October 7, 1998
This translation by Herbert Mason of Gilgamesh, at its source, is the quest of a man for the secret of immortality. This search is not a selfish one, as our hero, our king, is searching to resurrect his slain companion, Enkidu. Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, has been brought to his knees by grief and the suffering that accompanies loss. He searches heroically for life at its core. He is met with the one they call the ?Distant One,? Utnapishtim (possibly the biblical Noah). Utnapishtim reveals to him the secret of the immortals, the sacred plant, only for it to be taken away forever. This is a parable, a legend of the evil of the gods, the timelessness of the Eternal God, the battle between the Animal Soul and the Angel Soul within us all, the Eternal Struggle, and the capacity for platonic love between two friends.
When we first are introduced to this ancient culture, this ancient civilization in the Fertile Crescent of the Land between the Rivers, at the beginning of life, as we know it, we are told how cruel a monarch Gilgamesh can be. He sleeps with the brides of the empire before their husbands do. He instructs his subjects to build massive walls, and then lets them decay with time. Then, Gilgamesh has a dream. He has a dream that his mother, Ninsun interprets as the coming of his equal, Enkidu.
Enter the ignorant animal, the great warrior corrupted by the gods, a man who looks like Gilgamesh and is his equivalent in physical strength. At first they battle, looking to destroy each other. Then they realize their folly, they begin to understand their destiny to meet and bond.
It is Gilgamesh?s idea to destroy Humbaba, the Evil One who rules the ?Dark,? the cedar forest. They succeed in defeating this enemy, but in turn, Gilgamesh?s soulmate and friend is taken away by the gods who scheme and dream up sadistic contortions of humans, one of which is death.
One of the most disturbing images in this epic is the depiction by the Sumerians of the gods. The gods are portrayed as deceptive, anthropomorphic, wrathful, and vengeful. They are more evil than the mortals in many ways.
Gilgamesh is heartbroken when Enkidu dies. He feels he needs to search for the secret of immortality to revive his friend. He goes through ultimate evil to search for the man who survived the Flood. What Gilgamesh finds surprises him, because it is such a real, physical item. Urshanabi, the boatman, leads him through the debilitating Sea of Death, which our Hero barely survives. He finally reaches the great Utnapishtim, only to be even more depressed by the story he has to tell. Utnapishtim tells him of the Flood, of the wrath of the gods, of the way the gods think: ?This is how the gods think: they believe to destroy the entire city of Shuppurak because of the wicked ones they are not happy with.? Gilgamesh is not surprised at the gods hatefulness. Utnapishtim does not plan to reveal anything to Gilgamesh. He does not believe he should tell of the secret of the plant that gives life. Gilgamesh and Utnapishtim retire to his home, where Gilgamesh sleeps for seven days; he is renewed by the sleep, almost forgetful of all the grief he has suffered. Utnapishtim?s wife reminds him of his own grief, the position that Utnapishtim himself was in at one point, the same position that Gilgamesh is in now.
Utnapishtim finally gives in. He tells him of the secret of the flower, because he remembers his own pain, how he searched to revive the forgotten and lost. Gilgamesh is overjoyed. He leaves his humble abode, crosses the Sea of Death again without thought, is taken to the place where the plant is by Urshanabi, and dives down to retrieve it. He is pricked by the sharp thorns, but finally takes the plant. He is now complete. He goes back in the boat and is taken to a pool to refresh himself. When he is in the pool bathing, a snake eats the supple plant and sheds his skin; when Gilgamesh emerges he is once again devastated, this time possibly the most.
When we last see Gilgamesh trodding back to his once great city of Uruk, he is a changed man. He is now wise, knowing, compassionate, and true. He understands the preciousness of life. He asks a blind man, ?Have you ever heard the name Enkidu?? The man does not know the name. Gilgamesh looks at the city that he has built and is, almost, content. So, in Gilgamesh?s case, the end of grief and his search for immortality were one and the same, and they both came with loss, understanding, and success.