Gilgamesh Part 6 – The Plant of Immortality

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Gilgamesh sits by sea and contemplates while snake sneaks up to steal plant of everlasting youth. Illustration by Bertie

This story is dedicated to Leah, Amanda and Jimmy in Los Angeles.

Gilgamesh Part 6, The Plant of Immortality

Hello, this is Richard, and I’m here with the sixth and final part of our epic story from ancient Mesopotamia - Gilgamesh.

King Gilgamesh who had suffered and travelled so much, had listened to the story of the Great Flood and the gods’ gift of immortality from the lips of Utnapishtim the far distant. He had listened with great interest, but he was exhausted after his long hard journey and his eyelids weighed heavy.

Utnapishtim saw that his guest was extremely weary, and said:

“King Gilgamesh, you wish to live forever. But let’s try this test. Let’s see if you can manage without sleep for seven days. For if you have not the strength to stay awake for a week, how can you hope to live for all time?”

Gilgamesh’s eyes were now closed and his chin was sinking to his chest. Utnapishtim said to his wife:

“Let us keep count of how many days he sleeps. Every morning bake a loaf of bread for his breakfast, and leave it by his resting head. If he does not awake to eat it, do not take it away, even though it might be hard and stale, but leave it there, and the next day bake a fresh one.”

And the wife of Utnapishtim did as he suggested. After Gilgamesh had slept for a whole day and night, she left a loaf of bread by his head, and then he slept for another night and day, and even after that he slept on, and on, sometimes snoring like thunder.

When the king finally awoke, after a week of sleep, seven loaves of bread were waiting by his head. Six of them were hard and stale, and only the seventh was fresh.

Gilgamesh stretched out his great arms with a yawn and said, “OHHH! I must have nodded off for a moment.”

But Utnapishtim told him: “Count the loaves. They are the number of days you slept - seven in all. Six of the loaves are hard and stale, only the seventh is today’s loaf, still soft, and moist, and ready for you to eat.”

When Gilgamesh saw that this was true, he wept and said: “Utnphishtim, where shall I go? What shall I do? For if I do not have the strength to stay awake, how can I possibly live forever?”

Utnapishtim looked at his guest and saw that he was in a sorry state. He said: “You are a king, but you are filthy. Go and get washed.”

Gilgamesh looked down at his clothes, such as they were, and saw that what Utnapishtim had said was true. He did as he was asked, and went down to the river to wash his filthy hair and body. He threw his ragged clothes into the swirling currents that swept them away to sea. The servants of Untnapishtim brought him fresh clothes and a clean hair band. When he was clean, he returned to his host who smiled approvingly and said:

“Gilgamesh, you have travelled many miles to come here. Perhaps you think that your journey has been useless. You see no chance of conquering death. But I will let you into a secret. There is a plant that grows under the sea. It has a thorn like a rose that will prick your hand if you grab hold of it, but if you succeed in taking it, this plant will restore your youth and strength.”

Gilgamesh brightened at this news. “There is such a plant? I must get it! Will you help me?”

Utnapishtim ordered the sea captain to take Gilgamesh out in his boat to the part of the sea where the plant grew on the seabed.

They sailed over the waves and when they reached the place, Gilgamesh dived over the side of the boat, and swam down to the bottom of the sea. In the misty depths he found the plant with a thorn like a rose and grabbed hold of it, and although it pricked his hand, he held it fast and returned to the surface of the water and climbed into the boat.

When he was seated once more on the boat, he examined the plant and said to himself:

“What kind of seaweed is this? I am told that it contains the secret of youth. I shall return with it to glistening Uruk, and when I am outside the city, I shall feed just a little bit of this plant to the ancient shepherd who must be 100 years old. If he sheds his age and returns to his youth, I will know that it is magical indeed! Then I shall eat it too, and be young again!”

The sea captain sailed the boat back to the shore and set Gilgamesh on his homeward journey back to Uruk. When he had walked thirty miles, he stopped for the night by a fresh pool of water. His limbs were hot and weary from the journey, and water was tempting. He waded into it and washed himself.

But while he was in the water, a snake smelt the sweet plant that Gilgamesh had left on a rock. The snake came up silently and stole it away back to his hole, where he ate it. After he had eaten this magical plant, the snake felt rather strange. His old wrinkly skin began to feel loose and crumbly. Soon he slivered out of it and wriggled away wearing his new, shiny, youthful skin.

And from that time on, snakes have always shed their skins.

But when Gilgamesh came out of the water and saw that the plant of immortality was gone, stolen away by the snake, he wept and wailed bitterly.

“To what end did I make this long and weary journey? For what purpose have I suffered? I have not gained anything. No advantage at all. I have won and lost the secret of youth and now I am no better off at all than I was before. Old age and death still await me. One day I shall turn to clay just like all other men. What is the point of it all?”

In the morning, he set off wearily on his way. Onward he walked for seven days and seven nights, until at long last he came to the place just outside the glistening city of Uruk where the shepherds camp with their sheep.

He stood on the top of the hill, side by side with the ancient shepherd, and looked out at the city. And then he spoke with pride.

“There lies the glistening city of Uruk. If you climb onto its high battlements and take a walk around, you will see it is one square mile in size. You will see green orchards just as big. You will see the vast quarries where they dug out the clay to build the houses. You will see the temple of Ishtar and its lovely grounds. I am the king who oversaw the creation of this city, more splendid than any other that ever was or ever shall be.”

And then Gilgamesh wished the shepherd well, and began to walk down the hill towards the glistening city of Uruk, the monument that he built, whose fame would last for all time.

Only then did he understand that his name would live forever and the story of how he, king Gilgamesh befriended Enkidu the wildman would be told and retold for all time. Together, side by side, King Gilgamesh and Enkidu fought and killed Humbaba the dragon, they overcame the great bull of heaven, and after the gods took away the life of Enkidu, Gilgamesh traveled the ends of the Earth to meet Utnapishtim the far distant. He dived to the bottom of the sea to pick the rose of eternal youth, and when it was stolen by the snake, he understood that he would live on through fame and reputation.

And that was the final part of the epic tale of Gilgamesh. It is a fantastic story but I don’t think it is as well known as the Greek epics, like the Odyssey and the Iliad. The epic of Gilgamesh is even older than those stories. We hope it has given you a little insight into an amazing civilisation of the past, that grew up between the banks of the Rivers Euphrates and Tigris in the part of the world we now call the Middle East.

For now, from me, Richard, at Storynory.com, goodbye.

Thank you Richard. We’ve really enjoyed listening to your booming Gilgamesh voice! And thank you too to Leah, Amanda and Jimmy in Los Angeles who very kindly support us on Patreon. Leah is 7 years old and her favourite story is The Magician’s Horse - she likes to hum the music that Bertie plays on the guitar at the beginning of the story. We hear that the family have been looking forward to this Gilgamesh episode and we are really delighted to dedicate to them.