A Snake Steals the Plant of Eternal Life

by Esteban

“To return to the epic:

The recital of Ut-Napishtim served its primary purpose in the narrative by proving to Gilgamesh that his case was not that of his deified ancestor.

Meanwhile the hero had remained in the boat, too ill to come ashore; now Ut-Napishtim took pity on him and promised to restore him to health, first of all bidding him sleep during six days and seven nights.

Gilgamesh listened to his ancestor’s advice, and by and by “sleep, like a tempest, breathed upon him.” Ut-Napishtim’s wife, beholding the sleeping hero, was likewise moved with compassion, and asked her husband to send the traveller safely home.

He in turn bade his wife compound a magic preparation, containing seven ingredients, and administer it to Gilgamesh while he slept. This was done, and an enchantment thus put upon the hero.

When he awoke (on the seventh day) he renewed his importunate request for the secret of perpetual life.

His host sent him to a spring of water where he might bathe his sores and be healed; and having tested the efficacy of the magic waters Gilgamesh returned once more to his ancestor’s dwelling, doubtless to persist in his quest for life.

Notwithstanding that Ut-Napishtim had already declared it impossible for Gilgamesh to attain immortality, he now directed him (apparently at the instance of his wife) to the place where he would find the plant of life, and instructed Adad-Ea to conduct him thither.

The magic plant, which bestowed immortality and eternal youth on him who ate of it, appears to have been a weed, a creeping plant, with thorns which pricked the hands of the gatherer; and, curiously enough, Gilgamesh seems to have sought it at the bottom of the sea.

At length the plant was found, and the hero declared his intention of carrying it with him to Erech. And so he set out on the return journey, accompanied by the faithful ferryman not only on the first, and watery, stage of his travels, but also overland to the city of Erech itself.

When they had journeyed twenty kasbu they left an offering (presumably for the dead), and when they had journeyed thirty kasbu, they repeated a funeral chant.

The narrative goes on :

Gilgamesh saw a well of fresh water, he went down to it and offered a libation. A serpent smelled the odour of the plant, advanced . . . and carried off the plant. Gilgamesh sat down and wept, the tears ran down his cheeks.”

He lamented bitterly the loss of the precious plant, seemingly predicted to him when he made his offering at the end of twenty kasbu.

At length they reached Erech, when Gilgamesh sent Adad-Ea to enquire concerning the building of the city walls, a proceeding which has possibly some mythological significance.

The XIIth tablet opens with the lament of Gilgamesh for his friend Eabani, whose loss he has not ceased to deplore.

“Thou canst no longer stretch thy bow upon the earth; and those who were slain with the bow are round about thee. Thou canst no longer bear a sceptre in thy hand; and the spirits of the dead have taken thee captive.

Thou canst no longer wear shoes upon thy feet; thou canst no longer raise thy war-cry on the earth. No more dost thou kiss thy wife whom thou didst love; no more dost thou smite thy wife whom thou didst hate.

No more dost thou kiss thy daughter whom thou didst love; no more dost thou smite thy daughter whom thou didst hate. The sorrow of the underworld hath taken hold upon thee.”[4]

Gilgamesh went from temple to temple, making offerings and desiring the gods to restore Eabani to him; to Ninsum he went, to Bel, and to Sin, the moon-god, but they heeded him not.

At length he cried to Ea, who took compassion on him and persuaded Nergal to bring the shade of Eabani from the underworld. A hole was opened in the earth and the spirit of the dead man issued therefrom like a breath of wind.

Gilgamesh addressed Eabani thus:

“Tell me, my friend, tell me, my friend; the law of the earth which thou hast seen, tell me.”

Eabani answered him:

“I cannot tell thee, my friend, I cannot tell thee.”

But afterwards, having bidden Gilgamesh “sit down and weep,” he proceeded to tell him of the conditions which prevailed in the underworld, contrasting the lot of the warrior duly buried with that of a person whose corpse is cast uncared for into the fields.

“On a couch he lieth, and drinketh pure water, the man who was slain in battle—thou and I have oft seen such an one—his father and his mother (support) his head, and his wife (kneeleth) at his side.

But the man whose corpse is cast upon the field—thou and I have oft seen such an one—his spirit resteth not in the earth.

The man whose spirit has none to care for it—thou and I have oft seen such an one— the dregs of the vessel, the leavings of the feast, and that which is cast out upon the streets, are his food.”

Upon this solemn note the epic closes.”

Lewis Spence, Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, 1917, pp. 178-80.