Gilgamesh - The King Who Refused to Die

The Sumerian tale of the first known Search for Immortality concerns a ruler of long long ago, who asked his divine Godfather to let him enter the "Land of the Living." Of this unusual ruler, ancient scribes wrote down epic tales. They said of him that

Secret things he has seen;

What is hidden from Man, he found out.

He even brought tidings

of the time before the Deluge;

He also took the distant journey,

wearisome and under difficulties.

He returned, and upon a stone column

all his toil he engraved.

Of that olden Sumerian tale, less than two hundred lines have remained. Yet we know it from its translations into the languages of the peoples who followed the Sumerians in the Near East; Assyrians, Babylonians, Hittites, Hurrians. They all told and retold the tale; and the clay tablets on which these later versions were written down—some intact, some damaged, many fragmented beyond legibility—have enabled many scholars over the better part of a century to piece the tale together.

At the core of our knowledge are twelve tablets in the Akkadian language; they were part of the library of Ashurbanipal in Nineveh. They were first reported by George Smith, whose job at the British Museum in London was to sort out, match and categorize the tens of thousands of tablets and tablet fragments that arrived at the Museum from Mesopotamia. One day, his eye caught a fragmented text which appeared to relate the story of the Deluge. There was no mistaking: the cuneiform texts, from Assyria, were telling of a king who sought out the hero of the Deluge, and heard from him a first-person account of the event!

With understandable excitement, the Museum directors sent George Smith to the archaeological site to search for missing fragments. With luck, he found enough of them to be able to reconstruct the text and guess the sequence of the tablets. In 1876, he conclusively showed that this was, as his work was titled. The Chaldean Account of the Flood. From the language and style he concluded that it "was composed in Babylon circa 2000 B.C."

George Smith at first read the name of the king who searched for Noah Izdubur, and suggested that he was none other than the biblical hero-king Nimrod. For a time scholars believed that the tale indeed concerned the very first mighty king, and referred to the twelve-tablet text as the "Nimrod Epos." More finds and much further research established the Sumerian origin of the tale, and the true reading of the hero's name: GIL.GA.MESH. It has been confirmed from other historical texts—including the Sumerian King Lists—that he was a ruler of Uruk, the biblical Erech, circa 2900 B.C. The Epic of Gilgamesh, as this ancient literary work is now called, thus takes us back nearly 5,000 years.

One must understand the history of Uruk to grasp the Epic's dramatic scope. Affirming the biblical statements, the Sumerian historical records also reported that in the aftermath of the Deluge, kingship—royal dynasties—indeed began at Kish; it then was transferred to Uruk as a result of the ambitions of Irnini/Ishtar, who cherished not at all her domain far away from Sumer.

Uruk, initially, was only the location of a sacred precinct, where an Abode (temple) for An, the "Lord of Heaven," was perched atop a vast ziggurat named E.AN.NA ("House of An"). On the rare occasion of An's visits to Earth, he took a liking to Irnini. He bestowed on her the title IN.AN.NA—"Beloved of An" (the ancient gossip suggested that she was beloved in more than platonic ways), and installed her in the Eanna, which otherwise stood unoccupied.

But what good was a city without people, a lordship with no one to rule over? Not too far away to the south, on the shores of the Persian Gulf, Ea lived in Eridu in semi-isolation. There he kept track of human affairs, dispensing knowledge and civilization to mankind. Enchanting and perfumed, Inanna paid Ea (a great-uncle of hers) a visit. Enamored and drunk. Ea granted her wish: to make Uruk the new center of Sumerian civilization, the seat of kingship in lieu of Kish.

To carry out her grandiose plans, whose ultimate goal was to break into the Inner Circle of the Twelve Great Gods, Inanna-Ishtar enlisted the support of her brother Utu/Shamash. Whereas in the days before the Deluge the intermarriage between the Nefilim and the daughters of Man brought about the wrath of the Gods, the practice was no longer frowned upon in the aftermath of the Deluge.


And so it was, that the high priest at the temple of An was at the time a son of Shamash by a human female. Ishtar and Shamash anointed him as king of Uruk, starting the world's first dynasty of priestly kings. According to the Sumerian King Lists, he ruled for 324 years. His son, "who built Uruk," ruled for 420 years. When Gilgamesh, the fifth ruler of this dynasty, ascended the throne, Uruk was already a thriving Sumerian center, lording over its neighbors and trading with far lands. (Fig. 61).

An offspring of the great God Shamash on his father's side, Gilgamesh was considered to be "two-thirds God, one-third human" by the further fact that his mother was the Goddess NIN.SUN (Fig. 62). He was thus accorded the privilege of having his name written with the prefix "divine."

Fig. 61

Fig. 62

Proud and self-assured, Gilgamesh began as a benevolent and conscientious king, engaged in the customary tasks of raising the city's ramparts or embellishing the temple precinct. But the more knowledge he acquired of the histories of Gods and men, the more he became philosophical and restless. In the midst of merriment, his thoughts turned to death. Would he, by virtue of his divine two-thirds, live as long as his demi-God forefathers—or would his one-third prevail, and determine for him the life span of a mortal human?


Before long, he confessed his anxiety to Shamash:

In my city man dies; oppressed is my heart.

Man perishes; heavy is my heart...
Man, the tallest, cannot stretch to heaven;
Man, the widest, cannot cover the earth.
"Will I too 'peer over the wall'?" he asked Shamash;

"will I too be fated thus?"

