Death is a Mystery

by Esteban

“Lastly, the twelfth tablet of the Assyrian version of the Gilgamesh Epic is of a purely didactic character, bearing evidence of having been added as a further illustration of the current belief that there is no escape from the nether world to which all must go after life has come to an end.

Proper burial and suitable care of the dead represent all that can be done in order to secure a fairly comfortable rest for those who have passed out of this world. Enkidu is once more introduced into this episode. His shade is invoked by Gilgamesh and rises up out of the lower world to give a discouraging reply to Gilgamesh’s request,

“Tell me, my friend, tell me, my friend, The law of the earth which thou hast experienced, tell me.”

The mournful message comes back:

“I cannot tell thee, my friend, I cannot tell.”

Death is a mystery and must always remain such.

The historical Gilgamesh has clearly no connection with the figure introduced into this twelfth tablet. Indeed, as already suggested, the Gilgamesh Epic must have ended with the return to Erech, as related at the close of the eleventh tablet.

The twelfth tablet was added by some school-men of Babylonia (or perhaps of Assyria), purely for the purpose of conveying a summary of the teachings in regard to the fate of the dead.

Whether these six episodes covering the sixth to the twelfth tablets,

(1) the nature myth,

(2) the killing of the divine bull,

(3) the punishment of Gilgamesh and the death of Enkidu,

(4) Gilgamesh’s wanderings,

(5) the Deluge,

(6) the search for immortality, were all included at the time that the old Babylonian version was compiled cannot, of course, be determined until we have that version in a more complete form.

Since the two tablets thus far recovered show that as early as 2000 B.C. the Enkidu tale had already been amalgamated with the current stories about Gilgamesh, and the endeavor made to transfer the traits of the former to the latter, it is eminently likely that the story of Ishtar’s unhappy love adventure with Gilgamesh was included, as well as Gilgamesh’s punishment and the death of Enkidu.

With the evidence furnished by Meissner’s fragment of a version of the old Babylonian revision and by our two tablets, of the early disposition to make popular tales the medium of illustrating current beliefs and the teachings of the temple schools, it may furthermore be concluded that the death of Enkidu and the punishment of Gilgamesh were utilized for didactic purposes in the old Babylonian version.

On the other hand, the proof for the existence of the deluge story in the Hammurabi period and some centuries later, independent of any connection with the Gilgamesh Epic, raises the question whether in the old Babylonian version, of which our two tablets form a part, the deluge tale was already woven into the pattern of the Epic.

At all events, till proof to the contrary is forthcoming, we may assume that the twelfth tablet of the Assyrian version, though also reverting to a Babylonian original, dates as the latest addition to the Epic from a period subsequent to 2000 B.C.; and that the same is probably the case with the eleventh tablet.”

Morris Jastrow (ed.), Albert T. Clay (trans.), An Old Babylonian Version of the Gilgamesh Epic on the Basis of Recently Discovered Texts, 1920, p. 21.