The quest for immortality (Gilgamesh epic part 2)

The epic quest of Gilgamesh for eternal life.

Our story begins where the last adventure of Gilgamesh and Enkidu left off. The two friends (and brothers through adoption) embarked on a quest into the Cedar Forest to slay Humbaba. By defeating the beast, the two heroes have become even more famous than they used to be.

The party at Gilgamesh’ place

When Gilgamesh and Enkidu return to Uruk, they can enjoy the comforts of their hometown again. The smallfolk are ordered to prepare festivities to celebrate their King’s heroic feat and what follows are months of celebrations. Even some of the gods and goddesses take part in the festivities. One of them is Inanna.

Inanna is the Mesopotamic goddess of love and war and, therefore, she is the paradoxical embodiment of creation and destruction. Both love and war include chaos and hefty emotions, and that is also a fairly accurate description of Inanna’s personality. She is known to take an interest in good-looking men, who she takes on as her lovers. However, she is also known to invoke terrible punishment on her ex-lovers. Anything goes in love and war.

Gilgamesh has just returned from slaying a demi-god and is being hailed throughout the city. He is still a young, good-looking, brave man with a tendency for violence. Given this description, it is no wonder that Inanna fell in love with him. After all, they share some interesting personality traits. She approaches Gilgamesh during the festivities and asks him to marry her, promising him that she can bring him great riches and fame. Gilgamesh considers her proposal briefly, yet he decides that he is already rich and prestigious enough. He rejects her, but not before pointing out that he is not really into Inanna as she has been with many men already, always bestowing bad fortune on them as she tosses them aside.    

Anything goes in love and war

Spurned, Inanna is determined to punish the King for his insolence. She takes his rejection as nothing short of an outrageous insult. She likely has a point, as Gilgamesh was not known for his political correctness (especially not towards women).

Although Inanna is a powerful entity herself, she approaches someone else for help with her revenge on Gilgamesh. She contacts Anu, the creator, and father of the first gods, and tells him that she wants to borrow one of his beasts: the Bull of Heaven. She explains that she intends to make Gilgamesh suffer for his insolence. Anu reluctantly agrees to give her the bull of heaven, as long as Inanna keeps it from destroying all of Mesopotamia. When released, the Bull will cause a severe drought, which would cause the people of Mesopotamia to starve. Inanna does not care about the collateral damage, lies to her father telling him that she has taken care of it, and releases the Bull. Again, anything goes in love and war.

The bull of heaven

The Bull of Heaven is a magnificent creature, significantly larger than any other bull in existence. It can cause earthquakes and it can split the earth open with his mighty roar. His wings allow him to travel across the country quickly. And when the Mesopotamians take up arms to drive the bull off, it aptly demonstrates its power. When the soldiers approach him, he just keeps standing in one place. Then, with a single roar, the bull splits open the earth and casts down one hundred men into a large fissure. They would never see the light again. When he roars a second time, he kills another 200 men. Without any hope of killing the Bull themselves, the smallfolk send word to King Gilgamesh and his brother Enkidu.

It seems that the two heroes would have to set off to slay an otherworldly creature again. This time not for the sake of glory or fame, but to protect their kingdom from the wrath of a spurned goddess.

The Bull snorted as they approached. The ground was shaking. Our heroes know they need to throw a diversion if they are to prevail. And so it was that Enkidu snuck up behind the Bull and started wrestling it to the ground. This buys Gilgamesh some time to launch a frontal attack. With the Bull being held tightly within the grasp of Enkidu, the King slits its throat with his knife. The Bull of Heaven is dead.

An epic barbecue

Mesopotamia is safe again and, once more, the people of Uruk host grand festivities in celebration of Gilgamesh and Enkidu. There are drinks, music, and a grand feast. You see, Gilgamesh and Enkidu had brought back the corpse of the Bull and they decided to roast it. Enkidu was just enjoying a nice leg of Bull when he saw Inanna among the party guest. Her eyes were filled with rage. When the goddess discovered Enkidu, she started screaming at him. Enkidu is not impressed and throws the Bull’s leg at Inanna, most likely also shouting some mocking lines at the goddess.

And this is when the gods decide that enough is enough: the heroes have to be punished for their crimes against the godly creatures Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven. Especially Enlil is displeased, as he had a distaste for mortals who challenge the rule of the gods. Therefore, the Annunaki take a grave decision. One of the heroes has to die, and the Annunaki decide that that person would be Enkidu. Only Utu protests. But Enlil wanted it to be so, and he was in charge. His will had to be done.

The passing of Enkidu

The next morning, Enkidu falls gravely ill. Gilgamesh tries to get him healed, but despite all his efforts, is unsuccessful. Enkidu, who had dreamt of the gathering of the Annunaki, knew that his illness was a punishment from the gods. Punishment for killing Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven. Beings that he would have been left in peace if he had never met Gilgamesh. Enkidu’s temper went sour: he curses his brother for dragging him into his adventures. He curses Shamhat, the woman who had tamed him and lured him away from his animal friends.

But before Enkidu passes away, Utu pays him a final visit. Listening to the curses and complaints uttered by the hero, he makes him look back on the good times he had had with Gilgamesh. He argues that Enkidu could have lived a long life in the wilderness, but only while living like an animal. He had now enjoyed the companionship of Gilgamesh and the rich life of a great human being.

This puts Enkidu at peace, taking comfort out of the friendship he had shared with his brother. Soon after, he passes away.

