The Theme of Death in Gilgamesh, The Iliad, and Medea


The theme of death occupies an extremely important place in literature and art of all periods. One of the reasons for this is that a person usually encounters death of other people during the lifetime and at the same time, a man is aware of the inevitability of his/her death. The problem of death is always vital in spite of the changing conditions of life, religious beliefs, and philosophical orientations. The theme of death can be frequently found in the works of ancient authors and philosophers. In philosophy, this theme is considered one of the most dominant and important. Sages of ancient times believed that the body was a temporary shelter for the soul. This comparison is not accidental because the body used to be perceived as a disease and a prison for one’s soul. The purpose of the current paper is to study the theme of death in such works as Gilgamesh, The Iliad, and Medea as these works are considered the examples of classic ancient literature and the theme of death occupies a central place in them.


The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the greatest poems in the history of world literature and perhaps the most remarkable literary work. It was written by the ancient Sumerians. The Epic of Gilgamesh narrates about a man and his fate as well as local gods and goddesses, which are fairly lifeless and boring considering the fact that they do not have a sense of humor and other human qualities of anthropomorphic Greek gods. In contrast to these gods, Gilgamesh from Uruk is a clearly human figure, although he is both god and a person. According to the deification of the hero, he is a ruler of Uruk (Pugh and Johnson 64). His fate is similar to the fate of common people in the sense that he is doomed to suffering and death. The epic tells the readers of the adventures of the legendary demigod Gilgamesh and his friend Enkidu, narrating about their campaign to the ruler of the mountains, the death of Enkidu who falls into disfavor of Ishtar rejected by Gilgamesh, and the journey of Gilgamesh to the land of the dead to the mistress of gods Siduri, and the forefather Utnapishtim for the flower of immortality.

In the epic, the themes of friendship and death are intertwined. In the book The Ancient Near East, it is written that “the poem deals with such earthly things as man and nature, love and adventure, friendship and combat – all masterfully blended into a background for the stark reality of death” (Pritchard and Fleming 39). The protagonist is Gilgamesh who is a mighty hero. Being a full-fledged ruler of the state and possessing the power, wealth, perfect health, and uncommon physical strength, Gilgamesh spends his youth in entertainments, carnal pleasures, and feats of arms fully enjoying life. He has the best friend Enkidu. He lives in harmony with nature being surrounded by animals. He is a mighty and glorious warrior. Friends are inseparable. They travel together, go through danger and adventure, and perform feats. However, Enkidu dies suddenly and Gilgamesh’s life changes completely. Before that, Gilgamesh observed death from afar. It was the death of the common people, enemies, or animals. This distant death did not affect him. It never caused deep feelings that led to such intense existential stress. However, the death of a loved person awakened premonition of his own death in mighty Gilgamesh. He suddenly realizes with all the force of his direct mind the terrible limitation of his life that is rich in achievements, deeds, and exploits. Gilgamesh cannot reconcile with the death of the friend. After Enkidu’s death, the king of Uruk begins to think about the inevitability of his death. He suddenly becomes aware of the frailty of his existence. He goes on a journey trying to take possession of the elixir of immortality.  It can be said that in The Epic of Gilgamesh, the theme of death and immortality is clearly manifested. Overcoming all obstacles, Gilgamesh comes to the only person who has managed to cheat death and reach eternal life. Gilgamesh receives the desired elixir of immortality from him but he cannot use it as the snakes take it away. The hero is deprived of illusions about his existence. In such a way, reflection on death and the search for the salvation of the opportunities of gaining immortality are the common thread of the narrative. The theme of immortality runs through the entire Middle East mythology.

The Iliad

Great Homer’s name is primarily associated with the birth of the author’s poetry. For 30 centuries, people have admired his poems. Even nowadays, poets and critics study features of the great poet. However, the artistic heritage of Homer is not very big. It includes only two poems, The Iliad and Odyssey, and several hymns. It cannot be stated that the poem The Iliad is superior to Odyssey. However, The Iliad is often considered the number one poem in the world. The Iliad refers to the epic genre even though the work has retained traces of oral folk poetry. The main theme of the work is a poem about Achilles’ anger caused by his quarrel with Agamemnon. This event had fatal consequences for the Trojans and the Greeks. The plot of The Iliad is taken from the cycle of myths on the Trojan War. Homer in the poem does not describe the events of the Trojan War in detail. There are only several episodes including a ten-year siege of Troy, small skirmishes, and battles that are not of a special strategic importance. Nonetheless, a reader can see the feelings of the main characters in the expanded form. Such feelings as hope, disappointment, and pain of loss have brought the glory to the author for many centuries.