Evading a direct answer—perhaps not knowing it himself—Shamash attempted to have Gilgamesh accept his fate, whatever it might be, and to enjoy life while he could:

When the Gods created Mankind,
Death for Mankind they allotted;
Life they retained in their own keeping.
Therefore, said Shamash,
Let full be thy belly, Gilgamesh;
Make thou merry by day and night!
Of each day, make thou a feast of rejoicing;
Day and night, dance thou and play!
Let thy garments be sparkling fresh,
thy head washed; bathe thou in water.
Pay heed to the little one that holds thy hand,
let thy spouse delight in thy bosom;
for this is the fate of Mankind.

But Gilgamesh refused to accept this fate. Was he not two-thirds divine, and only one-third human? Why then should the lesser mortal part, rather than his greater Godly element, determine his fate? Roving by daytime, restless at night, Gilgamesh sought to stay young by intruding on newlywed couples and insisting on having intercourse with the bride ahead of the bridegroom. Then, one night, he saw a vision which he felt was an omen. He rushed to his mother to tell her what he saw, so that she might interpret the omen for him:

My mother,

During the night, having become lusty,

I wandered about.

In the midst (of night) omens appeared.

A star grew larger and larger in the sky.

The handiwork of Anu descended towards me!

"The handiwork of Anu" that descended from the skies fell to Earth near him, Gilgamesh continued to relate:

I sought to lift it;
it was too heavy for me.
I sought to shake it;
I could neither move nor raise it.

While he was attempting to shake loose the object, which must have embedded itself deep into the ground, "the populace jostled toward it, the nobles thronged about it." The object's fall to Earth was apparently seen by many, for "the whole of Uruk land was gathered around it." The "heroes"— the strongmen—then lent Gilgamesh a hand in his efforts to dislodge the object that fell from the skies:

"The heroes grabbed its lower part, I pulled it up by its forepart."

While the object is not fully described in the texts, it was certainly not a shapeless meteor, but a crafted object worthy of being called the handiwork of the great Anu himself. The ancient reader, apparently, required no elaboration, having been familiar with the term ("Handiwork of Anu") or with its depiction, as possibly the one shown on an ancient cylinder seal (Fig. 63).

Fig. 63


The Gilgamesh text describes the lower part, which was grabbed by the heroes, by a term that may be translated "legs." It had, however, other pronounced parts and could even be entered, as becomes clear from the further description by Gilgamesh of the night's events:

I pressed strongly its upper part;
I could neither remove its covering,
nor raise its Ascender...
With a destroying fire its top 1 (then) broke off,
and moved into its depths.
Its movable That Which Pulls Forward
I lifted, and brought it to thee.

Gilgamesh was certain that the appearance of the object was an omen from the Gods concerning his fate. But his mother, the Goddess Ninsun, had to disappoint him. That which descended like a star from Heaven, she said, foretells the arrival of,

"a stout comrade who rescues; a friend is come to thee... he is the mightiest in the land... he will never forsake thee. This is the meaning of thy vision."

She knew what she was talking about; for unbeknown to Gilgamesh, in response to pleas from the people of Uruk that something be done to divert the restless Gilgamesh, the Gods arranged for a wild man to come to Uruk and engage Gilgamesh in wrestling matches.


He was called ENKI.DU—"A Creature of Enki"—a kind of Stone Age Man who had been living in the wilderness among the animals and as one of them: "The milk of wild creatures he was wont to suck." He was depicted naked, bearded, with shaggy hair—often shown in the company of his animal friends (Fig. 64).

Fig. 64


To tame him, the nobles of Uruk assigned a harlot. Enkidu, until then knowing only the company of animals, regained his human element as he made love to the woman, over and over again. Then she brought Enkidu to a camp outside town, where he was coached in the speech and manners of Uruk and in the habits of Gilgamesh. "Restrain Gilgamesh, be a match for him!" the nobles told Enkidu.

The first encounter took place at night, as Gilgamesh left his palace and started to roam the streets, looking for sexual adventures. Enkidu met him in the street, barring his way. "They grappled each other, holding fast like bulls." Walls shook, doorposts were shattered as the two wrestled. At last, "Gilgamesh bent the knee"; the match was over: He lost to the stranger. "His fury abated, Gilgamesh turned away." Just then, Enkidu addressed him, and Gilgamesh recalled his mother's words. Here then was his new "stout friend." "They kissed each other, and formed a friendship."

As the two became inseparable friends, Gilgamesh began to reveal to Enkidu his fear of a mortal's fate. On hearing this, "the eyes of Enkidu filled with tears, ill was his heart, bitterly he sighed." Then he told Gilgamesh, that there is a way to outsmart his fate: to force his way into the secret Abode of the Gods. There, if Shamash and Adad would stand by him, the Gods could accord him the divine status to which he was entitled.

The "Abode of the Gods," Enkidu related, was in "the cedar mountain." He happened to discover it, he said, as he was roaming the lands with the wild beasts; but it was guarded by a fearsome monster named Huwawa:

I found it, my friend, in the mountains
as I was roaming with the wild beasts.
For many leagues extends the forest:
I went down into its midst.
Huwawa (is there); his roar is like a flood,
his mouth is fire,
his breath is death...

The Cedar Forest's watcher, the Fiery Warrior, is mighty, never resting... To safeguard the Cedar Forest, as a terror to mortals the God Enlil appointed him.

The very fact that Huwawa's main duty was to prevent mortals from entering the Cedar Forest only whetted the determination of Gilgamesh to reach the place; for surely, it was there that he could join the Gods and escape his mortal's fate:

Who, my friend, can scale heaven?
Only the Gods,
by going to the underground place of Shamash.
Mankind's days are numbered;
whatever they achieve is but the wind.
Even thou art afraid of death,
in spite of your heroic might.
Let me go ahead of thee,
let thy mouth call to me:
"Advance, fear not!"

