February 03, 2023

#08-282: Gilgamesh Part II: The Quest for Immortality

An ancient depiction of Enkidu (Wikipedia)

Note: Gilgamesh goes on a quest to find the secret of immortality--with mixed results.

Get Ready: Are you afraid to die?

The second half of the Epic of Gilgamesh (see Lesson #08-281 for the first half)--with the hero now on his own after his "buddy" Enkidu dies--finds Gilgamesh grappling with a problem faced by every human being before or since: Death itself.

After roaming about in wild animal skins, Gilgamesh decides to seek out Utnapishtim (meaning the Faraway), who is one of the few to survive the Great Flood and thus holds the secret of immortality.

Gilgamesh crosses a mountain pass, where he kills lions and dons clothing made of their skins. He then comes to a tunnel which crosses under the twin peaks of Mount Mashu, at the far end of the earth. There he faces two scorpion monsters who allow him to pass only because one of them is sympathetic to his cause.

After many hours, he emerges from the tunnel just in time: it is the pathway of the sun as it returns to the east, and Gilgamesh would have been burned up if he had lagged behind. He comes out in a garden of the gods filled with bejeweled trees.

Approaching an inn at the edge of the sea, he encounters Siduri, an "alewife," who mistakes him for a criminal because of his disheveled condition. After he tells her his purpose, she sends him to Urshanabi the ferryman.

Urshanabi has some "stone things" to aid him and, in a rage, Gilgamesh destroys them. This makes the crossing more difficult, but Urshanabi enlists Gilgamesh to push the boat across the poisoned sea using 300 wooden poles to travel 120 double-furlongs.

Meeting Utnapishtim, Gilgamesh hears the story of the Great Flood from his perspective, a story with similarities to that of Noah in the Bible. Utnapishtim says Gilgamesh's search is fruitless: All men (save perhaps himself) will die. Happiness lies in accepting that fate.

Gilgamesh insists he is worthy of eternal life, and Utnapishtim proves he is not by showing him he can't even keep from falling asleep! As Gilgamesh sleeps the week away, Utnapishtim has his wife bake a loaf of bread each day; Gilgamesh doesn't believe he has slept that long until he sees the loaves in progressive states of decay.

At last, Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh of a plant that will help him become young again. Tying stones to his feet, Gilgamesh dives to the ocean's bottom and obtains it, thinking of how it might benefit his people. But later he stops to bathe himself in a pool and leaves the plant on its bank, where a snake steals it from him and sloughs its skin--indicating renewed life--as it crawls away.

In the end, Gilgamesh returns to Uruk, a sadder, wiser, and more benevolent ruler.


Practice: Match the term to its definition below:

  1. alewife
  2. benevolent
  3. disheveled
  4. dons
  5. fruitless
  6. grappling
  7. immortality
  8. lagged behind
  9. sympathetic
  10. talismans

  1. kindly; helpful
  2. the ability to live forever
  3. compassionate; on one's side
  4. magic charms
  5. went too slowly
  6. puts on, as clothes
  7. disorderly; untidy
  8. struggling; wrestling
  9. a woman who serves beer
  10. useless; not productive

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for February 3, 2023

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice: 1. i; 2. a; 3. g; 4. f; 5. j; 6. h; 7. b; 8. e; 9. c; 10. d