by Sam Kriss

Gilgamesh: A New Translation of the Ancient Epic
Sophus Helle, translator
Yale University Press, pp. 320, $25.00

Most people don’t think about death. I know this, because I think about death more than almost anyone I know, but I still don’t think about death, not really. I’m aware of it, vaguely, as an abstract fact about the world. All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. Therefore Socrates is mortal. I can write entire essays on death and not really consider it in any more personal terms than that. Sucks to be Socrates! I think about it a little more when I’m taking a flight: the safety instruction plays and my neighbors fiddle with their seatbelts, and meanwhile I imagine myself sitting in this exact same seat with some stupid movie on the displays, while the ground lurches towards the sky. Gravity roaring outside the windows; the cabin fills with helpless screams. Oh God … we’re all going to die! But this is a very limited, conditional vision of death. It implies a kind of inverse: the plane doesn’t crash, then I won’t die. This is how we think about everything we fear, but this time it’s simply not true. The truth is that I have been in a crashing plane every moment of my life.

But every so often, I do think about death. I could probably count the times on one hand. The most recent episode was in late 2017. I’d been reading Iain Sinclair’s London Orbital; about a third of the way through the book he’s in Hillingdon on the western edge of the capital, dropping in on Harefield Hospital. Sinclair writes:

Reading about the procedures that took place in Harefield, the technical advances, doesn’t help. My heart thumps loudly, standing in for the mechanism of the clock that freezes time. As a metaphor the heart is too assertive; several of the Harefield administrators died, at work, of heart attacks. This is not surprising; the layout of the hospital, with its “oxygen storage” sheds, its intricate system of paths and walkways, its sealed chambers, becomes a pictogram of the heart. I think of my father and grandfather dying suddenly, out of the blue, when their hearts gave out. At home, in a chair, after a shopping expedition; on the pavement, outside the house, after an uphill walk.

That was all it took. My own heart started thumping in panic, and the louder it did, the more acutely aware I was that everything I imagined myself to be depended on this knot of dumb muscle, and that soon, sooner every morning, it would simply stop. One ordinary day, the bright space of the universe will clam shut. The stars and galaxies will vanish forever. I will never see the sunlight again. I barely slept that night, and in the morning I was still panicking about my mortality. In the shower: I’m going to die, I’m going to die. Picking joylessly at my breakfast: I’m going to die, I’m going to die. Trying to write: What’s the point? I’m going to die. It lasted weeks. Eventually, I suffered something genuinely calamitous; my entire life collapsed in the space of about two and a half hours. Then, finally, I stopped worrying about death.

I’ve seen the same thing happen to other people. When I was a teenager, one of my friends became suddenly aware in the middle of an art class that he was going to die. We were meant to be learning about color theory. He sat hyperventilating in a corner among the blank easels, and the rest of us vaguely patted his shoulder as he muttered the same words, I’m going to die, I’m going to die. We didn’t get it. Well, of course you’re going to die. Everyone dies. The sky is blue and the earth revolves around the sun and everyone is someday going to die. It’s impossible to fully understand the sheer panic of thinking about death unless you’re right in the middle of it. Maybe you’ve had a similar experience. Maybe you haven’t; some people don’t. Maybe you never will.

My friend spent the next few days asking everyone he knew how they coped with their awareness of death. He was looking for some formula, a combination of words or concepts that would make it all make sense. It had to exist, otherwise life would be impossible, but he didn’t find it. A few people told him that after they died their constituent atoms would fall apart and go into the soil and become living things again, grass and trees, maybe a bird. This didn’t help. Mostly they just told him not to think about it, which was impossible. There wasn’t anyone who gave him the obvious answer: that death is not the end. The vast majority of the world’s population believe that there is some kind of afterlife, or reincarnation, or a resurrection at the end of time. But we were middle-class kids in the secular depths of North London, and we were not among them.