This, then, was the plan: by going to "the underground place of Shamash" in the Cedar Mountain, to be enabled to "scale heaven" as the Gods do. Even the tallest man, Gilgamesh earlier pointed out, "cannot stretch to heaven." Now he knew where the place was, from which Heaven could be scaled.


He fell to his knees and prayed to Shamash:

"Let me go, O Shamash! My hands are raised in prayer ... to the Landing Place, give command... Establish over me thy protection!"

The text's lines containing the answer of Shamash are, unfortunately, broken off the tablet. We do learn that "when Gilgamesh inspected his omen... tears ran down his face." Apparently he was permitted to go ahead—but at his own risk. Nevertheless, Gilgamesh decided to proceed, and fight Huwawa without the God's aid.

"Should I fail," he said, people will remember me: "Gilgamesh, they will say, against fierce Huwawa has fallen."

But should I succeed, he continued—I will obtain a Shem—the vehicle "by which one attains eternity."

As Gilgamesh ordered special weapons with which to fight Huwawa, the elders of Uruk tried to dissuade him. "Thou are yet young, Gilgamesh," they pointed out—and why risk death with so many sure years to live anyway, against unknown odds of success: "That which thou wouldst achieve, thou knowest not." Gathering all available information about the Cedar Forest and its guardian, they cautioned Gilgamesh:

We hear that Huwawa is wondrously built; Who is there to face his weapons?
Unequal struggle it is with the siege-engine Huwawa.

But Gilgamesh only "looked around, smiling at his friend." The talk of Huwawa as a mechanical monster, a "siege engine" that is "wondrously built," only encouraged him to believe that it was indeed controllable by commands from the Gods Shamash and Adad. Since he himself did not succeed in obtaining a clear-cut promise of support from Shamash, Gilgamesh decided to enlist his mother in the effort.

"Grasping each other, hand in hand, Gilgamesh and Enkidu to the Great Palace go, to the presence of Ninsun, the Great Queen. Gilgamesh came forward as he entered the palace: 'O Ninsun (he said)... a far journey I have boldly undertaken, to the place of Huwawa; an uncertain battle I am about to face; unknown pathways I am about to ride. Oh my mother, pray thou to Shamash on my behalf!'"


"Ninsun entered her chamber, put on a garment as beseems her body, put on an ornament as beseems her breast... donned her tiara."

Then she raised her hands in prayer to Shamash—putting the onus of the voyage on him;

"Why," she asked rhetorically, "having given me Gilgamesh for a son, with a restless heart didst thou endow him? And now, thou didst affect him to go on a far journey, to the place of Huwawa!"

She called upon Shamash to protect Gilgamesh:

Until he reaches the Cedar Forest, Until he has slain the fierce Huwawa, Until the day that he goes and returns.

As the populace heard that Gilgamesh was going to "the Landing Place" after all, "they pressed closer to him" and wished him success. The city elders offered more practical advice:

"Let Enkidu go before thee: he knows the way ... in the forest, the passes of Huwawa let him penetrate ... he who goes in front saves the companion!"

They too invoked the blessings of Shamash:

"Let Shamash grant thee thy desire; what thy mouth hath spoken, let him show thine eyes; may he open for thee the barred path, the road unclose for thy treading, the mountain unclose for thy foot!"

Ninsun had a few parting words. Turning to Enkidu, she asked him to protect Gilgamesh; "although not of my womb's issue art thou, I herewith adopt thee (as a son)," she told him; guard the king as thy brother! Then she placed her emblem around the neck of Enkidu.

And the two were off on their dangerous quest.

The fourth tablet of the Epic of Gilgamesh is devoted to the comrades' journey to the Cedar Forest; unfortunately, the tablet is so fragmented that, in spite of the discovery of parallel fragments in the Hittite language, no cohesive text could be put together.

It is evident, however, that they traveled a great distance, toward a western destination. On and off, Enkidu tried to persuade Gilgamesh to call off the quest. Huwawa, he said, can hear a cow moving sixty leagues away. His "net" can grasp from great distances; his call reverberates from the "Place Where the Rising Is Made" as far back as to Nippur; "weakness lays hold on him" who approaches the forest's gates. Let us turn back, he pleaded.


But proceed they did:

At the green mountain the two arrived.

Their words were silenced;

They themselves stood still.

They stood still and gazed at the forest;

They looked at the height of the cedars;

They looked at the entrance to the forest.

Where Huwawa wont to move was a path:

straight were the tracks, a fiery channel.

They beheld the Cedar Mountain,

Abode of the Gods,

the Crossroads of Ishtar.

Awestruck and tired, the two lay down to sleep. In the middle of the night they were awakened. "Didst thou arouse me?" Gilgamesh asked Enkidu. No, said Enkidu. No sooner had they dozed off than Gilgamesh again awakened Enkidu. He had witnessed an awesome sight, he said— unsure whether he was awake or dreaming:

In my vision, my friend,
the high ground toppled.

It laid me low, trapped my feet...The glare was overpowering!

A man appeared;
the fairest in the land was he...

From under the toppled ground he pulled me out.

He gave me water to drink; my heart quieted.

On the ground he set my feet.

Who was this "man"—"the fairest in the land"—who pulled Gilgamesh from under the toppled ground? What was the "overpowering glare" that accompanied the landslide? Enkidu had no answers; tired, he went back to sleep. But the night's tranquility was shattered once again:

In the middle of the watch,
the sleep of Gilgamesh was ended.

