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Category: Fear of Death

Gilgamesh and the Quest for Immortality

“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.

Gilgamesh Sees the Tree of the Gods in the 9th Tablet of the Epic of Gilgamesh

THE NINTH TABLET.

“In bitter grief Gilgamish wandered about the country uttering lamentations for his beloved companion, Enkidu. As he went about he thought to himself,

“I myself shall die, and shall not I then be as Enkidu?

Sorrow hath entered into my soul,

Because I fear death do I wander over the country.”

His fervent desire was to escape from death, and remembering that his ancestor Uta-Napishtim, the son of Ubara-Tutu, had become deified and immortal, Gilgamish determined to set out for the place where he lived in order to obtain from him the secret of immortality.

Where Uta-Napishtim lived was unknown to Gilgamish, but he seems to have made up his mind that he would have to face danger in reaching the place, for he says, “I will set out and travel quickly. I shall reach the defiles in the mountains by night, and if I see lions, and am terrified at them, I shall lift up my head and appeal to the Moon-god, and to (Ishtar, the Lady of the Gods), who is wont to hearken to my prayers.”

After Gilgamish set out to go to the west he was attacked either by men or animals, but he overcame them and went on until he arrived at Mount Mashu, where it would seem the sun was thought both to rise and to set.

The approach to this mountain was guarded by Scorpion-men, whose aspect was so terrible that the mere sight of it was sufficient to kill the mortal who beheld them; even the mountains collapsed under the glance of their eyes.

When Gilgamish saw the Scorpion-men he was smitten with fear, and under the influence of his terror the colour of his face changed, and he fell prostrate before them.

Then a Scorpion-man cried out to his wife, saying, “The body of him that cometh to us is the flesh of the gods,” and she replied, “Two-thirds of him is god, and the other third is man.”

The Scorpion-man then received Gilgamish kindly, and warned him that the way which he was about to travel was full of danger and difficulty. Gilgamish told him that he was in search of his ancestor, Uta-Napishtim, who had been deified and made immortal by the gods, and that it was his intention to go to him to learn the secret of immortality.

The Scorpion-man in answer told him that it was impossible for him to continue his journey through that country, for no man had ever succeeded in passing through the dark region of that mountain, which required twelve double-hours to traverse.

Nothing dismayed, Gilgamish set out on the road through the mountains, and the darkness increased in density every hour, but he struggled on, and at the end of the twelfth hour he arrived at a region where there was bright daylight, and he entered a lovely garden, filled with trees loaded with luscious fruits, and he saw the “tree of the gods.” Here the Sun-god called to him that his quest must be in vain, but Gilgamish replied that he would do anything to escape death.”

E.A. Wallis Budge, The Babylonian Story of the Deluge and the Epic of Gilgamish1929, pp. 49-51.

Glimpses of the Egyptian Tuat Repeated in the Coptic Representation of Hell.

This is the testimony of Bishop Pisentios, as rendered by E. A. Wallis Budge, in The Egyptian Book of the Dead.

“The bishop having taken up his abode in a tomb filled with mummies, causes one of them to tell his history. After saying that his parents were Greeks who worshipped Poseidon, he states that when he was dying already the avenging angels came about him with iron knives and goads as sharp as spears, which they thrust into his side, while they gnashed their teeth at him; when he opened his eyes, he saw death in all its manifold forms round about him; and at that moment angels without mercy came and dragged his wretched soul from his body, and tying it to the form of a black horse they bore it away to Amenta.”

“Next, he was delivered over to merciless tormentors, who tortured him in a place where there were multitudes of savage beasts; and, when he had been cast into the place of outer darkness, he saw a ditch more than two hundred feet deep filled with reptiles, each of which had seven heads, and all their bodies were covered as it were with scorpions.”

“Here also were serpents, the very sight of which terrified the beholder, and to one of them which had teeth like iron stakes was the wretched man given to be devoured; for five days in each week the serpent crushed him with his teeth, but on the Saturday and the Sunday there was respite.”

“Another picture of the torments of Hades is given in the Martyrdom of Macarius of Antioch, wherein the saint, having restored to life a man who had been dead six hours, learned that when he was about to die he was surrounded by fiends, some of whom had the faces of dragons, others of lions, others of crocodiles, and others of bears.”

