Monthly Archives: January 2018

The Quest for immortality in the Epic of Gilgamesh

Gilgamesh and the two lions


The Epic of Gilgamesh[1] comes from an age so ancient that it has almost been forgotten. It antedates Homeric epic by at least one and a half thousand years, which makes it over five thousand years old.  Gilgamesh is one of the first human heroes, a historical figure, about which we know, and yet he is so sympathetic and understandable to humanity. Gilgamesh was the King of Uruk, who lived and reigned during the first half of the third millennium. He was fifth in line from the founding of the first dynasty of Uruk (after the flood).  Here is not only a first heroic tale, but evidence of the first spiritual, inner journey ever written.

It is this spiritual aspect which fascinates and which I will be dealing with.

After the death of his beloved friend, Enkidu, who was a ‘natural and wild’ man, Gilgamesh weeps and grieves for him. He realises that he too will die, and this frightens him. In his grief and despair, Gilgamesh resolves to find his forefather, Utnapishtim, whom the gods took after the deluge and gave everlasting life, so that he too can find eternal life.

After long wanderings through the wilderness, living like a poor hunter and wearing the skins of animals, Gilgamesh came to a mountain pass and remembered a time long ago, where he saw lions there. He was afraid and prayed to the moon god, to protect him. When he had prayed he lay down to sleep and dreamed, and waking from his dream, saw lions round him glorying in life. He kills these lions, and scatters them. I feel that this is a vision that Gilgamesh had, on coming out of his dream. There is a hint of some special connection between the lions and the Moon, so that we can perhaps understand that Gilgamesh undergoes a level of initiation: he overcomes that which makes him afraid, in other words, he conquers his fear..  Two lions perhaps represent both the feminine and the masculine aspects of Light and the sun. Lions are often symbolic as guardians of the door, of treasure, or of the Tree of Life. It is a gateway through which Gilgamesh has crossed over into another realm, on his great quest for immortality.

From here, Gilgamesh comes to Mashu, the great twin peaks into which Shamash the sun, was said to descend at nightfall and from which it returns at dawn. The Sumerians thought of the sun as asleep through the night, but the Semites held that he continued his journey in a boat, passing under the earth and over the waters of the underworld, till he came to the eastern mountain, to rise up in the morning with his bride, the Dawn. At the gate of the twin peaks, Scorpion-men stand guard. These scorpions were half man and half dragon, ‘their glory terrifying and their stare striking death into men’. But Gilgamesh shielded his eyes for a moment only, and then took courage and approached. By doing this the ‘scorpion-men’ knew that he was two-thirds god and one third human. I think that this could mean that Gilgamesh was seen by them as a spiritually evolved and wise man. They ask him why he is undertaking his journey and he gives his usual answer, which I will quote here, as it beautifully shows his state of mind, his depression, and his suffering.

“For Enkidu; I loved him dearly, together we endured all kinds of hardships; on his account I have come, for the common lot of man has taken him. I have wept for him day and night, I would not give up his body for burial, I thought my friend would come back because of my weeping. Since he went, my life is nothing; that is why I have travelled here in search of Utnapishtim my father; for men say he has entered the assembly of the god, and has found everlasting life. I have a desire to question him concerning the living and the dead,”[2]

So we see that the situation which has led to Gilgamesh’s quest, is the very human and heart-breaking one of grief and despair, at the death of a loved one. As Sufis we are often told that the heart must break open before we can experience Love and Life, so for Gilgamesh, this is an inner journey of individuation. The man-scorpion told Gilgamesh that no human being had ever made this journey before; that it would be twelve leagues in complete darkness. Twelve leagues is a very, very long time – a whole cycle of time, but Gilgamesh answered that although he goes in sorrow and pain, still he must go on. So the gate of the mountain was opened for him.

Gilgamesh then retraces the sun’s journey through the mountain on foot, and in utter darkness, one league at a time, to come out in the sun’s garden by the shores of Ocean at dawn. This garden was an earthly paradise, like the garden of Eden. Here the sun walks in the early morning and sees Gilgamesh – unkempt and desperate. This was a dark night of the soul for him.

Gilgamesh had deteriorated to the point where he was unrecognisable, wearing animal skins and eating their flesh. He was no longer the great hero and king of his people, but a suffering human being.  He had followed the sun’s road to his rising, through the terrible darkness of the mountain.