He started up, saying to his friend:

"My friend, didst thou call me?

Why am I awake?

Didst thou not touch me?
Why am I startled?
Did not some God go by?
Why is my flesh numb?"

Denying that he had awakened Gilgamesh, Enkidu left his comrade wondering whether it was "some God who went by." Bewildered, the two fell asleep again, only to be awakened once more. This is how Gilgamesh described what he saw:

The vision that I saw was wholly awesome!

The heavens shrieked, the earth boomed.

Though daylight was dawning, darkness came.

Lightning flashed, a flame shot up.

The clouds swelled; it rained death!

Then the glow vanished; the fire went out.

And all that had fallen was turned to ashes.

Gilgamesh must have realized that he had witnessed the ascent of a "Sky Chamber": the shaking ground as the engines ignited and roared; the clouds of smoke and dust that enveloped the site, darkening the dawn sky; the brilliance of the engines' fire, seen through the thick clouds; and—as the jetcraft was aloft—its vanishing glow. A "wholly awesome" sight indeed! But one which only encouraged Gilgamesh to proceed, for it confirmed that he in fact had reached the "Landing Place."

In the morning the comrades attempted to penetrate the forest, careful to avoid "weapon-trees that kill." Enkidu found the gate, of which he had spoken to Gilgamesh. But as he tried to open it, he was thrown back by an unseen force. For twelve days he lay paralyzed.

When he was able to move and speak again, he pleaded with Gilgamesh: "Let us not go down into the heart of the forest." But Gilgamesh had good news for his comrade: while the latter was recovering from the shock, he— Gilgamesh—had found a tunnel. By the sounds heard from it, Gilgamesh was sure that it was connected to "the enclosure from which words of command are issued." Come on, he urged Enkidu; "do not stand by, my friend; let us go down together!"

Gilgamesh must have been right, for the Sumerian text states that
Pressing on into the forest, the secret abode of the Anunnaki he opened up.

The entrance to the tunnel was grown over with (or hidden by) trees and bushes and blocked by soil and rocks. "While Gilgamesh cut down the trees, Enkidu dug up" the soil and rocks. But just as they made enough of a clearance, terror struck: "Huwawa heard the noise, and became angry." Now he appeared on the scene looking for the intruders. His appearance was "Mighty, his teeth as the teeth of a dragon; his face the face of a lion; his coming like the onrushing floodwaters." Most fearsome was his "radiant beam.''


Emanating from his forehead, "it devoured trees and bushes." From its killing force, "none could escape." A Sumerian cylinder seal depicted a God, Gilgamesh and Enkidu flanking a mechanical robot, no doubt the epic's "Monster with the Killing Beams" (Fig. 65).

Fig. 65


It appears from the fragmented texts that Huwawa could armor himself with "seven cloaks," but when he arrived on the scene "only one he had donned, six are still off." Seeing this as their opportunity, the two comrades attempted to ambush Huwawa. As the monster turned to face his attackers, the Killing Beam from his forehead traced a path of destruction.

In the nick of time, rescue appeared from the heavens. Seeing their predicament, "down from the skies spoke to them divine Shamash." Do not try to escape, he advised them; instead, "draw near Huwawa." Then Shamash raised a host of swirling winds, "which beat against the eyes of Huwawa" and neutralized his beam. As Shamash had intended,

"the radiant beams vanished, the brilliance became clouded."

Soon, Huwawa was immobilized: "he is unable to move forward, nor is he able to move back."

The two then attacked Huwawa: "Enkidu struck the guardian, Huwawa, to the ground. For two leagues the cedars resounded," so immense was the monster's fall.

Then Enkidu "Huwawa put to death."

Exhilarated by their victory but exhausted by the battle, the two stopped to rest by a stream. Gilgamesh undressed to wash himself. "He cast off his soiled things, put on his clean ones; wrapped a fringed cloak about him, fastened with a sash." There was no need to rush: the way to the "secret abode of the Anunnaki" was no longer blocked.

Little did he know that a female's lust would soon undo his victory....

The place, as stated earlier in the epic, was the "Crossroads of Ishtar." The Goddess herself was wont to come and go from this "Landing Place." She too, like Shamash, must have watched the battle—perhaps from her aerial ("winged") Sky Chamber, as depicted on a Hittite seal (Fig. 66). Now, having seen Gilgamesh undress and bathe, "glorious Ishtar raised an eye at the beauty of Gilgamesh."

Fig. 66


Approaching the hero, she minced no words about what was on her mind:

Come, Gilgamesh, be thou my lover!

Grant me the fruit of thy love.

You be my man,

I shall be your woman!

Promising him golden chariots, a magnificent palace, lordship over other kings and princes, Ishtar was sure she had enticed Gilgamesh. But answering her, he pointed out that he had nothing he could give her, a Goddess, in return. And as to her "love," how long would that last? Sooner or later, he said, she would rid herself of him as of "a shoe which pinches the foot of its owner." Calling off the names of other men with whom she had been promiscuous, he turned her down. Enraged by this insulting refusal, Ishtar asked Anu to let the "Bull of Heaven" smite Gilgamesh.

Attacked by the Sky Monster, Gilgamesh and Enkidu forgot all about their mission, and ran for their lives. Aiding their escape back to Uruk, Shamash enabled them "the distance of a month and fifteen days, in three days to traverse." But on the outskirst of Uruk, on the Euphrates River, the Bull of Heaven caught up with them. Gilgamesh managed to reach the city, to summon its warriors.


