Gilgamesh and Immortality
History 104, Professor Englund, 11/20/05
This work is original and unpublished by David Kute
For the people living in Mesopotamia during the third millennium B.C., the supernatural was a common part of life. Sumerians and the later Semitic speaking peoples of the region had substantial contact with rituals and esoteric methods dealing with supernatural phenomena such as witchcraft, demon possession, divination and prophetic dreams (JP, pg.63). The Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the earliest pieces of literature, is a good example of this orientation towards the supernatural that is characteristic of Mesopotamian culture. Gods, demons, monsters, dreams, curses, and other fantastical elements of Sumerian culture figure prominently in the epic tale. The epic itself, though, is more than just a record of the influence of the esoteric on the ancient peoples of Mesopotamia. First written in the Old Babylonian period(1800-1600 B.C.), the story is thought to reflect an oral tradition dating back to at least the Ur III period(2100-2000 B.C.), possibly all the way to the Early Dynastic IIIb (MK, xxvii). Particularly of interest in the epic is the hero’s search for immortality, which ends in failure. Interpretation of the epic is difficult as it represents a set of cultural symbols that modern scholars are cut off from in time and space. Thus there are many ways to interpret the epic, as well as many questions that arise concerning it. Can the story of the search for immortality be taken at face value? Often it is said of the epic that it is about the vanity of human wishes(SK,pg.4). Is this true, and the most likely interpretation? Do each of the characters and episodes have deeper meanings? I will try to explore different interpretations of the immortality episode, and illustrate potential ways to understand Gilgamesh’s quest for immortality. It has been conjectured before that Gilgamesh realizes at the end of his quest that the normal things of life are ordained for man, and that he should be content to have his large city in all its glory(TA,pg.614). My own contention, like that of Abusch, is that finding contentedness with the normalcy of life is precisely the wisdom Gilgamesh discovers at the end of his journey. This “normal” is diametrically opposed to the very supernormal that surrounds Gilgamesh throughout his adventures. Gilgamesh’s failure thus illustrates two principles: first, that humankind has a certain destiny and limit to its actions, and second that rather than searching for the divine amongst the supernormal, humankind’s destined path lies within the normal.
The elements and anecdotes of the immortality quest provide a key to its meaning. Thus, I will discuss each part separately, beginning with Gilgamesh’s encounters with Siduri and Utnapishtim, the discovery of the magic plant, and ending with the snake incident. Also, let it be noted that since the Old Babylonian version of the epic is far from complete, the eleven tablet(Standard) version, dating to the early first millenium B.C., will be used as the primary version of the tale, unless otherwise noted.
In the Old Babylonian version of the tale, Gilgamesh’s search for immortality ends after he meets Siduri, a tavern keeper. Siduri tells Gilgamesh “When the gods created mankind, they fixed Death for mankind…Now you, Gilgamesh, let your belly be full! Be happy day and night, make each day a party…that is the (true) task of mankind.”(MK, pg. 85) Siduri is explaining to Gilgamesh that it is ordained above that men die, and that he should just live his life. In the Standard version, Siduri says nothing to Gilgamesh, and he continues on in his search for Utnapishtim.
The encounter with Utnapishtim follows his meeting with Siduri in the Standard version of the text. What Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh parallels Siduri’s speech in the Old Babylonian version, namely that all human endeavors are fleeting and transitory. Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh: “You have toiled without cease and what have you got? Through toil you wear yourself out, You fill your body with grief, Your long lifetime you are bringing near(to a premature end).” (MK, p.93) Utnapishtim also relates how the gods “established Death and Life.” (MK,pg.94)Thus the warnings of Siduri in the first version and Utnapishtim in the Standard version are basically the same. Both imply that Gilgamesh is worse off because of his search for immortality. Both also give the counsel that it is impossible to escape death. In other words, the wisdom conveyed to Gilgamesh in both the earlier and later versions of the story is that his quest itself is futile. Interpretation of the dialogues with Siduri and Utnapishtim generally reveals that both episodes in the story can generally be taken at face value. Any other kind of conjecture on the meaning of these dialogues, such as implying that they are representative of existentialism in Mesopotamian thought, would require enormous studies in the areas of Mesopotamian religion and mythology.
After Gilgamesh fails the test of sleep he is offered a plant that would return him to the state of his youth. Diving deep into the sea, he obtains “Man Becomes Young in Old Age,” the magic plant. It has been suggested by Veenker that the kings listed on the Sumerian King List, and “perhaps all men, had access to the plant of rejuvenation before the gods concealed it under the waters of the flood.”(RV, pg.201)Lambert refutes this thesis, calling it a “modern” legend, as Gilgamesh never returned with the plant, and thus it was impossible for it to account for the long lived Sumerian kings(L,pg. ). Regardless, though, Lambert agrees with Veenker that it is more than possible that the story about the plant comes from a separate tradition. I also agree that the existence of the plant only dates to the later Standard version of the tale, and thus there is really little evidence that there was ever a tradition which held to a plant of immortality responsible for the long lives of kings. And ultimately, little else has been postulated about the meaning of the magic plant besides as a literary tool, and we will leave it at that.
