Monthly Archives: March 2018

Gilgamesh’s quest for immortality. part 4. Utnapishtim

I would like to include a comment which Nawab has made on my last post, as it is very insightful and important:-

‘Very dear Nuria,
Many heartfelt thanks for the very interesting exploration of the saga of Gilgamesh. It is very insightful. Some thoughts that came up while reading this portion: Gilgamesh smashing the ‘stone things’ and the snakes brings to mind the Buddhist mantram, Gate gate, paragate, parasamgate, Bodhi svaha! Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone beyond beyond, hail the Goer! The path of Gilgamesh to find immortality does not allow him to be beholden to any ‘method’ – perhaps that is why in his crossing, he himself becomes the mast, and he takes the skin off his body for a sail (though admittedly a skin borrowed from another creature). And reflecting on the Urnu-snakes and the stone things, of course snakes can also make us think of the power spiralling up the spinal axis, which yogis call kundalini. In that light, maybe the ‘stone things’ represent the radiant psychic centres, which in some conditions shine like jewels. So why does Gilgamesh smash this ‘system’? Perhaps because every form must some day be scattered, and the ultimate crossing means to leave them all behind. Experience of the various centres can take us to the margin of the ocean, but to cross the ocean we leave them on the shore.’
I love the idea that the ‘stone things’ represent the radiant psychic centres, which shine like jewels, especially as everything in the garden of Dilmun – the flowers and the thorns, described as being made of precious stones or crystals. It is a powerful image and concept to ponder.

For Gilgamesh the night sea journey is almost complete. He himself has become the mast and his skins, the sails, which power the boat towards that sacred place at the mouth of the rivers. The garden of Dilmun, the Sumerian paradise – the place where the sun rises and the Land of the Living.

‘Now Utnapishtim, where he lay at ease, looked into the distance and he said in his heart, musing to himself, ‘Why does the boat sail here without tackle and mast; why are the sacred stones destroyed, and why does the master not sail the boat? That man who comes is none of mine; where I look I see a man whose body is covered with skins of beasts. Who is this who walks up the shore behind Urshanabi, for surely he is no man of mine? ‘[1] He asks himself all the questions that Gilgamesh has had to answer before when faced with Siduri and then Urshanabi.

Gilgamesh replies ‘Gilgamesh is my name. I am from Uruk, from the house of Anu.’ This is a very short and focussed reply! His name, his city and his spiritual lineage. Anu is the Sumerian father of the gods – the god of the firmament – ‘the great above’. In a sense, one could say that it is like our idea of ‘the One’ or God – who is everything. Nothing exists save Allah, Allah alone exists. In the Sumerian cosmology there was first, the primeval sea, from which was born the cosmic mountain consisting of heaven (An), and earth (Ki). Anu had an important temple in Uruk: He was a supreme and remote deity.

Note. In Sumerian theogony, An (heaven) was the first-born of the primeval sea. He was the upper heavens, the firmament, not the air that blows over the earth. He was united to earth (Sumerian Ki) and begot Enlil, the god of the air. At this time the world was still in darkness and Enlil the air, was imprisoned between the dark ceiling of heaven, a night sky without stars, and the earth’s surface. So Enlil begot the moon Nana (Semitic Sin), who travelled in a boat bringing light  to the lapis lazuli heavens; and Nana in turn begot the sun Utu (Semitic Shamash), and Inanna (Semitic Ishtar) goddess of love and war.[2]

Utnapishtim is portrayed as lying at ease and seems very human in his attributes. He was last on the king list before the flood, where Gilgamesh was said to be fifth on the king list after the flood. Therefore, Utnapishtim could be seen as a forefather of Gilgamesh. He does not recognise Gilgamesh, so Gilgamesh again tells Utnapishtim at great length, about his terrible journey, his grief for Enkidu, his fear that the same fate awaits him, and of his desperation to avoid it if possible. The old man asks Gilgamesh why he grieves about mortality when nothing lives forever? The old man says the gods established that men would suffer death, and that when the gods give life, they also decide the day of death. He says that death is our certain destiny, even if we don’t know when it will happen.

