Gilgamesh – the final loss and rebirth

After having found the magical and mysterious plant – like a rose with thorns, at the bottom of the sea and bringing it t o the surface, Gilgamesh feels he has achieved everything that he has sought. It was this plant which restores lost youth to man.

Gilgamesh and Urshanabi then returned by the gate through which they had come. They travelled many leagues before stopping for the night.

Gilgamesh saw a well of cool water and he went down and bathed. The well symbolises the feminine principle – the womb of the great mother and the psyche. Having contact with the underworld, the well often contains magic waters with powers of healing and wish-fulfilling. The well gives rise to the Living Waters and the four rivers of Paradise.

In immersing himself in the holy and sacred well, Gilgamesh is completing himself in this final ritual. It is reminiscent of the final act in the story of The Little Humpbacked Horse, where the hero Ivan, after having dived into three separate cauldrons of cold water, boiling water and boiling milk, emerges completely transformed, into a wonderfully handsome youth. [1]

‘But deep in the pool there was lying a serpent, and the serpent sensed the sweetness of the flower. It rose out of the water and snatched it away, and immediately it sloughed its skin and returned to the well.’[2]

Deep in the pool – the realm of the great mother, lay a serpent. The well and the serpent have a symbolic relationship. It is said that the serpent often holds the fruit or herb of immortality, and in ancient Celtic mythology it is associated with healing waters or wells. Ishtar (Sumerian Inanna), great goddess of love and war, who was worshipped in the great temple of Uruk, together with Anu, is portrayed with a serpent.  The serpent is a highly complex and ancient symbol.

We are told that the serpent sensed the sweetness of the flower and snatched it away, immediately sloughing its skin. To slough the skin, as serpents do, is to put off the ‘old man’ and put on the new, to recover youth, to attain a higher state, immortality. It is the sweetness of the rose which allows the serpent to transform. The rose grows on the Tree of Life, which implies regeneration. The rose in the centre (of the cross) is the quaternity of the elements and a point of unity.

So in fact, Gilgamesh has achieved what he had been searching for Spiritually in his inner life! Immorality was never meant to be literal or physical. Gilgamesh wanted an earthly immortality ‘with its opportunity for heroic action, and for glory on earth like that of the gods in heaven’[3]’ And yet we are told that Gilgamesh sat down and wept, the tears rolling down his face. He felt that he had gained nothing and that a ‘beast of the earth’ now had the joy of the mystical plant of immortality. Only after the return of the snake to its pool does, he at last accept the futility of struggling for what cannot be had, ‘searching for the wind’ as Siduri had said’[4].

Already the stream had carried the serpent back twenty leagues to the channels where it had been found. These twenty leagues back to the channels, symbolise man’s journey in life.

These ancient stories were teaching tales – teaching the mysteries which only illuminated and evolved beings can understand. In a way, one can say that the story is deliberately misleading. I know of people who have actually tried to find this plant of immortality.

Another way of understanding the story is, that to gain unity and illumination, we must give up everything that we have gained, even our understanding of the Divine and the Mysteries. We must become nothing to achieve Unity. There can be no ‘I’ and Thou, only the One. This is the main premise of Sufism and mysticism.

This loss is painful and devastating – it is no wonder that Gilgamesh weeps. ‘I have found a sign and now I have lost it’, he says. He knows that the plant was a sign or symbol, but can a symbol be lost?

Gilgamesh decides to leave the boat on the bank and go back to his own land. His inner journey to gain immortality is over. But I do believe that he has found illumination.

Sanders remarks that the return is very summarily described and leaves much unexplained, like the breaking of a spell —- when everything returns to ordinary and we are back where we started. But this is how we do feel when we return to our normal lives after a great inner journey. In fact there is a formulaic feel to the words used, which have been repeated previously.

After twenty leagues they broke their fast, after thirty leagues they stopped for the night; in three days they had walked as much as a journey of a month and fifteen days. When the journey was accomplished, they arrived at Uruk.’[5]

The human part of the journey is done whilst fasting, and then the fast is broken.  When the spiritual journey is complete, they stop for the night, perhaps to contemplate and meditate. As we know, the Sumerians counted in threes and sixes, so that in three days they had walked as much as three half months. They achieve much – in one day they travel what would have taken fifteen days! In fact this symbolises a very long time indeed on the inner plane.

Having returned, Gilgamesh shows Urshanabi his city of Uruk – the walls, its foundation terrace. He explains that one third of the whole is city, one third is garden, and one third is field, with the precinct of the goddess Ishtar. These parts and the precinct are all Uruk, he says.[6]

‘Gilgamesh, the king, knew the countries of the world. He was wise, he saw mysteries and knew secret things, he brought us the tale of the days before the flood. He went on a long journey, was weary, worn out with labour, returning engraved on a stone the whole story’[7].

In the next blog posting, I will discuss what Gilgamesh, an illuminated being,  achieved after his return to Uruk.


[1] Daly, Nuria, The Witch as Teacher in Fairy Tales, Balboa Press. 2017 p207

[2] Sanders, N.K. The Epic of Gilgamesh Penguin Classics London 1977 p 117

[3] Ibid p43

[4] Ibid p43

[5] Ibid P117

[6] Ibid p117

[7] Ibid p117

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