The sorrow of Gilgamesh

Gilgamesh is inconsolable. He orders statues of Enkidu to be erected. He makes sacrifices to the gods just to make sure that Enkidu would be treated well in the afterlife. Yet these things did not mend his broken heart. He hopes for the gods to revive his brother and therefore refuses to bury him for 7 days and 7 nights. When he realizes that the gods were not going to give back life to Enkidu, he finally commits his body to the earth.

In his mourning, the King decides that life is without meaning. If great heroes like Enkidu and Gilgamesh succumb to death and disease, then what is the point to life? This is when he recalls the story of Utnapishtim (also known as Atrahasis), a man who has received the gift of eternal life from the gods. He decides that he is going to learn Utnapishtim’s secret so that he can cheat death himself.

Traveling to the underworld

To learn the secret of cheating death, Gilgamesh again has to embark on a quest, this time by himself. He needs to travel to the Underworld, where Utnapishtim lives amongst the Gods. He leaves Uruk for the wilderness and traveled east until he came upon Mount Mashu, which is protected by the scorpion folk. They had once been created for battle by Tiamat but are now the guardians of the tunnel to the underworld.

Gilgamesh explains the goal of his quest and asks the scorpion people how he could reach Utnapishtim. The scorpion people take pity on him for losing Enkidu and show him the way. They tell him that he will have to run through a dark tunnel in Mount Mashu, through the pathway through which the sun rises in the morning and sets in the evening. He will have to run fast to outrun the sun, as even he will not survive being caught in its fire.

Entering the underworld

As soon as the sun rises, Gilgamesh starts running as fast as the wind. It is a good thing that he has superhuman speed. He barely makes it out alive on the other side. When he does, he enters the realm of the gods. And this is where he encounters… a tavern.

The tavern is hosted by Siduri, the goddess of fermentation. She is the alewife that manages the tavern and we can’t help but wonder if she had many visitors in a place where no living mortal had gone before. Maybe this proves that the sun stops for a beer once per day?

When Gilgamesh explains to Siduri how he has lost his brother and how he wants to claim immortality for himself, she smiles at him as if he had said something stupid. She tries to dissuade him from his quest and tells him that death was only a natural part of life. Furthermore, she urges him to go home and enjoy the little things in life (which is probably the best sales pitch for a beer ever). When she cannot convince the King to go home, she points him in the right direction. She tells him to find Urshanabi, a boatsman that can help him cross the ocean of death.

The best helmsmen are ashore

Gilgamesh now has to cross an ocean filled with the water of death. So Gilgamesh goes to the shoreline to find Urshanabi’s boat, but without its captain. The only crew on board consists of statues of stone men. Frustrated that he cannot continue his journey, Gilgamesh smashes the statues to pieces.

It is then that Urshanabi arrives and chastises Gilgamesh by telling him that someone who cannot control his temper is not worthy of immortality. He explains that only the stone men could have brought him across, as they would not have been affected by the water of death. To cross the ocean, he would now have to fell 300 trees and create poles out of them. Each pole could only be used once to stow the boat and would then have to be discarded. And so Gilgamesh cuts down a forest and creates the stowing poles to reach the other side of the ocean. Utnapishtim is waiting for him when he arrives.

Talking to the old dude

Utnapishtim asks why Gilgamesh has come. Again, Gilgamesh explains that Enkidu has been taken from him and that he is now looking for a way to beat death through immortality. Utnapishtim sighs and tells the King that death comes for us all, even for heroes. He explains that death is just like going to sleep and that the only difference is that one does not simply wake from death. He is clearly reluctant to help Gilgamesh achieve immortality.

This is unacceptable to Gilgamesh. He is a bit disappointed that Utnapishtim is just a frail old man and not a powerful god as he had expected him to be. But he does want to know the secret of his immortality so that he no longer has to worry about his own death.

Utnapishtim gives him a challenge: if Gilgamesh can stay awake for 7 days, Utnapishtim will give him the secret to immortality. The King accepts. However, he soon falls asleep after sitting down for a moment. Utnapishtim tells his wife to bake a loaf of bread each day and put it next to the sleeping Gilgamesh as evidence of his failure. And Gilgamesh slept for a long time. Due to the hardships of Gilgamesh’s travels, he wakes only after 7 days. Utnapishtim shows him the old stale bread and the fresh soft bread. Gilgamesh has failed the test. What’s worse, he cannot cheat himself out of the test.

Questing for eternal youth

Because he takes pity on the young King, Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh about the location of a special plant that contains the secret of eternal youth. Not quite the same as eternal life, but still an impressive artifact. Gilgamesh sets out with Urshanabi and finds the plant soon after. Finally, success (sort of).

On his way back to Uruk, Gilgamesh takes a bath in a natural spring. He puts the plant of eternal youth with his clothes, next to the spring. If only he would have consumed the plant already… A snake is attracted by its smell, and consumes it right then and there. The serpent sheds his skin and slithers off. Gilgamesh is forced to return to Uruk empty-handed.

Accepting mortality and not being a douchebag

When Gilgamesh returns to Uruk, he does not return in the same form as he had left the city. He had grown older, wiser, and steadier. He now shows respect to his people, who used to fear his misdemeanors before. In the end, their prayers had been answered. Their King has been tamed by life, gaining wisdom that can only be gained through life experience and hardship.

Before Gilgamesh passes away, he writes down his life story on twelve tablets. These tablets would turn out to be the Epic of Gilgamesh.