Gilgamesh: The Sumerian Quest for Immortality

A cycle of epic tales describing the adventures of Gilgamesh originated in Sumeria, the Tigris/Euphrates region of the Middle East, nowadays known as Iraq. The heo was said to have lived in Uruk not long before or after 3000 BC, at the height of the Sumerian civilization. Gilgamesh was described as the King of Uruk, one of the major cities of the region, others being Ur and Kish. Early tablets record his battle with King Agga of Kish suggesting that in fact Gilgamesh was a historical figure. Later tablets exaggerate his prowess and ascribe feats to him that could only have been performed by a mythic hero with divine blood. It came to be said that he was the son of a human father, King Lugalbanda of Uruk and the goddess Ninsun.

The earliest records of his life are in Sumerian, but later the Semite peoples who overran the region took the story up and most of our information comes from clay tablets in the cuneiform writing of the Akkadian language. Babylonian fragments are older than the Assyrian, and trading links with the Hittites (from what is now modern Turkey) and the Hurrians (from what is now modern Armenia) later carried the epic even further afield. Fragments have been found by archaelogists in the archives of Boghazhoy, the ancient Hittite city, and at Megido, but most of what we have today were found in the ruins of the great library of Nineveh, which was sacked circa 612 BC. The ancient Elamites were known to have performed a version of it as a drama. There is currently an English dramatic version in existence written by Robert Temple, author of an excellent verse translation of the epic called: "He Who Saw Everything."

The Story:

Gilgamesh, the Great King of Uruk, and his inseparable companion, Enkidu, returned in triumph from the conquest of the giant guardian of the cedar forests, Humbaba. The goddess of love, Ishtar, seeing the young man riding in the streets, his muscles rippling and his curls bound with gold, desired him and called him to her presence.

Gilgamesh stood before her proudly - aware of the scent of a thousand flowers, dazzled by the glean of her skin and the jewels that twined in long strings around her limbs.

"Gilgamesh," she said softly, "come closer. I offer you the greatest treasure any man could desire."

"What is that my lady?" the hero asked cautiously, keeping his distance.

She smiled fondly and reached out her slender hand, each finger circled with a different gem.

"You will be my lover," she purred. "Come closer, mortal, and taste a greater pleasure than you have ever known.

Still Gilgamesh held back.

"Come!" she repeated, this time a trifle impatiently.

"Great goddess," he said, "I am a king and already have all the treasure any man could desire."

Her eyes narrowed.

"Forgive me, goddess, but all who have been your lovers are no more. To lie with you is to lie with death."

"Go then, Gilgamesh, and taste the venom of my curse!" Her eyes flashed. Her lips tightened. Her voluptuous body seemed to harden and grow tall and angular. She towered over him and the sky darkened behind her.

He retreated.

Then Ishtar went to her father, Anu, god of the firmament, and demanded that he avenge the insult that Gilgamesh had given her. Her father at first refused and protested that Gilgamesh was a great hero and had much still to do for the gods.

But Ishtar grew shrill in her demands and declared she would open the seven gates that were between the upper and lower world so that the dead would escape and harass the living.

"Give me the Bull of Heaven, father, to trample down his kingdom or the dead will outnumber the living on your earth."

Anu sighed and gave her the Bull of Heaven.

Triumphantly, she released him in Uruk, the city of Gilgamesh.

He roared and rampaged through the streets, but Gilgamesh heard him and he and Enkidu came out to meet him.

"What sport, friend!" Gilgamesh cried with shining eyes.

"What sport, indeed!" Enkidu replied, and together they wrestled the beast and brought him to the ground. Then, with his bare hands, Gilgamesh ripped him apart and sacrificed his heart to Shamash, the sun god. He mounted the horns on the walls of his bedchamber, laughing at Ishtar's puny attempt at revenge.

To his people he boasted: "Who is the most splendid among heroes? Who is the most glorious among men? Gilgamesh is the most splendid among heroes! Gilgamesh is the most glorious among men!"

Ishtar went to the Assembly of Gods in a rage and persuaded them at last that Gilgamesh and Enkidu had overstepped the bounds of human arrogance once too often.

"One of them must die," they agreed, "and the other must suffer at his death."

One night Enkidu dreamed that he would die.

"As I was standing there between the heaven and the earth," Enkidu told Gilgamesh, "I saw a young man whose face was dar..." He shuddered. "He transformed me with his magic into his double... and I found my arms were wings like a bird."

