A Serpent Steals the Plant of Immortality in the Eleventh Tablet of the Epic of Gilgamesh
THE ELEVENTH TABLET.
” … When Uta-Napishtim had finished the story of the Deluge, he said to Gilgamish, “Now, as touching thyself; who will gather the gods together for thee, so that thou mayest find the life which thou seekest? Come now, do not lay thyself down to sleep for six days and seven nights.”
But in spite of this admonition, as soon as Gilgamish had sat down, drowsiness overpowered him and he fell fast asleep. Uta-Napishtim, seeing that even the mighty hero Gilgamish could not resist falling asleep, with some amusement drew the attention of his wife to the fact, but she felt sorry for the tired man, and suggested that he should take steps to help him to return to his home.
In reply Uta-Napishtim told her to bake bread for him, and she did so, but she noted by a mark on the house-wall each day that he slept. On the seventh day, when she took the loaf Uta-Napishtim touched Gilgamish, and the hero woke up with a start, and admitted that he had been overcome with sleep, and made incapable of movement thereby.
Still vexed with the thought of death and filled with anxiety to escape from it, Gilgamish asked his host what he should do and where he should go to effect his object. By Uta-Napishtim’s advice, he made an agreement with Ur-Shanabi the boatman, and prepared to re-cross the sea on his way home.
But before he set out on his way Uta-Napishtim told him of the existence of a plant which grew at the bottom of the sea, and apparently led Gilgamish to believe that the possession of it would confer upon him immortality.
Thereupon Gilgamish tied heavy stones [to his feet], and let himself down into the sea through an opening in the floor of the boat. When he reached the bottom of the sea, he saw the plant and plucked it, and ascended into the boat with it.
Showing it to Ur-Shanabi, he told him that it was a most marvellous plant, and that it would enable a man to obtain his heart’s desire. Its name was “Shîbu issahir amelu,” i.e., “The old man becometh young [again],” and Gilgamish declared that he would “eat of it in order to recover his lost youth,” and that he would take it home to his fortified city of Erech. Misfortune, however, dogged his steps, and the plant never reached Erech, for whilst Gilgamish and Ur-Shanabi were on their way back to Erech they passed a pool the water of which was very cold, and Gilgamish dived into it and took a bath.
Whilst there a serpent discovered the whereabouts of the plant through its smell and swallowed it. When Gilgamish saw what had happened he cursed aloud, and sat down and wept, and the tears coursed down his cheeks as he lamented over the waste of his toil, and the vain expenditure of his heart’s blood, and his failure to do any good for himself.
Disheartened and weary he struggled on his way with his friend, and at length they arrived at the fortified city of Erech.
Then Gilgamish told Ur-Shanabi to jump up on the wall and examine the bricks from the foundations to the battlements, and see if the plans which he had made concerning them had been carried out during his absence.”
E.A. Wallis Budge, The Babylonian Story of the Deluge and the Epic of Gilgamish, 1929, pp. 54-6.