How Gilgamesh Became a God
An Essay by John David Ebert
Lord of the Dead
The earliest version of the Gilgamesh Epic dates to the Old Babylonian period of about 1800 BC. In ancient Egypt, this was a period of cultural disintegration: the time of the collapse of the 12th Dynasty and the end of the Middle Kingdom (the last of the pyramids had recently been completed under Amenemhat III, who built two of them at Hawara and Dahshur); in Mesopotamia, on the other hand, it was a time of great expansion, the rise of the Babylonian Empire of Hammurabi the Great.
Gilgaemsh had been an actual king who had ruled early in the First Dynasty of the city of Uruk sometime around the year 2700 BC, a city located just to the north of Ur, and one of the most ancient in the world. Indeed, writing was invented in this city sometime around 3500 BC, and a cycle of legends even attributed its invention to Gilgamesh’s grandfather, a man named Enmerkar, a man who was directly descended from the sun god Utu, for Enmerkar’s father was Meskiaggasher, whose father, in turn, was Utu. Thus, Gilgamesh, the son of Enmerkar’s son Lugalbanda, was directly descended from a dynasty of solar kings in the city of Uruk whose patron gods of old had been Inanna — the goddess of the planet Venus — and An, the god of the pole star.
We don’t know much about the real Gilgamesh — in the Sumerian language, his name was ‘Bilgames’ — but he lived at about the same time as the royalty of the First Dynasty of nearby Ur were being buried in their famous Royal Tombs unearthed by Sir Leonard Woolley. Indeed, in a Sumerian tale known as “The Death of Bilgames,” he too is shown being buried in a lavish tomb adorned with rare treasures, a tomb that, according to the poem, was located beneath the river Euphrates, which had to be dammed and moved aside for the purpose.
In this same story, it is told that the gods decided to award Bilgames a special role in the underworld, for not only was he descended from a goddess — his mother was the cow goddess Lady Ninsun — but he had performed a series of amazing adventures that had left an impression upon the gods, as they explain to him:
In the assembly, the place of [the gods'] ceremonial,
[the lord] Bilgames [having] drawn [nigh,]
they said to him, the lord [Bilgames, on his account:]
‘Your matter — having traveled each and every road,
having fetched that unique cedar down from its mountain,
having smitten Huwawa in his forest,
having set up monuments for future days,
having founded temples of the gods,
you reached Ziusudra in his abode!
The rites of Sumer, forgotten since the distant days of old,
the rituals and customs — it was you brought them down to the land. (Andrew George, 1999, p. 198)
As a result of his mighty adventures, and especially the one concerning his quest for immortality that took him to the abode of the original Sumerian flood hero Ziusudra, the gods awarded him the role of the judge of the dead in the underworld. In other words, they made him a god, as the poem says:
Bilgames, in the form of his ghost, dead in the underworld,
shall be the governor of the Netherworld, chief of the shades!
He will pass judgement, he will render verdicts,
what he says will be as weighty as the word of Ningishzida and Dumuzi.
Gilgamesh became, then, a sort of Babylonian Osiris, for within about a century of his death, he was already being worshipped as a god of the dead. By about 2400 BC, at the city of Girsu, funerary offerings were being made to dead rulers at a locality called ‘The Riverbank of Gilgamesh.’ And when, in the Sumerian poem known as “The Death of Ur-Nammu,” that ruler is described as journeying to the Netherworld, Gilgamesh is there listed as one of its rulers whom Ur-Nammu must bribe with gifts in order to incur a good judgment and a fine place for himself in the real estate of the Underworld. He was, apparently, not a minor deity, either, for a god list from the Sumerian Third Dynasty of Ur (2112 – 2004 BC) lists him in the company of some major deities.
So, Gilgamesh was the god of the underworld, a god who joined the ranks of such underworld deities as Ereshkigal, Nergal, Dumuzi and Ningishzida. The fifth month of the Babylonian Calendar, moreover, the month of Abu, was sacred to him, for it was the month in which shades, ghosts and spirits of the dead were honored. At the end of this month, there was a Babylonian All Souls’ Night when the spirits of the dead were considered especially prone to return to the land of the living. The gates of hell were briefly open as ghosts came and went. “It was by his [i.e. Gilgamesh's] leave that the deceased ancestors could participate in the offerings made to them,” remarks Andrew George.
Gilgamesh, moreover, was the only mortal in the history of Mesopotamian religion ever to have been elevated to the status of a major god of the Babylonian pantheon. He was unique in this respect, just as unique as Ziusudra, the Sumerian Noah — in the Epic he is called Uta-napishti — who was the only mortal ever to have been awarded the status of immortality by the gods, which was precisely the reason why, in the Epic, Gilgamesh sought him out. Uta-napishti was never worshipped as a god, however, and in the Epic, Gilgamesh’s encounter with him is portrayed as a disappointment, for Gilgamesh fails to pass the test which the Flood hero imposes upon him of staying awake for seven nights straight. Then, when, at his wife’s behest, Uta-napishti relents and tells him where he can find a plant that will confer upon him fresh youth, Gilgamesh goes to the place where it is located, dives down to the bottom of the ocean and retrieves it, only to have it eaten by a snake while he is occupied elsewhere, bathing in a well, thus costing him his chance at immortality.
