By Grace F. Knoche
Sometime between four and five thousand years ago, long before Homer created his Iliad and Odyssey, unknown poets in the land of Sumer were chanting the heroic deeds of Gilgamesh, he who ventured into the afterworlds in search of eternal life. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, immortalized on cuneiform tablets of Sumerian, Hittite, Babylonian, and Assyrian origin, we find an initiatory tale that speaks directly to ourselves, not because Gilgamesh is a candidate for initiation, but because he is a very human person who, like ourselves, must face illness and death, yet longs for life.
"Concerning death and life I would ask!" Thus Gilgamesh enters upon the ancient quest for knowledge of life by seeking the meaning of death. Gilgamesh is king of Uruk and his youthful might, "like a wild ox," has run amok. The gods, heeding the pleas of his subjects, provide a companion to befriend and protect him. Gilgamesh dreams of a star falling, and his mother who "knows all" interprets this as the coming of Enkidu, who will be his guardian and friend; Enkidu, newly become human from animal, with devotion and intuition as yet unspoiled. Almost immediately, however, the two of them are locked in combat until Enkidu, overthrown, offers allegiance to Gilgamesh. Their eyes meet and they know each other as brothers. Gilgamesh has more dreams, and his mother urges him and Enkidu to penetrate the huge forest of cedars and slay the giant Huwawa. Gilgamesh is eager for the adventure; he is fearless and would make a name for himself, even in death if need be. Enkidu, however, senses danger; he too has strange dreams. Yet off they go and, after crossing seven mountains and felling seven cedars, they slay the "seven-terrored" Huwawa. Elated, they return to Uruk.
At this point, Ishtar, goddess of love and war, falls in love with Gilgamesh, but he will have none of her. She is incensed and entreats her father, the god Anu, to fashion the bull of heaven to destroy them. Again, with Enkidu's support, Gilgamesh prevails. This only intensifies her wrath, and her curse provokes Enkidu to insult the goddess. That night Enkidu has an ominous dream: the gods in council decree that one of them must die, and it cannot be Gilgamesh. Both are desolate; Enkidu sickens and in twelve days is dead. Gilgamesh, grief-stricken, watches over his friend for seven days and nights in the hope that he stir from the "sleep" that holds him. Why, oh why, is there death? Why must friends be parted? His lament is one of the great poetic utterances of all time. At length Gilgamesh accepts the fact of death and commences his journey to Utnapishtim, the ancestral father, in search of the guerdon of immortality, for himself, and also that he might restore life to his friend.
Through wilderness and over steppe he endures fearful hardships, and comes at last to Mashu, the mountain range that reaches from the "wall of heaven" to the underworld and guards the rising and setting of the sun. At the entrance Scorpion-man stops Gilgamesh: none but the prepared may enter the "twelve leagues of darkness where there is no light." But his wife intervenes: this youth is no common mortal " two-thirds of him is god, one-third of him is human." Gilgamesh is allowed to enter the Roadway of the Sun through an opening in the mountain. The terrors of perpetual night are overcome and he emerges to find Shamash, the Sun, in full splendor. Again an attempt is made to dissuade Gilgamesh: "You will never find the life you seek." But he will not be stayed and, after detailing the rigors of his journey, he addresses this appeal to Shamash the valiant:
Must I lay my head in the heart of the earth
That I may sleep through all the years?
Let mine eyes behold the sun
That I may have my fill of the light!
Darkness withdraws when there is enough light.
May he who has died a death behold the radiance of the sun!
Not even the Sun-god could hold back one filled with the ardor of quest. Gilgamesh travels on, only to be halted near the sea where Siduri, the winemaker, lives. For her he recites once more his woeful tale. Seeing the torment in his soul, she urges him to return whence he came, for "the life you are pursuing you shall not find." She tells him of the Waters of Death which none but Shamash may traverse; but if he will persist, he should seek out Urshanabi, the ferryman of Utnapishtim who, if it is possible, will ferry him across; if not, then homeward he should turn and live out his allotted life.
Angry and frustrated by the continuous warnings, Gilgamesh picks up his axe and shatters the tackle of the boat and also the "sacred stones" that would have protected him from the Waters of Death. Even so, the ferryman is moved by the stranger's fate and decides to help him. He instructs him to cut 120 poles, each pole to be discarded after one use, for his hand must not touch the death-dealing water. In due course they pole their way across to the island where Utnapishtim lives.
Fragmentary as is the poem and pieced together from the several versions extant, it still exerts a magic, even in translation. The responses of Utnapishtim the Faraway, are passages of rare beauty and power.
