Gilgamesh: The Search for Immortality

Gilgamesh | courtesy of LeWebFrancais

Imagine grasping eternal life in your hands just to watch it disappear before your eyes. Or imagine that the hardest journey of your life is finally over and you have failed to obtain the very thing you wanted most. Our story begins in a land known as Mesopotamia about four thousand years ago. There one of the earliest cities in history existed, called Uruk, which lies on the Euphrates river near the Persian Gulf. This city became famous for being the site of one of the earliest piece of literature ever created, The Epic of Gilgamesh. Although in this story Gilgamesh, the hero, is the king of Uruk, he is also partly a god. He is one part mortal and two parts divine, and as such, he was a being full of beauty and courage, but also as terrifying as a wild bull.1 The Epic of Gilgamesh is an adventure story with many exciting parts. However, one of the central themes of the epic revolves around Gilgamesh’s search for immortality.2

At the bottom in South Mesopotamia is where Uruk is located | Courtesy of Crystalinks

Gilgamesh’s quest for everlasting life begins when his friend Enkidu unexpectedly dies. The trauma from losing his dear friend scares Gilgamesh. Enkidu isn’t just a dear friend to Gilgamesh, Enkidu is like a brother to him. The gods had originally created Enkidu to help stop Gilgamesh from stirring up trouble, but after they met, they got along so well that they became brothers and went on countless journeys together. With Enkidu’s death, Gilgamesh is so terrified by the idea of death that he goes on a long journey to beat the inevitable. On this journey he meets several people who tell him that his journey is pointless and that he won’t find what he is searching for. But Gilgamesh doesn’t listen, and pushes forward regardless of what people say. He is so determined to find Utnapishtim, the only human who had been made immortal, but doing so he ignores what his body really desires, sleep. He completely exhausted himself to the point where he was near dying.

After a long and dangerous journey, Gilgamesh finally meets Utnapishtim, who tells Gilgamesh, “There is no permanence. Do we build a house to stand forever, do we seal a contract to hold for all time?…. When the Anunnaki, the judges, come together, and Mammetun the mother of destinies, together they decree the fates of men. Life and death they allot but the day of death they do not disclose.”3 Even with the wise information that Utnapishtim tells him, Gilgamesh is still in pursuit of immortality, so Utnapishtim decides to put him up to a test. The test requires him to stay awake for six days and seven nights, but Gilgamesh ultimately fails the test. Utnapishtim had a kind heart and told him that, instead of obtaining immortality, he might obtain youthfulness. There was a plant in the sea that can restore one’s youth. So of course Gilgamesh doesn’t hesitate in jumping in to find this plant. He finally gets the key to youthfulness, and decides to rest and relax, because he believes his troubles are over. With his guard down, a snake snatches the plant away from him and the plant is gone forever.

Gilgamesh finally accepts this fate, and goes back to the land of Uruk. Although he never got immortality, he did get what he needed. Throughout the story the same line recurs about what is he suppose to do after Enkidu’s death, which is just to live his normal, mortal life.4 Once he returns, he writes on a wall the story of his long journey for immortality. The world may never know if there was a real living, breathing ruler named Gilgamesh, but at least for now we have a legendary one that will last forever.

  1. Jerry Bentley, Herbert Ziegler, and Heather Streets Salter, Traditions & Encounters: A Brief Global History Volume 1. 4th edition (New York: McGraw Hill, 2015), 5.
  2. Tzvi Abusch, “The Development and Meaning of the Epic of Gilgamesh: An Interpretive Essay,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 121, no. 4 (2001): 614.
  3. Nancy K. Sanders,  The epic of Gilgamesh (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1964), 23.
  4. Nicola Vulpe, “Irony and the Unity of the Gilgamesh Epic,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 53, no. 4 (1994): 280.

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This Post Has 65 Comments

  1. What is interesting about the Epic of Gilgamesh and his quest for immortality is that he actually gained immortality, but not in the way he was expecting to. Through the epic, the piece of literature, he has lived about four thousand years now. This is a story I would like to read more about eventually. He has transcended time, and lived in a story we still read about today. Excellent article, very well written and very engaging.

  2. This is very interesting article, the story of Gilgamesh is very fascinating. I like how this article described all of the lessons that are learned through this story. I have always been interested in his wanting of immortality. The story was presented in a very interesting way. This article was very well written, the author did an amazing job of conveying this interesting story.

  3. Samman Tyata

    Wow! I really liked the way how you have structured your article. You topic is what that attracted me to read you article. It was amazing to read that Gilgamesh didn’t listen and continued in his journey regardless of what people told him. This really inspires me to never give up. Furthermore, i really liked reading the fact that Gilgamesh was seen as both god and man. To sum it up, it was a good read.

  4. This article gives a good explanation of The Epic of Gilgamesh. A piece of literature explaining Gilgamesh’s quest trying to acquire immortality. Before coming across this article, I read the Epic of Gilgamesh but i was a bit confused by the end. This article gave me a bit of a refresher on what the story was about as well as it cleared up some of the things i did not understand when i read The Epic of Gilgamesh. Overall, this is an interesting idea of how a man who is said to be part human and part god but yet goes on a journey trying to acquire immortality.

  5. I remember Dr. Whitener mentioning this story almost at the start of the semester since it involves Mesopotamia and he said it was the original epic. I quickly forgot but was still curious and now I’m glad I know what the story is about. Based off of the article it does seem like a good read and I really enjoy that ending with Gilgamesh losing his hope at restoring his youth. This also reminds me of the story of the Trojan horse, where two snakes come out of the sea and attack the priest who tried warning the Trojans about it.

  6. Great article with lots of information. I had heard of Gilgamesh but had never really knew much about his story. I like how you laid the information out and made him seem so real, even though we do not really know. I can see why someone would want to live forever, but I think it is good thing that humans do not. It must have been very difficult for Gilgamesh to lose his best friend, but if he had immortality then he would have to live watching everyone he ever loved die. It seems to me that he did not really think it out very well.

  7. A well written and put together article that stayed interesting the entire time. Personally, I always thought that one of the things that made life worth it and so beautiful is how short it is. I really liked how at the very beginning you started with a dramatic opening. It set the mood perfectly for this article since it is about the Gilgamesh.

  8. Veronica Spryszynski

    I like this story from the Epic of Gilgamesh. Its sad to have a very close friend to die and for Gilgamesh it meant so much that he went on the longest search for immortality. Its strange how the fate of the plant is taken by a snake, it seems that everything that Gilgamesh tries fails him. The writing of the story on the walls sounds like a nice sight.

  9. This article is well put together, and allows readers to gain a greater understanding of the Epic of Gilgamesh. Prior to reading this article I had never been introduced to the Epic of Gilgamesh, but now I learned that Gilgamesh was the king or Uruk, who was interested in acquiring a state of immortality. The legend of Gilgamesh is sure an interesting topic to further explore.

  10. The Epic of Gilgamesh is an iconic piece of literature and it is also humanities oldest writing. This was an interesting article to read about the struggle to understand death and hold on to our youth, I like how you presented the story and told us that Gilgamesh was seen as both god and man, yet he still wanted to become immortal.

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