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

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