All is transient; since time beyond knowing there is no permanence: "the sleeping and the dead, how alike they are . . . the commoner and the noble, once they are near to their fate." Gilgamesh marvels that Utnapishtim seems a man like himself, yet here he is in the company of gods having received the gift of eternal life. How can this be? Utnapishtim (forerunner of Noah) then narrates the story of the Great Deluge that submerged Shurrupak when the gods had decreed that mankind had failed and must be destroyed. By a dream or other means, they had counseled him to "abandon possessions and save life" and to use the timbers of his house to build a boat and into it to secure the Li seed of all living creatures." The storm that came raged with such fury that even the gods of highest heaven and the judges of the underworld wept in pity. Thus Utnapishtim and his wife, because they had fulfilled their mission to preserve the seeds of life for posterity and had remained attentive to and trustful of the gods, became as they.
Utnapishtim looks closely at Gilgamesh and decides to offer him the same boon of immortal life that they had received, provided he can remain alert and awake for six days and seven nights. But even as Utnapishtim is speaking, sleep like a "mist" overtakes his guest. Gilgamesh sleeps on until he is awakened on the morning of the seventh day. He has failed the test. Despair fills his soul: wherever he goes, there is death. "What shall I do? Where may I go?"
Utnapishtim bids the ferryman take over the care of this human — part god he may be, but he is still a man — and allow him to cleanse and refresh himself in clear, flowing waters, and be given new garments that will show no sign of wear and toil until his return to Uruk. This accomplished, Urshanabi and Gilgamesh board the boat. Just as they are about to set sail, the wife of Utnapishtim appeals to her husband not to let the youth go without giving him something to take back with him to his homeland. Utnapishtim then offers Gilgamesh a "hidden thing," a plant that pricks like the thorns of a rose; if he can seize and hold on to it he will attain the life he is seeking. Gilgamesh rejoices. He ties heavy stones around his ankles and drops into the deep channel where the plant grows and, plucking it firmly, he brings it to shore. Overjoyed, he and the boatman start their return journey.
One night, when they stop for rest by a well, Gilgamesh cannot resist bathing in the cooling waters. A serpent lazing on the bottom catches the scent of the plant and, unobserved, quietly surfaces and eats it and, itself rejuvenated, leaves behind its sloughed skin. The prize so hard won is lost! Our hero weeps, his desolation complete: "For whom have I labored? For whom have I spent my heart's blood?" For a mere serpent, an "earth-lion," did he obtain the boon of eternal life!
The tablet breaks off here, with their arrival at Uruk and with only a fleeting reference to Gilgamesh, the king, who was wise and "saw everything," who inscribed in stone the record of the Great Deluge and all that he had experienced on his long, long journey in quest of immortal life.
Allusions to a wisdom that anciently belonged in the Sanctuary run throughout the epic: the close alliance between gods and humans, with dreams of promise and foreboding; the repeated warnings and efforts to discourage the youth from venturing beyond his capacity to achieve — the Sun alone can cross the Waters of Death in safety, any other would die; the frequent references to the numbers seven and twelve; the apparent knowledge of celestial matters — in the "twelve leagues " on the Roadway of the Sun guarded by Scorpio(n). And is there not meaning in the compassionate intervention of the wives (of Scorpion-man and Utnapishtim), which turned the tide in the youth's favor? As for the serpent or "wise one," only such as he could rightly claim the " plant" of immortality. Finally, even when it is clear that Gilgamesh is not ready for the supreme trial, because he had unremittingly pursued the quest he was allowed to "try." And, although he did not succeed, he had earned the protection of the gods and safe passage home where he would fulfill his destiny and reign with justice and benevolence until his death at the age of 120 years,
And we today? In what manner can reading about ancient heroes, studying teachings of the after-death states, help us to live now and to meet more understandingly the partings and deaths that cross our lives; Like Gilgamesh, we too are part god, part human, and it is his very humanness that moves our heart and fortifies courage. If there was failure, it is because he had more to learn and to master. Is there not victory in his having dared the impossible out of love for a friend, even though he was not sufficiently awakened to retain the "immortality" he had seemingly won? All that he could grasp he obtained, and returned to Uruk chastened and disciplined.
The cuneiform record is incomplete, yet we wonder if it does not end just where it should, so that future generations may better identify with him. We are living in quite a different time and under circumstances quite other than those which faced Gilgamesh, but the same attributes, noble and base, are ours. Grief and joy, failure and triumph, are ever the lot of humans, as it the yearning for truth and wisdom.
Eliade, Mircea, Death, Afterlife, and Eschatology, Harper & Row, 1967.
Heidel, Alexander, The Gilgameh Epic and Old testament Parallels, U. of Chicago, 1949.
Kramer, S. M., Sumerian Mythology, University of Pennsylvania, 1972.
Sandars, N. K., The Epic of Gilgamesh, Penguin Classics, 1972.
Speiser, E. A., Ancient Near Eastern Tests, University of Princeton, 1950.
(Reprinted from Sunrise magazine, November 1980. Copyright © 1980 by Theosophical University Press)
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