not even attempt to change the other, in this newly found I-Thou relationship, it is only a matter of time before this love (philia), this sense of equality between the 'opposites,' forever transforms both of them.
What is the next step in their relationship? Should they just enjoy the life of merriment with all the amenities at their disposal? What are some of the drawbacks of a life that is solely focused on the experience of pleasure? Kierkegaard (1987, 1988) had much to say about this mode of living life, which he called the aesthetic mode; but such a mode of existence is bound to generate a great deal of boredom; boredom that demands the discovery of all new sorts of entertainment. Such newly discovered sources of entertainment, however, lose their luster with great rapidity, which means that the demand for new sources of pleasure is only to persist with a certain vengeance. No, what Gilgamesh needs is something thrilling, something exciting, even dangerous. How about slaying the most frightening, invincible, powerful monster that inhabits the cedar forests? The monster, Humbaba!
Both Kierkegaard and Heidegger asserted that the inauthentic life is submerged in the external, in the day-to-day distractions, and often directed toward curiosity, the trivial, transitory excitement, and empty if not dangerous activities (Heidegger, 1962; Kierkegaard, 1987). Thus, the discovery of self and being are avoided, until such a time when we find ourselves in the grip of profound guilt, sorrow, anxiety, and the reality of death. Killing the invincible monster of the cedar forest may be full of thrill and a test of a hero's prowess, but, in this case, it is also a step toward a transformation, which will force Gilgamesh out of his fallen-ness into inauthenticity, into an encounter with his naked self. For now, however, such a realization does not exist for the impetuous king.
Gilgamesh announces to Enkidu that they should destroy 'the evil one,' the invincible monster who roams the cedar forests, so that the whole world would come to know them as the most powerful on earth. Such statements are obviously full of arrogant pride, but at this point Gilgamesh is completely obsessed with killing this enemy, an enemy which in reality has done him no harm (Sanders, 1972). As far as he is concerned, it serves as a source of challenge, or possibly a source of temporary meaning. Unlike Gilgamesh, Enkidu is not interested in slaughtering the creature in charge of the forest; after all he came from a similar forest where he lived in peace with the other animals. One can say that Enkidu had a healthy respect for the powers that reside in the wilderness. However, his arguments amount to naught as Gilgamesh insists on destroying the creature. In the midst of offering all sorts of reasons for the battle with Humbaba, Gilgamesh senses fear in his newly found friend, the fear of death. But does he offer any comforting thoughts so as to mitigate Enkidu's anxiety? Not at all; instead he offers a very rational conceptualization of death as he suggests, 'Why are you worried about death? Only the gods are immortal anyway. What men do is nothing, so fear is never justified. What happened to your power that once could challenge and equal mine? I will go ahead of you, and if I die, I will at least have the reward of having people say he died in war against Humbaba' (Mason, 1970, p.29-30).
With such utterances, Enkidu reluctantly submits himself to the wishes of the king as they set out to travel to the cedar forest, with the intention of once and for all destroying the monster. Finally, they reach the fateful forest where the two warriors, united, defeat their presumed enemy. The valiant warriors, who are now much like inseparable brothers, decide to return home where they are greeted with a warm welcome of the people of Uruk. But the story becomes much more complicated as the two brothers, in their arrogance, offend the goddess Ishtar, which finally results in Enkidu being stricken by an incurable disease.
Shortly before his death, Enkidu curses Shamhat, the woman who through a passionate encounter made him human, gave him self-awareness, and brought him into civilization. He curses her for taking away his innocence, his ignorance. But after reflecting on the life that he was given with a friend, who loved him like a brother, he changes his mind and before his last breathe, he blesses Shamhat and wishes her well. In words of Solomon (2005), '... once one becomes self-conscious, he cannot go back, no matter how he denies himself, drugs himself, leaps or falls away from himself' (p. xiv). In the end, Enkidu he choose to accept the blessings and the curses of his reaching self-consciousness.
This is a remarkable passage in the story and requires further exploration. Enkidu's life can be viewed as undergoing three stages: when he was animal-like and a part of nature; when he was brought into the human civilization and became one of them, another das Man; and when he had to make decisions on his own, passionately and in the midst of uncertainty--when he owned up to his responsibilities and accepted the challenges of life. This last stage brought him face to face with the reality of death, which unleashed great powers within him as an individual. When he realized that he was about to die, he cursed Shamhat as if to say, 'Why did you make me self-conscious?' But when he looked back and realized the wealth that he had gained through first becoming a self-conscious being and then an authentic being, he realized that he had made a good trade for what he had gained in the end. I submit to the reader that a patient undergoing existential analysis or existential psychotherapy may potentially experience a progression through similar stages.
Ford (2007) warns us about those moments when we deliberately begin to question and confront the meaning of life. In his words, 'Before the question is asked, we live in a state of innocence. But once the question becomes a question, once we ask whether life is meaningful, there is no turning back. The possibility that our lives may be pointless leaves us naked and vulnerable. All of us seek a life of meaning and purpose, but finding such a life is difficult ... The happiness of life, before the question began, was a delusion, a concealment and lie perpetrated by the conventional answers of success and fame and material comfort that the culture provided. In contrast to this intoxication, there is the sober perception that life [may be] meaningless, cruel, and stupid' (Ford, 2007, p. xi & p.4). Truly, this captures the king's mental state most succinctly as he finds himself naked and vulnerable, wondering what happened to the happiness that he once used to embrace.
