The Quest for Immortality in The Epic of Gilgamesh. Part 2 Siduri

Gilgamesh and the two lions

The ancient method of teaching the mystery of life was to give it in the form of a legend. So the Epic of Gilgamesh is in fact a great teaching tale.

We have seen that, since his beloved friend and ‘brother’ Enkidu died, Gilgamesh has been on his great quest to find immortality. He had become aware that all humans are mortal and destined to die, all are subject to death and destruction, when he understood that, for all his love for Enkidu, and his wish to hold and possess him, his friend was subject to destruction and death. Therefore, when Gilgamesh left his city of Uruk, the physical plane, it was to journey towards the goal of  immortality.  He wandered over wilderness and grasslands, as hunter, living off wild grains and animals, even wearing their skins. He had left civilization and the physical plane behind completely. This is an inner journey, the ancients would say, it was a journey through the underworld. Just like Petru in the story of The fairy of the Dawn[1], Gilgamesh experienced great heat and great cold, on this part of his journey.

This great quest then took him to the mountains, which represent ‘heaven’; Gilgamesh first came to a mountain pass where, in a dreamlike state he overcame and destroyed the lions which he had ‘seen’ playing in the moonlight. There is a direct relationship with the lions and the lunar aspects of the Great Mother. Inanna, as great mother is said to be accompanied by two lions, and indeed, Gilgamesh is often depicted holding a lion in each hand – lions which he has conquered. Gilgamesh has now entered the inner, deep realm of the feminine.

He then came to the scorpion-men, guardians of the gateway of the Sun. Once again, Gilgamesh is warned by Scorpion-man, that no mortal man has ever crossed the realm of darkness before, but Gilgamesh is still determined to proceed, so the gates of the mountain are opened to him. Gilgamesh had no doubt whatsoever, as to his destination, in spite of being repeatedly told that no mortal man has ever made this journey before, and that he would not succeed in finding the Life that he was looking for. The Scorpion-man represents doubt and death, which pulls him backwards, while faith leads him forward to his destination.  Gilgamesh now journeys into the mountain for twelve long leagues in utter darkness, until he finally comes out into the garden of the sun, where he meets Shamash, which means Sun or God. It is interesting that the name of Rumi’s teacher Shams comes from this same word for the Sun.

Shamash was distressed at how Gilgamesh appeared – in animal skins and having eaten the flesh of animals – as a mortal man of the earth. Even Shamash, tells Gilgamesh that he will never find what he is searching for, but Gilgamesh tells him that having come so far and endured so much, he will not accept death and darkness, but has faith that he will find Eternal Light – enlightenment.

Almost immediately having overcome doubt yet again, Gilgamesh comes to Siduri, where she lives in a garden by the sea – an in-between and sacred place. Siduri is described as the woman of the vine, the maker of wine.

Wine is considered sacred, not only in the Christian faith, but in many other religions also. In the ancient religion of the Zoroastrians Jam-i Jamshed, the bowl of wine from which Jamshed drank deep, is a historical fact. Among the Hindus, Shiva considered wine sacred, and in Islam, though wine is forbidden on earth, yet in heaven it is allowed. Hauz-i Kauthar, the sacred fountain of heaven, about which there is so much spoken in Islam, is a fountain of wine.

Wine is symbolic of the soul’s evolution. Wine comes from the annihilation of grapes; immortality comes from the annihilation of self. The bowl of poison, which is known in many mystic cults also, suggests the idea of wine; not a sweet wine, but a bitter wine. When the self turns into something different from what it was before, it is like the soul being born again. This is seen in the grape turning into wine. The grape, by turning into wine, lives; as a grape it would have vanished in time. But, by turning into wine it only loses its individuality, and not its life. The self-same grape lives as wine; and the longer it lives, the better the wine becomes. For a Sufi, therefore, the true sacrament is the turning of one’s grape-like personality, which has a limited time to live, into wine, in order that nothing of one’s self may be lost, but that on the contrary, it may be amplified and even perfected. This is the essence of all philosophy and the secret of mysticism.[2]

Siduri sits in the garden with her golden bowl and the golden vats that the gods gave her. Here she is with the tools and paraphernalia of her sacred practice. The vine symbolises the tree of life or the tree of knowledge. Siduri is covered with a veil; just as the shrine of Neti, the gate-keeper in the underworld was veiled during the time of the descent of the Dying God into the underworld. So we understand that Gilgamesh is truly on a journey through the ‘underworld’, through other realms.

From where she sits, Siduri sees Gilgamesh coming towards her. She sees the flesh of the gods in his body, meaning that she can see the divine in him, but she also sees ‘despair in his heart, and his face like the face of one who has made a long journey.’[3] He is very much in his animal nature, wearing animal skins and having hunted for his food, and enduring great heat and cold. Siduri thinks Gilgamesh is dangerous and bars the gate against him. But hearing the sound of the bolt, Gilgamesh puts his foot in the gate and calls out to her asking what she has seen in him, that made her bar the gate against him. Note that it was the sound of the bolt being drawn, which warned Gilgamesh that the way was barred to him. It is often sound which speaks to us and warns us of what is ahead on the inner journey.

Gilgamesh now tells Siduri what he has achieved in his life. He has killed the bull of heaven, he has killed the watchman of the cedar forest, he overthrew Humbaba who lived in the forest, and he killed the lions in the passes of the mountains. These feats have been described in the earlier parts of the Epic of Gilgamesh. The ‘bull of heaven’ is a monster that personifies the seven years’ drought which was sent by the angry goddess in punishment of her rejection by Gilgamesh. Sumeria was often devastated by drought, famine, and flood; it was not an easy land to live in.

