Textbook Leftovers

Immortality via Cultural Memory

Posted on: February 11, 2011

At the beginning of Part 4 of Gilgamesh, our hero is still weeping for his friend. And a new fear has struck him – fear of his own mortality. “What my brother is now, that shall I be when I am dead. Because I am afraid of death, I will go as best I can to find Utnapishtim whom they call the Faraway, for he has entered the assembly of the gods.”

Gilgamesh embarks on an epic journey to find Utnapishtim, who is a sworn doppelganger for the biblical Noah. Gilgamesh fights a pride of lions, speaks with Scorpion-men, and traverses a pitch-black tunnel. He has now found the garden of the gods, a paradise of gemstone fruit and plants. One of the gods is here, and tells him to give up, for he “will never find the life for which [he is] searching.” Gilgamesh then finds and speaks to a nearby goddess. He tells her the story of his toils and of his deep sorrow and fear. She tells him again that he can never find immortality. Instead she counsels him to go out and live his life and enjoy it for all it is worth. I am interested to see that again a woman is the voice of reason and hope. Where the male god just said “give up,” the goddess offers wise advice and help.

Nonetheless, Gilgamesh is not happy with her advice, and begs for directions to cross the Ocean to find Utnapishtim. Seeing his determination, the goddess tells him to seek Urshanabi, the ferryman of Utnapishtim. (This could be a root source of the myths involving Charon and the River Styx?)

Now Gilgamesh does something dumb. For some unexplained reason, he attacks Urshanabi and his boat, destroying crucial parts. The ferryman stops him and asks him to explain himself. Gilgamesh repeats his tale. They chat for a while and Urshanabi creates a makeshift way to travel across the water of death (sounds like acid to me).

They arrive, and again Gilgamesh is asked why he looks like death warmed over, and again he tells his tale. Utnapishtim is a bit of a pessimist and tells him that it is pointless: “there is no permanence.”

Part 5 consists entirely of Utnapishtim’s tale of the Great Flood. If you have never read it, I highly suggest you do, being fully aware of how old this tale is (predating the writing of the Torah by centuries). It kinda blows my mind, and I wish it were possible to know not only the truth of the tale, but also the history of the tale itself – how it traveled the ancient world in memory for so long. I’m not going to summarize here. Go read it.

Part 6 relates two more of Gilgamesh’s feeble attempts to secure immortality.

First, Utnapishtim sets him the “simple” task of staying awake for a week. Predictably, he falls asleep quickly. Utnapishtim has his wife bake a loaf of bread every day that Gilgamesh sleeps. When Utnapishtim wakes him on the seventh day, Gilgamesh tries to claim that he had just nodded off, but Utnapishtim has seven days’ worth of moldy bread to prove just how pathetically human he is.

Now Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh of a special plant that grows under the water that can restore youth. Gilgamesh harvests this thorny flower and plans to bring it back to Uruk. He and Urshanabi begin the journey to Uruk. They stop for the night near a “well of cool water” and bathe. But there was a serpent lurking in the water, and the wily reptile steals the flower and retreats to the depths of the well. (I’m convinced this is the source of the “Fountain of Youth” myth.)

Gilgamesh is finally convinced of the futility of his quest, and gives in. He and Ushanabi return to Uruk.

Part 7 is a sort of eulogy and lament for the hero of the tale. “The king has laid himself down and will not rise again.”

Coming up next: a collection of ancient Egyptian poetry.

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