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When the people first came here to the land of the two rivers from the north they found little but desert, but the rivers were swift, and they traded their goods along their shores. They built forts at the trading places along the rivers, learned to make canals, and slowly reclaimed the desert land into fertile crop allotments. The people grew in numbers, and here it was they first formed large groups of dwellings, and built walls around them. This was a people whose origins were unknown, and whose language was unlike that spoken by other peoples. Many kings reigned over their cities. This is a story about Gilgamesh, the mightiest of all these kings.
He strode over the plains like a mountain. He swept away his foes like a river in flood. There were none who could stand before him. He was Gilgamesh, the son of the son of god, Anu the king of heaven, given long life and more than mortal strength, but mortal still, and so doomed to die.
Mighty in war, potent in peace, Gilgamesh was a great builder, and the walls of his city Uruk stood taller and wider than that of any other city. Uruk was a great city, halfway between Babylon where Hammurabi was to rule, and Ur, the home of the patriarch Abraham who made another epic journey, to the land of milk and honey. All three cities were on the western bank of the Euphrates river.
He lived at the time when the great pyramids were being built in Egypt, when Babylon was yet a village, before the Assyrians and the Hittites built their empires.
Many tales were told of Gilgamesh. They are not about building, nor about war. Just as Odysseus is known for his travels, and his shrewdness and intelligence, rather than for his kingship of Ithika or prowess in battle, so Gilgamesh is known for his epic journey to gain immortality for the race of men – the quest also of the priestess Eve in her Garden at Eden.
Enkidu was dead. He had been a mighty hunter and warrior, and he first met Gilgamesh in battle. So evenly were they matched, that their battle could have no end. Instead, they formed a pact, and became friends. They journeyed to the Cedar Mountains, and fought with the hideous monster Humbaba, whom they killed. They were young, and they were proud, and they made enemies. The great Goddess Ishtar/Inanna, one of the most powerful of the gods, fell in love with Gilgamesh, but he spurned her. In anger she sent the Bull of Heaven to destroy Gilgamesh. He fought a great battle with the Bull, and defeated and killed it, but he made an enemy in heaven by this. Ishtar sent a woman to seduce Enkidu, who fell into dissolute ways. No longer was he able to live in the wild. He was made of the clay by god, like Adam, and weakened by a woman, like Samson. His strength slowly ebbed. Soon he came to die. Gilgamesh was laid low by grief.
“Where is the man who can clamber to heaven? Only the gods live forever with glorious Shamash, but as for us men, our days are numbered, our occupations are a breath of wind…If I fall I will leave behind a name that endures. Here in the city man dies oppressed at heart, man perishes with despair in his heart. I have looked over the wall and seen the bodies floating in the river, and that will be my lot also. I will go to the country where the cedar is cut. I will set up my name where the names of famous men are written”. (tr. Sandars pp 69-70)
There was a story told in the city about Utnapishtim. The cities of the two rivers knew what floods were: in times of war the canals were neglected, and the rivers overflowed and covered the plains, and did much damage in the lower reaches of the cities. In ancient times there had been a flood greater than any other. Utnapishtim lived before this Flood, and the gods had preserved him and made him immortal. Gilgamesh, laid low with sorrow for the death of Enkidu, resolved to make a journey to the underworld, to find Utnapishtim where he dwelt in the Land of the Blessed, and ask him how man could gain eternal life. He wanted to bring his friend Enkidu back. This was a journey made by other heroes, Orpheus the musician god from Thrace who founded the first of the mysteries, Herakles the great king of the Dorians, who bought back the beast Cerberus, the guardian of Hades. All these journeys were to prove unfortunate.
At the ends of the earth are the twin peaks of Mashu, guarded by creatures half men, half scorpion. After a long and weary journey, in which Gilgamesh battled assassins and ferocious beasts, he came to Mashu. The scorpion men stood in his way. No-one before had passed them by. But they realised Gilgamesh was divine, and let him pass. Now Gilgamesh was in the territory of myth. He was on the Road of the Sun, the path that Osiris also walks. Here the sun passes under the earth to rise in the east each day. The Way is dark, and each hour is as two. Behind him was the devouring and scorching sun, but Gilgamesh completed the Way unharmed, and arrived in the Blessed Land, Dilmun. In this garden there was a sea, called the Waters of Death, and in that sea was the island where Utnapishtim lived. Gilgamesh must cross the Waters of Death, and went to the ferryman, Urshanabi. Here he made his first mistake. With Urshanabi were the stone giants, and Gilgamesh fought with them and slayed them, only to learn they alone could cross the sea to Utnapishtim’s island. But Urshanabi was a humble figure, like Charon in Hades, and Gilgamesh prevailed on him to row him over the Waters of Death.
“At the gate the Scorpions stand guard, half man and half dragon; their glory is terrifying, their stare strikes death into men, their shimmering halo sweeps the mountains that guard the rising sun. The Man-scorpion opened his mouth and said, speaking to Gilgamesh, ‘No man born of woman has done what you have asked; no mortal man has gone into the mountain; the length of it is as twelve leagues of darkness. In it is no light, but the heart is oppressed with darkness'”.