Outside the city walls, Enkidu alone remained to hold off the Sky Monster. When the Bull of Heaven "snorted," pits were opened in the earth, large enough to hold two hundred men each. As Enkidu fell into one of the pits, the Bull of Heaven turned around. Quickly Enkidu climbed out, and put the monster to death.

What exactly the Bull of Heaven was, is not clear. The Sumerian term— GUD.AN.NA—could also mean "Anu's attacker," his "cruise missile." Ancient artists, fascinated by the episode, frequently depicted Gilgamesh or Enkidu fighting with an actual bull, with the naked Ishtar (and sometimes Adad) looking on (Fig. 67a).


But from the Epic's text it is clear that this weapon of Anu was a mechanical contraption made of metal and equipped with two piercers (the "horns") which were "cast from thirty minas of lapis, the coating on each being two fingers thick." Some ancient depictions show such a mechanical "bull," sweeping down from the skies (Fig. 67b).

Fig. 67


After the Bull of Heaven was defeated, Gilgamesh,

"called out to the craftsmen, the armorers, all of them" to view the mechanical monster and take it apart. Then, triumphant, he and Enkidu went to pay homage to Shamash. But "Ishtar, in her abode, set up a wail."

In the palace, Gilgamesh and Enkidu were resting from nightlong celebrations. But at the Abode of the Gods, the supreme Gods were considering Ishtar's complaint. "And Anu said to Enlil: 'Because the Bull of Heaven they have slain, and Huwawa they have slain, the two of them must die.' But Enlil said: 'Enkidu shall die, let Gilgamesh not die. " Then Shamash interceded: it was done with his concurrence; why then should "innocent Enkidu die?"

While the Gods deliberated, Enkidu was afflicted with a coma. Distraught and worried, Gilgamesh "paced back and forth before the couch" on which Enkidu lay motionless. Bitter tears flowed down his cheeks. As sorry as he was for his comrade, his thoughts turned to his own permeating anxiety: will he too lie one day dying like Enkidu? Will he, after all the endeavors, end up dead as a mortal?

In their assembly, the Gods reached a compromise. The death sentence of Enkidu was commuted to hard labor in the depths of the mines—there to spend the rest of his days. To carry out the sentence and take him to his new home, Enkidu was told, two emissaries "clothed like birds, with wings for garments" shall appear unto him. One of them, "a young man whose face is dark, who like a Bird-Man is his face," shall transport him to the Land of the Mines:

He will be dressed like an Eagle;
By the arm he will lead thee.
"Follow me," (he will say); he will lead you
To the House of Darkness,
the abode below the ground;
The abode which none leave who have entered into it.
A road from which there is no return; A House whose dwellers are bereft of light,
where dust is in their mouths
and clay is their food.

An ancient depiction on a cylinder seal illustrated the scene, showing a Winged Emissary ("angel") leading Enkidu by the arm (Fig. 68).

Fig. 68


Hearing the sentence passed on his comrade, Gilgamesh had an idea. Not far from the Land of Mines, he had learned, was the Land of the Living: the place whereto the Gods had taken those humans who were granted eternal youth!

It was "the abode of the forefathers who by the great Gods with the Purifying Waters were anointed." There, partaking of the food and beverage of the Gods, have been residing

Princes born to the crown
who had ruled the land in days of yore;
Like Anu and Enlil, spiced meats they are served,
From waterskins, cool water to them is poured.

Was it not the place whereto the hero of the Deluge, Ziusudra/ Utnapishtim, had been taken—the very place from which Etana "to heaven ascended"?

And so it was, that "the lord Gilgamesh, toward the Land of the Living set his mind." Announcing to the revived Enkidu that he would accompany him at least on part of his journey, Gilgamesh explained:

O Enkidu,

Even the mighty wither, meet the fated end.

(Therefore) the Land I would enter,

I would set up my Shem.

In the place where the Shems have been raised up,

I a Shem I would raise up.

However, proceeding from the Land of Mines to the Land of the Living was not a matter for a mortal to decide. In the strongest possible words, Gilgamesh was advised by the elders of Uruk and his Goddess mother to first obtain the permission of Utu/Shamash:

If the Land thou wish to enter,
inform Utu, inform Utu, the hero Utu!
The Land, it is in Utu's charge;
The Land which with the cedars is aligned,
it is the hero Utu's charge.
Inform Utu!

Thus forewarned and advised, Gilgamesh offered a sacrifice to Utu, and appealed for his consent and protection:

O Utu,
The Land I wish to enter;
be thou my ally!
The Land which with the cool cedars is aligned
I wish to enter; be thou my ally!
In the places where the Shems have been raised up,
Let me set up my Shem!

At first, Utu/Shamash doubted whether Gilgamesh could qualify to enter the land. Then, yielding to more pleading and prayers, he warned him that his journey would be through a desolate and arid area:

"the dust of the crossroads shall be thy dwelling place, the desert shall be thy bed... thorn and bramble shall skin thy feet... thirst shall smite thy cheeks."

Unable to dissuade Gilgamesh, he told him that the "place where the Shems have been raised" is surrounded by seven mountains, and the passes guarded by fearsome "Mighty Ones" who can unleash "a scorching fire" or "a lightning which cannot be turned back." But in the end, Utu gave in:

"the tears of Gilgamesh he accepted as an offering; like one of mercy, he showed him mercy."

But "the lord Gilgamesh acted frivolously." Rather than take the harsh overland road, he planned to cover most of the route by a comfortable sea voyage; after landing at the distant destination, Enkidu would go to the Land of Mines, and he (Gilgamesh) would proceed to the Land of the Living. He selected fifty young, unattached men to accompany him and Enkidu, and be rowers of the boat. Their first task was to cut and haul back to Uruk special woods, from which the MA.GAN boat—a "ship of Egypt"— was built. The smiths of Uruk fashioned strong weapons. Then, when all was ready, they sailed away.