He arrives at the garden of the gods; all around him stood bushes bearing gems – lapis lazuli, and carnelian. For thorns and thistles there were haematite and rare stones, agate and pearls from out of the sea. As Gilgamesh walked in this garden by the edge of the sea Shamash saw him and saw that Gilgamesh was dressed in skins of animals and ate their flesh. Shamash was the Sun, the god of wisdom, and the husband and brother of Ishtar, the goddess of love and fertility. Shamash was distressed to see Gilgamesh like this; no mortal man has ever come this way before, nor will again. He tells Gilgamesh that he will never find the life for which he is searching. Gilgamesh replies to glorious Shamash, ‘Now that I have toiled and strayed so far over the wilderness, am I to sleep, and let the earth cover my head for ever? Let my eyes see the sun until they are dazzled with looking. Although I am no better than a dead man, still let me see the light of the sun.’[3]

Gilgamesh having journeyed through the utter darkness of his long night journey, finally sees the sun in all his glory and longs for this light forever – eternal Light. For him the darkness he had travelled through, represented death and he did not want to go there again.

‘In the ancient mystery schools, the mysteries were held to remove the fear of death and to give assurance of the survival of the departed. Those who had been initiated were believed to be happy after death, while others led a dismal life hereafter, clinging to their graves.

The preparatory training for the greater mysteries was very severe. Fasting was undergone, abstinence of all sorts, extremes of heat and cold had to be endured, and the candidates swam through water for days and had to walk through fire. The training often lasted many years. After initiation, in the beginning all was darkness, dread and dismay; then a marvellous Light was seen and shining forms came to meet the initiate. The initiate experienced while on earth the state of the soul dissociated from the body. A Greek writer says, ‘Here all instruction ceases, one beholds the nature of things.’ Apuleius, who had received all the initiations of the mysteries, says, ‘I went to the boundary between life and death, I passed through the four elements, I stood on the threshold of Proserpina, at the time of deepest midnight I saw the sun shine in brightest splendour, I saw the greater and the lesser gods and revered them near at hand. The initiate was said to be received, while living on earth, among the immortal gods, and made as one of them.

Every soul that treads the path of initiation takes his first steps through the darkness; as Ghazali says, ‘The spiritual pursuit is like shooting an arrow through the darkness.’ No doubt as one approaches the goal the light comes; as the Quran says, ‘God is the light of the heavens and of the earth.’ Then, once the sight has become keen, there is no further instruction needed. One gets insight into the hidden laws of nature, all things seem to speak to the seer of their character, nature, and secret. This realization removes the boundary between life and death. One rises above the elements which have formed this mortal abode – the body and mind – for the soul’s experience, when one touches one’s true being, the soul. It is the soul-realized man who stands above all matter, and in this way the spirit gets victory over matter’.[4]

So it is clear that Gilgamesh’s journey has been a great initiation into other realms.  When Gilgamesh comes through the darkness, he finds himself in the Light – in the garden of the gods. It is interesting that Shamash tells Gilgamesh that he is the first to make this great journey, and the story has become known so that others could and have made this journey after Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh could well be the first mystic, that we have a record of. Gilgamesh at this point, has seen the Divine Light – the sun in its brightest splendour.

The garden of the gods is so beautiful and has a similar feeling to it as the white palace or castle in the stories of The Fairy of the Dawn and the Frog Princess. This is a ‘real’ place, known to mystics and sages. I also wonder could the bright stone which Golden Chisel found and chiselled into a stone ram, be one of the precious stones from the garden of the gods?

There is also a lesson here for those of us who have experienced heartbreak and loss. Do we have to go through the twelve leagues of darkness before we come out into the garden of the Sun. Jung has said that we have to go through a depression – not out of it. This is very true.

This journey is to be continued in the next blogs.


[1] Sanders, N.K. Introduction of The Epic of Gilgamesh, Penguin Books, Middlesex, England, 1977

[2] Ibid p98

[3] Ibid P100

[4] Hazrat Inayat Khan, The Gathas, Gatha 2, The Greek Mysteries

The Symbolism of the ‘Stone’ ram, in the story of Golden Chisel and the Stone Ram. Part 2

In this essay, I am attempting to uncover the mystery of the ‘stone ram’ in the story of Golden Chisel and the Stone Ram. In my last post we uncovered the symbolism of the Ram and its way of ‘pointing to’ or leading us to the Water of Life, but why a ‘stone’ ram? In the Epic of Gilgamesh[1], there is made mention of ‘holy stone things’, in Gilgamesh’s quest for immortality. These ‘stone things’ seem to have been the means of propulsion or perhaps boat tackle, which the Ferryman used to cross the fearsome Ocean.

In this great tale, after the death of his beloved friend Enkidu, (a primitive or ‘natural’ man), Gilgamesh is alone and with the realisation of his mortality, becomes afraid of death. He had been a great king, who had achieved much in his lifetime, but now, in grief and fear, he goes on a quest to find immortality. In his distress he remembers his forefather Utnapishtim, who is an earlier version of Noah and who, it was said, found everlasting life, having become a god, after surviving the flood.