When he came to the land of Dilmun, “Gilgamesh said to Urshanabi, ‘Enkidu, my brother whom I loved, the end of mortality has overtaken him. Because of my brother I am afraid of death. His fate lies heavy upon me. If it is possible I will cross the waters of death'”. (tr. Sandars pp 95, 101)
Utnapishtim was not pleased to see Gilgamesh. When he heard his story, he said: “Your journey is futile. You cannot fight the decree of fate. Man is born to die, and knowing that, has the means of learning much from life. Eternal life is useless to him”. Gilgamesh was not satisfied with this, and asked Utnapishtim why he was made immortal. He learnt that in ages past mankind had left the way of the gods, and was lost in wickedness. The gods were angry, and resolved to punish men. First they sent 12 plagues, which destroyed many. But still men persisted in their wickedness. The gods then resolved to destroy mankind entirely. They sent a flood which covered the whole earth, and all men were drowned. Relenting at the last moment, they saved Utnapishtim, because he was a good man who had honoured them. They set him apart, in the Land of the Blessed, and gave him immortal life. Utnapishtim told Gilgamesh this was a gift, and could not be taken by force.
However he offered to help Gilgamesh. But first Gilgamesh must pass a test. He must stay awake in the Garden for seven days and seven nights. And Gilgamesh could not: he fell asleep.
It seemed Gilgamesh’s journey had been in vain. Yet he had one more chance. He learnt from Utnapishtim of a plant that would give him eternal youth and freedom from sickness. He must dive under the sea to gather it, and he set it on a rock to dry. While he slept, the wise serpent came to the rock, and stole the plant. Gilgamesh had nothing at all from his journey.
But when Gilgamesh met Utnapishtim, he told him, ‘When the Annunaki, the judges, come together they decree the fates of men. Life and death they allot, but the day of death they do not disclose’. But Utnapishtim’s own story was different. He said, ‘The lord Ea warned me in a dream. Tear down your house and build a boat. These are the measurements. Take into the boat the seed of all living creatures’. Utnapishtim sent out a bird each day, until one did not return, then offered sacrifice to the gods. Utnapishtim was rewarded with eternal life, but alas this was a gift denied to Gilgamesh. (tr. Sandars pp 104-110)
He made his way back the way he had come, and finally returned to his city of Uruk, of the great walls and thronging streets. There he was revered as a hero, one who had bought the arts of civilisation to mankind, as had Prometheus. And then Gilgamesh died.
“O Gilgamesh, this was the meaning of your dream. You were given the kingship, such was your destiny. Everlasting life was not your destiny. For Gilgamesh, son of Ninsun, they weighed out their offerings. Bread for Neti the Keeper of the Gate. Bread for Ningizzida the god of the serpent, lord of the Tree of Life. For Dumuzi, the young shepherd, for Enki and all the ancestral gods. O Gilgamesh, great is your praise.” (tr. Sandars pp 116-8)
Gilgamesh is not another Conan the Barbarian, a sword wielding warrior of gigantic strength who slays enemies in piles. He is a Promethean figure, a hero who stole the arts of civilisation for mankind. When the Sumerians talked of where their culture had come from, it was said that buildings and customs had originated with Gilgamesh. He was the name that was used for origins. As a hero he is an unruly, unsanctified Saint George, and is reminiscent of a later contemporary figure such as Ramses the Great, both great conquerers and boastful of it. In his quest he becomes something akin to the Fisher King, he reaches the end of all heroism only to find we are but mortals. His is a story of defeat, of how even the mightiest of kings, even the son of a god, can not prevail against death. What better place than Mesopotamia, which is a Greek word for ‘between the rivers’, and which has been the battleground for rival empires for 3,000 years as it still is today, to have the first realisation that life is fleeting. The people of Sumer, of Akkad, of Ninevah, of Babylon, of Aramea, the Hittites, the Persians, the Macedonians and many other peoples, all have come here, all have flourished, all have gone.
The rejection of Ishtar could be an instance where the old, prevalent rite of early man, of the Sacrificial King, wed to the Mother Goddess for one year, who died to bring life and fertility to the people, was displaced by a patrilineal kingship.
Gilgamesh is the longest living of heroes, and the one who has been vital to most cultures over the millenium. Sumer, Akkad, Babylon all listened to his story. He entered the Tale of Alexander and the Shah Nameh. The writers of some of the books of the Jewish Torah heard stories about him. For people today he is of interest because several gifted poets told his story, and we can see how several tales have come together to form an ‘epic’ which is the first surviving work of that kind. But was there an epic? Were the fragments we have part of a unified poem, or were they poems linked together by a poet in a way that might have lead to a unified epic in the future, or were they disparate works gathered together by a librarian in Assurbanipal’s library because they were on the same subject? As so often is the case, we don’t know. The epic as published in modern translations is certainly a fabrication of modern scholars, and may be accurate, but to what extent? Here is an indication of how the poems of Homer might have been composed. We can see how stories, such as that of the flood, which once were separate tales, were eventually woven into the Gilgameshiad. Only fragments of his tale remain, full of mysterious references we don’t understand, and there are lost episodes of the story. The fragmentary state of the cuneiform texts, surviving in three different languages, produces some distortion, as some episodes are treated at length, others not. Somehow this has made him more potent in our imaginations, and Gilgamesh has survived also in SF novels, comics, children’s books and computer game versions. Like Gilgamesh, we still mourn our mortality, and wish for eternal life.
©2010 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. The Epic of Gilgamesh, English vercion by N K Sandars, © N K Sandars 1960. Please inform post author of any violation.