In disappointment, and heavy with a keen sense of his own failure, Gilgamesh returns to the city of Uruk condemned, apparently, to live the life of a mere mortal, as we all are. But the moral which Near Eastern scholars have drawn from the story, namely, that all mortal men are doomed to die and the quest for immortality bound to fail, seems, upon reflection, not to square with the traditions concerning Gilgamesh in which, at the end of his life, he was awarded with a kind of immortality after all: that namely, of the status of a god of the underworld. Indeed, this was a commonly known fact about him, and to append the earlier Sumerian tale of “The Death of Bilgames” to the end of the epic was apparently thought by its Old Babylonian author to be completely unnecessary since everyone knew very well what ultimately became of him.
He was the one man in Mesopotamian history who did win through to immortality, albeit at the end of his life. The tale would appear, then, to be an aetiological one, in which the task which the original author of the Old Babylonian Epic set himself was to explain exactly how and why Gilgamesh became a god of the underworld, and therefore to describe the process by way of which the human being attains to the status of immortality, not as has been traditionally thought, to explain why all men are doomed to die.
As the teachers and prophets of the world’s Axial religions well knew, the human being is not doomed to die, after all, for there is a path — first sketched out by Gilgamesh — by way of which he, too, can attain to the status of immortality by means of yoga, gnosis, nirvana, etc.
For our nature, as the prophets of the Axial religions taught us, and as the author of the Old Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic seems to have been well aware, is twofold: we are both mortal and divine. Our mortality, bounded by the limits of biological ageing, is obvious; what is not so obvious, and so difficult to find out that it requires an arduous quest of the nature and scale as that first described in the Gilgamesh Epic, is our immortal nature, that divine Pearl of Great Price that lies sunken deep beneath the threshold of consciousness, where it is hidden, but which, captured by the metaphors of diving, seeking and digging up — precisely what Gilgamesh does at the end of the Epic when he is digging for the Plant of Eternal Youth — can be found only by following one or another of the various paths taught by the prophets of self-salvation: Buddha, Mani, Christ, Lao-tzu and so forth.
Thus, Gilgamesh is indeed the Opener of the Way, as tradition ascribes him, for his restlessness and dissatisfaction with the official state religion of the city of Uruk should be understood as prophetic of the coming of the religions of self-salvation taught by the great Axial Age prophets, all of whom, without exception, rejected the official religions sanctioned by the state apparatuses of their various cities of cultural origin.
The pharaoh Akhenaten rejected the official priesthood of Thebes, the religion of Amun; Christ rejected the official religion sanctioned by the priests of the Temple in Jerusalem; Mohammad rejected the polytheism of Mecca; and even Moses rejected the religion of the Egyptian state apparatus. The point which I will be making, then, about the founding of the great Western monotheisms, is that they were all religions erected out of a profound dissatisfaction with the reigning religions of the cities of their time. They are attempts to meet, and address, spiritual needs that were not being met by the official priesthoods of their day.
Thus, the peculiar restlessness, anger and zealotry that characterizes the great Western monotheisms are first clearly foreshadowed in the Gilgamesh Epic, for he is, so far as I know, the first character in religious history to disengage from the protective macrosphere of his own city and set off on a quest into the Cosmos at large in order to find answers to the problem posed by his own mortality, answers not met by the official state religion of his native city.
The Western tradition, then, is one characterized by Rage in precisely the sense in which Peter Sloterdijk, in his Rage and Time, characterizes the “wrath of Achilles” as essentially thymotic in nature. Gilgamesh’s destructive rejection of the religion of Ishtar, which brings down the rage of the goddess upon him and his city and results in the death of his friend Enkidu, is countered by Gilgamesh’s utter rejection of the very city over which he had been king, and his determined — and very wrathful — quest through the Cosmos for some kind of religious satisfaction. Indeed, he is portrayed as so angry that the characters whom he encounters in the latter part of the Epic, such as the barmaid Siduri and the boatman Urshanabi, are frightened by his approach. Siduri cowers on the roof of her tavern in fear as she spies him coming, and Urshanabi must defend himself with an axe as Gilgamesh assaults and destroys his crew of stone slaves who row his boat for him.
From Gilgamesh to 9/11, then, it is Rage which has been the signature characteristic of Western religion, has indeed, given it its peculiar destructive zealotry, and so it is with Gilgamesh rather than with Achilles that we will begin.
Our Two-Fold Origin
So, to restate the problem: the human being has a two-fold origin. He is both mortal and immortal. He is an immortal being wearing the clothing of a mortal body doomed to die.
Thus, Gilgamesh and Enkidu, from this point of view, personify both aspects of our nature. Enkidu, the hairy one, is mortal: in the Epic, it is his birth and his death that we witness. Gilgamesh is the immortal aspect of our nature: as the Epic opens, he is already in existence, and when it closes, he is still very much alive. When the Epic begins, the author points out that he is “two thirds divine, one third mortal,” for his mother was the goddess Ninsun, while his father was the human mortal Lugalbanda. In the Epic, Enkidu is the hairy wild man who is made by the gods out of clay — exactly as they made the first human beings — and placed out in the countryside, where he frolics with the wild herds of gazelle. His story recapitulates the evolution of humanity from a state of Nature to a state of Culture. His mode, therefore, is that of temporality, of the flow and evolution of beings caught in the meshwork of Time.
