Gilgamesh—The Hero’s Journey
If only the mythic journey could be reduced to a paragraph or three, eh?
Joseph Campbell, in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, states that “the greatest tale of the elixir quest . . . is that of Gilgamesh” (185). As part of the heroes journey, the elixir quest is the search for immortality that is almost always assumed to be a physical immortality and, with Gilgamesh, is evidenced in the repetitive mantra of being “afraid of death [due to] the end of mortality [that had] overtaken” Enkidu (32). It is a very subtle subtext in this translation, but Gilgamesh is after the plant that “by its virtue a man may win back all his former strength” (39). This is the same quest as Ponce de Leon when he discovered Florida in his search for the fountain of youth. And, of course, as we know, retired folks have been flocking to Florida ever since to regain their youth—or at least a decent tan. But this quest is always a mistaken quest for physical immortality when the actual meaning gained from the quest provides immortality right here in this present life (Campbell 189). Campbell quotes a Tantric aphorism, “To move toward destiny is like eternity. To know eternity is enlightenment. . . . Knowing eternity makes one comprehensive; comprehension makes one broadminded; breadth of vision brings nobility; nobility is like heaven [i.e., god-like]” (ibid; emphasis mine). The nobility of the soul—as provided through most worldviews, in one form or another, since the beginning of recorded history—is the path of immortality. As found throughout the story, this nobility of the soul is the initial starting point of Enkidu after his initiation by the harlot and the final ending point of Gilgamesh after his journey to Utnapishtim1.
In an important twist with the particular scene of Gilgamesh diving into the water for the plant of immortality, a serpent rises from the deep [i.e., the Abyss in the iconography of several different mystical cultures, St. John's (of the Cross) Dark Night of the Soul, Otto's Numinosum or 'mysterium tremendum,' Jung's Shadow archetype, etc] and snatches the plant from him (39). As the serpent in the garden of Eden ultimately snatches the immortality from Adam and Eve, so this serpent steals immortality from Gilgamesh. Almost every culture has an immortality myth or a story about a hero on an elixir quest. The very idea that humans can be as gods, having all wisdom, and defeating death is a motif that reaches all the way back into antiquity with the Epic of Gilgamesh, extends itself into the mythical journey into Hell by the Christian savior figure of Christ, and finds itself in stories as recent as the Lancelot-Grail Cycle that formed the basis of Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. However, it can also be seen that this plant has a direct semiotical connection to the Tree of Life of the Jewish myths (both mainstream and kabbalistic) as well as the symbolism of the tree or plant as the soul in Islamic Sufism. The quest for immortality—the tree of life, the fountain of youth, the plant of renewal, the Holy Grail, and any number of other mythic symbols—is the search for the soul of Man. This is exactly what Gilgamesh was seeking and, in the end, is all he found. As an aside, this same myth can be seen in a more contemporary interpretation played out in the 2006 movie The Fountain.
The journey of Gilgamesh only differs from other quest stories in specific details rather than the general theme. Success is a difficult aspect to measure here. If one means success through Gilgamesh finding his answer to immortality, again, this would depend on what answer one expected him to find. In Part 7 of the text, it begins with “the destiny was fulfilled which the father of the gods, Enlil of the mountain, had decreed for Gilgamesh” (40). His destiny was exactly as given to him. He lived his life as given to him. We see that he was upset about losing the plant of immortality as “tears ran down his face” (39). He believes that he has lost his only hope for immortality. At the end of the text in Part 7, we see the list of gods and goddess listed out that received offering at the death of Gilgamesh. His name, in the end, was his immortality. That his deeds would live on nearly 4,000 years later is testament to his immortality. When he reaches Uruk again after his journey, he finally understands this concept of the nobility of the soul as he tells Urshanabi to “climb up on to the wall of Uruk, inspect its foundation terrace, and examine well the brickwork; see if it is not of burnt bricks” (39). This is a near exact quote from the Prologue of this epic where it has been established that Gilgamesh has done all these things and they are not found equal anywhere else in the land. To steal a line from the 2005 movie Batman Begins: “It’s not who you are underneath, it’s what you do that defines you.”
