Mortality is a common theme within The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Iliad, The Bhagavad-Gita, and Antigone. The main characters in each of these texts respond uniquely to the question of death. Gilgamesh wishes to conquer death, Achilles decides to seek revenge, Arjuna accepts the inevitable, and Antigone stays loyal to her family against the odds. However, while they are different, comparisons can be made within texts. Gilgamesh, Achilles, Arjuna, and Antigone link together in their outlook and behavior towards mortality.
Gilgamesh begins his quest for immortality as a result of the death of his friend, Enkidu. The death of Enkidu caused Gilgamesh to realize his mortality because he saw Enkidu as his equal in power. It scared Gilgamesh when Enkidu died on his bed as opposed to in war (Gilg. 9.1-6). It is not the way any warrior wishes to die, not in battle, but at home due to an illness. As a result, Gilgamesh travels to find Utanapishti and discover how he reached immortality. Utanapishti tells Gilgamesh about the Deluge and how Ea saved his and his wife’s live. When Gilgamesh attempts to reach immortality by fighting Sleep for seven days, he fails immensely. Gilgamesh ends up sleeping the entire seven days. The failure does not stop Gilgamesh on his quest. He goes to the bottom of the ocean to retrieve the rejuvenation coral. After he manages to retrieve the coral, a snake then comes and steals it. Now Gilgamesh’s chances of finding immortality are lost. Gilgamesh realizes the inevitably of death.
Gilgamesh’s reaction to mortality was fear which caused him to run away from Uruk and towards immortality. When Gilgamesh fails the test of immortality, it is important to note that Sleep is similar to Death in that a person is vulnerable in sleep as one is when they are facing Death. So by not being able to defeat Sleep, there was not a possibility that Gilgamesh would be able to defeat Death. Gilgamesh faced a harsh truth at the death of Enkidu, and he was not able to fully accept it, or the possibility of his own.
The death of a beloved friend can be linked to Achilles and his realization of mortality. Achilles has always known the parameter of his Fate. In Book Nine Achilles states that:
if on the one hand I remain to fight
around Troy town, I lose all hope of home
but gain unfading glory; on the other,
if I sail back to my own land my glory
fails – but a long life lies ahead for me
In the same book, Achilles says he will go home and die, peacefully. However, after the death of Patroklos in Book 16 Achilles promises to avenge his death, even though he knows it’ll mean he shall die soon after he kills Hector (Iliad 18.98-101). Achilles goes and fights, even though he knows it will lead to his death because it is his duty to his friend to avenge his death. Achilles does not care about his death anymore as he feels responsible for the death of Patroklos and will do his duty in making sure that he is forever avenged. Between the moments that Achilles hears about Patroklos’s death and until Hector is killed, Achilles refuses to eat (Iliad 19.230-236). He is so overcome with grief and anger for the death of his best friend that Achilles, like Gilgamesh, is not acting rationally. He is also anxious to go fight and almost went into battle without any armor (Iliad 18.227-252).
Achilles and Gilgamesh have a sudden realization when their respective best friend dies. They are overcome with grief and put all of their focus into one thing. For Gilgamesh, it was the quest for mortality that drove him. For Achilles, the thought of revenge was finally what got him to start fighting and to drop the petty feud between him and Agamemnon. By avenging the death of Patroklos, Achilles was then able to honor his friend and provide a proper burial for him.
As Achilles honors Patroklos, the need to honor the dead connects to Antigone. When Antigone decides to honor her brother, even though she knows that she will face death, she does so knowing that she is breaking the law. Antigone deliberately goes against Creon’s order to leave the body of Polyneices, her brother, alone because she does not agree with his law (Antigone 509-534). She faces her mortality in order to fulfill her duty to her brother head on. When confronted by Creon, Antigone does not lie or attempt to avoid her punishment. She accepts the consequences that came with her decision in honoring her brother.
When Antigone’s time to die comes nearer, she cries out about how her tomb has now become her bridal chamber (Antigone 997). She will join her family with the hope that they will be pleased to see her (Antigone 1006-1009). Anitgone’s coping mechanism was to remind herself that she was doing the right thing and that she will be joining her family soon. Antigone speaks to Polyneices when she says, “But now, Polyneices, this is my reward for covering your corpse” (Antigone 1011-1012). However, Antigone did not regret her actions. Antigone remained loyal to her brother, even with the knowledge of her imminent death.
Loyalty to family connects to Arjuna because when he first faces mortality it is regards to killing them. Antigone and Arjuna both wish to be loyal to their family. Krishna tells Arjuna that it is his duty to fulfill his warrior tasks. Krishna also explains to Arjuna that he is not killing his family because their soul will not be harmed (Gita 2.18). The only thing killed would be the desire that they are experiencing, leading them to want to fight. Krishna also states:
Death is certain for anyone born,
and birth is certain for the dead;
since the cycle is inevitable,
you have no cause to grieve!
This quote explains why the Gita differs from the other texts mentioned. In The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Iliad, and Antigone death is the end of life. While Antigone alludes to an afterlife, this does not adequately show that death is an actual continuation life. In the Gita death is a necessary step to reach Krishna and Heaven. The people in the Gita are not afraid of death and its unknown. If they reach their end then, they have been granted the privilege to be with Krishna.
Through the teachings of Krishna, Arjuna comes to learn that death should not cause one to worry. Gilgamesh did not understand this teaching until he went on his epic journey. Gilgamesh had to face his fear in order to accept the inevitable. Achilles did not wish to die. Even when he joins the battle, Achilles is still in turmoil about his forthcoming death. It is his loyalty to Patroklos that keeps Achilles fighting. Antigone reaches the same realization the Arjuna did, but for different reasons. It is her loyalty to her brother, and her beliefs, that keep her from fearing death. She buried her brother with the full knowledge of what would happen to her. Death is not to be feared.
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