The Gilgamesh story takes place in the city of Uruk in Mesopotamia, and goes back some 5,000 years. It is the first story which has ever been recorded. In it, the hero Gilgamesh was King of Uruk and is a historical figure.

Ancient Mesopotamia, lay between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. There ground water or foundation water was believed to be the source of everything, of all creation. The sages at the beginning of creation were thought to be half fish. The Sumerian God Enki was the God of wisdom, whose particular element was the sweet waters bringing life to the land.

The people there relied heavily on the regular spring floods which burst the banks of the rivers annually. Mesopotamia was a cross-roads of the early ancient world, for trade between Egypt, India and China. So the stories, philosophies and religions of these regions, came to China and probably influenced their own understanding of the world. This may well have been the background of the story of Golden Chisel and the Stone Ram. There are some parallels.

After many adventures and travelling as a ‘wild’ man, Gilgamesh comes to a place beside the sea (an in-between place, or a crossing place), where lives Siduri, the woman of the vine, the maker of wine; so here is a connection with the God Dionisius, who was the god of wine, and which we dealt with in the previous post. It was Dionisius, who saw the ram in the desert, and following it, found fresh water.

Siduri sits in the garden at the edge of the sea, with a golden bowl and the golden vats that the gods gave her. The figure of the wine-bearer was still used by medieval Sufi poets for whom it was the symbol of ‘reality revealed’. She is covered with a veil; and from where she sits she sees Gilgamesh coming towards her, wearing animal skins, with ‘the flesh of the gods in his body, but despair in his heart, and his face like the face of one who has made a long journey’[2]. She does not recognise him and thinks he is a criminal. She bars the gate against him, but he calls to her and asks her what she saw that made her bar her gate? He tells her he is the mighty Gilgamesh, and of the mighty feats that he has done in his life, and threatens to break down her door and burst through her gate, if she doesn’t let him in. Siduri then responds and says “If you are Gilgamesh, who have done all these things, why are your cheeks so starved and your face so drawn?”[3]

He tells her of the despair in his heart and the grief for his friend; how he is mortally afraid of his own death. She tells him he too will die, and that he should enjoy the life remaining to him. There is no way of crossing the Ocean, no-one can do that, she tells him.  Only the sun in his glory crosses the ocean.

‘Look at him well, and if it is possible perhaps you will cross the waters with him; but if it is not possible, then you must go back’ Siduri tells him. This woman is clearly a great Teacher, an aspect of the goddess perhaps. She is attempting to guide and help Gilgamesh.

But she does tell Gilgamesh where to find Urshanabi, the ferryman of Utnapishtim.  The holy things of stone are with the ferryman Urshanabi. Urshanabi has fashioned the prow of the boat into a snake – the urnu-snake. Some say that Urshanabi is collecting urnu-snakes in the forest. Note that Urshanabi is the ferryman of Utnapishtim and not of Gilgamesh. This is important for the understanding of what happens.

But when Gilgamesh sees what she has told to him, he is seized with anger. He attacks the ‘Stone Things’ and the urnu-snakes and destroys them all in his rage. Then he goes into the forest and sits down. What is it about the ‘stone things’, and what he saw in the boat, which made Gilgamesh so very angry that he smashed them immediately on sight. Was it fear of the unknown? Was it so terrifying to be faced with something which was sacred, which was powerful and numinous and alien? Was he faced with a new sea-faring technology which he felt threatened by? Did he see something in the boat which made him think that it could not take him across the Ocean?

What these ‘holy things of stone’ are, is a mystery – no-one has yet been able to shed light on their meaning. Some scholars think of them as lodestones (a naturally magnetized mineral used as a compass in the ancient world. This does not explain why punting poles would have substituted for this, as we see, later in the story. A later fragmentary verse suggests that the Stone Things were magical images of some sort.


In the story of Golden Chisel and the Stone Ram[4], the hero, carves his stone ram, from a bright stone, which he found in the dried pond, after meditating in the mountains. This stone ram is the psychopomp which guides and carries our hero to the other realms. This must be fought or worked for in some way. In the story of The Little Humpbacked Horse, Ivan must conquer the ‘demon’ who was flattening the Tsar’s corn every night. This ‘demon’ was a white mare. It is the feminine which must be integrated in some way, so that She then gives the hero his ‘teacher and guide’ his psychopomp – in this case his Little Humpbacked horse. In the story of The Fairy of the dawn, Petru must learn from his old witch teacher, how to manifest his beautiful horse, with which he later fights the dragon, travels through the realms, and wins the sacred water of life.