One interesting note that goes back to the last section with The Civilizing of Enkidu is this listing of the offerings to the gods and goddess of the Sumerians. Part of the reason for my analysis of the bread and wine in the initiatory process of Enkidu by the harlot was liturgical nature of the items. Even here, at the end of Gilgamesh’s life, we see the importance of these items again in a sacramental offering to the gods. We find the specific weight of these items in the closing lines of the epic: “Gilgamesh, the son of Ninsun, lies in the tomb. At the place of offerings he weighed the bread-offering, at the place of libation he poured out the wine. In those days the lord Gilgamesh departed, the son of Ninsun, the king, peerless, without an equal among men, who did not neglect Enlil his master. O Gilgamesh, lord of Kullab, great is thy praise” (41).
Immortality indeed: would that we were all so fortunate with our own names.
Without putting too fine a point on it here for personal reasons, a book written several years ago dealt with the mythic journey on an individual level. “Contrary to our social conditioning” the author wrote, “a myth is not a lie, but a lesson to be learned in the form of something bigger than ourselves though the details may not be exact in relation to reality. Each of us has a certain amount of myth surrounding our own lives. It is inevitable. There are archetypes, values and ethics that are ingrained in our minds that play out in a drama all of their own on the stage of Life itself. And through these myths is the true nature of the individual made known.” Thomas Moore, writing in The Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life, draws on this idea of the mythological on an individual level giving an even more direct example: “One day you fall in love, and a person who yesterday was like anyone else has suddenly become translucent with grace and infused with otherworldly value” (ix). It is only by looking at one’s own life through a different kind of lens that one can see the mythic and the lesson it brings and the beauty (and sometimes struggle) that life really is. We are not so different from Gilgamesh or Enkidu or Shamhat after all.
The mythic journey is not an avoidable process even if it is not immediately recognizable in any specific context. It takes looking at life itself with a very different eye. Each person goes through this journey in some form. There is a beginning. There is a catalyst that sets one out on the journey. It could be going off to school. It could be the divorce of one’s parents. It could be a death in the family. But the journey begins in some way and inevitably finds a way into the darkness. It may not be as Gilgamesh’s mountain journey where “the length of it is twelve leagues of darkness; in it is no light, but the heart is oppressed with darkness” (31). But maybe it is. Anyone who has struggled with any severe addiction knows the darkness does, indeed, oppress the heart and there is no light for however many leagues one must travel to find redemption and freedom. Then there is the point where we think we have reached the answers or at least someone who can show us the way much like Gilgamesh thought of Utnapishtim. It is ironic that Utnapishtim’s epitaph was “the Faraway” (30). In the end, Gilgamesh traveled all that way and put up with all the trials only to find that the answers were not faraway but right there in Uruk—in his own home or soul—symbolized in the creation of his own hands. This exact quest can be seen in the previously referenced movie Batman Begins. In that particular version of the Batman story, Bruce Wayne travels all the way up the forbidding mountain to Rā’s al Ghūl only to discover later that his own soul, his own destiny, was back in Gotham City where the answers lie inside himself rather than in the faraway guru who he first supposed could give him answers. Much like Bruce Wayne, our own journey ultimately brings us back home to where the answers should have been found in the first place.
I’ve already gone on way too long here, so I will wrap it up with this: the metaphor of “life as a journey” is something that is missed or ignored on many levels because of a very basic misunderstanding. It is the journey for each of these heroes—and ultimately for each of us—that is the important part of it all. It is not the destination that defines us, but our journey and how we approach every trial. Some we win, some we lose, some we merely walk away from not knowing if we really did win or lose. But the important part is to learn something that propels us forward in an ever-constant growth. Ending with a last quote from Campbell that sums it all up quite nicely: “It has always been the prime function of mythology and rite to supply the symbols that carry the human spirit forward” (11).
[Edited from 28 Jan 2008 and reposted]
- As an aside, whole theologies—both Eastern and Western—have been based on these ideals which could provide great amounts of depth to such a study of Gilgamesh’s journey but might not be appropriate for such a brief review as this. I must apologize upfront for having opened a door and not fully walked through it here. Hopefully it will provide an avenue for independent study for those interested. [↩]