Imagine this: a divine voice warns you of an impending flood that will wipe out all living things on the face of the Earth. You are ordered to construct an ark and load it with as many animals as you can. You comply, build the ark, and manage to preserve both humanity and all other forms of life.
Now, you will be forgiven for assuming that I’m asking you to imagine being Noah from the Book of Genesis, but he’s not one I’m talking about.
I’m talking about Utnapishtim from Tablet XI of the Epic of Gilgamesh, which the majority of scholars agree far predates the Biblical flood story.
So, let’s start with our hero, Gilgamesh, and figure out why he’s looking for his ancestor, Utnapishtim.
King Gilgamesh could be cruel; this was the complaint of his subjects in the city of Uruk. The goddess Arura heard their pleas. and so fashioned a man from water and clay who could serve as a counterbalance to Gilgamesh.
Named Enkidu, he was a wild man; he followed the herds, going so far as to join them at the local watering holes.
Enkidu also went about releasing animals that were caught in hunting traps. One local hunter spotted Enkidu freeing his game, and furious (but not wanting to take on the massive and feral Enkidu) went to complain to King Gilgamesh.
Gilgamesh decided to tame Enkidu by sending the temple prostitute/priestess Shamhat to him. After six days and seven nights spent together, she departed. Unfortunately, her scent was all over him; the animals now ran from him.
Realizing he could longer live in the wild, he went back to Shamhat, who taught him the ways of civilization.
At least two scholars, Jastrow and Clay, believe this story illustrates the civilizing power of the sacred feminine: “man’s career and destiny, how through intercourse with a woman he awakens to the sense of human dignity”.
Shamhat told him about the city of Uruk, and of its king, Gilgamesh. Enkidu then traveled to Uruk, and engaged Gilgamesh in a wrestling contest (Gilgamesh won). At the end of it, however, the two become best friends.
The two went on many adventures, all documented in the Epic of Gilgamesh. However, one ended disastrously.
As we’ve seen before, the Goddess Inanna/Ishtar isn’t one to be trifled with. In this case, not only did Gilgamesh rebuke her sexual advances, but he and Enkidu also killed her sacred bull, the Bull of Heaven.
To add insult to injury, Enkidu hurled the slain bull’s thigh at the Goddess, further enraging her (as an interesting side note, the constellation we call Taurus can be dated to the Mesopotamians, who considered it none other than the Bull of Heaven).
Irate, the Goddess demanded both of their lives. Shamhat asked the Gods to intercede; however, the best they could do was to reduce the death warrant to one. Gilgamesh was spared; Enkidu, his best friend, was not.
Enkidu wasted away in front of Gilgamesh, and outside of his grief at losing his best friend, it also made him realize his own mortality. This is when he decided to seek out the mystery of eternal life, the gift of immortality.
Of course, if that’s what you’re looking for, it makes sense to ask an immortal. Gilgamesh knew just where to find one: Utnapishtim, one of his forefathers, who lived at the mouth of all rivers.
Utnapishtim who survived the flood.
Utnapishtim who was made immortal by the Gods.
And so began Gilgamesh’s quest for eternal life…