The two heroes, furthermore, were equated with the Babylonian constellation of the Gemini, known as the Great Twins, whose names were Lugalirra and Meslamtaea. A Late Babylonian cultic text says: “Lugalirra is Sin, the first born son of Enlil. Meslamtaea is Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh is Nergal, who dwells in the Netherworld.” (George, 130) Now, Sin was the Babylonian god of the moon, and Enkidu, as we have seen, was identified with the temporal rhythms of birth, cultural evolution and death. Of the two, he is the lunar power; Gilgamesh was directly descended from the sun, the immortal power.
Thus, Enkidu is the mortal, animal aspect of our nature; Gilgamesh, the immortal. The logic of the narrative then, in which Enkidu dies, demands that Gilgamesh eventually go on to attain immortality, as we know that he does, since he eventually becomes the Lord of the Dead. The semiotics of the narrative tell us, then, that this is not a story in which Gilgamesh’s failure becomes illustrative of the fate of all mortal men to die, for Gilgamesh, in fact, is the first human being to break the barrier separating men from the realm of the gods. Prior to his advent, Mesopotamian cosmology had kept a clear and careful separation between the realm of the gods — located in the heavens above — and the realm of human beings doomed to die upon the earth below.
It is worth pausing a moment here to review some of the details of Mesopotamian cosmology: the earth, Ki, was separated in primal times from the god of the heavens, An. The earth was visualized as a flat disc surrounded by a ring of ocean, and composed of three levels: the ground itself; the Abzu located directly beneath the ground and thought to be the source of all of its freshwaters; and beneath that, the Netherworld — known variously as ershetu, Irkalla, Arallu, kur, Ganzir, etc. The Netherworld could be accessed by means of a staircase located in the West leading down to the realm ruled over by the goddess Ereshkigal, the mistress of the Great Below and sister of Inanna, the goddess of the planet Venus and mistress of the Great Above. The heavens, too, were regarded as having three levels: the uppermost was known as the Heaven of Anu, the god of the pole star; the next one down was the Middle Heavens, associated with a group of gods known as the Igigi; and finally, the lower heavens, made out of jasper and upon which were inscribed the various constellations. (Wayne Horowitz, 12-14)
The planets were referred to as bibbu, meaning ‘wild sheep,’ and they were thought to emerge from out of the constellation of the Sheepfold, located on the eastern horizon. It had three gateways corresponding to the Three Paths described in the Mul-Apin tablets and known as the Ways of Anu (i.e. the celestial equator); Enlil (the northern celestial hemisphere); and Ea (the southern celestial hemisphere). The planets were all identified with gods: Enlil and Ea with Jupiter and Mercury, respectively; Nergal, another god of the dead and husband of Ereshkigal, with Mars; Enlil’s father Ninurta with Saturn; and Sin with the moon and Utu with the Sun (Babylonian Shamash). All were immortal beings.
The heavens, in this cosmology — and as they would remain until the days of Isaac Newton — were identified with Eternity, the realm of eternal cycles of inevitable — and astrologically predictable — returns. The earthly realm was the realm of temporality, of corruption and generation, of ebb and flow, birth and death. The two realms were forever separated: humans were mortal, gods were immortal.
Until Gilgamesh, that is, broke the barrier between them. And he did this by traveling along the path of the sun god Shamash, i.e. the ecliptic, the road along which the planets travel through the zodiac. Gilgamesh was the first mortal privileged to take “the path of the Sun God,” as the text says.
The story of the Gilgamesh Epic, then, as created by the still unknown author of the Old Babylonian Epic, was a tale of the journey of a warrior hero through the twelve signs of the zodiac, a realm forbidden human beings ever to enter.
The Journey to the Cedar Forest
The earliest version of the epic dates, as we have said, from about the 18th century BC, but earlier stories about Gilgamesh, written in Sumerian, are much older. These stories are episodic, however, and were never linked together to tell a single coherent narrative. Most of them appear to date from the Third Dynasty of Ur (2112 – 2004 BC), a dynasty whose rulers had a particular liking for Gilgamesh, and who seem to have regarded him as their patron deity. The five or six extant Sumerian tales of Gilgamesh ultimately date back to this period, and include “Bilgames and the Netherworld,” “Bilgames and the Bull of Heaven,” “Bilgames and the King of Akka,” “Bilgames and the Cedar Forest,” and “The Death of Bilgames.”
But it was the mysterious Babylonian author of the 18th century BC who first put these stories together to create what scholars call the Old Babylonian Version of the Epic, which survives, however, only in fragments, and is mostly incomplete. The version of the Epic upon which we have come to rely, therefore, and which is much more complete, is known as the Standard Babylonian Version, which differs only in its details from the Old Babylonian Version. The structure of the story is recognizably the same in both versions. The SBV was edited by one Sin-leqi-unnini (a man who happened to be a professional exorcist) and dates from somewhere around 1200 – 1000 BC.
