“Can’t stop,” said I, dashing through the corridor. “I’ve got to paint celery…”
“Can you help me with my skin?”
“Sure. I’ll just grab the pins…”
There were a number of puzzled looks, as if to say, ‘she’s finally lost it…’. It had been a hectic weekend… but edibly-gilded celery and a Lycra-clad snake were both required for the final ritual drama, and we’d had a whale of a time coming up with a suitable costume for the skin-shedding serpent that would finally unravel Gilgamesh…
Following the directions of Shiduri, Gilgamesh seeks out Urshanabi, the boatman of Utnapishtim, who is in the forest, trimming cedar boughs. But, she tells him, Gilgamesh must be wary, for Urshanabi is with the Stone Men.
As he enters a clearing in the forest, Gilgamesh hears a voice,
“We are the Stone Men!” The King raises his sword and charges, but before the blow can fall, another speaks. “We are the cold men!” Changing direction, Gilgamesh rushes at the second speaker, but before his raised sword can fall, “How will you cross the Waters of Death with us in your boat?” Another voice turns him from the kill.
“We are easy to destroy. One strike will smash us into smithereens!” And again his blow is halted. “Like you destroyed the Bull of Heaven.” In rage, Gilgamesh tries to strike, but another speaks… “Like you destroyed the Cedar Forest.” Gilgamesh snarls… then the voices in unison stop him in his tracks.
“Would you destroy the ground you walk upon?” And now, at last, he begins to understand what he has done. Reeling with the realisation, he hears yet another voice, that of Urshanabi, the ferryman.
“You cannot cross the Waters of Death with war in your heart…” Urshanabi holds out his hands for the sword of the King. He tells Gilgamesh that the Waters of Death are not what he believes them to be. They are the Underworld that Shamash, the Sun, traverses every night before his daily rebirth; would Gilgamesh take that path also? Then the King must outrun the Sun that halts for no man.
For nine hours of utter darkness, Gilgamesh ran. With no light to guide him, he passed through the Underworld, the Sun hot on his heels. But when exhausted, he again came into the light, he found himself in the garden of the gods where jewels grow as flowers on the trees and the fruits are of lapis lazuli.
Gilgamesh walked amazed through this paradise until he came face to face with the immortal, Utnapishtim. And, in spite of all, his first thought is for his weapon.
“I was going to fight you, but I gave away my sword…”
Utnapishtim considers Gilgamesh, commenting upon his haggard looks. The King says that he has neither eaten nor slept during his quest. That he has mourned his friend for six days and seven nights ‘until a maggot fell out of his nose’. Utnapishtim asks him what he has achieved by all this, apart from bring himself a day closer to death, and asks if he has ever stopped to compare himself to a fool to whom only the dregs and crusts are given?
Gilgamesh wants only to know the secret of immortality, but Utnapishtim tells how the gods gathered at the end of all things, after the Flood when he had built the great ship called Preserver of Life, to grant eternal life to himself and his wife, Shiduri.
Why should the gods gather for Gilgamesh? How would they know he deserved that grace?
Gilgamesh says he will do anything. Utnapishtim tells him that he must stay awake for seven days and nights…for if he can prevail against sleep, he may also prevail against death. Gilgamesh agrees, but Utnapishtim tells Shiduri that he will try to deceive them when he fails.
The eternal couple watch from afar and, whenever Gilgamesh sleeps, Shiduri bakes a loaf of bread and places it before the King. After seven nights, Gilgamesh lies, trying to convince Utnapishtim that he had not slept. The couple show him the seven loaves, from the freshest to the stalest, and Gilgamesh falls into despair. He sees only Death around him.
Utnapishtim tells him he must leave the garden of the gods, never to return. He orders fine raiment to be brought, as befits a king, to clothe him before he leaves. But Shiduri takes pity on Gilgamesh and entreats her husband to tell him of the Herb of Immortality… a thorny plant that grows in the waters of the Great Deep that will grant its bearer eternal youth.
Tying two stones to his feet, Gilgamesh plunges into the Great Deep to find the Herb and emerges triumphant. But there is no thought of service to his people in his mind. He will, he says, take it back to Wall-Girt Uruk and there he will test its powers on an old man. If it works, he himself will eat the rest and be eternally young!
The road back to the city is long and exhausting, but Gilgamesh walks with a spring in his step, grasping the Herb. Outside the city walls, he stops by a spring to wash and sleep awhile before his triumphal return, still grasping the golden Herb securely in his hand.
But, while he sleeps, a serpent silently slithers from beyond the Veil and, taking the herb from the sleeping King’s hand, eats it… shedding its skin before disappearing once more beyond the Veil.
When Gilgamesh wakes and sees his empty hand, all he can do is weep.
Now at last he sees his own folly. Now, at last, he understands and accepts both the responsibility and the consequences of his actions. Now, when all his plans are dashed, and he stands empty-handed before the walls of his city, he begins to understand the twin mysteries of death and life… and he passes through the Veil with heart and mind open.
And now the Fates speak, telling once more of the glories of Wall-Girt Uruk where, for the first time, ‘in their bedchambers at night, the young folk sleep soundly.’
Gilgamesh stands at the portal. Beside him stands Enkidu, his Other Self. Here, there is no death. Together they answer the call, and side by side, kneel before Shamhat, the High Priestess who is the vessel of the Goddess. She binds their hands with threads of red and gold, placing in their joined hands the Voice of Destiny, that the twin halves may speak with one voice. With fragrant oils, upon each brow, she traces twin symbols in blessing. One third man, one third beast, one third divine… no longer fragmented but whole.
Gilgamesh tells of his journey, but Enkidu says it was no failure… that the gods have granted them a glimpse of the immortality all carry. As Enkidu speaks, a circle of hands surrounds them with a gesture that says, ‘fear not’.
From each wrist hangs a bracelet of wood, red as cedar, bearing the symbol of the Tree of Life… the Herb of Immortality… that all have carried with them from the beginning, and that all will carry with them when they depart.
The Key to the Temple.
As all depart for the final time, they pass beneath the Rainbow, held aloft by Anu and Aruru, the Sky-Father and the Earth Mother.
“When the waters receded, and dry land appeared, I set free the animals to roam.
That day I burned reeds and cedar and myrtle branches.
Smelling their fragrance, the gods gathered round.
Aruru came first, relieved that people had survived the destruction.
She held aloft her necklace-of-many-colours,
which had been Anu’s gift to her when their love was young.”