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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55 Comments

  • This article is very fascinating, this is the first time that I hear about the story of Gilgamesh. It is quite surprising to read how motivated he was to find immortality. I found it bizarre how they told him to go look for a plant that would give him youth forever, but because he did not take care of himself, I snake took it from him. Which serves as a reason to not overwork or bodies. Overall, this was a very fascinating article and makes the audience want to look more into the life of Gilgamesh. Good work.

  • The concept of death has always been scary. However the concept of infinite life has also been scary for me, even after beginning to fathom concept of infinity, I get so frightened! Thousands of years, then hundreds of thousands of years, then millions of years of being alive, and it just never ends! So I think Gilgamesh’s search for immortality is almost pointless for many reasons, but at least he was eventually able to accept his face.

  • The Epic of Gilgamesh is a perfect example of how people perceive death and mortality. Every person will meet his or her demise, but how we choose to live with our time is up to us. Gilgamesh himself, an almost-perfect demigod, was afraid of death, but ultimately chose to accept his mortality. Not only did he accept his fate, but he embraced it and wrote his story. Very interesting article to read.

  • The story of Gilgamesh was both entertaining and thought evoking. It leaves the reader to ponder life and our reason for living. My Gilgamesh, many of us, hope for some form of immortality, either through works that we leave behind impacts that we leave on society or even an offspring. In the article, the author mentions the death of in Enkidu, the friend of Gilgamesh, and how his death had the most significant impact on Gilgamesh and his quest for immortality. As the author points out, the story of Gilgamesh may not be true, and such a king may never have existed, however, the lesson that we can obtain from the story is that we all must grapple with the meaning of life and except that immortality is an impossibility.

    • I agree with a lot of this. It was an interesting story . And sometimes even the most important tales are not documented well enough to verify or to place in history ( think of some of the events in The Bible).
      But Gilgamesh makes us think about what immortality really is? is it living forever now, or being remembered forever like Abraham will be by the Jewish people?
      This article should provide someone with the desire to read more about Gilgamesh.

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