Gilgamesh then says ‘I look at you now, Utnapishtim, and your appearance is no different from mine; there is nothing strange in your features. I thought I should find you like a hero prepared for battle, but you lie here taking your ease on your back. Tell me truly, how was it that you came to enter the company of the Gods and to possess everlasting life?’

Utnapishtim tells him that he will reveal the secret of the gods and this ends the tablet or section, which tells of Gilgamesh’s search for everlasting life.

The story of the flood has been inserted at this point in the Epic of Gilgamesh, but I do not believe that it belongs here. Some think that it does not belong in the Epic of Gilgamesh at all. We are not told what the secret of the gods in. However, there is a comment by Enlil, god of the air, which I find revealing. ‘It was not I that revealed the secret of the gods; the wise man learned it in a dream. This wise man was Utnapishtim, who was the only one with his wife, to survive the flood, and he was warned by a dream.

So in my understanding, Utnapishtim as a great Teacher and enlightened being, spends time teaching Gilgamesh. He passes on his secret knowledge of the mysteries of Life and of Light.

In the next episode we learn more of the tests which  Gilgamesh endures, while with Utnapishtim, and of his transformation.




[1] Sandars, N.K. The Epic of Gilgamesh, Penguin Classics 1977 P105

[2] Ibid P 24

Gilgamesh’s quest for Immortality: Part 3 Urshanabi

It is from his Teacher, Siduri, that Gilgamesh received instruction on how to cross the waters of death, across the ‘river of Ocean’ on his quest for immortality.  But Gilgamesh is alone and has no boat; he must find a ferryman and in truth, the directions he has been given are vague and this makes him angry. It was from Siduri, that Gilgamesh received instruction on how to cross the waters of death, much like Odysseus who had directions from Circe for the way to Hades across the ‘river of Ocean’. But Gilgamesh, unlike Odysseus is alone and has no boat; he must find the ferryman[1]. What is interesting and unusual here, is that this is not an underworld journey, nor is the boatman Urshanabi a ferryman of the dead. Ocean is the last boundary of the known or knowable earth to all the ancients. It was an impassable barrier because it communicated with the waters of death. Even the Romans were afraid of the Atlantic; Caesar’s crossing to Britain was considered a feat of superhuman daring. [2] We are told that when Gilgamesh heard that he might not be able to cross the waters, that he was seized with anger, and taking the axe in his hand and the dagger from his belt, he fell upon the boat with its serpent prow and the holy ‘things’ of stone. He smashes them up and shatters the tackle of the boat. I think that Gilgamesh had a very good reason to do this, even though it looks as if this was a rash and foolish act.

In the story of Golden Chisel and the Stone Ram, the hero Golden Chisel, finds a bright stone buried in the dry village pond. He chisels this into the form of a stone ram; his Ideal of the Divine. It is long and arduous task which in fact we all undertake on our spiritual journey. We constantly create this divine image of God, as a structure and support for our inner life. This or our ‘stone ram’ carries us through the realms and across Ocean, to find the water of life.

When Gilgamesh saw the boat and the holy ‘stone things’, they were alien to him. In a sense they were from a ‘technology’ that was totally alien – one that he did not understand. How could he make this journey using a belief system or inner structure which he did not know or understand? Remember that Gilgamesh has travelled a very long way and is in a ‘country’ totally foreign to him.  The holy ‘stone things’ were the means which Urshanabi, the ferryman, had fashioned for himself, on his own personal inner journey. We know from other stories, that we cannot take another person with us on our journey. We each must travel our own path in our own way.[3]  So when Gilgamesh has destroyed Urshanabi’s Urnu-snakes and tackle, he goes into the forest and sits down, waiting of Urshanabi. The forest represents that deep realm within us where we live our spiritual life. It is the dark forest of Dante and of the witch Baba Yaga.

