Chapter 7: 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.

After much research on site, tablets and reconstructed texts, gave the impression to scholars that the story concerned the mighty king Nimrod.

…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.

…An offspring of the great god Shamash on his father’s side, Gilgamesh was considered to be "two-thirds god, one-third human" but by the further fact that his mother was the goddess NIN.SUN, he was thus accorded the privilege of having his name written with the prefix "divine."

…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-gods 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 in 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.

…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?

…One night, he saw a vision which he felt was an omen. He rushed to his mother to tell her:

My mother,
During the night, having become lusty,
I wondered 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.

…The object’s fall to Earth was apparently seen by many, for "the whole of Uruk was gathered around it."

…The Gilgamesh text describes the lower part, which was grabbed by the heroes (the strongmen), by a term that may be translated "legs." It had however other pronounced parts and could even be entered:

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

…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."

…It was ENKI.DU, "a creature of Enki."

This creature was to divert the restless Gilgamesh and restrain him, be a match for him, a contender. A first encounter took place. They fought fiercely. Gilgamesh lost strength and bent his knee. But as he was leaving the scene, Enkidu spoke to him, and as Gilgamesh remembered his Mother’s words, they became inseparable friends.

After discussions on how to enter the "Abode of the Gods" in the mountains, a plan was thought: by going to "the underground place of Shamash" in the Cedar Mountain, to be enabled to "scale heaven" as the gods do.

…Apparently Gilgamesh was permitted to go ahead – but at his own risk. His goal was to obtain a Shem – the vehicle by which "one attains eternity."

His preoccupation became how to defeat Huwawa, the guard of the "Abode of the Gods." Dissuasions did not work. He was determined to proceed:

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

As no one was supporting Gilgamesh, he went with Enkidu to the presence of his mother, Ninsun, the Great Queen. After explaining what he was about to do he asked Ninsun:

…"Oh my mother, pray thou to Shamash on my behalf!"

Ninsun agreed and 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.

Ninsun asked Enkidu 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.

…They proceeded, and Gilgamesh did not listen to Enkidu’s suggestions to return. In the night at the foots of the Forest, as they were asleep, Gilgamesh had an awesome sight:

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"?

…Yet another vision:

The vision that I saw was wholly awesome!
The heavens shrieked, the earth boomed.
Tough 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."

…In the morning, Gilgamesh and Enkidu attempted to penetrate the forest… 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 laid paralyzed.

…When he was able to move he pleaded to Gilgamesh not to go down into the heart of the forest. But 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."

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.

…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…" His appearance was "Mighty, his teeth as the teeth of a dragon, his face the face of a lion, his coming as 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."

…In the nick of time, rescue appeared from the heavens… "down from the skies spoke to them divine Shamash."

Huwawa was finally defeated:

…"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." "The secret abode of the Anunnaki was no longer blocked."

…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 enticed Gilgamesh to become her lover, and at his refusal "Ishtar asked Anu to let the "Bull of Heaven" smite Gilgamesh."

Gilgamesh and Enkidu returned to Uruk, but on the way a battle ensued. Gilgamesh managed to reach the city. Enkidu remained to battle with the "Bull of Heaven" in the outskirts of the city, finally Enkidu came out victorious.

…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. 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.

…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.

After listening to Ishtar’s complaints and Shamash’s pleas to spare their lives in the assembly of the gods, it was decided that:

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:

He will be dressed like an Eagle,
By the arm will he 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.

…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!

…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."

Gilgamesh was advised by the elders of Uruk and his goddess mother to first obtain the permission of Utu/Shamash… 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!

Instead of going through the hardships the desert would offer, Gilgamesh, [with] fifty rowers and Enkidu decided to try the journey by sea. However it was not an easier journey, eventually they were defeated by calamity, the boat capsized, the row men died. Gilgamesh and Enkidu made it to shore, but Enkidu died shortly after.

Gilgamesh proceeded alone.

…At long last, as versions found at Nineveh and at Hittite sites relate, he neared habitations.

When he arrived at a mountain pass he saw lions and grew afraid.
After daybreak, Gilgamesh traversed the mountain pass. In the distance below, he saw a body of water, like a vast lake, "driven by long winds." In an adjoining island he saw a city "closed-up about" surrounded by a wall. There the Temple to Sin (the father of Shamash) was dedicated."
He saw an inn, there he saw the "Ale-woman, Siduri."

She was holding "a jug (of ale), a bowl of porridge."

She explained to him he had seen the "Sea of Death."
She gave him directions how to cross it.
The boatman Urshanabi helped Gilgamesh to cross the Sea of Death, after much inquiring of his identity.
"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."

Urshanabi instructed Gilgamesh he had to reach to a mountain called Mashu.

…The Mount’s functions required it to be connected both to the distant heavens and to the far reaches of Earth.

…There was a way to go to the Mount, but the entrance, the "gate," was closely guarded.

…When Gilgamesh beheld the terrible glowing, (from the Rocketman guard spotlight) his face he shielded, regaining his composure.

Gilgamesh had to explain his identity again, as humans would have not survived the spotlight. Finally:

Gilgamesh went in, following the "path taken by Shamash, his journey lasted twelve beru (double-hours)…"

During the first eleven beru he could not see clearly and at times he screamed in fear, but finally as "dawn was breaking in brightness he resided."

…He saw "as an enclosure of the gods" wherein there "grew" a garden made up entirely of precious stones!

…He was clearly in a simulated "Garden of Eden."

Gilgamesh finally encountered Utnapishtim.

In his query, how was Utnapishtim eternal if he looked like a human?

…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:

The decision of the Anunnaki, to let Mankind perish;
The interference of Enki, with his instructions to Utnapishtim to construct a special submersible;
The return of the Anunnaki after the waters subsided;
The anger of Enlil, and the conviction other gods presented to him that it was a great idea that Mankind had been saved;
Earth, would still be habitable with the help of Mankind.
Enki passed all the ingenuity as if it would have been Utnapishtim who engineered the whole plan of salvation, and Enlil believing this was so moved that took Utnapishtim and his wife to the abode of the gods and granted eternal life.

…On learning 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.

Gilgamesh had to be returned to Uruk, but as he was about to board Urshanabi’s boat, Utnapishtim took pity of him, and told him about the "plant of youth" which prolonged life. It grew underwater, but it was full of thorns and pricks.

Gilgamesh went to fetch the plant into the deep by attaching stones to his feet. Once in possession, he finally made way back to Uruk.

…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 were preparing 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 and carried off the plant…"

Gilgamesh never regained it, 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.

Continue to Chapter 8: Riders of the Clouds


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