Gilgamesh cannot comprehend that his friend, his soul-mate, is now dead. He is confronted by the absurd nature of this loss, while at the same time he realizes that the universe is indifferent to his suffering; there are no answers, no solace. He begins to question the meaning of life or its meaninglessness. Suddenly, death becomes an undeniable reality to him, there is no going back. 'What happened to Enkidu is bound to happen to me,' he contemplates. He experiences a profound state of anxiety, which is '... rooted in the realization that life is inevitably moving toward death' (Cohn, 1997, p. 70). This anxiety is followed by a state of melancholy, as he realizes that 'Everything that is possible has already happened. Life is ruled by the shadow of loss--a loss which is not just anticipated but is already fact' (Cohn, 1997, p. 110) Soon, he is so bewildered with the thought of his own impending demise that he begins to frantically, as if obsessed like a mad man, inquire about a method by which he can achieve immortality. He cannot think of anything else except a way of defeating death. But who has been able to defy death on earth? All humans die, except for the legend about one human who was granted immortality by the gods, one called Utnapishtim, who may know of a way to teach him to conquer death as well. Gilgamesh dresses in animal skins, very much like the way Enkidu used to dress. He has experienced a metamorphosis of a sort and cannot simply return to his old self (Kafka, 1972). By dressing in animal skins, in a symbolic act, he separates himself from the masses, and his historicity, so as to resist falling into 'they-self,' from whom 'the secrets are hidden' (Heidegger, 1962). He then sets out to find the immortal Utnapishtim.
In his journey he comes across a tavern-woman who feels sad for the desperate, despondent king and offers him the following advice:
He, however, resists the advice of the gentle-woman, even though it suggests a way of living that can offer some temporary solace while the earthly journey lasts. Exhausted, but determined, he continues to search for the immortal human with the hope that he would tell him the secret of avoiding death. Finally, he finds him.
Gilgamesh initially contemplates attacking the god-like, immortal Utnapishtim. However, once they meet face to face and he realizes that this god was very much like him, just another human being, he could not fight him. The key, once again, resides in this face-to-face encounter, which has the potential to change one's attitude toward the unknown (Buber, 1970). Gilgamesh is initially perplexed as to why he cannot use his might to bring on destruction. All he could think to himself was, "You are like me." This is akin to what Buber refers to as a true encounter and the transformation that it brings about. In his words, 'When I confront a human being as my You and speak of the basic word I-You to him, then he is no thing among things nor does he consist of things. He is no longer He or She, limited by other Hes or Shes ... neighborless and seamless, he is You and fills the firmament' (Buber, 1970, p.99). Indeed, he saw not an enemy at all, not an evil one, not even a god.
Gilgamesh begs Utnapishtim to show him a way to conquer death with these supplicating words, 'Is there something more than death? Some other end to friendship?' (Mason, 1972, p. 73). If the gods had made one man immortal, perhaps they could do the same for him. Very much like a parent who wishes to comfort the fears of a young child by telling him a story as a form of distraction, Utnapishtim tells the story of the flood, which was sent down by the gods to destroy all humans.
While the story is undoubtedly fascinating, it does nothing for the weary Gilgamesh. The distraction does not work. At least for the moment, it appears that the reality of death has made him immune to distractions. He refuses to be pacified with even the most secret stories of all times. How can I achieve immortality? was the persistent question at hand. Finally, Utnapishtim's wife implores her husband to offer something consoling to this desperate, frightened man. He agrees to share a secret story not about becoming immortal but how to slow the aging process. Utnapishtim describes a plant, hidden at the bottom of the sea, that can bring some relief to the one who wishes to postpone death. He shares with him the knowledge about the secret plant with sharp leaves, hidden in the depth of the ocean, which can stop the aging process or even cause one to return to his youth. Perhaps life extension, but not immortality!
With a newly found sense of hope, Gilgamesh sets out to find the plant. He dives deep into the sea and finds the mysterious plant, uproots it and bring it up to the shore. On his journey home, he places the plant on the ground while bathing, only for it to be stolen by a snake that eats it and sheds his skin as it crawls away, disappearing in the midst of bushes.
Gilgamesh weeps for a while now that his last hope for eternal youth is so cruelly taken away from him. Yet, he must go on. Upon reaching the walls of the great city Uruk, his city, he finds himself transformed by a profound sense of awakening. No, he does not know the secret of immortality, although for the first time in his life he has discovered the majesty of his city, which shines like a beacon in a distance. 'And Gilgamesh, pointing to this man-made world of Uruk, suggests an intuitive if inarticulate perception that work proper to man and to his destiny is to build, to create a world of his own, as well as to die' (Foster, 2001, p. 182). He resolves to live his life by giving to his people as a good king would. He does not change his title or decide to dress differently. The change in him is an inner change, an existential one. For the rest of his life, Gilgamesh finds serenity in knowing that what matters most is his commitment to others, which is ultimately where he finds the purpose in his existence. He discovers that his existence is not about his kingdom, his possessions, but the possibilities that await his discovery (Heidegger, 1993). The words of Cohn (1997) so succinctly capture the king's newly found realization, "If human existence is 'being-in-the-world,' it means that there is a constant involvement with all there is--interaction is inevitable and detachment is impossible" (p. 15). While he lived thousands of years ago, he remains immortal in a sense that we still refer to him and his story.