The genius, however, of the Old Babylonian author of the epic was his idea that the Sumerian episodes could be unified by casting them in the form of a complete journey through the twelve signs of the zodiac. We have already seen that Gilgamesh and Enkidu themselves represent the Babylonian constellation of the Great Twins, or Gemini.
When Gilgamesh and Enkidu first meet, they fight each other in a doorway — the Babylonian Gemini were guardians of the entrance to the Netherworld that is located between Taurus and Gemini at the point where the Milky Way crosses the ecliptic. Neither is able to get the upper hand, so they agree to become friends. And the first thing they do is plan an adventure that will immortalize their names: they will become the first heroes to journey to the legendary Cedar Forest of Lebanon, where they will kill its guardian and cut down the great central cedar tree whose branches reach up to the heavens.
In the original Sumerian prototype of this episode, known as “Bilgames and Huwawa,” the reason given for this expedition is that Bilgames is troubled by death and he wants to make a name for himself so that something will be left behind him when he is gone. As he tells the sun god Utu: “I raised my head on the rampart / my gaze fell on a corpse drifting down the river, afloat on the water: / I too shall become like that, just so shall I be!” Then he resolves, “Since no man can escape life’s end, / I will enter the mountain and set up my name.” (George, 151)
Of course, the problem of death becomes, in the Old Babylonian version, the motivation that sets Gilgamesh off on his quest to find Uta-napishti, the Flood survivor. But what the Sumerian text reveals to us is that the essence of the myth has been motivated all along by an attempt to find a solution to the problem represented by death. Gilgamesh is the man troubled by death par excellence, just as the Buddha will later be.
When, in the Epic, he and Enkidu set forth on their journey north along the west bank of the Euphrates, they travel to the Cedar Mountain, which is identified with Lebanon. There, they find the guardian of the forest, a monstrous ogre named Humbaba, and do battle with him. When they kill him, an interesting thing happens: the Cedar Mountain splits in two, as an earthquake rips it in half to become two mountains, the Lebanon and the Anti-Lebanon, down the middle of which stretches the Beqaa Valley. Thus, Gilgamesh and Enkidu are portrayed in the epic as essentially creating what will later become the Biblical landscape of Palestine.
After disposing of Humbaba, they proceed to cut down the great cedar tree, which crashes to the ground. Then they begin a logging campaign, in which Enkidu ties up bundles of cedar logs like sheaves of barley, and straps them to rafts to be sent back down the Euphrates to Uruk. This image casts Enkidu in the role of the constellation which the Mesopotamians called the Hired Man, identified with our Aries. The Hired Man was hired in the springtime to help bring in the wheat harvest in bundles of sheaves, but the author, in the spirit of a Paul Bunyanesque exaggeration, magnifies the sheaves as bundles of cedar logs, for Gilgamesh and Enkidu are, of course, to be thought of as larger than life heroes.
(This constellation is visible on the Mesopotamian star map above as a ram. Interestingly, we notice that just to the left of the Ram is a constellation known as The Old Man, which corresponds to Perseus, and we note that he is carrying a severed head. This head corresponds to that of Medusa in the Greek myth, but in the Gilgamesh Epic, it seems to be a reference to the fact that Gilgamesh severs the head of Humbaba so that he can take it with him to the throne of Enlil at the city of Nippur. Humbaba, too, has the Medusa-like ability to freeze his victims in place, as he does to both Gilgamesh and Enkidu during their battle. Thus, this puts Humbaba in the role of an ancestral ghost of the underworld who must be ritually purged and sent back to the underworld during the rites of spring. This corresponds to the ancient springtime festival of the Greeks known as the Anthesteria, when the spirits of the dead would run loose and would have to be chased back to the underworld as the New Year began).
The Bull of Heaven
Once they have returned to Uruk, Gilgamesh, one fine warm spring afternoon, happens to be cleaning himself and his weapons in the river when he is approached by the goddess Ishtar, who is attracted to his rough-hewn masculinity and the fame which his deed has brought him. “Come,” she says, “be you my bridegroom! / Grant me your fruits, O grant me! / Be you my husband and I your wife!” (George, 48)
But Gilgamesh wants nothing to do with her. He replies, scathingly: “[Who is there] would take you in marriage?” (ibid., 49) Then he proceeds to recount a litany of her lovers, all of whom have met misfortunate ends as the result of erotic entanglements with her. The woman that he rejects here is most likely not Ishtar herself, but the main priestess of her cult, which happened to be the central religion of Uruk. It was, moreover, famously decadent as a religion of whores, transvestites, sexual inverts, eunuchs and other such colorful figures who would have been repugnant to an old-fashioned warrior like Gilgamesh. Servitude to the Great Mother, whose later incarnation in the religion of Cybele, famously demanded the sacrifice of its priest’s genitals in an act of sacred castration, is of no interest to Gilgamesh, and so Ishtar withdraws to heaven to consult with her father, the sky god An. She demands that he turn over to her the yoke of the Bull of Heaven — a figure which few scholars have trouble recognizing as the sign of Taurus — which he does, and she unleashes it upon the hapless city of Uruk, where it drinks up all the water in the canals, eats up the date palms and crashes into its walls.
