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

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