The Epic of Gilgamesh is the story of King Gilgamesh of Uruk’s quest to find the secret of eternal life. It is inspired by the death sentence placed on his friend, and possibly his lover, Enkidu, by Ishtar, a powerful goddess of the time. Ishtar’s motives lie in Gilgamesh’s rebuff of her advances and, possibly, her jealousy of Enkidu. Her first reaction was to have Gilgamesh put to death, but that did not sit well with the other gods because of King Gilgamesh’s success as a warrior and builder of cities. She happened then, on a more effective revenge in the sentencing of his loved one.
Before dismissing this as nothing more than a good foundation for a compelling story remember that it was written about 4,600 years ago and is, by common consensus, credited with being the first story ever written. There are other contenders which, for the most part, seem be the same story in differing guises so The Epic of Gilgamesh then, in all its scripts and languages, is now accepted, at least by the majority of literary historians, as the beginning of the written story.
In the original The Epic of Gilgamesh was written in the Samarian language on twelve stone tablets using the Cuneiform script. There is some doubt as to whether it was ever intended as an epic, or became one as the tablets accumulated. There is little doubt though that events thus transcribed took place in Lower Mesopotamia, now Iraq, in the third millennia BCE – probably just after the great flood. The tablets tell of King Gilgamesh’s relationship with Enkidu, a man of the wild, and their adventures in the mountains and cedar forests of Mesopotamia and the Levant until the advent of Ishtar, and her sentencing of Enkidu. Heartbroken by the prospect of the loss of his friend, possibly his lover, Gilgamesh sets off in search for his ancestor, Utnapishtim, who, it was believed, held the secret of eternal life and could thus retrieve Enkidu from the underworld.
It turns out that Utnapishtim had, in fact, achieved immortality, but not because of some secret formulae or magic potion. He was immortalised, principally, by his work in building a boat, of length and volume specified by the gods of his land, to house two of every living creature in the hope they might survive the coming floods. This was about the time of the climatic optimum of the, current, Holocene Interglacial, a warming interval in the Quaternary Ice Age we are still enjoying. At that time the icecaps were receding so quickly the sea levels were rising and there was general flooding throughout the region. Utnapishtim’s immortality lies in saving the human race from extinction. His fame had to wait until the emergence of the various religions that high jacked his story under different names.
On learning of Gilgamesh’s purpose Utnapishtim and his wife set about teaching him a practical lesson in humility by demonstrating his physical weakness in not being able stay awake for lengthy periods, and his gullibility by sending him on a foolish errand. He finally went home with his tail between his legs. “So,” as later chroniclers would say, “Endeth the first lesson.”
The search for immortality continues to this day in various forms from magic potions to stem cells but, as Utnapishtim said to old Gilgamesh, “Life for which you look, you will never find, because that remains with the gods . . . ” but he did. For a comparatively short while he did because it was his story that inspired the expression “Since the Gilgamesh,” used broadly in the elegant world of literary and performing arts to mean from the very beginning, or, since the original. Sadly this has been misinterpreted in recent times to become “From the get-go,” which is neither artistic, nor edifying, or even remotely elegant. Immortality is, it seems, at best only short lived.