Gilgamesh and the Quest for Immortality

by Esteban

“This sinister vision appears to have been a presage of Eabani’s death. Shortly afterwards he fell ill and died at the end of twelve days. The manner of his death is uncertain. One reading of the mutilated text represents Eabani as being wounded, perhaps in battle, and succumbing to the effects of the wound.

But another makes him say to his friend Gilgamesh,

“I have been cursed, my friend, I shall not die as one who has been slain in battle.”

The breaks in the text are responsible for the divergence. The latter reading is probably the correct one; Eabani has grievously offended Ishtar, the all-powerful, and the curse which has smitten him to the earth is probably hers. In modern folk-lore phraseology he died of ju-ju. The death of the hero brings the VlIIth tablet to a close.

In the IXth tablet we find Gilgamesh mourning the loss of his friend.

On the heart of Gilgamesh, likewise, the fear of death had taken hold, and he determined to go in search of his ancestor, Ut-Napishtim, who might be able to show him a way of escape. Straightway putting his determination into effect, Gilgamesh set out for the abode of Ut-Napishtim.

On the way he had to pass through mountain gorges, made terrible by the presence of wild beasts. From the power of these he was delivered by Sin, the moon-god, who enabled him to traverse the mountain passes in safety.

At length he came to a mountain higher than the rest, the entrance to which was guarded by scorpion-men. This was Mashu, the Mountain of the Sunset, which lies on the western horizon, between the earth and the underworld.

“Then he came to the mountain of Mashu, the portals of which are guarded every day by monsters; their backs mount up to the ramparts of heaven, and their foreparts reach down beneath Aralu.

Scorpion-men guard the gate (of Mashu); they strike terror into men, and it is death to behold them. Their splendour is great, for it overwhelms the mountains; from sunrise to sunset they guard the sun.

Gilgamesh beheld them, and his face grew dark with fear and terror, and the wildness of their aspect robbed him of his senses.”

On approaching the entrance to the mountain Gilgamesh found his way barred by these scorpion-men, who, perceiving the strain of divinity in him, did not blast him with their glance, but questioned him regarding his purpose in drawing near’the mountain of Mashu.

When Gilgamesh had replied to their queries, telling them how he wished to reach the abode of his ancestor, Ut-Napishtim, and there learn the secret of perpetual life and youthfulness, the scorpion-men advised him to turn back.

Before him, they said, lay the region of thick darkness; for twelve kasbu (twenty-four hours) he would have to journey through the thick darkness ere he again emerged into the light of day. And so they refused to let him pass.

But Gilgamesh implored, “with tears,” says the narrative, and at length the monsters consented to admit him. Having passed the gate of the Mountain of the Sunset (by virtue of his character as a solar deity) Gilgamesh traversed the region of thick darkness during the space of twelve kasbu.

Toward the end of that period the darkness became ever less pronounced; finally it was broad day, and Gilgamesh found himself in a beautiful garden or park studded with trees, among which was the tree of the gods, thus charmingly depicted in the text—

“Precious stones it bore as fruit, branches hung from it which were beautiful to behold. The top of the tree was lapis-lazuli, and it was laden with fruit which dazzled the eye of him that beheld.”

Having paused to admire the beauty of the scene, Gilgamesh bent his steps shoreward.

The Xth tablet describes the hero’s encounter with the sea-goddess Sabitu who, on the approach of one

“who had the appearance of a god, in whose body was grief, and who looked as though he had made a long journey,”

retired into her palace and fastened the door. But Gilgamesh, knowing that her help was necessary to bring him to the dwelling of Ut-Napishtim, told her of his quest, and in despair threatened to break down the door unless she opened to him.

At last Sabitu consented to listen to him whilst he asked the way to Ut-Napishtim. Like the scorpion-men, the sea-goddess perceived that Gilgamesh was not to be turned aside from his quest, so at last she bade him go to Adad-Ea, Ut-Napishtim’s ferryman, without whose aid, she said, it would be futile to persist further in his mission.

Adad-Ea, likewise, being consulted by Gilgamesh, advised him to desist, but the hero, pursuing his plan of intimidation, began to smash the ferryman’s boat with his axe, whereupon Adad-Ea was obliged to yield.

He sent his would-be passenger into the forest for a new rudder, and after that the two sailed away.”

Lewis Spence, Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, 1917, pp. 171-3.