Gilgamesh and Enkidu, however, in the performance of the world’s first bull ring, make short work of the bull, killing it and carving it up into pieces that are distributed to the city’s poor, while Ishtar receives only one of its haunches. Gilgamesh saves the horns for himself and hangs them in his bedroom as a cult offering to his father Lugalbanda.
Thus, the episode of Taurus.
The Death and Burial of Enkidu
In the next episode, which is recounted on Tablet VII of the Standard Version of the epic, the gods hold counsel and decide that for their crimes — i.e. the slaying of the Bull of Heaven and Humbaba — one of the two warriors must die, and of course, this turns out to be Enkidu. The episode itself thus corresponds to the sign of Gemini, in which, as in Greek mythology, Castor is mortal while Pollux is immortal, for one of the two is fated to die. Enkidu does not die a hero’s death, but a slow, horrible wasting disease that confines him to his bed, while he recounts terrifying dreams in a delirium to Gilgamesh.
Enkidu then dies, and Tablet VIII recounts his elaborate funeral. The author of the epic has here borrowed imagery from Bilgames’s funeral in the Sumerian poem of “The Death of Bilgames,” which has now been transferred to Enkidu, for the role which Gilgamesh had refused to play — that, namely, of the dying and reviving spouse of Ishtar, i.e. Tammuz (Sumerian Dumuzi) — now redounds to his companion Enkidu, who must play the role in his stead. Indeed, all of nature is depicted as mourning for Enkidu in exactly the manner in which, during the month of Tammuz — the fourth month of the Babylonian calendar (June – July) — festival mourning rites for the dead god Dumuzi had been instituted in Mesopotamia since the founding days of civilization. Summer is the death season in Mesopotamia rather than winter, since the heat is unbearable and kills off all the vegetation. The rivers are at their lowest ebb — this had been personified by the Bull of Heaven drinking up all the water — and Dumuzi is mourned for having gone to the underworld in order to replace his bride Inanna. According to the Sumerian myth, the condition for her resurrection from the dead had been that she be replaced by someone else. Since Dumuzi had failed to display proper mourning rites for her death, gallu demons were sent to fetch him and carry him to the Netherworld so that Inanna could return to the Great Above. (Dumuzi was the constellation of Orion, known as The True Shepherd).
The month of Tammuz is the month of the astrological sign of Cancer, which the Babylonians termed “Nangar,” the Carpenter, on the basis of an apparent analogy between the serrated claws of the crab and the saw of a carpenter. Enkidu, as a matter of fact, had been a very handy carpenter, indeed, for immediately after the two had slain Humbaba, he had proceeded to construct a special door for the Enlil temple at Nippur.
Now, at this point along the ecliptic there appears what is known as the northern entrance to the Underworld, for the Milky Way intersects the ecliptic like a giant arch across the sky, at two points: between Taurus and Gemini, and between Scorpio and Sagittarius. Enkidu’s death appears to represent the entry into the underworld via this northern entrance, just as Gilgamesh will later enter through the southern entrance between Scorpio and Sagittarius.
Exodus and Wandering
In the next episode, Gilgamesh, severely depressed by his friend’s sad fate, and terrified by the thought of his own mortality which it portends, decides to undertake a sort of mini-Exodus from the city of Uruk and to travel off into the wilderness in quest of the one man in existence who might actually know something about immortality: this is the Flood hero, Uta-napishti who, as tradition ascribes, had been placed by the gods in the land of Dilmun, located, according to the epic, “at the mouth of the rivers.” Since the Tigris and the Euphrates dump out into the Persian Gulf, this must refer to the tradition which identifies Dilmun with the island of Bahrein (in the earlier tradition of the story of Ziusudra, Dilmun lay somewhere to the east, probably on an island located out beyond the world-encircling ocean). But in the Standard Version of the epic, the implication is clearly to the tradition which identifies Dilmun with Bahrein, and so that is where, on the literal geographical plane of the story, Gilgamesh now heads.
Gilgamesh, at this point, is in the traditional role of the World Savior who, aware of the problem of death and human suffering, now decides to set out in order to find the cure, just as the Buddha, after his vision of the sick man, the old man and the corpse, decides then to leave the city of Kapilavasatu behind and journey out into the wilderness in order to find the cure for death and suffering on his own. He ends up founding a world religion; Gilgamesh, however, is not sophisticated enough to know that that is what the situation requires. He knows only that his mind is fraught with suffering and so he seeks a legendary sage whom he thinks might be able to help find a way to attain immortality in a literal way.
His dissatisfaction with the official state religion of Uruk has led him to conclude that he must find another way, out beyond the protective macrosphere of the confining walls of the city of Uruk which he himself had built. He must go on a vision quest in which he will come into contact with cosmic powers directly, unmediated by any priesthood and located beyond the protective walls of the boundary of civilization. This is the first occurrence in the history of religion of the kind of stirrings that will later lead to the founding of the religions of self-salvation inaugurated in India by the sage Yajnavalkya, who, about the ninth century BC, will reject the official state religion of the Brahmins and institute the practice of yoga instead; or, in Palestine, of the kind of discontent that will lead Jesus out into the surrounding deserts of Judaea, where he will come under the influence of another great sage, John the Baptist, a former Essene, who will introduce him to the mysteries of the messianic tradition; or in China, it is the same disaffection for the official state religion of Confucianism that will lead Lao-tzu to head off into the wilderness and found Taoism.
