The Gilgamesh epic is the oldest narrative of mankind. Gilgamesh is the first hero of literature. The epic was created 2.5 thousand years B.C., it was put down on clay tablets as early as 1700 years B.C., a thousand years before Homer! For several thousand years the story of Gilgamesh was told and retold and then fell into oblivion. For over a thousand years, no one remembered Gilgamesh. Until, in 1870, some clay tablets were excavated in Iraq and the epic of Gilgamesh was pieced together. Gilgamesh and his search for eternal life have been resurrected. Apparently, the quest for eternal youth is in itself eternal!
The hero: Gilgamesh
The figure is based on a real historical figure, on the king of Uruk in Mesopotamia, in today’s Iraq. He is 1/3 man, 2/3 God. Gilgamesh is the the ideal human being: strong, courageous, wise and beautiful.
The shadow and the status quo
Gilgamesh is arrogant and is feared by his people. Although he is godlike in body and spirit, he reigns in his kingdom as a cruel despot. The people of Uruk turn to the gods and ask for salvation from Gilgamesh.
The Nemesis: Enkidu
The gods listen to the people and decide to keep Gilgamesh at bay by creating a rival named Enkidu. He is to go to Uruk and challenge Gilgamesh. Enkidu is a wild man, he is more animal than human and is intimately connected to the animal kingdom. He frees all the animals from the traps, which enrages the hunters, who then turn to the gods for help. The gods send a harlot to tame Enkidu with her love-maklng. After 7 hot nights and days, Enkidu has become so tame that by the time he arrives at Gilgamesh’s doorstep, he is so timid and gentle that instead of challenging him, he befriends him.
Ally and new Nemesis
Enkidu becomes Gilgamesh’s companion, brother and ally. Together they celebrate many heroic deeds and victories. They slay many monsters which turns the wrath of the gods on them. The highlight is the killing of the Bull of Heaven. This is what happened: the goddess of love and war Isthar offers herself to Gilgamesh as a wife. He rejects her pointing out how she has destroyed the lives of her former lovers. In rage, Isthar unleashes the Bull of heaven upon Uruk. The bull comes down from heaven to bring seven years of famine upon the people of Uruk. Enkidu and Gilgamesh kill him, however: Enkidu grabs him by the horns and Gilgamesh slays his head with his sword. The gods have had enough of the pair, that was not the plan, they decide to kill Enkidu. After 12 days of agonizing illness, Enkidu is dead.
Gilgamesh is broken and falls into a deep sorrow. Not only has he lost his friend and ally, he is also confronted with his own mortality. This makes him afraid and he decides to go on a quest for eternal life.
The mentor: Utnapishtim
Gilgamesh goes to Utnapishtim who lives at the end of the world. Utnapishtim has become immortal after surviving a huge flood. Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh the history of the Flood: the gods wanted to destroy the human race as an act of punishment for misbehaviour, but on second thought decided to have mankind survive. One of the gods therefore warned Utnapishtim and helped him build a huge boat, where his family and the seeds of every living creature was brought in. When the water finally came down, Utnapishtim was rewarded with eternal life.
Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh about a magic plant which can be found in a deep channel at the bottom of the sea, a plant that restores youth. Gilgamesh sets off and finds the plant. Instead of eating from it though, he decides to return to Uruk and share it with his people. On the way back a snake emerges from a well and steals the plant. The snake eats from the magic plant, sheds its old skin and becomes young again.
The return and the transformation
Gilgamesh returns empty-handed to Uruk, crushed and broken. But he has also lost his arrogance. He knows now that he is mortal, that he will not live forever; but he also knows that mankind itself lives beyond each individual and is for all practical purposes eternal.
© Teodora Rudolph. All rights reserved 2017, Zürich, Switzerland
Picture Rafaela Beddig