Different interpretations have been given for the snake in the Epic of Gilgamesh. Assyriologists, such as Lambert, tend to think the snake episode is tied to explaining how snakes can slough their skin. Lambert explains that “the episode is explicitly an explanation of how the snake acquired the power to shed its skin and so to experience rejuvenation.”(WL, pg. 69) While certainly possible, I would disagree with this hypothesis because I believe that the people of Mesopotamia were more sophisticated and it is more likely the snake is used as a symbol or metaphor. Interesting work has been done in the realm of comparative mythology, and the snake has a sort of universal symbolism according to some scholars. Joseph Campbell notes that “the usual mythological association of the serpent is not, as in the Bible, with corruption, but with physical and spiritual health, as in the Greek caduceus.”(JC,pg.286) In Sir James Frazer’s classic The Golden Bough, there is a story of Apollodorus where a snake kept a magic plant of immortality(JF,pg.301). Similar traditions can be found in the folklore of Germany, Russia, Poland, Turkey, Lithuania, Italy, and Armenia(JF,pg.366). In this context, the snake incident is reflective of the medicinal and immortal properties associated with the serpent. The incident with the snake and plant also, as Veenker noted, seems to reflect another tradition, because it conflicts with the advice of Siduri and Utnapishtim. If Siduri and Utnapishtim give truthful counsel, how could there be a plant capable of restoring Gilgamesh to youth? Could it reflect a cult of the snake that seems to have been as universal to humankind as Campbell attests? Therefore, the snake- magic plant episode of the story is more than likely a separate tradition reflecting the author’s knowledge of a growing snake cult, and the Siduri- Utnapishtim scenes the only genuine parts of the epic.
And what is said concerning the immortality quest itself? The epic has been compared to other mythic stories such as Plato’s Symposium, Homer, and the Old Testament(GH, pg.133). It has been generally accepted that the main theme of the immortality quest is the vanity of human wishes(SK,pg.4). Others have offered variations on this theme. Held believes that the wisdom Gilgamesh obtains at the end of the epic, with his journey over, is a key to interpreting the story. “Practical virtue and fame with great deeds and fame through great deeds are shown to be inadequate in face of the stark reality of death- but inadequate only, as the rest of the story will show, if not accompanied by wisdom and knowledge.” (GH,pg.140) For Held, the wisdom Gilgamesh obtains at the end of the story, which is emphasized constantly by the use of the god Ea, is the key to understanding The Epic of Gilgamesh.
The quest for immortality, in my view, tells us that human action is ordained and has limits, and that normalcy is a good thing. Gilgamesh represents a merging of the divine and the human, a combination of the extraordinary and the ordinary. In his adventures he is up for any challenge. Only Gilgamesh could reject Ishtar, dare to kill Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven, and search for immortality. If anyone was to find immortality, it would be Gilgamesh. Yet he discovers at the end of his quest that it is not ordained by the gods for him to escape death, and that ultimately even he must accept the fate of men and through this his own place in the cosmic order. Acceptance of normalcy, as opposed to striving for the extraordinary, is the coveted wisdom Gilgamesh brings back to Uruk. Although Utnapishtim obtained immortality, it was in a special cosmic circumstance, one that will not occur again. Gilgamesh challenges the heavens, but at the end finds his place in the cosmic order, and in a sense it is no different than where he was when he began his quest. This is, in my analysis, the wisdom that Gilgamesh obtains on his quest.
When Gilgamesh embarks on his quest for immortality after the death of his friend Enkidu, it leads him to the edges of the world where he encounters strange creatures and jeweled gardens. After receiving counsel from semi- divine beings, Gilgamesh learns that his quest is doomed to failure. As I have argued, Gilgamesh’s return to normal life represents his newfound wisdom. Accepting that the fate of humankind is set by the gods, and much of this path exists in the mundane and normal of everyday life, the epic ends where it began, with normal everyday life running its course in “Uruk of the broad marts.”
- Abusch, Tzvi. The Development and Meaning of the Epic of Gilgamesh: An Interpretive Essay. Journal of the American Oriental Society Vol. 121, No.4, (Oct, 2001) pp. 614-622.
- Lambert, W.G.; Veenker, Ronald A. Gilgamesh and the Magic Plant. The Biblical Archaeologist, Vol.45, No.2, Spring 1982, p.69.
- Held, George F. Parallels between the Gilgamesh Epic and Plato’s Symposium. Journal of Near Eastern Studies Vol.42, No.2 (Apr. 1983) pp.133-141.
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- Campbell, Joseph. The Mythic Image, Princeton University Press, 1974.
- Frazer, J.G. The Golden Bough. Macmillan. 1921.
- Kramer, Samuel Noah. The Death of Gilgamesh, Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, No.94 (Apr 1944)pp.2-12