Gilgamesh tried to comfort his friend, but he would not be comforted. From this time on, day by day Enkidu became weaker and weaker until he was so ill that he could not rise from his bed. In spite of the power he had as king over a mighty nation, Gilgamesh could do nothing to save his life.

Enkidu died.

Gilgamesh wept. "What is this sleep that has now come over you? You have gone dark and cannot hear me!"

For seven days he watched beside Enkidu's bed, unable to grasp that he was not coming back. That he was never coming back!

At last he gave up hope and moved away in despair.

He left his palace, he left his city and he wandered in the wilderness living like a beast, uprooting tubers and reaching for berries. He tore off his fine clothes and wore the skins of animals. Not only was he desolate at the loss of his companion, but he was deeply shocked at the power of death. He realized that he too would lie so cold and dark one day, and would no longer have access to the bright splendours of the world. He railed against the gods that put this terrible doom on man and determined that he would find a way of living forever. The riches he had as king were worthless if he could not have eternal life.

He remembered a story about a man called Ziusudra who, in the ancient days, had survived a great flood that had destroyed the rest of mankind and had been given the gift of immortality by the gods. He determined to seek him out.

For a long time he journeyed across the wilderness of the world until he came at last to the mighty mountains of Mashu, through which he must pass if he wanted to reach the Underworld. His way was barred by the fearsome guardians of the mountains the scorpion-folk, half-giant scorpion and half-man or half-woman.

"No man has ever crossed through these mountains and lived," said a scorpion-man, raising his stinger.

But Gilgamesh stood firm. He told of his heroic deeds and of his sorrow and despair.

"If you can face the darkness of the mountain," the scorpion-man said, "it will be Shamash, the sun god himseld, who will decide your fate on the other side."

The scorpion-folk rolled back the gate to the mountain, and the rocks rumbled and groaned beneath it.

Gilgamesh journeyed into the darknes of the mountain, travelling along the path the sun takes when it does not shine upon the earth.

Hour after hour he walked in darkness denser than he had ever experienced before. Hour after hour his spirits sank lower, his despair weighed heavier. And then, after the ninth hour, he felt a slight breeze and his step quickened. After the twelfth hour, he walked out into the brightness of the sunrise on the other side of the mountain.

He found himself in a garden of jewels. Leaves, flowers and fruit gleaming in the early sunlight were all made of the most precious gems. He gazed about in wonderment, almost forgetting his quest.

But remembering at last, he journeyed on.

After a time, he came to a tavern where the tavern-keeper was a woman-being called Siduri whose task it was to dispense calming and hallucinogenic drinks to those on the way to the Underworld. Gilgamesh looked so wild and desperate, and his clothes were so ragged and filthy, that she at first barred her door against him.

He beat on the door, announcing his name and a list of all the great deeds he had done.

"If you are Gilgamesh, the Great King of Uruk," she said doubtfully, "why are your cheeks so wasted, your face so sunken? You have the look of one who has come from afar."

He told her of how Enkidu had died and how he had since wandered the wilderness, living like a beast. He told her who he was going to meet, and why.

She opened her door to him.

"The way from here lies over the Waters of Death (the River Styx in Greek myth)," she said. No man can cross them and return alive. Why do you waste your time worrying about death? Make merry by day and night while you live. Each day should be a feast of rejoicing. Let your garments be sparkling and fresh, your head washed, your body bathed in sweet scents. Enjoy the little one that holds your hand, and the wife who lies in your bed."

But he would not listen to her and persuaded her to allow him to try to cross the great sheet of water that lay between the worlds - The Waters of Death.

She told him the only way he might be able to do it would be with the help of the boatman, Urshanabi, who ferried Ziusudra across all those centuries before.

On her advice he sought Urshanabi in the forests, the flash of the boatman's axe attracting his attention.

Again he was questioned.

"Why have you been wandering the wilderness like one pursuing a puff of wind?"

Urshanabi listened to the great feats Enkidu and Gilgamesh had performed, and nodded his head when Gilgamesh told him of his despair at the death of Enkidu.

"I believe that Ziusudra, the one man granted immortality by the gods, will be able to help me," Gilgamesh said, "and Siduri told me that you are the man who can take me to Ziusudra."

Urshanabi pondered the problem.

"Go to the forest," he said. "Cut and shape 120 punt-poles. When you are done this, bring them to where my boat is moored."

