Death. Fate. Immortality. Destiny. All are subjects that we tend to avoid. While most of us hope for life after death, we tend not to dwell on this subject because we are uncomfortable with the unknown. On those rare occasions when we allow ourselves to think about the fact that our days are numbered, we wonder if death can be cheated and immortality gained. Some have suggested that being remembered is just as enduring as living forever. Thoughts of destiny and the here after are not new. They have engaged the hearts and minds of men for ages. Two ancient stories that deal with this subject matter are The Epic of Gilgamesh and Beowulf. In these texts, the main characters, Gilgamesh and Beowulf, are obsessed with their fate. To the degree that these epics accurately reflect the society and culture of their own eras, one can see that men of these ancient times were as concerned about their ultimate destiny as we are. The epic stories of Gilgamesh and Beowulf illustrate that men and women throughout the ages have been keenly aware of their own mortality and that they long to live on eternally, if only in the memory of others.
In the beginning of The Epic of Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh, the ruler of ancient Uruk, is blessed with the gift of foresight. He has numerous dreams about his destiny and is very accepting of the fate that the gods have given him. The gods give Gilgamesh a dream and Enkidu interprets Gilgamesh’s vision concerning his fate. Enkidu says that Enlil, father of the gods “has given you kingship, such is your destiny, everlasting life is not your destiny” (Sandars 70). With this revelation Gilgamesh knows his destiny very early in his journey. Rather than becoming angry at the gods, Gilgamesh accepts the gods’ choice to not give him eternal life. Instead, Gilgamesh wants to “set up his name in the place where the names of famous men are written, and where no man’s name is written yet he will raise a monument to the gods” (70-1). Gilgamesh succeeds in his plan for making himself famous by first defeating the guardian of the forest, Humbaba, and shortly after, the bull of heaven. During these battles Gilgamesh declares that there is “nothing to fear! … if I fall I leave behind me a name that endures” (71). Having reconciled himself to the fact that fate has indeed determined when he will die, h...
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...O, Gilgamesh…great is thy praise” (119). The narrator is saying that the admiration of others is and will be great. This clearly shows that the people of Uruk will keep Gilgamesh alive in their minds. Beowulf will at some level attain everlasting life through the memory of his people as well.
In Beowulf and Gilgamesh, both heroes desire to gain everlasting life. At one point, Gilgamesh believes that he can actually gain eternal life and change his destiny.
Beowulf, and eventually Gilgamesh, end up gaining everlasting life through their monuments and the good deeds that their people will remember them by. The ancient societies depicted in The Epic of Gilgamesh and Beowulf are no doubt representative of the actual societies that existed during those time periods. These ancient people were greatly concerned with issues such as death, fate, and destiny. People of ancient times and modern realize that even though one cannot escape death, one can to some degree achieve immortality, if only in the memories of those left behind.
Liuzza, Roy M., trans. Beowulf. Peterborough, ON: Broadview, 1999.
Sandars, N. K., trans. The Epic of Gilgamesh. New York: Penguin, 1972.
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