The Deluge Tale of Utnapishtim and the Search for Immortality
“Gilgamesh now begins a series of wanderings in search of the restoration of his vigor, and this motif is evidently a continuation of the nature myth to symbolize the sun’s wanderings during the dark winter in the hope of renewed vigor with the coming of the spring.
Professor Haupt’s view is that the disease from which Gilgamesh is supposed to be suffering is of a venereal character, affecting the organs of reproduction. This would confirm the position here taken that the myth symbolizes the loss of the sun’s vigor. The sun’s rays are no longer strong enough to fertilize the earth.
In accord with this, Gilgamesh’s search for healing leads him to the dark regions in which the scorpion-men dwell. The terrors of the region symbolize the gloom of the winter season.
At last Gilgamesh reaches a region of light again, described as a landscape situated at the sea. The maiden in control of this region bolts the gate against Gilgamesh’s approach, but the latter forces his entrance. It is the picture of the sun-god bursting through the darkness, to emerge as the youthful reinvigorated sun-god of the spring.
Now with the tendency to attach to popular tales and nature myths lessons illustrative of current beliefs and aspirations, Gilgamesh’s search for renewal of life is viewed as man’s longing for eternal life.
The sun-god’s waning power after midsummer is past suggests man’s growing weakness after the meridian of life has been left behind. Winter is death, and man longs to escape it.
Gilgamesh’s wanderings are used as illustration of this longing, and accordingly the search for life becomes also the quest for immortality. Can the precious boon of eternal life be achieved?
Popular fancy created the figure of a favorite of the gods who had escaped a destructive deluge in which all mankind had perished. Gilgamesh hears of this favorite and determines to seek him out and learn from him the secret of eternal life. The deluge story, again a pure nature myth, symbolical of the rainy season which destroys all life in nature, is thus attached to the Epic.
Gilgamesh after many adventures finds himself in the presence of the survivor of the Deluge who, although human, enjoys immortal life among the gods. He asks the survivor how he came to escape the common fate of mankind, and in reply Utnapishtim tells the story of the catastrophe that brought about universal destruction.
The moral of the tale is obvious. Only those singled out by the special favor of the gods can hope to be removed to the distant “source of the streams” and live forever. The rest of mankind must face death as the end of life.
That the story of the Deluge is told in the eleventh tablet of the series, corresponding to the eleventh month, known as the month of “rain curse” and marking the height of the rainy season, may be intentional, just as it may not be accidental that Gilgamesh’s rejection of Ishtar is recounted in the sixth tablet, corresponding to the sixth month, which marks the end of the summer season. The two tales may have formed part of a cycle of myths, distributed among the months of the year.
The Gilgamesh Epic, however, does not form such a cycle. Both myths have been artificially attached to the adventures of the hero.
For the deluge story we now have the definite proof for its independent existence, through Dr. Poebel’s publication of a Sumerian text which embodies the tale, and without any reference to Gilgamesh. Similarly, Scheil and Hilprecht have published fragments of deluge stories written in Akkadian and likewise without any connection with the Gilgamesh Epic.
In the Epic the story leads to another episode attached to Gilgamesh, namely, the search for a magic plant growing in deep water, which has the power of restoring old age to youth. Utnapishtim, the survivor of the deluge, is moved through pity for Gilgamesh, worn out by his long wanderings.
At the request of his wife, Utnapishtim decides to tell Gilgamesh of this plant, and he succeeds in finding it. He plucks it and decides to take it back to Erech so that all may enjoy the benefit, but on his way stops to bathe in a cool cistern.
A serpent comes along and snatches the plant from him, and he is forced to return to Erech with his purpose unachieved. Man cannot hope, when old age comes on, to escape death as the end of everything.”
Morris Jastrow (ed.), Albert T. Clay (trans.), An Old Babylonian Version of the Gilgamesh Epic on the Basis of Recently Discovered Texts, 1920, pp. 20-1.