They sailed, by all accounts, down the Persian Gulf, planning no doubt to circumnavigate the Arabian peninsula and then sail up the Red Sea toward Egypt. But the wrath of Enlil was swift to come. Had not Enkidu been told that a young "angel" would take him by the arm and bring him to the Land of Mines? How come, then, he was sailing with the joyful Gilgamesh, with fifty armed men, in a royal ship?

At dusk, Utu—who may have seen them off with great misgivings—"with lifted head went away." The mountains along the distant coast "became dark, shadows spread over them." Then, "standing alongside the mountain," there was someone who—like Huwawa—could emit rays "from which none can escape." "Like a bull he stood on the great Earth house"—a watchtower, it seems.


The fearsome watchman must have challenged the ship and its passengers, for fear overcame Enkidu. Let us turn back to Uruk, he pleaded. But Gilgamesh would not hear of it. Instead, he directed the ship toward the shore, determined to fight the watchman—"that 'man,' ifa man he be, or ifa God he be."

It was then that calamity struck. The "three ply cloth"—the sail—tore apart. As if by an unseen hand, the boat capsized; and all in it sank down. Somehow, Gilgamesh managed to swim ashore; so did Enkidu. Back in the waters, they saw the sunken ship with its crew still at their posts, looking amazingly alive in their deaths:

After it had sunk, in the sea had sunk,

On the eve when the Magan-boat had sunk.

After the boat, destined to Magan,

had sunk—Inside it, as though still living creatures,

were seated those who of a womb were born.

They spent the night on the unknown shore, arguing which way to go. Gilgamesh was still determined to reach "the land." Enkidu advised seeking a way back to "the city," Uruk. Soon, however, weakness overcame Enkidu. With passionate comradeship, Gilgamesh exhorted Enkidu to hold on to life: "My little weak friend," he fondly called him; "to the land I will bring thee," he promised him. But "Death, which knows no distinction," could not be held off.

For seven days and seven nights Gilgamesh mourned Enkidu, "until a worm fell out of his nose." At first he wandered aimlessly:

"For his friend, Enkidu, Gilgamesh weeps bitterly as he ranges over the wilderness... with woe in his belly, fearing death, he roamed the wilderness."

Again he was preoccupied with his own fate—"fearing death"—wondering: "When I die, shall I not be like Enkidu?"

Then his determination to ward off his fate took hold of him again.

"Must I lay my head inside the earth, and sleep through all the years?" he demanded to know of Shamash. "Let mine eyes behold the sun, let me have my fill of light!" he begged of the God. Setting his course by the rising and setting Sun, "To the Wild Cow, to Utnapishtim the son of Ubar-Tutu, he took the road."

He trod unbeaten paths, encountering no man, hunting for food. "What mountains he had climbed, what streams he had crossed—no man can know," the ancient scribes sadly noted.

At long last, as versions found at Nineveh and at Hittite sites relate, he neared habitations. He was coming to a region dedicated to Sin, the father of Shamash.

"When he arrived at night at a mountain pass, Gilgamesh saw lions and grew afraid:

"He lifted his head to Sin and prayed: "To the place where the Gods rejuvenate, my steps are directed... Preserve thou me!"
"As at night he lay, he awoke from a dream" which he interpreted as an omen from Sin, that he would "rejoice in Life." Encouraged, Gilgamesh "like an arrow descended among the lions."

His battle with the lions has been commemorated pictorially not only in Mesopotamia, but throughout the ancient lands, even in Egypt (Fig. 69a, b, c).

Fig. 69


After daybreak, Gilgamesh traversed a mountain pass. In the distance below, he saw a body of water, like a vast lake, "driven by long winds." In the plain adjoining the inland sea he could see a city "closed-up about"—a city surrounded by a wall. There, "the temple to Sin was dedicated."

Outside the city, "close by the low-lying sea," Gilgamesh saw an inn. As he approached, he saw the "Ale-woman, Siduri." She was holding "a jug (of ale), a bowl of golden porridge." But as she saw Gilgamesh, she was frightened by his appearance:

"He is clad in skins ... his belly is shrunk ... his face is like a wayfarer from afar." Understandably, "as the ale-woman saw him, she locked the door, she barred the gate."

With great effort, Gilgamesh convinced her of his true identity and good intentions, telling her of his adventures and quest.

After Siduri let him rest, eat and drink, Gilgamesh was eager to continue. What is the best way to the Land of Living? he asked Siduri. Must he circle the sea and wind his way through the desolate mountains—or could he take a shortcut across the body of water?

Now ale-woman, which is the way...
What are its markers?
Give me, O give me its markers!
Suitably, by the sea I will go across;
Otherwise, by the wilderness my course will be.

The choice, it turned out, was not that simple;

for the sea he saw was the "Sea of Death":
The ale-woman said to him, to Gilgamesh:
"The sea, Gilgamesh, it is impossible to cross
From days of long ago,
no one arrived from across the sea.
Valiant Shamash did cross the sea,
but other than Shamash, who can cross it?
Toilsome is the crossing,
desolate is its way;
Barren are the Waters of Death
which it encloses
How then, Gilgamesh, wouldst thou cross the sea?

As Gilgamesh remained silent, Siduri spoke up again, revealing to him that there might be, after all, a way to cross the Sea of the Waters of Death:

There is Urshanabi, boatman of Utnapishtim.
With him are tilings that float,
in the woods he picks the things that bind together.
Go, let he thy face behold.
If it be suitable, with thee he shall cross;
If it be not suitable, draw thou back.

