The Death of Enkidu

“That night he wound Enkidu had received

in his struggle with Humbaba grew worse.

He tossed with fever and was filled with dreams.

He woke his friend to tell him what he heard and saw:

The gods have said that one of us must die

because we killed Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven.

Enlil said I must die, for you are two-thirds god

and should not die. But Shamash spoke

for me and called me “innocent.”

They all began to argue, as if that word

touched off a universal rage.

I know that they have chosen me.

The tears flowed from his eyes.

My brother, it is fever only,

said Gilgamesh. Enkidu cursed the gate

into Humbaba’s forest that had lamed his hand

and cursed the hunter and the prostitute

who had led him from his friends, not sensing

Gilgamesh’s fear at the thought of his own solitude:

I can’t imagine being left alone,

I’m less a man without my friend.

Gilgamesh did not let himself believe

the gods had chosen one of them to die.

The fever reached its height

and like a madman talking to a wall

in an asylum Enkidu cursed the gate

as if it were the person he could blame:

I would have split you with my ax

if I had known that you could wound.

Shamash, who called me “innocent,” I curse

your heart for bringing me to suffer this.

He thought he heard Shamash arguing

that if the prostitute had never come

to him he never would have known his friend

who sat beside him now trying to find

the gesture to reverse the gods’

decision or relieve

a close companion’s pain.

Gilgamesh, though he was king,

had never looked at death before.

Enkidu saw in him a helplessness

to understand or speak, as if this were

the thing the other had to learn

and he to teach. But visions from his sickness

made him also helpless as a teacher.

All he had to give was being weak and rage

about the kings and elders and the animals

in the underworld that crowded sleep,

about the feathers that grew from his arms

in the house of dust whose occupants

sat in the dark devoid of light

with clay as food, the fluttering of wings

as substitutes for life.

The priest and the ecstatic sat there too,

their spirits gone, each body like an old recluse

no longer inhabiting its island.

Like shells one finds among shore rocks,

only the slightest evidence

of life survived.

 

Gilgamesh knew his friend was close to death.

He tried to recollect aloud their life together

that had been so brief, so empty of gestures

they never felt they had to make. Tears filled his eyes

as he appealed to Ninsun, his mother, and to the Elders

not to explain but to save his friend

who had run among the animals

the wild horses of the range, the panther of the steppe.

He had run and drunk with them

as if they were his brothers.

Just now he went with me into the forest of Humbaba

and killed the Bull of Heaven.

*

Everything had life to me, he heard Enkidu murmur,

the sky, the storm, the earth, water, wandering,

the moon and its three children, salt, even my hand

had life. It’s gone. It’s gone. I have seen death

as a total stranger sees another person’s world,

or as a freak sees whom the gods created

when they were drunk on too much wine

and had a contest to show off

the greatness of the harm that they could do,

creating a man who had no balls or a woman

without a womb, a crippled

or deliberately maimed child

or old age itself, blind eyes, trembling hands

contorted in continual pain,

a starving dog too weak to eat,

a doe caught in a trap

wincing for help,

or death.

The contest rules the one who makes

the greatest wretchedness wins.

For all of these can never fit

into the perfect slate they made

when they were sober.

These are the things I have witnessed

as a man and weep for now

for they will have no witness if friends die.

I see them so alone and helpless,

who will be kind to them?

 

He looked at Gilgamesh, and said:

You will be left alone, unable to understand

in a world where nothing lives anymore

as you thought it did.

Nothing like yourself, everything like dead

clay before the river makes the plants

burst out along its beds, dead and…

he became bitter in his tone again:

Because of her. She made me see

things as a man, and a man sees death in things.

That is what it is to be a man. You’ll know

when you have lost the strength to see

the way you once did. You’ll be alone and wander

looking for that life that’s gone or some

eternal life you have to find.

He drew closer to his friend’s face.

My pain is that my eyes and ears

no longer see and hear the same.

As yours do. Your eyes have changed.

You are crying. You never cried before.

It’s not like you.

Why am I to die,

you to wander alone?

Is that the way it is with friends?

 

Gilgamesh sat hushed as his friends eyes stilled.

In his silence he reached out

to touch the friend whom he had lost.”

— Gilgamesh, a verse narrative

Herbert Mason

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