Immortality is a human impossibility, at least as far as eternal youth in life is concerned. Even then, for millennia people have sought out the Fountain of Youth or whatever will bring them perpetual youth in the mortal world. But, what purpose does a life without death have?
Our own realization of death’s imminence forces us to find a purpose for our lives. Many who devote their lives to a purpose don’t expect die as a result of pursuing that purpose as some have. A grand example of dying for a purpose would be Martin Luther King, Jr. Of course, he did not choose to die fighting for civil rights, but knew it was a possibility. Through his assassination, King became immortalized. If he had lived a longer life, without a doubt, his life’s termination wouldn’t have stood for something so significant. Untimely deaths for the sake of great causes are one such example of glory; self-sacrifices are another.
Many ancient epics stress the ideal of finding a purpose in Life to achieve some sort of immortality in Death. Mortals are doomed to die and can never achieve perpetual youth in the mortal realm. Death is something that must not be feared, but accepted as a truth. Since death comes for us all, we should do something in this life worth the glory and immortality in the mortal world.
Even then, many heroes of ancient literature went off on journeys seeking immortality. Each immortality quest always involved traveling to the ends of the earth, or even to the Land of the Dead itself. To learn more about life, it has been a long-standing theme that you first need to understand death.
Ultimately, those who set off on these quests gain great knowledge. But, they never find what they set off to find in the first place. This is true in many ancient legends. They do, however, gain a sort of immortality through the legends and tales written about them and their journeys. Their adventures also mold them to become better people after their perspective-changing experiences.
Immortality Isn’t Just Eternal Life
There are many kinds of immortality that can be achieved besides eternal life. In fact, the quest for immortality in literature was not originally a quest for eternal life. In humanity’s earliest literature, the quest was more for greater knowledge. That’s mostly because the characters in many ancient stories were already immortal, as they were gods. Gilgamesh is the first to actually define his own journey as a search for eternal life. Later, the story of Achilles in the Iliad is another example of such an immortality quest. Perhaps, it is a better one, as well.
The first known story of a quest for immortality is in the Epic of Gilgamesh. All mortals, as it is said in Gilgamesh, are doomed to die. Gilgamesh is told this twice, first by Siduri the barmaid, “You will never find that life for which you are looking,” Siduri said, “When the gods created man they allotted to him death, but life they retained in their own keeping.”
Utnapishtim later told Gilgamesh much the same thing, reiterating the meanings of mortality. “There is no permanence. Do we build a house to stand for ever, do we seal a contract to hold for all time? Do brothers divide an inheritance to keep for ever, does the flood-time of rivers endure?” Nothing lasts forever. “Life and death [the gods] allot but the day of death they do not disclose.”
It’s of the utmost importance that we accept death. In the days we have, it’s important to do the best that we can to live this life and leave our respective marks on the world. That is the only true sort of earthly immortality. Tales immortalize folks in a sense, also. Cities are not realistically permanent, but can stand as legacies for countless years afterward. Even after they no longer stand, they live through the tales spoken of them. None of us are truly immortal. Yet, our legacies can succeed us, through our posterity and what we build for others, for many years to come.
The quest for immortality will never bring you eternal life, but searching for it can bring great wisdom. Families and cities will live on long after you pass from this life. What you leave behind of yourself for the world, through the building of cities or through your children, is a sort of continuation of your own life, and a kind of immortality.
Gilgamesh himself ultimately gains a sort of immortality in building the walls of Uruk. He said,
“Urshanabi, climb up on to the wall of Uruk, inspect its foundation terrace, and examine well the brickwork; see if it is not of brunt bricks; and did not the seven wise men lay these foundations? One third of the whole is city, one third is garden, and one third is field, with precinct of the goddess Ishtar. These parts and the precinct are all Uruk” (Davis 90).
Gilgamesh’s “children” are the people of Uruk. After his long, great journey he finally becomes a great leader for his people. His story is immortalized, as well, and his legacy survived to today.
One’s Quest for Immortality Involves Great Sacrifice
A later example of a similar quest for immortality is in Homer’s Iliad. Achilles, or Akhilleus as he is known in the Iliad, embarks on such a quest. However, in the process, he must sacrifice his own humanity to be immortal; as a rule in the context for the story, as long as you are human, you can not be immortal. In the Iliad, Achilles has a choice between eternal immortality in death and mortal immortality through glory.
“My mother, Thetis of the silvery feet,” Achilles says in Book Nine of the Iliad, “tells me of two possible destinies carrying me toward death: two ways: 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 aback to my own land my glory fails – but a long life lies ahead for me.”
