The quest for immortality is as old as humanity itself--as relevant in the beginning of the human race as it is today. The verse quoted above comes from the Epic of Gilgamesh, a poem from Sumer (modern day Iraq), written in Cuneiform script between 2100 – 1800 BC, that is, about 4,000 years ago.
Preserved in clay tablets, it tells of the hero’s fear of death and his fruitless search for eternal life. It is probably the oldest written story on earth, pre-dating Homer’s Iliad and the Hebrew Bible, and is considered a masterpiece of ancient literature. /2/
Gilgamesh was 1/3 god and 2/3 human, thus, like Heracles or Achilles was semi-divine. Endowed with superhuman strength and courage, he was a great king of Uruk in Mesopotamia, but also brutal, fearsome, and tyrannical. At each wedding, for example, he had a taste of the bride before the groom could enter the marriage chamber.
His oppressed people prayed to the gods to deliver them from the cruelty of their king. The gods conferred and decided to forge a man as strong and powerful as Gilgamesh, and who could then engage him in combat.
Thus was Enkidu created. He lived in the forest with the wild animals, was unclothed and ate grass, until a prostitute enticed him to come out and join human society. In due course he was persuaded to go to Uruk to meet an equally powerful man, Gilgamesh. There, they wrestled with neither man proving himself the better./3/
With their respect for each other, Enkidu and Gilgamesh became the best of friends. And when Enkidu was reminded that he was all alone in the world and grew increasingly depressed, Gilgamesh invited his friend to join him in search of adventure. They travelled to the forbidden Cedar Forest to look for the giant demon Humbaba, the guardian of the forest. Their great battle shook the forest and thundered to the skies, but finally the two heroes slew Humbaba. They then chopped down the highest and the most majestic cedar and brought the tree back to Uruk.
In celebration, Gilgamesh dressed in his finest, which attracted Ishtar, the goddess of love and war. However, when Ishtar proposed marriage, Gilgamesh rudely rebuffed her:
Your love is poison, Ishtar , you love a beautiful speckled bird, but you strike it down and break its wing. Flightless now, it stands crying in the forest. You love the lion for its perfection and strength, but you dig holes to trap him in the earth.
At this insult, Ishtar ran to her father the supreme god Anu and demanded that she be given the powerful Bull of Heaven with which to strike Gilgamesh and Enkidu, or she would open the gates of the Netherworld and unleash the dead to consume the living.
To make a long story short, Gilgamesh and Enkidu likewise killed the Bull of Heaven after which Ishtar cursed them—one of them would die, and the gods chose Enkidu.
Full of sorrow, Gilgamesh discarded his kingly garments, donned animal pelts and aimlessly roamed the wild. But with his grief also came fear, fear that he too someday would die like Enkidu. During his wanderings, he resolved to seek eternal life. No mortal man was ever given eternal life, but he had heard that there was one exception—Ushnaputim, the survivor of the great flood once wrought by the gods, the flood that wiped the rest of mankind./4/
Siduri, the god of wisdom, directed Gilgamesh to the ferryman Urshanabi who then took him through the path of the Sun, across the water of Death, to Ushnaputim’s home. Ushnaputim recounted how as the lone survivor of the great flood, he was given eternal life, but it was a one-off gift. His advice:
Do not waste the life you are given, trying to change that which cannot be changed. Compare yourself to the lowly fool who only gets rags to wear and scraps to eat. This is the way of life. All men are fated to die.
As Gilgamesh remained unconvinced, Ushnaputim put him to a test—to remain awake for six days and seven nights. Needless to say, Gilgamesh thought that after everything he had been through, this task was simple indeed. So he settled to wait, but as soon as he had let down his guard, he promptly fell asleep, to be awakened only on the 7th day by Ushnaputim.
As consolation, he was told of a rejuvenating plant that restored youth to the one who ate it. Gilgamesh eventually found it on the floor of the deepest water. He chose to take it back to Uruk in order to test its powers. However, travelling under the heat of the day, he decided to take a quick dip on the clear waters of the river, leaving it by the riverbank. As soon as he was in the waters, a snake slithered and swallowed the plant, and immediately, it shed off its old skin. When Gilgamesh saw this, he finally admitted his defeat.
Back in Uruk, he stood by the city walls that he had built. His journey had taken him full circle, but with it came a new perspective. He was tired but at peace. He had learned the mystery of life. Wishing to share this new-found wisdom with his people, he resolved to write his story.
The Epic of Gilgamesh is rapidly gaining prominence in 21st century popular culture because its message is very modern. He is a hero par excellence—a brave but tragic figure who symbolises man’s fruitless but endless drive for fame and glory, forgetting that all life is transitory, as fleeting as a mayfly.
What passes for immortality, says the poem, is what one leaves behind. Gilgamesh looks at the strength and sturdiness of the city walls. He built these walls. He may die but the walls will live on and protect the city for generations. With this reminder, he realises his legacy should be to rule wisely and justly as a king./5/
Meantime, he remembers the god Sudiri’s words, “Gaze on the little one who holds your hand. Let the wife enjoy your repeated embrace. Such is the destiny of mortal man.”
Notes: /1/ The quotes reprinted in this article are English translations done by Andrew George in 2003; /2/Partly due to the hundreds of thousands of clay fragments of as yet mostly untranslated Cuneiform scripts, the Epic of Gilgamesh was relegated to obscurity until the 19th century with the first translations by George Smith. A new discipline of Assyriology trained more archeologists to read Sumerian and Akkadian scripts and by the late 20th century, the epic poem had gained popularity; /3/Some versions of the story state that Gilgamesh had a narrow victory; /4/Another theme of the poem is the great flood. This has galvanised numerous academic and faith-based discussions, comparing it to the Biblical Noah’s flood; /5/ There is in the epic the depiction of Mesopotamia and the Eastern world as concerned over the collective good of the city. Absent was the notion of individual rights as emphasised in Western countries. Instead, what the individual did was not important, but rather what was good for the community.