I don’t think this has much to do with religion. In 2014, a survey found that while belief in God was declining, eighty percent of Americans believed in an afterlife, up from seventy-three percent in 1972. There are those who believe in an afterlife with no God, and those who believe in God with no afterlife. For Jews, this is a familiar position: the Torah contains no real account of any kind of life after death. Jews don’t follow the Law out of any particular expectation of cosmic reward, but simply because that’s what we do. The closest we get to an afterlife in the Biblical sources is something called Sheol: an abyss, the house of unbeing. Everyone who lives goes to Sheol, good and bad alike, and the souls there are insensate and oblivious. They do not remember their brief lives in the daylight. They do not speak. In Homer, the shades in Hades feast on blood, but in Sheol they don’t even hunger. The Ecclesiast describes them: “For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten. Also their love, and their hatred, and their envy, is now perished; neither have they any more a portion for ever in any thing that is done under the sun.” Job knows what waits for him: “A land of darkness, as darkness itself; and of the shadow of death, without any order, and where the light is as darkness.” The dead are simply annihilated, even in the mind of God. From Psalm Eighty-Eight: “The slain that lie in the grave, whom Thou rememberest no more: they are cut off from Thy hand.”

Later Jewish texts would find a light in that darkness: they gave us the resurrection of the dead on Judgment Day and the Olam HaBa. It still feels tacked on; a few woolly jumpers against the chill of Sheol. Christianity, though, is different. Christians believe that the grave has been conquered. Christianity is a drama of the afterlife: its stakes are always, from the start, the fate of your immortal soul. Still, even in Christian society, even in more pious times than ours, there’s still that undercurrent, the sense of the void that’s waiting for you on just the other side of every living instant. From the 1300s “until far into the sixteenth century,” Johan Huizinga writes,

Tombs are adorned with hideous images of a naked corpse with clenched hands and rigid feet, gaping mouth and bowels crammed with worms. The imagination of those times relished these horrors, without ever looking one stage further, to see how corruption perishes in its turn, and flowers grow where it lay.

People might have dutifully believed in the immortal soul, but what really gripped them was the image of the corpse. The blob of matter that you will become, the wet echo of yourself that remains once you’re gone. Once, corpses would speak. In the crypt of the Capuchin friars in Rome, stacks of grinning skulls bear a motto. “Quello che voi siete, noi eravamo; quello che noi siamo, voi sarete.” What you are, we once were; what we are, you will be. It’s not always clear what these grisly reminders were meant to do. Even in churches and monasteries, few of them came with any of the usual exhortations. The bones and rotting flesh weren’t there to inspire you to think on your sins, act justly, and remember that you will be judged. They just lingered, a morbid note in the air, mocking everything that exists.

The concept of the afterlife is strangely ineffective against the terror of death. In general, I think there are simply some people who feel the terror, and some who don’t. And the content of your beliefs changes almost nothing. A 2018 study in Cognitive Science found that in the West, nonreligious people were slightly less afraid of death than Christians. Hindus in India were even braver. But the population most afraid of dying were Tibetan Buddhist monks. The monks were also the least likely to be willing to exchange a few months of their own life to help another person live longer. These people have dedicated their lives to the doctrine that the self is an illusion and life is endlessly repeated; they were the group most likely to believe in some kind of life after death. For Buddhists, the point is to get off the cycle of rebirths—but here they were, desperately clinging on.

If the afterlife doesn’t help, then what can? When my friend in art class asked me how I coped with the inevitability of death, I told him that I comforted myself with the idea that we could create things that would outlive us. A truly great piece of art, a monument to my existence that would stand forever. Maybe I would be okay with dying, I said, if I knew that I wouldn’t simply vanish into the same slime of unbeing that had burped me up, just another anonymous creature, disappearing as if I’d never even lived. I would accept it if I could leave a permanent mark on the world. I was a modest child.

This is what Ernest Becker, in The Denial of Death, calls “heroism”: you sublimate your fear of death into great deeds, mighty acts of creation or violence. Sometimes you produce something magnificent; sometimes you kill your fellow creatures, sometimes by the million—but the theme is the same. Could a mortal animal, a piece of “complex and fancy worm food,” do this? The world is littered with these grand defiances: pyramids in the desert, Trump Towers, graves. Still, heroism is not a strategy open to most people—and as Becker points out, the more mechanized our society becomes, the fewer opportunities we have for individual greatness. I’ve come to accept that I will probably not, as I imagined as a child, become like Chaucer or Shakespeare, living forever in the brains of a million resentful literature students. But the heroic ideal continues, in a smaller, milder form. You will live on in the good you do in the world, the small acts of kindness or generosity, the lives you touched, the children you bring into the world. They matter, these miniature monuments, these little obelisks of sand.

