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Gilgamesh, naturally distraught over the death of his closest friend, wanders the earth dressed only in animal skins. The demise of Enkidu seemed to bring attention to Gilgamesh’s own mortality and this absolutely terrifies him. With his own death weighing on his mind, Gilgamesh goes in search of Utnapsishtim, one of 2 people (the other being his wife) who has been granted eternal life from the gods. Eerily similar to the tale of Noah, Utnapishtim, warned by the gods, builds a great boat and brings animals aboard to escape a torrential downpour that devastates mankind. On his way he comes across two scorpion men and they ask why he has travelled such a perilous journey to which Gilgamesh says ‘For Enkidu, I loved him dearly…… Since he went my life is nothing. That is why I have travelled here in search of Utnapishtim for he has found everlasting life.‘ The scorpion man realising that Gilgamesh has blood of gods in his veins, allows him entrance into the mountain. After some substantial time wandering, Gilgamesh reaches Urshanabi, the ferry man and pleads for him to take him across to see Utnapsishtim ‘How can I be silent? How can I rest? He is dust and I too shall die and be laid in the earth forever. I am afraid of death, therefore, tell me which is the road to Utnapishtim?‘Eventually the ferry man relents and takes Gilgamesh to see the man with everlasting life.

Gilgamesh

Gilgamesh and the serpent

Utnapishtim proceeds to tell Gilgamesh the story of how he and his wife obtained immortality (I will not go into this now but think good man, great flood etc.). At the end of the tale Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh how can he obtain everlasting life when he cannot even conquer sleep? The challenge is set. One week, no sleep. Gilgamesh, much like a schoolboy trying to do an all nighter, falls asleep immediately. He is awoken after 6 days and told he didn’t pass the test and must return to Uruk. At this point, Gilgamesh seems to have accepted his mortality and boards the boat to return home to Uruk. Utnapishtim, at the insistence of his wife tells Gilgamesh of a very important secret, ‘There is a plant that grows underwater, it has a prickle like a thorn, like a rose; it will wound your hands, but if you succeed in taking it, then your hands will hold that which restores youth to a man’. Gilgamesh ties some stones to his feet and sinks to the deepest part of the channel. He sees the plant, grabs it while it cuts him, and then proceeds to release the stones from his feet and rises to the surface of the water. He shows the ferryman his prize possession and together they proceed to travel down stream into Uruk. After many days of travel, Gilgamesh sees a beautiful well of water and decides to bathe in it. At this point, a serpent, smelling the beautiful scent of the flower, rises from the well and snatches the plant which returns youth to a man, and just like that the serpent was gone. Gilgamesh, distraught, weeps ‘Oh, Urshanabi, was it for this that I toiled with my hands, is it for this I have wrung out my heart’s blood? For myself I have gained nothing; not I, but the beast of the earth has joy of it now. Already the stream has carried it twenty leagues back to the channels where I found it. I found a sign and now I have lost it. Let us leave the boat on the bank and go.‘ Finally, when they arrive to Uruk, Gilgamesh marvels at the city he has helped build. He is moved to tears, realising that while he may be mortal his city which is the most amazing in the world will last forever. This offers Gilgamesh some solace as he is reconciled with the mortality of the body.

And just like that. Like all people of the earth, great and small alike, Gilgamesh dies.

‘The king has laid himself down and will not rise again’

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