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! â€¦ 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, he still desires that his name live on eternally.
Because of Gilgamesh’s killing of the two beasts, the gods decree that Enkidu, his closest companion, must die. Gilgamesh is obviously distraught because of Enkidu’s death. Gilgamesh finally realizes that death is real, and not some inconsequential word that has no bearing. Now, even though he has learned of his destiny through his visions, Gilgamesh desires and thinks he can cheat fate. Unlike Gilgamesh, Beowulf never attempts to cheat death. Beowulf believes that God has predestined everything that comes to pass, including his fate.
As Beowulf prepares to fight Grendal, he says, “let him put his faith in the Lord’s judgment, whom death takes! â€¦ wyrd always goes as it must” Liuzza trans ll. 440-55. On the surface, Beowulf appears to be boastful about not fearing death, yet ultimately it is his confidence in God that gives him courage in the face of death. In the same vein, Beowulf promises to “not kill Grendal with a sword” or armor when fighting Grendal–trusting in his own strength, yet also trusting that the will of God will be done ll. 679. Beowulf believes that God will choose “whichever hand seems proper to” win the battle with Grendal ll. 87. After defeating Grendal, Beowulf must next fight Grendal’s mother. While gearing up for the fight, Beowulf “cares not for his life” ll. 1441-2. Beowulf is not arrogant but realizes that he will “win honor and fame, or death will take him” ll. 1491. Soon after Beowulf emerges victoriously from the battle, Beowulf announces “indeed, the battle would have been over at once, if God had not guarded me” ll. 1657-8. Examining the text, one can see that throughout his entire life, Beowulf acknowledges God’s power over his life and ultimate destiny.
Beowulf may or may not be afraid of death, but he certainly acknowledged God’s providential control of his life. Beowulf, unlike Gilgamesh, seemed to understand and accept the will of God throughout his entire life. The suffering Gilgamesh endures because of Enkidu’s demise creates a fear of death in him to such a degree that he irrationally attempts to defy the gods and escape the same fate of Enkiduâ€”death. Gilgamesh states “because I am afraid of death I will go as best I can to find Utnapishtim, â€¦ for he has entered the assembly of the gods” and gained “everlasting life” 97.
Gilgamesh is repeatedly told that “when the gods created man they allotted to him death” 102. Instead of fearing the “face of death,” Gilgamesh is told to “fill his belly with good things” all day and all night because “this to is the lot of man” 102. Ignoring these warnings, Gilgamesh continues his journey to the ends of the earth where he finds Utnapishtim. When Gilgamesh asks for the secret to eternal life, Utnapishtim explains to Gilgamesh that “from the days of old there is no permanence. â€¦When the Anunnaki, the judges, come together, and Mammetun the mother of destinies, together they decree the fates of men.
Life and death they allot but the day of death they do not disclose” 107. After some time, Utnapishtim sends Gilgamesh back to Uruk. But first, Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh about a flower that restores youth to the old. Gilgamesh is ecstatic and quickly retrieves the flower from the bottom of the channel. But just as the gods had decreed earlier, Gilgamesh is not to have eternal life. While bathing, a snake snatches the flower from Gilgamesh. Weeping, Gilgamesh sets off to return to Uruk. Gilgamesh had failed in his quest for eternal life. Upon returning, Gilgamesh decides to record the story of his journey.
Both Gilgamesh and Beowulf realize that fate cannot be escaped. Gilgamesh seeks eternal life, but such is not his destiny. Beowulf, on the other hand, knows and acknowledges that his ultimate destiny is death. Beowulf’s final fight against a dragon mortally wounds him and as he nears death, his heart is “restless and ripe for death â€“ the doom was immeasurably near” 2420. Sensing his coming death Beowulf illustrates his peace while dieing. Beowulf thanks God for all the gold and requests to have his tomb near the water”s edge, so that sailors can see it and admire it as ‘Beowulf”s Barrow’ 2803-8.
Beowulf knows that the best way for him to gain eternal life is if he lives on in the minds of his people. Building a monument is not so that Beowulf’s people will remember him, but that it will remind them to remember all the glorious things he had done during his lifetime. Being a noble and brave hero and not gaining fame and fortune is primarily what Beowulf wants to be remembered for. In a similar way, Gilgamesh, reconciled to the fact that he cannot gain eternal life, seeks to find a way to be remembered by his great deeds.
Gilgamesh’s story that he inscribes on stone tablets is his way of living on past his death. At the end of the epic, the narrator exalts, “O, Gilgameshâ€¦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.