But even if I could achieve something world-historical, would it really last? Nearly three hundred years before Becker, Thomas Browne’s Urn Buriall ends with a sharp, cold slap in the face: whatever you do, you will not be remembered. “There is no antidote against the Opium of time… Grave-stones tell truth scarce forty years; Generations passe while some trees still stand, and old Families last not three Oaks… The greater part must be content to be as though they had not been.” And there’s no telling how the future will receive your legacy. The kings of ancient Egypt carefully preserved their corpses for eternity—but by Browne’s day, Europeans would sometimes eat them. Powdered mummy was used for its supposed medicinal effects, or as an aphrodisiac. “The Ægyptian Mummies, which Cambyses or time hath spared, avarice now consumeth. Mummie is become Merchandise, Mizraim cures wounds, and Pharaoh is sold for balsoms.” Nobody bothered to learn the names of the kings they were eating. The future feeds on its past.

Browne thought every monument would perish, along with the world itself, by the year 2000. No posterity for those “whose generations are ordained in this setting part of time.” He turned out to have misjudged by twenty-two years and counting, but his point still stands; we just need to adjust the scale. Even if you don’t think Judgment Day is approaching, there will still be a day when Shakespeare and Chaucer will be forgotten. One day the sun will swallow the earth; one day the galaxies will dissolve. We now know that once the last stars have burned out, there will be unimaginable ages in which nothing will exist except black holes. Our universe is fourteen billion years old; the Black Hole Era will last for a trillion trillion trillion times longer. On that timeframe, our age—the time of warmth and light, where thinking creatures on rocky worlds might hope to be remembered for the things they do in their lives—is only a brief flash around the Big Bang. All your acts of kindness will vanish. If something has to stand forever in this world to be meaningful, then absolutely nothing we do has any significance at all.

There have been other answers. Sometimes people tell me that death isn’t worth worrying about, because it doesn’t really happen to you. This argument has an impressive pedigree. Epicurus: “That most fearful of all bad things, death, is nothing to us, since when we are, death is not, and when death is present, then we are not.” Lucretius expands on it. “Past centuries of infinite time prior to our birth have meant nothing to us. This, therefore, nature offers to us as a mirror of time to come, once we are dead and gone.” Montaigne takes up the theme. “Why should we fear to lose a thing, which, being lost, cannot be lamented?” In the twentieth century, Wittgenstein echoes: “Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death… Our life has no end in just the way in which our visual field has no limits.” There are philosophical arguments against all this, but the poets put it best. Philip Larkin, now dead, who thought about death the way I’ve thought about death:

I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.   
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.   
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.   
Till then I see what’s really always there:   
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,   
Making all thought impossible but how   
And where and when I shall myself die…
Specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear—no sight, no sound,   
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,   
Nothing to love or link with,
The anesthetic from which none come round.

It simply does not help. Logical arguments are powerless against the panic of a finite consciousness. The same goes for that minor variant, the Ecclesiast’s YOLO: “A man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry.” Don’t worry so much! In a secular society, this is the response you’re most likely to hear, but it’s only telling you to do what most of us are already doing, most of the time, which is not thinking about it. We live, Larkin wrote, in a “rented world,” where phones ring and the postman makes his rounds; there’s work to be done and pleasures to be had, and as long as you’re wrapped up in them you don’t really think about how brief it all really is. (You can also quite effectively shut off all knowledge by playing video games all day, or scrolling on your phone, or otherwise aggressively wasting your life.) Still, even after a night of eating and drinking and being merry, there’s still that solitude at four in the morning, and the terror of what’s really always there.

The answer I like most is the one that isn’t really an answer. From Socrates on, philosophy has tried to calm the fear of death. What if we didn’t? Don’t shut out the fear; don’t compensate with monuments; don’t explain away, with neat logical tricks, the sheer madness of a world that could create conscious beings and then squish them into nothingness. Don’t try to make it make sense. Those moments of nocturnal terror are rare, and important. This is when you’re confronting the deepest, most deranged pit of your being: that you are an animal that knows it will die.