Achilles finds himself with a choice between two mortal destinies. He contemplates these choices later in Book Nine,
“Now I think no riches can compare with being alive… A man may come by cattle and sheep in raids; tripods he buys, and tawny-headed horses; but his life’s breath cannot be hunted back or be recaptured once it pass his lips.”
Basically, once you die, you can never get life back again. So, what you die for must be important. He had a choice between dying young as a legend in a war or living a long life and dying a relatively anonymous farmer.
Achilles, knowing that death in war was inevitable, flees the battlefield in hopes that he will be able to live out a long life elsewhere. After Achilles leaves the battlefield, however, the war begins to go badly for the Greek army. In the meantime, Hektor slays Achilles’ best friend, Patroklos, and takes from him the armor that Achilles had left with him. Patroklos’ death gives Achilles a new perspective on the meaning of life.
Achilles would rather die in the glory of battle than live out a relatively unknown, though relatively happy life, away from the field. Enraged by the death of his great friend Patroklos, Achilles goes back to avenge him and kills Hektor. This is even though Achilles knows he is fated to die in the process. “I must reject this life, my heart tells me, reject the world of men, if Hektor does not feel my battering spear tear the life out of him, making him pay in his own blood for the slaughter of Patroklos!” Avenging his greatest friend was worth more to Achilles than keeping his own mortal life, living happily and in peace elsewhere, never having become a legend.
The great Achilles finds that he can be immortal only in Death. “Even as he spoke, the end came, and death hid him; spirit from body fluttered to undergloom, bewailing fate that made him leave his youth and manhood in the world.” As he died, Akhilleus spoke again. He said: ‘Die, make an end. I shall accept my own whenever Zeus and the other gods desire.’”
When Patroklos died, Achilles came to realize that there is no eternal youth for any man, even a man as great as his friend Patroklos. Achilles gives in to his desire to become immortal, and gains that immortality in the only way that a mortal can, by dying in combat to gain glory and immortality in Death forever. He knows that at least he will have a death honored and glorified for years to come. Both he and Hektor die in glory from their epic battle: Hektor for slaying the greatest of all warriors in Achilles, and Achilles for slaying the killer of many men including his dear old friend Patroklos.
Still, in the end, Achilles does achieve a sort of immortality. He never finds the eternal youth that he most sought; however; he realizes that he will never find that in his mortal life anyway. He ends up dying as a legend of war and lives eternally in death among the gods as a glorified man for sacrificing himself to avenge his best friend’s death.
In retrospect, Achilles may have been far happier with a long earthly life, but he decided that his fate on the battlefield was the only way to gain immortality which he sought so much. Perhaps, however, he did not gain as much glory in death as he would have liked – Hektor receives the greater funeral in the end. However, by giving in to his fate, Achilles still did indeed gain that mortal immortality, as he is remembered still today.
What Sort of Immortality Can We Choose to Achieve?
Through both of these stories, the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Iliad, it’s clear none of us can cheat our fate of eventual death. It is only when and how we die that we may have some control over. Achilles sacrifices himself for mortal immortality. Eternal youth in life cannot exist; it is simply against the laws of nature. As both stories reiterate, eternal life is reserved only to the gods.
Living a long life perhaps is not what people may think it is, either. If that life does not bring one immortal glory and honor to mortal existence, to some it may not seem worth living. Achilles felt that his sacrifice was necessary to give his life and death purpose. He actually had a choice between a long life and dying in great glory. The death of his friend made him realize that even in a lengthy mortal life, there would be an eventual death. So, Achilles wanted his death to stand for something important. Most people do not have that choice to make. For those who would have it, only the most heroic would choose to die in youth, rather than to die solely in the relative anonymity of old age.
This is not to say that long life is overrated by any means. It is true, however, that the majority of us are forgotten as we grow older; it is a very rare breed that continues their “glory days” later in life. What we can all learn from the stories of Achilles and Gilgamesh is that we need to discover purpose in our lives much as they did.
Our own mortality is what most defines us. We has human beings need to work hard and look at ourselves to find our callings in life, as well as to find our places in the annals of immortal legend and fame. Perhaps not all of us believe that we are destined for any kind of immortality. But, by having children or by doing the best we can to make the world around us a little bit better, we can achieve a small piece of immortality for ourselves with our legacy.
We all have a choice: do we die young a hero or do we die old, having had a relatively fulfilled and happy life? Whatever your choice, although your name may not be among the great heroes, you can hopefully rest assured that a part of you will live on forever.
Note: The translations of “The Epic of Gilgamesh” and “The Iliad” quoted in this essay are from The Bedford Anthology of World Literature: The Ancient World, Beginnings – 100 C.E. edited by Paul Davis and published in 2004 by Bedford/St.Martins in New York.