Following her directions, Gilgamesh found Urshanabi the boatman. After much questioning as to who he was, how he had come hither, and where he was going, he was found worthy of the boatman's services. Using long poles, they moved the raft forward. In three days, "a run of a month and fifteen days"—a forty-five day journey overland—"they left behind." He arrived at TIL.MUN—"The Land of the Living."

Whereto shall he go now? Gilgamesh wondered. You have to reach a mountain, Urshanabi answered; "the name of the mountain is Mashu."

The instructions given by Urshanabi are available to us from the Hittite version of the Epic, fragments of which were found in Boghazkoy and other Hittite sites. From those fragments (as put together by Johannes Friedrich: Die hethitischen Bruchstukes des Gilgamesh-Epos), we learn that Gilgamesh was told to reach and follow "a regular way" which leads toward "the Great Sea, which is far away." He was to look for two stone columns or "markers" which, Urshanabi vouched, "to the destination always bring me." There he had to turn and reach a town named Itla, sacred to the God whom the Hittites called Ullu-Yah ("He of the Peaks"?). He had to obtain that God's blessing before he could go farther.

Following the directions, Gilgamesh did arrive at Itla. In the distance, the Great Sea could apparently be seen. There, Gilgamesh ate and drank, washed and made himself once again presentable as befits a king. There, Shamash once again came to his aid, advising him to make offerings to Ulluyah. Taking Gilgamesh before the Great God (Fig. 70), he urged Ulluyah: Accept his offerings, "grant him life." But Kumarbi, another God well known from Hittite tales, strongly objected: Immortality cannot be granted to Gilgamesh, he said.

Fig. 70


Realizing, it appears, that he would not be granted a Shem, Gilgamesh settled for second-best: Could he, at least, meet his forefather Utnapishtim? As the Gods delayed their decision, Gilgamesh (with the connivance of Shamash?) left town and started to advance toward Mount Mashu, stopping each day to offer sacrifices to Ulluyah.


After six days, he came unto the Mount; it was indeed the Place of the Shems:

The name of the Mountain is Mashu.

At the mountain of Mashu he arrived;

Where daily the Shems he watched
As they depart and come in.

The Mount's functions required it to be connected both to the distant heavens and to the far reaches of Earth:

On high, to the Celestial Band
it is connected;
to the Lower World it is bound.

There was a way to go inside the Mount; but the entrance, the "gate," was closely guarded:

Rocket-men guard its gate.

Their terror is awesome, their glance is death.

Their dreaded spotlight sweeps the mountains.

They watch over Shamashas he ascends and descends.

(Depictions have been found showing winged beings or divine bull-men operating a circular beaming device mounted on a post; they could well be ancient illustrations of the "dreaded spotlight that sweeps the mountains"— Fig. 71a, b, c.)


"When Gilgamesh beheld the terrible glowing, his face he shielded; regaining his composure, he approached them."

When the Rocketman saw that the dreaded ray affected Gilgamesh only momentarily, he shouted to his partner:

"He who comes, of the flesh of the Gods is his body!"

The rays, it appears, could stun or kill humans—but were harmless to the Gods.

Allowed to approach, Gilgamesh was asked to identify himself and account for his presence in the restricted area. Describing his partly divine origins, he explained that he had come "in search of Life." He wished, he said, to meet his forefather Utnapishtim:

On account of Utnapishtim, my forefather,
have I come—
He who the congregation of the Gods had joined.
About Death and Life I wish to ask him.

"Never was this achieved by a mortal," the two guards said. Undaunted, Gilgamesh invoked Shamash and explained that he was two-thirds God. What happened next is unknown, due to breaks in the tablet; but at last the Rocketmen informed Gilgamesh that permission was granted:

"The gate of the Mount is open to thee!"

(The "Gateway to Heaven" was a frequent motif on Near Eastern cylinder seals, depicting it as a winged, ladder-like gateway leading to the Tree of Life. It was sometimes guarded by Serpents—Fig. 72).

Fig. 72


Gilgamesh went in, following the "path taken by Shamash." His journey lasted twelve beru (double-hours); through most of it "he could see nothing ahead or behind"; perhaps he was blindfolded, for the text stresses that "for him, light there was none." In the eighth double-hour, he screamed with fear; in the ninth, "he felt a north wind fanning his face." "When eleven beru he attained, dawn was breaking." Finally, at the end of the twelfth double-hour, "in brightness he resided."

He could see again, and what he saw was astounding. He saw "an enclosure as of the Gods," wherein there "grew" a garden made up entirely of precious stones! The magnificence of the place comes through the mutilated ancient lines:

As its fruit it carries carnelians,
its vines too beautiful to behold.
The foliage is of lapis-lazuli;
And grapes, too lush to look at,
of... stones are made ...
Its ... of white stones ...
In its waters, pure reeds ... of sasu-stones;
Like a Tree ofLife and a Treeof...
that of An-Gug stones are made ...

On and on the description went. Thrilled and amazed, Gilgamesh walked about the garden. He was clearly in a simulated "Garden of Eden!"

What happened next is still unknown, for an entire column of the ninth tablet is too mutilated to be legible. Either in the artificial garden, or somewhere else, Gilgamesh finally encountered Utnapishtim. His first reaction on seeing a man from "days of yore" was to observe how much they looked alike:

Gilgamesh said to him,
to Utnapishtim "The Far-away":

"As I look upon thee, Utnapishtim,

Thou are not different at all;
evenas I art thou..."
Then Gilgamesh came straight to the point:
Tell me,

How joinest thou the congregation of the Gods in thy quest for Life?