The leading idea of the poem The Iliad is condemnation of war as a phenomenon that contradicts the human nature. The author glorifies peace, proclaims humane attitude to a man, and is thrilled by the praise of the universe. Despite the fact that the author does not approve the war, in the poem, military prowess is glorified. According to Homer’s opinion, war leads to the worst of evils – death. Thus, the theme of death is rather important in The Iliad. In the work, death of the heroes is described in detail. In the book The Death and Afterlife of Achilles, it is noted that “most obviously, Achilles’ short life serves to emphasize the poem’s stress on human mortality, an important theme in The Iliad” (Burgess 54). Hector intending to fight with Achilles is compared with a meandering serpent that is stalking a person at the cave. He is filled with black rage. Dying Patroclus curses Hector and predicts his quick death. Later, Hector mortally wounded by Achilles also dies with curses on the lips. Anger is replaced by stupor and after all, people do not die but rather disappear. On the battlefield, there is only a dead body. It is not a person but a thing. Every dead person in The Iliad is unhappy and angry. According to the author, it is because of the war that reveals the most negative human qualities. The Iliad teaches courage, heroism, devotion to family, and most importantly – the humane treatment of people.


The image of Medea attracted many artists from different fields of art and roaming from work to work, this image underwent significant changes. The image of Medea in the tragedy by Euripides is considered one of the brightest. Based on different versions of the myth, Euripides chooses the one, in which she is the most severe. Hiding from the persecution of her father, Medea kills the younger brother Aspirta and scatters the pieces of his body. She kills her children and the dragon. Medea by Euripides does everything for Jason. She commits the most horrible crimes. Euripides chooses the myth that explains the root cause of the collapse of Medea and Jason’s relations. At the request of Athena and Hera, Eros persuades Medea of her passion to Jason. However, her love is unreciprocated and Jason married her only because he made a promise in exchange for her help.

The sin of intemperance causes misery and leads to the death of characters in the tragedy. The conflict in Medea is inside the heroine. It is between rational and irrational. Medea makes an attempt to strike a balance between these forces. As a result, irrational wins. Its formal expression is the chariot with all the connotations of the supernatural. If to consider the end of the tragedy in terms of the theme and not just a fable, the deus ex machina acts as a logical culmination of the work. In the book Greek Tragedy, it is stated that “she is bound to be a torment to herself and to others” (Kitto 196). The heroine is absorbed by the elements that rage inside her – fire, devastation, and death.

The theme of death pervades the tragedy from the very first lines. From thoughts about her death to the desirable death of Jason, Medea turns to the idea of murder. Lamentation of Aegeus about childlessness raises in the head of the heroine a plan of revenge by killing common children. The tragedy of the ancient poet has a cyclical nature. Time goes in a circle, while the person remains unchanged. The essence of the work of Euripides consists in an attempt to free a person from this circle by disclosing the driving force. In this case, the driving force of Medea is death.

Common and Different Features of the Theme of Death in Three Works

All the above works have both common and different features. While reading them, readers experience different feelings. It can be anger, love, curiosity, or hatred. The authors of these works raise various questions such as the questions of love, fate, life, friendship and others. However, all of them are imbued with the theme of death. Death of the characters is present in all of these works. Nonetheless, it is expressed in an accidental death in one tragedy such as the death of Enkidu in The Epic of Gilgamesh or the death from revenge in Medea. On the contrary, most of the deaths in The Iliad take place during fights. Despite this fact, the authors want to depict the imminence of death in their works.


The Iliad, Medea, and The Epic of Gilgamesh are the works that are considered classic by their genre. Written in the ancient times, they are still studied by numerous literary critics. These tragedies are based on the ancient myths with the presence of gods in them, except The Epic of Gilgamesh where the main hero is demigod. Although much time passed since they had been written, these tragedies still teach the readers many important lessons. They raise the questions of the importance of friendship and love, and the inevitability of death. The theme of death is considered highly significant in all of these works as writers of those times attached great importance to this issue. Death was something mystical for them and, thus, the writers brightly depicted it in their works.

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