Gilgamesh wielded his axe and cut and shaped 120 punt-poles and together they embarked upon the Waters of Death. Urshanabi warned Gilgamesh that he must not at any time allow any part of himself to touch the Waters.

"As each punt-pole is consumed (by the corrosive waters), you must throw it away and bring out a fresh one."

The punt poles were used up before they reached the other side, but Gilgamesh took off his loincloth and made a sail of it to continue his journey.

Ziusudra, who lived at the meeting of three rivers, looked out across the Waters of Death and saw the boat with its strange sail. He wondered that it seemed not to have its usual master at the helm.

When Gilgamesh disembarked he lost no time in telling Ziusudra his story and how he longed for eternal life. Ziusudra, like all who had met Gilgamesh before on his journey, warned him that mankind is no more than a fragile reed and cannot expect permanence. Nothing is permanent on earth:

The dragon-fly emerges and flies.
But its face is in the sun for but a day.

"If this is so," Gilgamesh asked Ziusudra, "how is it that you, a man like myself, have entered the Assembly of Gods and found everlasting life?"

Ziusudra told him about the Great Flood in ancient times that destroyed all the rest of mankind. He was warned to build a boat and take on board "the seed of all living creatures". He built it in seven days, on instruction, as a cube and sealed it against the storm that was to rage for six days and seven nights.

At sunrise on the seventh day after the storm arose, he looked out and found that it had abated. All had gone deadly quiet.

"All men had returned to clay," said Ziusudra.

The boat eventually came to rest on the peak of Mount Nisir.

When seven days had passed and it seemed to him that the waters were receding, he sent out a dove. Finding no trees on which to rest, it returned. After another seven days he sent out a swallow. The swallow also returned. But when, in another seven days, he sent out a raven, the raven did not return. Ziusudra offered sacrifices and oblations on the mountain-top in gratitude for his survival.

But the Assembly of Gods was in an uproar. It seemed that Enlil, who had ordered the storm because of his anger at the human race, was furious that any living creature had survived, while the other gods were shocked at the extent of the devastation. Ishtar, in particular, wept for her people and Enki spoke passionately about the injustice of punishing all for the sins of a few.

Enlil began to regret what he had done and agreed that Ziusudra, a human, should be given eternal life in recompense for what his race had suffered.

Gilgamesh listened carefully to the story of how Ziusudra became immortal. If one mortal could become immortal, he thought, surely it would be possible for another - especially one such as he? He would be the first mortal to become immortal by sheer will-power. Ziusudra laughed

"You cannot even ward off sleep for six days and seven nights," he told Gilgamesh. "How then can you expect to ward off death?"

Gilgamesh boasted at once that of course he could ward off sleep for six days and seven nights, and prepared to demonstrate it.

Ziusudra's wife baked cakes and each night Ziusudra placed one beside the bed of Gilgamesh to give him refreshment in the night. But each morning the cake was uneaten because Gilgamesh had slept.

Gilgamesh was forced to admit defeat and Urshanabi was instructed to take him back the way he had come. Ziusudra provided the king with fresh, clean clothes, and he washed himself before he set off.

As they parted, Ziusudra was moved to give him a gift. He told him one of the secrets of the gods. It seemed there was a flower that bestowed immortality - but it grew at the bottom of the sea where no man could reach it.

Nothing daunted, Gilgamesh tied stones to his feet and sank beneath the surface. He found the plant, plucked it and brought it back.

"I will take it to my people," he cried triumphantly, "and we will live forever!"

Ziusudra watched him go, wondering if indeed he would achieve immortality.

Long, long was the journey back with as many dangers as there had been on the way out.

Gilgamesh carried the plant carefully and after twenty leagues broke off a morsel. After thirty more he rested beside a pool. As he refreshed himself in the water, a snake slithered out from behind a rock, smelling the scent of the flower. Quick as lightning, it seized the plant and swallowed it. Horrified, Gilgamesh was in time to see it slough its skin and be rejuvenated before it slid from his sight.

For a while he sat beside the pool bewailing his fate. There was now nothing to be done but return home empty-handed. Wearily, he travelled the last miles to Uruk and then, on a hill overlooking the city, he paused.

What he saw was a goodly place with great ziggurats and palaces and temples; with gardens and broad streets where happy people walked up and down; where children laughed, and lovers kissed.

He straightened his shoulders and strode down to reclaim his kingdom.