Urshanabi was in the forest gathering mint, and possibly other herbs, when he heard Gilgamesh smashing the tackle on his boat. That Urshanabi was gathering mint is interesting, as mint has been found in Egyptian tombs dating back to 1000BC. This makes a clear connection to the journey that they are about to make, a journey into other realms – a night sea journey. Urshanabi is clearly preparing for his next journey across Ocean. In another translation Urshanabi is picking Urnu-snakes, which were said to be the protectors of the holy ‘stone things’ and necessary to carry him across the sea, so that the waters of death would not touch or harm him.

The story then tells us that Urshanabi ’bent his head’, when he heard Gilgamesh smashing the precious ‘stone things’ which would propel his boat!  He was clearly upset and saddened that Gilgamesh had done this. It would have meant that he could no longer make this journey in his own right.  But the ferryman Urshanabi is, in effect, a Teacher and Guide of souls, ferrying them through the realms. He and his boat could be seen as  psychopomp, just like the horse in the story of ‘The Fairy of the Dawn’, and the’ Little Humpbacked horse’.   I would say that this is also very similar to the Stone Ram, in the story of ‘Golden Chisel and the Stone Ram.’ Golden Chisel chiselled his stone ram out of a very hard stone, creating a vehicle and guide, so as to ‘fetch’ the sweet spring water for his village. Could the holy ‘stone things’ have had a similar purpose?

Note that David Suzuki in his recent documentary on the pyramids, tells that a boat was found, disassembled, at the base of the great pyramid. This was to have been re-assembled

By the pharaoh for use in his afterlife journey: It was held together by rope. In the documentary, the team re-constructs the boat exactly as found, using new rope and demonstrated how it was used to ferry stone from the quarry to build the pyramid. It is interesting to note that they used punting poles to ferry the boat when rowing with the current but used sail when returning against the current.


Urshanabi and Gilgamesh meet – Gilgamesh introduces himself to Urshanabi, who studies Gilgamesh’s face and asks him why he looks like a tramp. He observes that Gilgamesh’s face is worn and weathered and that sorrow rests in his belly. Gilgamesh tells him about Enkidu, of his grief, of his fear, and his implacable determination to visit Utnapishtim and discover how to find the secret of immortality.

Gilgamesh wants Urshanabi to ferry him to the ‘place of transit at the mouth of the rivers’, to Dilmun, (which is very like our idea of the Garden of Eden), to meet Utnapishtim ‘the Faraway’, who lives beyond the Ocean. Utnapishtim means ‘He Who saw Life’; it was he, who with the help of the god Ea, survived the flood, with his family and with ‘the seed of all living creatures’; afterwards he was taken by the gods, to live for ever at ‘the mouth of the rivers’ and given the epithet ‘Faraway’, or according to the Sumerians, he lives in paradise, where the sun rises.

It is clear that Gilgamesh’s spirit has fallen into a depression, and his heart is covered by fear, confusion, and agitation. His inner journey is to find stillness, inner peace, so that the mirror-like quality of consciousness can reflect what previously was always there. Perhaps to find the Divine in himself. He was a great hero and King – a leader of his people. Now he wears animal skins, eats the flesh of animals, and looks like a tramp or a criminal. Each of his teachers tells him to be happy, to be with friends and to feel compassion for those in distress. Wise words, but Gilgamesh will not be put off his search for everlasting life.

Urshanabi says he will take Gilgamesh to Utnapishtim, but that Gilgamesh has made the journey immeasurably more difficult because he smashed the ‘stone things’ and the Urnu-snakes, which propelled and protected his boat. When Gilgamesh attacks the Urnu-snakes, who seemed to have been the protectors of the stone things, the story relates that he attacked the snake’s head and pinned back its wing. The snake is of course the symbol of transformation. It is associated with the concepts of both life and death, living underground, it is in touch with the underworld and has access to the powers and magic possessed by the dead. As serpent it manifests the aggressive powers of the gods of the underworld and darkness. The positive and negative, light and darkness are in conflict, as with Osiris and Set, the eagle and the serpent. Cosmologically the serpent is the primordial ocean from which all emerges and to which all returns. Serpents are the guardians of the threshold, the in-between places, esoteric knowledge, and controllers of the power of the waters, both water-confining and water-bringing.