I don’t know how many people will follow me to this conclusion. Maybe the closest is Heidegger, for whom any authentic life is a Sein-zum-Tode, a being-towards-death. Heidegger, almost uniquely among the philosophers, acknowledges that even though we all know we will die, most of the time we don’t really understand it. We live under the pallor of what he calls ‘the They,’ the social persona of idle talk and mild distractions. They-life is bacterial; it has no place for death. It’s impolite to talk about the inevitability of death at a social gathering: after all, your death is something intensely private. Unlike the Stoics or Wittgenstein, Heidegger believes that death really does happen to you; it might be the only thing that does. He calls it your eigenste, “ownmost,” the thing that forces you to confront yourself as an individual. And facing your own death, you have no choice but to live authentically. These days, that same friend of mine who had the panic attack in the middle of a school day finds it hard to hold down an ordinary office job. As soon as some tedious busybody from HR starts trying to tell him what to do, he’s reminded that she will one day die, and he will one day die, and death is the end and limit of all human experience. Harder to truly know that, and then sit at a desk, typing numbers into a machine. But Heidegger doesn’t simply endorse panic or despair; almost nobody does. Angst is a necessary stage you have to pass through; the goal is always to accept your finitude, embrace it as the condition of a life well lived. 

I don’t want to accept it. I don’t want to make my peace. Being human is a struggle: a vast conflict against the most basic and unalterable facts of existence, a fight we will always—must always—lose. My allies here are scattered. Those medieval corpses; the edges of Philip Larkin’s curtains. But there’s one more. He who saw the deep, the goring aurochs, the splendid man of muscle who surpassed all kings: Gilgamesh the great.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is not, as Sophus Helle makes clear in the essays attached to his new translation, the oldest piece of literature in human history. But it is still very, very old. The first written stories about Gilgamesh king of Uruk date back to the twenty-first century BC; the folktales it’s drawn from will have been even older. According to the Sumerian King List, the actual Gilgamesh lived nearly ten thousand years ago. We think of Gilgamesh as coming from the very beginning of history; the people who wrote it felt themselves perched over an even deeper well of time. It is also very, very new. The clay tablets that contain the epic weren’t discovered until the second half of the nineteenth century; before that, they had been forgotten for two thousand years. This story comes to us clean, untouched by history. Anglo-Saxon poets might start their lays with a cursory account of the Siege of Troy, but not Uruk the Sheepfold. John Dryden and Alexander Pope did not contribute their own versions of the calf of Lugalbanda. But Gilgamesh feels new in a way that has nothing to do with history. Helle quotes the Danish poet Naja Marie Aidt: “It has torn through time like a literary fireball.” Whenever you are, it speaks directly to you.

A few years ago, I saw an exhibition of Mesopotamian relics at the British Museum: beautiful, but also suffocating. All those ranks of soldiers in the reliefs, with the same identical faces, the same blank empty smiles, like robots, like ants. Coming out of those dark galleries and into the rooms of classical sculpture was like coming up for air. The figures in Greek statuary have human expressions; individual and emotive, like us. In their writings, things are entirely reversed. As much as I love Greek tragedy, its people are automata: everything they do is already determined by Fate. Unlike the very modern Hamlet, Orestes never has a moment of indecision before killing his stepfather. There’s never any chance that he might try, and fail. But Gilgamesh is an existential figure. Helle spends some time talking about all the many different ways you can read this poem—it’s an ecological fable about the city and the wilderness, the destruction of the natural world, an early account of the anthropocene; it’s about friendship and sex and gender and statecraft and the gods and the specific history of ancient Iraq. And yes, all of these things are true. But above everything, it’s about a man confronting his death. The twenty-first century B.C. and the twenty-first century A.D. are impossibly different times, but this story is plugged into the one point where we’re all exactly the same.

When we first meet this profound psychological hero, he has a very unfamiliar shape. Gilgamesh is a giant, eighteen feet tall. He was not quite born, but crafted by the gods, and the King of Uruk is still a kind of monstrous sticky-fingered toddler. Instead of leading his people, he torments them. He sleeps with the young women of the city on their wedding nights and the young men of the city whenever he feels like it. He attacks whomever he wants and always wins. Gilgamesh is a man who does not understand his own limits: pure impulse, greedy delight, a dumb ravenous oral-stage psychopath burning through the world. So the gods create another man, Enkidu, to be his rival and equal. When they first meet, Enkidu tries to stop Gilgamesh enjoying his right of primae noctis: they fight, “butting like bulls,” and Gilgamesh relents. From that day, Enkidu becomes his advisor, his lover, and his friend.