Sandars says that where Egyptians gave us a vision of heaven, the Babylonians gave us a vision of hell. The dying Egyptian had a reasonable hope of paradise to comfort and guide him at the end, but for the Sumerians, the underworld was a place of wailing.

The episode in the cedar forest is both historical and allegorical. The forest is the realm of the psyche and is a threshold symbol – the soul entering the realms of the unknown, of death and the secrets of nature. Gilgamesh would have had to face all of these, as well as earthquake and volcano. Humbaba was ‘evil’ but the name when said aloud rumbles like a volcano or earthquake. These would have been still active in the third millennium in Anatolia, and there is an accurate description of a volcanic eruption in one of the dreams which comes to Gilgamesh on the cedar mountain. Gilgamesh is like the knight who kills the dragon, and so enters into the next level or realm.

Siduri says that if Gilgamesh is really ‘that’ Gilgamesh, how is it that he is so gaunt, with despair in his heart, and his face burned from the heat and cold, and in search of the wind? To be in search of the wind has several implications – the wind is something one cannot see, touch, or catch hold of. But the wind symbolises the Spirit, the vital breath of the universe. Wings sometimes represent wind, so there is a connection with this and the flying serpent which we will encounter later. It is also interesting that when Gilgamesh was making his way through the mountain in utter darkness, we read that ‘after nine leagues he felt the north wind on his face, but the darkness was thick, and he could see nothing ahead or behind him’. Nine is the triple triad – three times three, which indicates completion, attainment, and Earthly Paradise. There is a connection between this number and the eight directions, with the ninth being the centre, and this is significant as it is the north wind which is mentioned. North (in the northern hemisphere) can indicate darkness and death, but for the ancient Egyptians it indicated Light and day, as well as masculine power. It could mean that Gilgamesh was coming through darkness, towards the Light and his own power. ‘After ten leagues the end was near, after eleven leagues the dawn light appeared. At the end of twelve leagues the sun streamed out.’[4] Ten is the number of the cosmos, it is the perfect number and indicates a return to Unity, while twelve is a complete cycle – for the Egyptians there were twelve gates of hell, in which the Sun God Ra spends the hours of the night.

In his reply, Gilgamesh tells Siduri, at length, the story of his life and what has led him to this place, at this time. It is an outpouring of his heart and soul. ‘But now, young woman, maker of wine, since I have seen your face, do not let me see the face of death which I dread so much.’[5] Siduri is the great teacher, she is the one who guides Gilgamesh on his magnum opus; she is his Teacher. He has seen her face, which was said to be veiled. But Siduri asks ‘Where are you hurrying to? You will never find the life that you are looking for. When the gods created man they allotted to him death, but life they retained in their own keeping.’[6] In other words, he will never find eternal life as a mortal human being.

‘’As for you Gilgamesh, fill your belly with good things; day and night, night and day, dance and be merry, feast and rejoice. Let your clothes be fresh, bathe yourself in water, cherish the little child that holds your hand, and make your wife happy in your embrace; for this too is the lot of man.’[7] She puts a positive and beautiful spin on being happy and fulfilled as a mortal human and we should also take this advice; to see the love, beauty and harmony of the world. But on the inner spiritual quest these must be ignored – we must be detached from the things of the world. Just as in the story of The Fairy of the Dawn, the hero Petru must not be distracted by the beauty of the ‘flowers’ on his path, the cool shade in the terrible heat, and the warmth in the freezing cold, while on the path through those realms.[8]

Gilgamesh, too, ignores Siduri’s advice; Enkidu, his Beloved Friend is dead, and understanding that he too will die, he seeks the life beyond. He knows that Siduri lives by the sea shore, that in-between sacred place, so he asks her directly, to show him the way to Utnapishtim, his ancestor, whose name means ‘He Who Saw Life’.  It was he who 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’. According to the Sumerians he lives in Dilmun the garden paradise where the sun rises. Gilgamesh begs Siduri for directions, so that he too can cross the Ocean. If not, he will continue to wander in the wilderness.

Siduri ‘The wine-maker said to him, “Gilgamesh, there is no crossing the Ocean; whoever has come, since the days of old, has not been able to pass that sea”.’[9]

In the times before the deluge, it seems that there were those who could make that crossing, but since then, it has been impossible. ‘Only the sun in all his glory, crosses the Ocean. The place and the passage are difficult, and the waters of death are deep which flow between’. Siduri tells Gilgamesh that he cannot cross Ocean – he would not know how to make this crossing. But, she says, “Down in the woods you will find Urshanabi, the ferryman of Utnapishtim. With him are the holy things, the things of stone. He is fashioning the serpent prow of the boat. 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.,”[10]

To be continued.

 

 

[1] Daly, Nuria, The Witch as Teacher in Fairy Tales, Balboa Press P150-155

[2] Hazrat Inayat Khan, The Unity of Religious Ideals, The Symbology of Religious Ideas, Wine.

[3] Sandars, N.K. Introduction of The Epic of Gilgamesh, Penguin Books, Middlesex, England, 1977. P100

[4] Ibid P 99.

[5] Ibid P 100/101

[6] Ibid P102

[7] Ibid P102

[8] Daly, Nuria, The Witch as Teacher in Fairy Tales, Balboa Press P150-155

[9] Sandars, N.K. The Epic of Gilgamesh, Penguin Classics, 1977 P 102

[10] Ibid P103

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