Gilgamesh encounters his Teacher, Siduri, and she too teaches him about life and death, and the inner journey; where he can find immortality. Urshanabi, the Ferryman and his boat, are the means by which Gilgamesh, can make this journey – in other words, his psychopomp. Urshanabi cannot take Gilgamesh with him:  that journey is Urshanabi’s and he would use his snakes and his stone things to carry him across the Ocean. He can only guide Gilgamesh, on his great journey. The psychopomp is the spiritual guide of a living person’s soul. Gilgamesh must find his own way of propelling and protecting the boat or vehicle on his own quest.


Gilgamesh has encountered a ‘technology’, belief system, or thinking, as symbolised by the ‘stone things’, which is quite foreign and frightening to him. This belongs to Urshanabi who has been making this journey every night. When Gilgamesh ‘sees’ the boat with its winged serpent and the ‘holy stone things, he realises that these were created by Urshanabi himself, for his own journey. He must also realise that these things cannot take him there! They are part of Urshanabi’s culture, psyche and personality – totally alien to Gilgamesh. This is what makes him angry and smashes them. The story says that having done this, he sits down and waits for Urshanabi to come to teach and guide him to make the journey.  In smashing these precious ‘stone things’ he smashes the only means of bringing the boat across the Ocean and of protecting it from the waters of death. We are told that when Urshanabi hears Gilgamesh smashing the ‘stone things’, he beat his head. He is utterly devastated. He knows that he can never make that journey by himself again. He tells Gilgamesh:

“Gilgamesh, your own hands have prevented you from crossing the Ocean; when you destroyed the tackle of the boat you destroyed its safety.”

“Gilgamesh, those things you destroyed, their property is to carry me over the water, to prevent the waters of death from touching me. It was for this reason that I preserved them and the urnu snakes with them”.

In trying to discover and understand the meaning of these stone things, it is striking that in their description of paradise, the writers of the Epic of Gilgamesh, describe this garden as ‘ the garden of the gods; all around him stood bushes bearing gems – lapis lazuli, and carnelian. For thorns and thistles there were haematite and rare stones, agate and pearls from out of the sea.’[5]

Precious stones and their qualities were fundamental to understanding the numinous in those ancient cultures, to this present day. The ‘stone things’ could indeed have been carved figurines, carved in precious stone. We are told in the story of Golden Chisel that the stone was very hard and took a long time to chisel.  To chisel this stone ram, represents the creation of our Ideal of the Divine. It is something, very personal and very difficult, but when it is achieved, the stone ram comes to life for us. It leads us to the fresh spring water of eternal life.

As we saw, in the previous post, there are references to the Ram, which led the way, or pointed the way to fresh spring water, Likewise, with the Zodiac is the symbol of the constellation of Aries.  In ancient times there were thirteen signs of the Zodiac, as there were thirteen lunar months in the year; This thirteenth sign of the Zodiac was Ophiuchus, the Snake Bearer. Perhaps this is what is signified by the serpent prow of the boat which Urshanabi fashioned. At this juncture the Ram was the first constellation, and Ophiuchus was the last.

There is a symbolism in the stones related to Ophiuchus: there is Fluorite, indicating healing on all levels, Black Tourmaline, indicating inner wisdom and transforming negativity, and Tanzanite, relating to phenomena like clairaudience, visions, spiritual connection, and psychic power.

Thus the journey of Gilgamesh is a great journey of the soul, towards healing and Light, as led and guided by Urshanabi in his boat. It is a journey towards healing and an understanding of soul and eternal life.

The parallels with the story of Golden Chisel and the Stone Ram, are extraordinary. At the time when the stone ram came to life, the ram told Golden Chisel that should a stranger ever ‘see’ him, that would be an end to his ‘magic’ – he would no longer be able to bring fresh spring water to the village. Gilgamesh is here the stranger who ‘sees’ the ‘holy stone things’ of Urshanabi (the stone ram of Golden Chisel) and then smashes them. In Golden Chisel, the stone ram was transformed into a heap of rocks, and from these broken pieces, arises a constant spring of fresh water[6]. When the structure of our belief system and spirituality is seen, then it disappears, so that we have direct access, to the Divine One. The water of Life does not have to be fetched every night, but is simply there all the time.

As we will see following blogs, Gilgamesh must create his own ‘ideal’ of the Divine, so that he too can find eternal life.

In the following blogs I will decode three ‘chapters (tablets 10, 11 and 12) from the Epic of Gilgamesh.

  • The Search for Everlasting Life
  • The Story of the Flood
  • The return



[1] Sanders, N.K., The Epic of Gilgamesh, Penguin Books, London, England, 1977

[2] Ibid p 101

[3] Ibid p 101

[4] Daly, Nuria. The Witch as Teacher in Fairy Tales, Balboa Press, 2017 p 209

[5] Sanders, N.K. The Epic of Gilgamesh. P.100

[6] Daly, Nuria. The Witch as teacher in Fairy Tales, Balboa Press, 2017. P 213