In answer to this question, Utnapishtim said to Gilgamesh:

"I will reveal to thee, Gilgamesh, a hidden matter; a secret of the Gods I will tell thee."

The secret was the Tale of the Deluge: How when he, Utnapishtim, was the ruler of Shuruppak and the Gods resolved to let the Deluge annihilate Mankind, Enki secretly instructed him to build a special submersible vessel, and take aboard his family "and the seed of all living things."


A navigator provided by Enki directed the vessel to Mount Ararat. As the waters began to subside, he left the vessel to offer sacrifices. The Gods and Goddesses—who circled Earth in their spacecraft while it was inundated— also landed on Mount Ararat, savoring the roasting meat. Finally, Enlil too landed, and broke into a rage when he realized that in spite of the oath taken by all the Gods, Enki enabled Mankind to survive.

But when his anger subsided, Enlil saw the merit of such survival; it was then, Utnapishtim continued to recount, that Enlil granted him everlasting life:

Thereupon, Enlil went aboard the ship.
Holding me by the hand, he took me aboard.
He took my wife aboard,
and made her kneel by my side.
Standing between us,
he touched our foreheads to bless us:
"Hitherto, Utnapishtim has been human;
Henceforth, Utnapishtim and his wife
like Gods shall be unto us.
Far away shall the man Utnapishtim reside,
at the mouth of the water-streams."

And so it came to pass, Utnapishtim concluded, that he was taken to the Faraway Abode, to live among the Gods. But how could this be achieved for Gilgamesh?

"But now, who will for thy sake call the Gods to Assembly, that the Life which thou seekest thou mayest find?"

On hearing the tale, and realizing that it is only the Gods, in assembly, who can decree eternal life and that he, on his own, could not attain it— Gilgamesh fainted. For six days and seven nights he was totally knocked out. Sarcastically, Utnapishtim said to his wife: "Behold this hero who seeks Life; from mere sleep as mist he dissolves!" Throughout his sleep, they attended to Gilgamesh, to keep him alive,

"that he may return safe on the way by which he came, that through the gate by which he entered he may return to his land."

Urshanabi the boatman was called to take Gilgamesh back. But at the last moment, when Gilgamesh was ready to leave, Utnapishtim disclosed to Gilgamesh yet another secret. Though he could not avoid death, he told him, there was a way to postpone it. He could do this by obtaining the secret plant which the Gods themselves eat, to keep Forever Young!

Utnapishtim said to him, to Gilgamesh:

"Thou hast come hither, toiling and straining. What shall I give thee,
that thou mayest return to thy land? I will disclose, O Gilgamesh, a hidden thing;

A secret of the Gods I will tell thee: A plant there is,
like a prickly berrybush is its root. Its thorns are like a brier vine's,
thine hands they will prick.If thine hands obtain the plant,New Life thou wilt find."

The plant, we learn from what followed, grew underwater:

No sooner had Gilgamesh heard this, than he opened the water-pipe. He tied heavy stones to his feet; They pulled him down into the deep; He saw then the plant. He took the plant, though it pricked his hands. He cut the heavy stones from his feet; The second cast him back where he came from.

Going back with Urshanabi, Gilgamesh triumphantly said to him:


This plant is of all plants unique:

By it a man can regain his full vigor!I

will take it to ramparted Uruk,
there the plant to cut and eat.

Let its name be called

"Man Becomes Young in Old Age!"

Of this plant I shall eat,
and to my youthful state shall I return.

A Sumerian cylinder seal, from circa 1700 B.C., which illustrated scenes from the epic tale, shows (at left) a half-naked and unkempt Gilgamesh battling the two lions; on the right, Gilgamesh holds up to Urshanabi the plant of everlasting youth. A God, in the center, holds an unusual spiral tool or weapon (Fig. 73).

Fig. 73


But Fate, as with all those who in the millennia and centuries that followed went in the search of the Plant of Youth, intervened.

As Gilgamesh and Urshanabi "prepared for the night, Gilgamesh saw a well whose water was cool. He went down to it to bathe in the water."


Then calamity struck:

"A snake sniffed the fragrance of the plant. It came and carried off the plant. ..."

Thereupon Gilgamesh sits down and weeps, his tears running down his face.

He took the hand of Urshanabi, the boatman.

"For whom," (he asked) "have my hands toiled?

For whom is spent the blood of my heart?

For myself, I have not obtained the boon;

for a serpent a boon I affected. ..."

Yet another Sumerian seal illustrates the epic's tragic end: the winged gateway in the background, the boat navigated by Urshanabi, and Gilgamesh struggling with the serpent. Not having found Immortality, he is now pursued by the Angel of Death (Fig. 74).

Fig. 74


And so it was, that for generations thereafter, scribes copied and translated, poets recited, and storytellers related, the tale of the first futile Search for Immortality, the epic tale of Gilgamesh. This is how it began:

Let me make known to the country

Him who the Tunnel has seen;

Of him who knows the seas,
let me the full story tell.

He has visited the...(?) as well,

The hidden from wisdom, all things ...

Secret things he has seen,
what is hidden from man he found out.
He even brought tidings

of the time before the Deluge.

He also took the distant journey,

wearisome and under difficulties.

He returned, and upon a stone column

all his toil he engraved.

And this, according to the Sumerian King Lists, is how it all ended:

The divine Gilgamesh, whose father was a human, a high priest of the temple precinct, ruled 126 years. Ur-lugal, son of Gilgamesh, ruled after him.

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