What happens after we discover our individuality, our possibilities in our brief existence, when we realize our need to respond to our world passionately and authentically? Should we take to our graves such new discoveries? Certainly a 'fallen,' sleeping world may not be so inclined to listen to our self-discoveries; as such discoveries, without a doubt, require yielding to suffering, which acts as one of the potential agents for awakening. Those who gain some understanding about who they are, perhaps find it most compelling to somehow share such realizations with others, most immediately with their own culture. Above all, such sharing is something that potentially can have an impact on the entire human race. Art, poetry, literature, architecture, etc., serve as means of sharing one's realizations with others, in a way that is not limited by death, in a way that transcends time and space.
Kierkegaard (1987) warns about the serious problems with living solely in the aesthetic mode, where one is driven by immediate pleasures, power, fame, and reputation. At the same time, he also warns the aesthete about the inevitable outcome of living in this mode of existence, the experience of utter despair. While the arrival of such despair can be temporarily evaded or avoided, it is only a matter of time before one is locked in its grip. Hence, Kierkegaard offers a second mode of existence, the ethical mode in which the individual lives a life of commitment, a mode of existence, where meaning is sought not in one's own satisfaction but in acknowledging the needs of others. In this mode, one does not seek to be loved but loves others passionately and with loyalty. This is where we find Gilgamesh at the end of the story. He has moved from the self-indulging, self-centered, pleasure seeking state of existence to despair, to a profound realization that brings him much comfort; the realization that he has a people to lead, to serve, and to satisfy. The image in which he finds contentment is not that of him finding immortality, but discovering the beauty of his city and how it needs his wholehearted commitment. Ironically, in doing so he is immortalized as thousands of years later we are still marveling at the messages imbedded in his story.
Similarly, Heidegger (1962) suggests that becoming an authentic individual is but a step in the right direction after which one needs to make commitments to his or her culture and society. Therefore, becoming an individual is more than simply stepping out of the herd, but it is about engaging one's self passionately in the whole of life. Such an individual is a participating member of the human race, who does not deny death as it is considered a reminder, even a friend which fuels the fire of creativity and true engagement in life. Johnson (2000), while reflecting on Heidegger's concept of authenticity, proposes that, "The call to authenticity is not simply a call to individual authenticity. It is also a call to humans in community. To be human is to recognize the need to discover how this 'they-self functions to conceal what it is to be Dasein" (p. 21). This call to human community can be captured in a newly found sense of an ethical life. The words of Beauvoir (1976) so aptly capture the ethical transformation that we observe in Gilgamesh as the story comes to a close. This transformation is not simply about a naturalist form of ethics, as we saw in Enkidu's life, but it is an existential one.
In the end, Gilgamesh returns to his people as someone who no longer denies or fights death; he embraces it as a part of life. Gilgamesh has discovered his inner freedom, which even the gods cannot defy, and the responsibility that make such freedom meaningful. He has made a new discovery about what it means to be a human, an individual, who now needs to share his understanding about the nature of existence with his own people.
From nearly 6,000 years ago, an undeniable echo finds its way to the world of today. Long before the words 'existential' or 'existentialism' were coined, a story with profound meaning and implications describes the human condition. With timeless symbolisms and metaphors, just as pertinent to this day as then, we uncover the key premises of the 'existential movement,' long before the utterances of Heraclitus, Augustine, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Sartre and others. Hence, the Epic of Gilgamesh becomes a companion guide to existential ponderings, whether used in the consultation room of the psychotherapist, or in academia, or wherever the 'why' and 'how' of human existence are explored.
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Micah Sadigh, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Psychology at Cedar Crest College. Dr. Sadigh is a Diplomate in Franklian Psychology and a Fellow of the International College of Psychosomatic Medicine. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Address: Cedar Crest College, 100 College Dr. Allentown, PA, 18104 USA.
The eternal life you are seeking you shall not find. When the gods created mankind, they established death for mankind, And withheld eternal life for themselves. As for you, Gilgamesh, let your stomach be full, Always be happy, night and day. Make everyday a delight, Night and day play and dance (Foster, 2001, p.100).
... since the individual is defined by his relationship to the world and to other individuals, he exists only by transcending himself, and his freedom can be achieved only through the freedom of others. He justifies his existence by a movement which, like freedom, springs from his heart but which leads outside of him ... Man is free; but he finds his law in his very freedom. First he must assume his freedom and not flee it; he assumes it by a constructive movement: one does not exist without doing something; and also by a negative movement which rejects oppression for oneself and others (p. 156).
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