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Grief Within Gilgamesh and the Ajax

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Grief

        Tragedy seems to be everywhere, always lurking in the background. There is this fear of loss. Many seem to avoid it at all cost, yet so many plays and epics seem to be filled with tragedy and loss. Their grief is what motivates and inspires. In Gilgamesh, the loss of his best friend prompts him to go on a journey to search for immortal life. In the play The Ajax, Ajax is unable to move past his grief, falling into a deep and fatal depression. After the death of his best friend, Gilgamesh grieves through the different stages of denial, bargaining, and depression until finally accepting the idea of mortality. Ajax however seems unable or unwilling to move past his own shame and depression. Looking at how grief is dealt with is a way to begin to understand it. In both Gilgamesh and The Ajax, grief and tragedy are always present, but in Gilgamesh, the grief from the tragic death of Enkidu is shown as more of a journey whereas in The Ajax, Ajax’s own death is an escape from his grief and though a tragedy, it is seen as a positive outcome.

Gilgamesh’s journey represents how he goes through his own stages of grief, not only for the death of his friend Enkidu, but also for his own inevitable death. Gilgamesh, who is part human and god, must face his own mortality when Enkidu dies, yet he totally rejects it by searching for immortality. Having never experienced such explicit grief before, he mourns his friend’s death and becomes afraid of his own mortality. “Gilgamesh wandered in the wilderness/ grieving over the death of Enkidu/ and weeping saying: Enkidu has died./ Must I die too? Must Gilgamesh be like that?/ Gilgamesh felt the feat of if in his belly.” (Gilg. 48) Gilgamesh has not had to question or wonder about death, his specifically, and he becomes terrified of his death. Through his grief, he starts to go through denial, believing that he can somehow find a way to stop death. “Gilgamesh answered, his body seized in terror:/ ‘I come to seek the father, Utnapishtim,/ who was admitted to the company/ of the gods, who granted him eternal life./ I some to seek the answer to the question/ that I must ask concerning life and death.’” (Gilg. 50) His fear of mortality has completely overwhelmed the strong hero. He copes by trying to ensure that he will never have to face death again by becoming immortal. He is trying to bargain his way out of death, to postpone the inevitable, still trying to deny his own mortality. During his journey, he goes through an incredible darkness, alone and afraid.

“The darkness pressed in upon him, both nothing and something./ After he struggled, blind, his companionless way/ through eleven leagues of the darkness, nothing at all/ and something, ahead of him, a league ahead/ a little light, a grayness, began to show./ Weeping and fearful, struggling to keep breathing,/ he made hi way through the last league of the journey,/ twelve leagues in the darkness, alone, companionless,/ weeping and fearful, struggling to keep breathing,/ he made his way and finally struggles out free/ in to the morning air and the morning sunlight.” (Gilg. 52)

This deep darkness, being all-alone, this signifies him going through a stage of depression. He is alone and he begins understands and accept what it means to be without his friend. Before, he never knew the meaning of companionship, but now that hole where Enkidu used to be is empty and Gilgamesh finally understands what it means to lose someone. It is only after trying and failing that he finally begins to accept his own mortality and beings to understand Utnapishtim’s words:

“‘You who were born the sun of a goddess mother,/ why do you grieve because of a mortal father?/ How long does a building stand before it falls?....See how the dead and the sleeping resemble each other./ see together they are the image of death./ the simple man and the ruler resemble each other./ the face of the one will darken like that of the other./….they established that there is life and death./ The day of death is set, though not made known.’” (Gilg. 64)

Gilgamesh has been on this long and arduous journey and fails to retrieve the plant that will grant him immortality. He is devastated and angry, but eventually, as he journeys home, he realizes that nothing is permanent. Like Siduri says, “who is the mortal who can live forever?/ The life of man is short. Only the gods/ can live forever.”(Gilg. 57) He most move on and do the best he can to enjoy life and build a great city that will last as long as possible. He goes through these stages of denial, bargaining, depression, and finally comes to accept not only the death of his friend but his own death as well.

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