Gilgamesh proposes an adventure: they will go west, to the forests of Lebanon, and kill Humbaba, a monstrous creature the gods have placed there to protect the cedars. Enkidu is afraid: “His howl is a flood, his voice is fire, his breath is death.” Humbaba is “the terror of men,” and “despair strikes all who step into his forest.” Gilgamesh laughs:

My friend, who has ever climbed to the skies?
Only gods live in endless sunlight.
But the days of men are numbered,
all that we do is nothing but wind.
And there you are—afraid of death!
What then is the use of your valiant might?
I will go first. You can stand behind me
and shout: ‘Be brave and march on!’
If I die, I will only have made a name for myself:
“Gilgamesh battled the brutal Humbaba!”

When they reach Humbaba’s forest, it’s a surprisingly gentle place. “The stork clattered, filling the forest with joy, the rooster crowed, filling the forest with resounding joy.” Humbaba wanders through this paradise, chatting amicably with himself, and when he sees the two adventurers he seems genuinely confused. “Gilgamesh, what is it you want here?” What follows is not a great battle, but something much more pathetic. Gilgamesh overpowers the monster in an instant, and for a hundred lines Humbaba begs for his life, “shedding his tears in the light of the sun.” He points out that he has never done any harm to either man, and that he has no mother or father, only the mountains and the trees that he loves. He promises to serve Gilgamesh, nurture the trees for him, supply him with royal timbers. Eventually Gilgamesh cuts off his head, and Enkidu pulls out his lungs. Together, they remove his tusks as a trophy, cut down his trees, and turn his forest into a wasteland.

Ancient Mesopotamia could be a gory, unkind place. All those blank-faced archers: these were the first societies to deploy human beings as a mass, bureaucratically administered, expendable. Sometimes, it’s hard to tell whether these people had any firm notion that killing is wrong. In his steles at Nimrud, Ashurnasirpal II describes the fun he had with the people of a defeated city:

Their men, young and old, I took prisoners. Of some I cut off their feet and hands; of others I cut off the ears, noses, and lips; of the young men’s ears I made a heap; of the old men’s heads I made a minaret. I exposed their heads as a trophy in front of their city. The male children and the female children I burned in flames; the city I destroyed, and consumed with fire.

With Gilgamesh, there’s no mistaking it: what our heroes did to Humbaba is murder. They are angering the gods. Later, the council of gods decides that one of them must be punished. And so Enkidu falls ill, and withers, and loses his senses, and starts to die.

All our copies of Gilgamesh are incomplete; even patching the different versions together—some of them written centuries apart—there are still hundreds of lines where the old clay tablets crumbled away, and we can only guess what words they might have contained. The first version I read, a battered old prose translation, tried to fill in the gaps with an educated guess at what ought to be there. More recent editions usually supply a little note: “[30 lines missing].” Helle does things differently. Where the words run out, he fills the page with empty space. Here’s how he renders the death of Enkidu:

He called out to Gilgamesh and ·      ·
 “My friend, I have been cursed to ·   ·
When in battle ·                            ·
I feared war ·                                ·
My friend, those who in war ·      ·
I, who in war ·                               ·”
·                                                     ·
·                                                     ·
·                                                     ·
·                                                     ·
·                                                     ·
·                                                     ·
·                                                     ·

This is followed by twenty-three more empty, aching lines. Their last moments together are in private. Archaeologists are still digging up versions of Gilgamesh across the Middle East; the gaps in the text are slowly being filled in. I hope these lines are never found.

When we see Gilgamesh again, once all the funeral rites have been performed, he’s a very different figure. A filthy creature, dressed in ragged animal skins, hollow and stinking:

As he wandered through the wild,
Gilgamesh wept bitterly for his friend Enkidu:
“I too will die. Am I not like Enkidu?
Grief has stepped into my heart.
Afraid of death, I wander through the wild.”

Once he defied the gods and laughed at death, but now the aurochs of Uruk has become a man, a fearful monster, terrified of the most fundamental fact about himself. Forty centuries before Philip Larkin, Gilgamesh wails: “Death is sitting in my bedroom, and wherever I turn, there too is death.” He sets off to find Uta-napishti, the only man to have never died, and finds him. Uta-napishti lives with his wife outside of the world, where all rivers have their source. The text doesn’t really give us much to go on, but I imagine a gray, fogbound island, the waters barely lapping against the shore, a place where nothing dies because nothing really lives. Here he tells Gilgamesh how he came to be immortal: he was the only survivor of a flood sent by the god Enlil to wipe out the entire world; as compensation, the god Ea granted him eternal life.