Urshanabi is a patient and good teacher; he sadly realises, that Gilgamesh cannot tolerate, or make use of the ‘stone things’ on his journey. They are possibly too strange, or too threatening to him.  So Urshanabi, comes to know and understand Gilgamesh, just a as Teacher would. I would say that there followed a long process of teaching and discussion. Urshanabi learns of Gilgamesh’s past feat of conquering the evil of the  mountain and forest, to fell the great cedar, and so orders Gilgamesh to return to the forest and cut sixty poles, and then a further; sixty poles; In some versions of the story, Gilgamesh must cut as many as 300 poles. Each pole must be exactly sixty cubits in length (approximately ninety feet).

Urshanabi instructs him to fit the poles with rings and cover them with pitch, and only then will they attempt the voyage. The Sumerians counted in threes, and sixes so for instance, Gilgamesh was two thirds God and one third mortal. Thus, multiples of three, six and nine, with zeros on the end, symbolise huge but very exact measurements. These poles used to propel the boat must have been immense. The punting poles were to be used instead of the ‘stone things’ to propel the boat. I find it illuminating that in the story of Golden Chisel and the Stone Ram, Golden Chisel, the hero, is a creative and artistic man. He could chisel animals, birds and plants in stone and make them appear lifelike. In our story, Gilgamesh was a great king who led a successful expedition to bring back timber from the forests of the north and who was certainly a great builder. So each of us have to use our talents and achievements to create our Ideal and means (the psychopomp) which carries and guides us to the inner realms.

Gilgamesh cuts the poles, as instructed and they sail off together across the perilous sea. In three days they sail as far as an ordinary boat would have sailed in two months. When they arrive at the Waters of Death, the boatman tells Gilgamesh to use the punting poles but to be sure his hands don’t touch the water. Gilgamesh poles the boat through the Waters of Death. His great strength causes him to break all of the poles. When the last pole is destroyed, he takes off the skin he is wearing and holds it up to use as a sail. This is remarkable – Gilgamesh himself acts as a mast or central pillar using the skins of the great beast – the lions, to be the sail and means of propulsion. This symbology goes back to some of the fairy tales in the Witch as teacher in Fairy Tales[4], where the pillar or Qutub is the pillar of wisdom, or central place around which the universe turns. It is the place of Divine presence which comes alive when the teachings are understood and integrated. Gilgamesh becomes that central pillar! The skins of the fearsome beasts which he has overcome and killed, are the traits in himself that he has mastered; they now cover him, and propel the boat using Wind representing the spirit or breath of the Universe, or the breath of God, to sail the boat. The power of the wind or spirit sustains life and holds it together. The winds are also the messengers of the Gods and indicate the presence of divinity. It is Gilgamesh himself who finally propels the boat through the perilous ocean to get to his destination. It is a powerful and amazing image! There is another version which says that Gilgamesh makes Urshanabi stand with wings spread. Wind is sometimes symbolised by wings, which brings in the idea of the Urnu-snakes with wings – like the sail of the boat. Again we have the allusion to winged snakes.  Some say that the winged beings or stone things could have been figurines or sacred symbols. Which takes me back to the ‘stone ram’. Was the stone ram too, such a holy and powerful ‘thing’ which could carry the hero to the fresh sweet spring waters for his village.

In the distance, they can see the shore. An old man stands on the shore, watching the boat approach. The old man wonders why the boat sails without tackle and mast; why were the sacred ‘stone things’ destroyed? and why was the Master not sailing the boat? Who is the stranger standing next to Urshanabi?

To be continued in the next blog where our hero meets Utnapishtim.

[1] Sandars, N. K. The Epic of Gilgamesh. Penguin Books. London 1977 P38

[2] Ibid p38

[3] Daly, Nuria. The Witch as teacher in fairy tales, Balboa Press 2017

[4] ibid