“They tore his soul from his body with great violence, and they fled with it over a mighty river of fire, in which they plunged it to a depth of four hundred cubits; then they took it out and set it before the judge of Truth. After hearing the sentence of the judge the fiends took it to a place of outer darkness where no light came, and they cast it into the cold where there was gnashing of teeth.”

“There it beheld a snake which never slept, with a head like that of a crocodile, and which was surrounded by reptiles which cast souls before it to be devoured, when the snake’s mouth was full it allowed the other reptiles to eat, and though they rent the soul in pieces it did not die.”

“After this the soul was carried into Amenta for ever.”

Budge concludes, “The martyr Macarius suffered in the reign of Diocletian, and the MS from which the above extract is taken was copied in the year of the Martyrs 634 = AD 918.”

“Thus, the old heathen ideas of the Egyptian Tuat were applied to the construction of the Coptic Hell.”

—E.A.Wallis Budge, The Egyptian Book of the Dead, 1904, p. cxxxii.

—Hyvernat, les Actes des Martyrs de Egypt, Paris, 1886, pp. 56-7.

On Fear, Anxiety, Angst, and Mythology

“Fear is to be met and managed by the hero on his path to manhood, and an encounter with fear plays a major part in initiation ceremonies.”

[…]

Simply, there are two faces to panic: lived out in relation to a stimulus and called fear; held in with no known stimulus and called anxiety. Fear has an object; anxiety has none.  There can be panicky fear, a stampede, say; there can be panicky anxiety in a dream. In either condition, death can result. Psychoanalytic and psychosomatic case reports, as well as dream research and anthropological studies (for instance, on Voodoo death) provide instances of the fatal consequences of anxiety.

The anxiety dream can be distinguished from the nightmare in the classical sense. The classical nightmare is a dreadful visitation by a demon who forcibly oppresses the dreamer into paralysis, cuts off his breath, and release comes through movement. The anxiety dream is less precise, in that there is no demon, no dyspnea, but there is the same inhibition of movement. (A collection of these dreams is given by M. Weidhorn, “The Anxiety Dream in Literature from Homer to Milton,” Studies in Philology 64, pp. 65-82, Univ. of NC., 1967). A literary prototype of the anxiety dream, emphasizing an inhibited peculiarity of movement, occurs in the Iliad xxii, 199-201 (Achilles in pursuit of Hector):

“As in a dream a man is not able to follow one
who runs from him, nor can the runner escape,
nor the other pursue him, so he could not run
him down in his speed, nor the other get clear.”

[…]

Contemporary existential philosophy gives to anxiety, dread or Angst a more intentional, a more fulsome interpretation. Angst reveals man’s fundamental ontological situation, his connections with not-being, so that all fear is not just dread of death, but of the nothing on which all being is based. Fear thus becomes the reflection in consciousness of a universal reality.

Buddhism goes yet further: fear is more than a subjective, human phenomenon. All the world is in fear: trees, stones, everything. And the Buddha is the redeemer of the world from fear. Hence the significance of the mudra (hand gesture) of fear-not, which is not merely a sign of comfort but of total redemption of the world from its “fear and trembling,” its thralldom to Angst. Buddha’s perfect love, in the words of the Gospels, “driveth out fear.”

“…to further mix the contexts: let us say that the world of nature, Pan’s world, is in a continual state of subliminal panic just as it is in a continual state of subliminal sexual excitation. As the world is made by Eros, held together by that cosmogonic force and charged with the libidinal desire that is Pan, an archetypal vision most recently presented by Wilhelm Reich–so its other side, panic, recognized by the Buddha belongs to the same constellation. Again, we come back to Pan and the two extremes of instinct.

Brinkman has already pointed to the bankruptcy of all theories of panic that attempt to deal with it sociologically, psychologically or historically and not on its own terms. The right terms, Brinkman says, are mythological. We must follow the path cleared by Nietzsche whose investigation of kinds of consciousness and behavior through Apollo and Dionysos can be extended to Pan. Then panic will no longer be regarded as a physiological defense mechanism or an inadequate reaction or an abaissment du niveau mental, but will be seen as the right response to the numinous.”

–W.H. Roscher, Pan and the Nightmare: Ephialtes–A Pathological-Mythological Treatise on the Nightmare in Classical Antiquity, & An Essay on Pan by James Hillman, 1972. Pp. xxvi-xxviii. (James Hillman, “An Essay on Pan.”)

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