Gilgamesh is the prototype for all of these religious movements, although he is lacking in the kinds of mental subtleties that would have enabled him to found an Axial religion on his own. He is a warrior, and he sets off with a warrior’s thymos, or directed rage, which he first vents on a pair of lions who have been stalking him along the river. This, of course, corresponds to the sign of Leo: Gilgamesh cuts off the skin of the lion and wraps it around himself, thus reverting to the level of a Paleolithic hunter. But the lion is also a solar symbol, and on the story’s astronomical plane, he is traveling along the path of the sun god Shamash, that is to say, the ecliptic.
Now, the text is fragmentary at this point and a cluster of lines is missing, lines that would likely have supplied us with our analogue for Virgo. We don’t know what the episode would have been, although it is known that Ishtar was, in some traditions associated with this sign. The lions with which she is associated as her primary vahana, for instance, may refer to her in the role of Virgo beside Leo. Furthermore, the month that follows Abu — the fifth month of the Babylonian calendar, and the one sacred to Gilgamesh and corresponding to Leo — was known as Ululu, which was the month sacred to Ishtar.
At any rate, Gilgamesh now approaches the Mashu mountains, a pair of mountains between which the sun rises daily (and which resembles the Egyptian hieroglyph akhet, which shows a pair of mounds from between which the sun rises and which served as the model for the pylons of their temples at Thebes).
This is the southern entrance to the underworld that occurs between Scorpio and Sagittarius. Thus, just as Enkidu’s shade descended into the underworld via the northern entrance, so Gilgamesh goes, while still alive, through the southern entrance, that is to say, to the realm of the southern constellations associated with the latter half of the year.
Now, the two Scorpion people, a man and a woman, that are guarding the gate here actually represent only the claws of Scorpio, a very large constellation which was later separated by the Greeks into the scales of Libra and the Scorpion figure. So the Scorpion people actually correspond only to the sign of Libra. They recognize the divine nature of Gilgamesh, so they let him pass.
He then journeys down through a tunnel to an underworld full of gardens of jewels and precious gems. He travels through the twelve hours of the night — which no student of Egyptian mythology will have trouble recognizing here as corresponding to the Amduat — which is a miniature version of the sun’s annual journey through the twelve signs of the year.
Then, after traveling for a time — on the story’s literal plane, he is making his way south down the bank of the Euphrates, past gardens of date palms and women carrying clay pots on their heads and tiny brown villages with flat roofs, where he is coming now to the soggy realm of the marsh dwellers who live to this day in this same area — and soon the mudbrick tavern of the innkeeper known as Siduri comes into view.
Now it was Hertha von Dechend who, in her book Hamlet’s Mill, identified Siduri as the constellation of the Scorpion goddess known as Isshara (pronounced “Ish-khara”)(von Dechend, 295). Her tavern located at the edge of the entrance to the underworld is found scattered universally throughout mythology: in Egypt, she is Selket, the scorpion goddess; in Nicaragua, she is the many-breasted scorpion goddess who provides nourishment to the souls of the newborn dead, just as Siduri the barmaid provides them with such decoctions as pulque, soma, peyote, psilocybin, ginseng, etc. In Catholic mythography, she is Saint Gertrude, who provides the souls on their first night of death with room and board.
I would also add to von Dechend’s analysis one further clue, which is that the Akkadian name for barmaid which is used to refer to Siduri is sabitu, an apparent homophone for sebittu, or the Seven Great Ones of whom it was said that Isshara was their mother, for they were the Pleiades located directly across the sky from her above the bull’s back.
When Siduri sees Gilgamesh coming, she is terrified and draws the bolt across her door and hides up on the roof, where she watches him approach. She says to herself, “For sure this man is a slayer of wild bulls: / whence did he make straight for my gate?” (George, 679) The constellation known as Pabilsag was the Babylonian name for Sagittarius, which was also pictured as a centaur and was known as a dangerous huntsman. Indeed, there is an interesting Sumerian tale known as “Pabilsag’s Journey to Nibru,” in which Pabilsag is there referred to as a “wild bull.” As he travels by himself along the road, moreover, he soon encounters a house in which a lonely maid named Ninisina accosts him and begs him to marry her.
“And as the warrior Pabilsag set off in Enlil’s direction, as he set off, now he turned in front of that house in Isin. And then my lady in Isin came out…at the spacious house, the house of Isin, she…her hair, then she…the hair in curls…(Her) face…She addressed Pabilsag joyfully: ‘Good-looking…the house of Isin! Warrior Pabilsag…born to Nintud. You who are traveling from Larag to…that house in Isin, say to your father, ‘May she be my spouse!’ Say further to Enlil…’with me.’ Fix your sights on it, fix your sights on it, and may you be its lord.’ The house of Isin…May you, Pabilsag, be its lord, and may I be its lady!” (Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature)
Now it would appear that this scene formed the author’s model for the encounter of the wandering Gilgamesh with the lone barmaid Siduri at the edge of the ocean, for it is structurally the same, with the exception that its erotic semiotics are reversed, for Siduri is here clearly terrified by Gilgamesh’s rough appearance. This episode, then, casts Gilgamesh himself in the role of Pabilsag, the centaur of Sagittarius.
