The Gilgamesh epic and Deathless life

By Lennox Farrell Wednesday July 23 2014 in Opinion
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The epic of Gilgamesh, an epic poem from Mesopotamia – locus of ancient Babylon, and modern-day Iraq – is considered to be the world’s first truly great work of literature. In its first half, Gilgamesh, Priest-King of the Akkadian city of Uruk, battles Enkidu, a wild man sent from the gods against the king’s oppressive rule. Gilgamesh overpowers Enkidu physically, but psychically Enkidu changes Gilgamesh.


Thus, in the second half of the epic, after the two become allies, they sally forth battling wrongs. Endiku dies. Gilgamesh, overwhelmed with grief for his friend, and finally facing the stark reality of death, goes on a pilgrimage to find eternal life. Along the way, on journeys that take him even into the underworld, he discovers that death, while inevitable, is not a terror to those whose lives bless others.


This issue of death and of dying – even more than those of life and living – continues to be the main pre-occupation of humans today. The reality of death and the possibilities for life have been at the motivating heart of all human civilizations. This pre-occupation has built pyramids, written Psalms, and created civilizations. In the assessment of anthropologists, preparations for, and rituals of trying to comprehend death, created the first pageantry in the arts: in music, drama and paintings. In addition, rituals about committing one’s loved ones to the void in whatever form, ironically both diminished and furthered appreciations for life and the living.


Across the panorama of time and procession, humans also created beliefs to try to compensate for the implacable mysteries of death. How to accommodate what awaited after the void; in effect to this event horizon – this singularity – beyond which human eye has not seen nor ear heard nor mind comprehended. Some beliefs treated this inevitable departure not as one, but as one of many in which a person could be re-incarnated in differing life forms. Others taught that this life is in essence, not real but is a mirror of the real; a mirage of some other reality.


There have been many other mythical places and mystical figures associated with the human search and longing for deathless life. One of these, ostensibly ruling at one time in Ethiopia or Abyssinia, was Prester John, or Presbyter John. He was a medieval king whose vast empire was home both to a river that flowed over pebbles of gold, and of a Fountain of Youth wherein if one bathed, one could be rejuvenated into youthfulness, if not immortality.


It is suggested that Mussolini’s 20th Century invasion of Ethiopia was a last European attempt to find Prester John.


Another famous individual, one of flesh and blood, and one better known during the European Age of Discovery, was the Spanish explorer, Juan Ponce de León. The first “governor” of colonized Puerto Rico, he led the first European expedition to Florida – which he named – in search of another mythical Fountain of Youth: Bimini. This “Age of Discovery” begun with Columbus’ arrival in the Americas in 1492 and a euphemism for an “Age of Pillage”, had several foci: England’s was occupying territory; France’s was importing and trading in furs; Spain’s was trolling for bullion in silver and gold; and Portugal’s securing bacalao or salted codfish territories. However, the primary focus of them all was finally finding some “Fountain of Youth”.


Other popular myths included the re-birth by fire of the legendary bird, the Phoenix; after which Phoenix, capital city in the state of Arizona is named. The word, Phoenix, is also a today’s synonym for one’s ability to rise from the ashes. In fact, in the city of Cleveland, Ohio, stands a modern-day “Fountain of Youth”. It is a bronze sculpture reaching 35 feet up, bursting out from flames upwards towards heaven.


If this was and is past, what about here and now? Humans have intensified the search for endless youthfulness as an attempt to avoid the void. That is, while searches for these mythical sources for retaining and rejuvenating our youthfulness have faded from our consciousness, what remain are the desires; desires that have intensified for extended youthfulness.


In fact, whole trans-nationals have today been built on selling dreams of remaining youthful in appearance and performance. Wrinkles? Death sentence! To manage creeping death, facial creams, spa treatments, exercise equipment, pills, Botox, Plastic Surgery etc., occupy the identical place of priority as did the earlier searches for the mythical fountains of youth.


Enter the Singularity. The term describes the moment when a civilization changes so rapidly and profoundly that its rules and technologies are incomprehensible to previous generations. For example, imagine trying to explain to someone living two thousand years ago of what the Internet is, how it works, how our societies, families, lives are now determined by it.


To that person, so incomprehensible would our explanations and descriptions be; our world would be on the other side of what to that person would in effect be a singularity. In our time, we have become that person, but on the other side of a singularity of changes which once took centuries but which now occur in months. Changes so profound and occurring so rapidly that every aspect of society is being transformed: our bodies, our understanding of family, of life, of thought, of death.


A paradox, trying to describe the singularity is trying to describe something which by definition is indescribable; trying to imagine the unimaginable. In linking human skill to machine power, human civilization has advanced for millennia. Our invention of the wheel extended the uses of our feet; the telephone, our voice, etc. However, never before have we imbued the tools we make with the equivalence of also being tool-makers; tool-makers ultimately with unimaginably greater capacities than we for conscious self-volition.


And for what, that we, as bio-engineered beings, finally find and sip from this technological, non-mythical fountain of endless youth? And along the way, according to futurist prophets like Ray Kurzweil, becoming our own gods? Is this another failed Eden? But one in which it is not a serpent, but we who lie to ourselves about the singularity of deathless life? It would be the ultimate in irony if our oldest human epics, begun as the search for immortality, was finally realized in our own invention of an eternal oblivion.

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