Gilgamesh is ferried across the Waters of Death

The desire and quest for immortality is the theme of the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the most well-known stories of the ancient world.

This 5,000-years-old narative poem from Babylon concerns the exploits of Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, and his wild-man companion Enkidu. It is a story of friendship, adventure and combat. Enkidu falls sick and dies, a punishment from the gods for helping Gilgamesh slay an evil monster in the cedar forest.

After mourning his friend, Gilgamesh leaves home to find the immortal Uta-napishti, who knows the secret of everlasting life. He encounters great difficulties and hardship on the way before he arrives at the edge of the world.

Crossing the Waters of Death

Beyond the garden, by the seashore, lives a wise old goddess. She spies a forbidding figure in the distance and, taking him to be a hunter, bars the door of her tavern. Gilgamesh threatens to break in. She asks who he is. He tells her how his friend has died and how much he now fears death, and he asks her aid in crossing the sea to find Uta-napishti,

She warns him of the futility of his quest and the dangers of the Waters of Death, but eventually tells him where to find Uta-napishti's ferryman, Ur-shanabi

Ur-shanabi instructs Gilgamesh to make long punting poles that they use to push the boat across the water. When the poles are all gone Gilgamesh uses the ferryman's garment to make a sail, and they cross the Waters of Death.

Having landed Gilgamesh meets Uta-napishti and asks him how he gained eternal life. Uta-napishti tells him how he has survived the Great Flood and was given immortality by the gods. Uta-napishti suggests that if Gilgamesh wants eternal life, he should first try to go without sleep for seven days. Gilgamesh fails the test and realises in despair that if he cannot beat Sleep he has no hope of conquering Death.

Before Gilgamesh leaves, Uta-napishti tells him how, deep under the sea, grows a plant-like coral that has the property of rejuvenation. Gilgamesh dives to the seabed and retrieves the plant. He and the boatman leave for Uruk.

Stopping at a pool, Gilgamesh bathes in its water, and a snake seizes on his inattention to steal the precious plant. Knowing he will never re-discover the exact spot where he has dived, Gilgamesh realises at last that all his labours have been in vain. His hopes are destroyed; it would have been better not to have met Uta-napishti at all.

Excerpts...

Fill your belly and make merry

Gilgamesh, where are you wandering?
Life, which you look for, you will never find,
Because when the gods created man, they let death be his share,
and life withheld in their hands.

Gilgamesh, fill your belly,
day and night make merry,
let every day be full of joy,
dance and make music day and night.

Put on clean clothes,
and wash your head and bathe.
Gaze at the child that is holding your hand,
and let your wife delight in your embrace.
These things alone are the concerns of men.

The departure

Gilgamesh and Ur-shanabi launched the boat
Said his wife to Uta-napishti the Distant:
“Gilgamesh came here by toil and by travail,
what have you given for his homeward journey?”

And Gilgamesh, he picked up a punting pole,
he brought the boat back near to the shore.
Said Uta-napishti to Gilgamesh:
“You came here, O Gilgamesh, by toil and by travail,
what do I give for your homeward journey?
Let me disclose, O Gilgamesh, a matter most secret,
to you I will tell a mystery of gods.
There is a plant that looks like a box thorn,
it has prickles like a dog rose, and will prick one who plucks it.
But if you can possess this plant,
you will be again as you were in your youth.”

Just as soon as Gilgamesh heard what he said,
he opened a channel.
Heavy stones he tied to his feet,
and they pulled him down to the Ocean below.
He took the plant, and pulled it up, and lifted it
the heavy stones he cut loose from his feet,
and the sea cast him up on its shore.

Said Gilgamesh to Ur-shanabi the boatman:
“This plant, Ur-shanabi, is the Plant of Heartbeat,
with it a man can regain his vigour.
To Uruk the Sheepfold I will take it,
to an ancient I will feed some and put the plant to the test!
Its name shall be Old Man Grown Young,
I will eat it myself, and be again as I was in my youth!”

Immortality stolen

At twenty leagues they broke bread,
at thirty leagues they stopped for the night.
Gilgamesh found a pool whose water was cool,
down he went into it, to bathe in the water.
Of the plant’s fragrance a snake caught scent,
came up in silence, and bore the plant off.
As it turned away it sloughed its skin.

Then Gilgamesh sat down and wept,
down his cheeks the tears were coursing.
He spoke to Ur-shanabi the boatman:
“For whom, Ur-shanabi, toiled my arms so hard,
for whom ran dry the blood of my heart?
Not for myself did I find a bounty,
for the Lion of the Earth I have done a favour!
Now far and wide the tide is rising.
Having opened the channel I abandoned the tools:
what thing would I find that served as my landmark?
Had I only turned back, and left the boat on the shore!”

Next... Death of Gilgamesh  |  Contents


Gilgamesh weeps after the plant of immortality is stolen by a snake
Gilgamesh is ferried across the Waters of Death
Gilgamesh’s quest for everlasting life
Gilgamesh weeps after the plant of immortality is stolen by a snake
Illustrations by Francis Mosley, translation Andrew George, The Epic of Gilgamesh, Folio Society, 2010