Gilgamesh at this point looks like something out of a Mad Max movie, but his confession to her of his life story eases her apprehension somewhat. After finishing, he says brusquely, “Now, ale-wife, what is the road to Uta-napishti? / What is its landmark? Give it to me! / Do give me its landmark! / If it may done, I will cross the ocean! / if it may not be done, I will roam the wild!” (George, 683)
She tells him that crossing the world ocean has never been done by anyone before, that it is a feat normally exclusive to the sun god Shamash. But she admits that there might be a way: he should go to find Urshanabi, Uta-napishti’s boatman, who happens to be in a nearby forest cutting down trees with his stone men. Possibly, he will agree to take Gilgamesh across the Waters of Death (i.e. the Milky Way).
At once, Gilgamesh sets off in a rage:
When he heard this,
he took up (his) axe in his hand,
he drew forth the dirk [from] his [belt,]
he crept up and rushed down on [them.]
Like an arrow he fell among them,
(his) shout booming through the midst of the forest. (George, 685)
Urshanabi, startled, rushes at him to defend himself with an axe, but Gilgamesh knocks him aside and then proceeds to smash the Stone Ones who are already attempting to make off with the boat. Urshanabi, beaten, listens as Gilagmesh tells him his story, the same story he had recounted to Siduri. Urshanabi then calmly explains to him that he has just destroyed the Stone Ones who had provided his boat with its primary means of crossing the Waters of Death and that if Gilgamesh wants to get across he has to go into the forest and cut down 300 punting poles, each one of which can only be dipped into the water once before it is useless and must be discarded. Urshanabi and Gilgamesh together make the crossing, and when they run out of punting poles, Gilgamesh takes Urshanabi’s shirt and rips it in two to make the world’s first sail out of it.
Urshanabi appears to represent the Babylonian constellation known as the Cargo Boat (visible on the Star Map above), which occurs on the ecliptic at about this point. He is Uta-napishti’s official boatman and servant, and corresponds to the archetypal ferryman of the dead who runs souls up and down the Milky Way (in Greek myth, the River Styx; in Babylonian, the river Hubur).
On the story’s literal plane, Urshanabi is taking him down the Persian Gulf to the island of Bahrein.
The island of Bahrein seems to have been a special place in Mesopotamian cartography. It was the one place in the Persian Gulf at which there were to be found a number of freshwater springs both on and around the island, some of them beneath the surrounding salt waters. There was also some sort of baptismal cult practiced there, for a number of what appear to be sacred wells dedicated to the god Inzak, the son of Enki, have been found all over the island. And it also seems to have been a desirable place to be buried, for thousands of tombs, of all different kinds, have been found in great numbers across the island. Indeed, it may have been thought that being buried on Dilmun was desirable precisely because of its proximity to the life-revivifying waters of the Abzu, the underground source of all the world’s freshwaters, just as in Medieval Christian cartography, it was thought that the four rivers of Eden fell from the top of Mount Purgatory at the bottom of the earth and became thereby the source of all the world’s waters. If Mount Purgatory had been a real place, people would have wanted to be buried there, too.
In any event, it seems an appropriate place for the gods to have stationed Uta-napishti, the survivor of the Great Flood, as perhaps the ministering priest of its baptismal cult. Uta-napishti is referred to in the texts as ‘the Living One,’ and so it is no surprise when we learn that the constellation of Aquarius, the water bearer, was known as ‘the Great One,’ for Uta-napishti seems to have been its iconic equivalent.
He is unnerved to see Gilgamesh approaching together with Urshanabi, but upon arrival Gilgamesh recounts his tale, the same autobiography he had unfolded to both Siduri and Urshanabi. Gilgamesh then asks him, “How was it you attended the gods’ assembly, and found life?” (George, 703)
We can imagine Gilgamesh and Uta-napishti seated on the floor inside the cool interior of one of the island’s barasti huts, fashioned of woven palm fronds with a floor made out of crushed seashells as the Living One then proceeds to recount to Gilgamesh the story of how he survived the Great Flood. “I will disclose to you, Gilgamesh, a secret matter,” he says, “and I will tell you a mystery of the gods.” (George, 703) Uta-napishti then explains to him how the god Ea (whose name was also Enki) warned him of the coming flood that the gods were about to unleash by whispering to him through the wall of his reed hut at the city of Shuruppak. Now it so happens that one of Ea’s attributes was the goat-fish, and as a matter of fact, he later became the constellation of Capricorn.
Presently, he instructs Uta-napishti to build an ark in the shape of a cube, “her breadth and length should be the same,” he says, which is, of course, a non-sensical design for a boat until we realize that the ark isn’t meant to be a boat at all, but rather a reference to the constellation of the Pegasus Square, located between the two Pisces fish, and which was referred to as ‘1 Iku,’ the ideal measurement for a field. The city of Babylon itself was laid out in this rectangular fashion, with the Tigris and Euphrates rivers thought to correspond to the two cords of the Pisces fishes. The illustration below shows the square located in between the two fishes:
The flood is unleashed and Uta-napishti, together with his family, survives it. The ark is washed ashore atop Mount Nimush, and Uta-napishti then lets a dove fly forth to look for new land. When the dove returns, he sends out a swallow (see image above), and when it returns, he sends forth a raven. Now in Babylonian astronomy, one of the two Pisces fishes actually was not a fish at all, but a swallow. And the other fish was sometimes depicted as a mermaid goddess named Annunitum, who appears in the story in her guise as the birth goddess Belet-ili, who mourns the gods’ destruction of the human race and then commemorates it with a necklace made out of lapis lazuli flies, a necklace that may serve as the prototype for the Biblical rainbow which God provides as a sign that he will never again wipe out the human race. On the Babylonian ecliptic, by the way, it is interesting to note that there is also a nearby constellation known as the Rainbow.