Uta-napishti makes a deal with Gilgamesh: he will tell him the secret of immortality if Gilgamesh can stay awake for seven nights. In other words, if it’s possible for him to go without his nightly dose of unbeing: if he can live without death. Gilgamesh fails: “Sleep blew over him like a fog.” In pity, Uta-napishti tells him the secret anyway. There is a plant that grows in the Apsu, the primordial sea beneath the underworld, that lets you live forever. In thirty brief lines, Gilgamesh swims down to the foundations of the world, finds the flower of immortality, and brings it back, at which point a snake steals it from him and slithers silently away. Once again he has failed. He returns to Uruk, defeated, and the poem ends.

What I admire about Gilgamesh is how he refuses all therapies. He will not let anyone explain away the deep tragedy of human existence. The Babylonians had an afterlife: something not quite as hopeful as the Christian Heaven, but not nearly so gloomy as Sheol. For some, it’s a place of decay: in the underworld, a drowned man “twitches like an ox as maggots eat him.” Others “eat honey and ghee at tables of gold and silver.” Gilgamesh can look forward to something even better. His mother addresses the god of the sun:

Will Gilgamesh not join the gods one day?
Will he not share the skies with you?
Will he not share the sceptre of the Moon God?
Will he not grow wise with ea in the Apsu?
Will he not rule with Irnina in the underworld?

The thought of the world to come doesn’t convince Gilgamesh to abandon his journey and resign himself to his mortality. He struggles on. In an older version of the story, Gilgamesh gets another familiar answer from the innkeeper Shiduri, who tells him:

Gilgamesh, where are you going?
You will not find the life you seek.
When the gods created humankind,
they decreed death for the humans,
eternal life they kept for themselves.
So, Gilgamesh, fill your belly,
and be happy night and day.
Let all your days be merry,
dance and play day and night.
Let your clothes be clean,
wash your head in water.
Look at the child holding your hand,
and let your wife delight in your lap.
This is the fate of humankind!

This is, of course, exactly what Gilgamesh was doing before he really understood that he would die. Now, it’s impossible. “How could I be quiet? How could I stay silent? My friend, whom I loved, has turned to clay.” He doesn’t listen to her. He cannot accept that this is simply how things are. He struggles on.

The usual interpretation is that Gilgamesh endorses survival through monuments. The final lines of the poem take us back to the beginning: a now-defeated Gilgamesh once again surveys the walls of Uruk. “There—is it not made of oven-baked bricks? Did the Seven Sages not lay its cornerstones?” A man might die, but the civic project remains: bake good bricks and build strong walls; serve the people well. I’m not so sure. After all, Gilgamesh returns to his city having just heard the story of the Flood: how an entire world, with its cities and its temples, was simply wiped away. These authors knew that “all that we do is nothing but wind.” There’s no moment when he embraces his finitude; he just understands that he’s failed, and weeps.

Gilgamesh’s story might have given him a kind of temporary immortality, but for two thousand years he too was forgotten, and in the dark ages of the future it might happen again. Until the tablets were discovered in the desert, the only record was a Roman story about one Gilgamos: a faraway king who was thrown out of a tower as an infant, but rescued by a passing eagle. Aelian tells the story in his De Natura Animalium to illustrate the nurturing instincts of birds. In his own homeland, this great exemplar of the human condition became something even fainter. Arabic grimoires mention Jiljamish, a vague spirit whose name is invoked by magicians: a demon.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is here to confront you with the problem of death, not to solve it. It is not therapy. It was not written to make the world any less cruel. But this is precisely why, against myself, I do find it comforting.

My closest friend died nearly four years ago. The same experience that made Gilgamesh afraid for his life did something very different to me. Before, death was simply an absence without features. My ownmost, the void of myself, waiting only for me. Afterwards, my death also contained the person I loved most in the world. Sheol is no longer a pit; it now has her features. I don’t fear it so much any more. Life is a little emptier, and death is a little more full, and whatever void I’m facing, she is already there. Reading the Epic of Gilgamesh does the same thing. Four thousand years ago, people thought the same thoughts that I do now. They stood for a while on the edge of the same precipice, and described it, and it took them. I don’t know where we’re going, but we’re not going alone.

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