The gods then decide to make Uta-napishti and his wife immortal and to place them “at the mouth of the rivers.” The Living One, pausing at the conclusion of his tale, then asks Gilgamesh how he thinks he would ever get the gods to convene in assembly over him — which is, of course, exactly what they will do at his death — and imposes upon Gilgamesh the shamanic task of trying to remain awake for seven nights in a row. Gilgamesh is a warrior, not a shaman, and so he is unable to accomplish this feat and Uta-napishti is about to dismiss him as unworthy of his time, when his wife prevails upon him to make sure that Gilgamesh is not sent back empty-handed. So he tells the warrior where to find a plant of eternal youth and Gilgamesh goes diving for it somewhere off the coast of the island. He ties a rope to his foot, dives down, finds the plant and brings it back up to the boat. While he is otherwise occupied, however, a snake comes along and eats it.
My suspicion, however, is that the plant is actually not a plant at all: Wayne Horowitz, in his Mesopotamian Cosmic Geography, suggests that it might actually be a coral reef; (Horowitz, 105) however, I suspect that it may have been a pearl. The way in which Gilgamesh dives for the plant is exactly the way that pearl divers off the shores of Bahrein dive for pearls to this day, tying a rope to one foot. Not only that, but Geoffrey Bibby, in his book Looking For Dilmun, reveals to the reader that during his digs on the island, he found ancient clay pots with snake skeletons curled up inside them, into the mouth of which had been placed a single pearl. One of the pearl’s mythological attributes is to confer eternal rejuvenation upon its owner, just as the snake sheds its skin perenially.
If it is a pearl, then the image of Gilgamesh diving down to retrieve it and bring it up into the daylight is a direct visionary analogue for the main image of the Axial religions and their technology of self-salvation: in yoga, one “dives” down into one’s consciousness to find the pearl of the jiva or the purusha as it is variously called, which is the indestructible — and immortal — core of one’s very own being. It is the jiva which transmigrates from one lifetime to the next, putting on and taking off bodies like sets of clothing. Karma infects it like dirt, and must be cleansed through purifications of various sorts that will allow the jiva to shine through once again with perfect clarity.
So, in a way, Uta-napishti has given Gilgamesh a mythic analogue for the task of finding and bringing up into consciousness his own true immortal Self. But Gilgamesh is not quite bright enough to understand the point, and so it eludes him, just like the snake, and he returns with Urshanabi to the city of Uruk, his quest an apparent failure.
But Uta-napishti must have had other conversations with Gilgamesh which have gone unrecorded, for as the Prologue of the epic that was specifically appended to it by the scribe Sin-leqi-uninni states, Gilgamesh “restored the cult centers that the Deluge destroyed, / and established the proper rites for the human race.” (George, 541) He did not, then, simply return to Uruk empty-handed, but rather with specific instructions for demolishing and then reforming the city’s decadent cults in accordance with ancient practices revealed to him by Uta-napishti, the only man in existence who would have knowledge of how they were originally performed in the days before the Flood came and wiped them out. The text doesn’t give us any details as to the nature of these reforms, but given that we have seen Gilgamesh’s disgust with what he must obviously have regarded as the corrupt and decadent practices of the city’s official religion, it is apparent that upon his return, he instituted some sort of sweeping reform of its temples, perhaps chasing out Ishtar’s retinue of debaucheries.
Thus, reading between the lines of the text, it becomes evident that Gilgamesh instituted some type of Truth Event analogous to the one performed by the pharaoh Akhenaten, who would later see himself as the great conservator of Egyptian culture forms, whose primary task it was to restore the ancient cults of Re-Harakhty that had been forgotten and covered over by the decadent Amun priesthood.
Gilgamesh did not then return to Uruk empty-handed at all, but with new cultic knowledge of special rites gained during his conversations with the ancient sage Uta-napishti. He completely reformed the temples using this new knowledge as a basis, a knowledge perhaps informed with astronomical details gained by his initiatory journey through the circle of the zodiac, just as Roman soldiers would later be initiated into the mysteries of the zodiac in the religion of Mithraism.
And so his quest, contrary to popular opinion, was no failure: for as the Sumerian poem of “The Death of Bilgames” tells us, the gods did indeed, at the end of his life, convene in that very assembly which Uta-napishti was so sceptical of them ever doing for another human mortal again, where they gathered in the Great Below to award him, for all his labors, the status of judge of the dead in the Babylonian Netherworld.
Thus, the Gilgamesh Epic tells us, in careful detail, the exact process by way of which a human being was transformed into a god in ancient Babylonia.