And now you will want an ending…
Like day gives way to night, though there is no single point where we could all agree that it was either…
Like the moment of sleep or awakening, though one drifts into the other and each knows little of its twin…
Like the point in the play where the character releases the player from his undertaking and becomes what the character has always been and was before the play started…
A pattern. Existence… we will speak of this, later.
Dare we speak of death and life, now?
But some patterns are not like others; when planted in receptive soil these patterns become a living thing. As an idea will take root, so will the seed of an oak.
As I am not simply a character, but a seed called The Story of Gilgamesh, I will call an ending to his time – the player; that he may reflect, and share good times but sad parting, and take away my pattern, as I hope will you.
Do I, the pattern of Gilgamesh within the Story of Gilgamesh remain a prisoner? I have never been so. My origins are unknown, lost in pre-history; but useful patterns, like wheels, have a habit of going and coming around. For thousands of revolutions of your planet around its sun, I remained in stone, waiting…
Only in your past hundred years has human kind shone a light into the outer soul and fully named the parts of the journey towards awakening. Yet here, in what you read, and in the hot desert of your – by now – tired consciousness, lies the story of that journey, whose stones were inscribed in cuneiform when the mighty Sun, Shamash, gazed out on a planet thousands of years younger.
Before we release him – the player – we must let him play out… most of… the story: the story that is his and yours.
His dusty and crumpled robe fits, doubly so as it mirrors his failure… so let him wear it one last time while I encourage him, using my words, to describe an ending…
Just this last act of the play to live through, now. I wear the descending king one last time. Carried on my back and in my brain like the threads of black and gold of the robe that was once glorious, and is now worn but washed, as is my lustrous hair that was matted. On my head is my finest crown and my sword which has no name – save to me – shines, polished and sharpened in its leather sheath.
Moments before I saw her, I was singing my made-up song:
“Who is the handsomest of men? Who is the bravest of heroes? Who slaughtered the Bull of Heaven? Who obliterated the Forest Demon…”
And then a giant crescent of paths coalesce into a single point and she is sitting there, brewing beer – Shiduri the tavern keeper and wife of Utnapishtim. As I stride towards her, she looks at my sword and rises, fearful. I state my business, honestly:
“I am the king of Uruk. I am going to find Utnapishtim and ask him about the Herb of Immortality.”
She looks into my eyes and asks me why there is so much grief in my heart. The question weighs heavy, but, as I was before my mother Ninsun, I am ready. I tell Shiduri about the loss of my beloved friend, Enkidu, and impress upon her my need to find immortality and not die in the dirt as he had…
She laughs and tells me that there are none who can cross the Waters of Death to Utnapishtim; that Shamash the sun is the only one brave enough.
I make myself tall and tell her about the death of Humbaba, the tree demon; I tell her about how Gilgamesh tore the Bull of Heaven apart. I tell her that she is right: there is no other who could cross the Waters of Death, but only because she has never met Gilgamesh the King.
There is a smile. She suggests that there may be a way that one such as I can do it…. but that I will need a boatman. She points me to the forest where he is to be found working the cedar boughs, but cautions that he has the fearsome Stone Men with him.
With my laughter ringing in her ears I leave Shiduri and enter the fearful forest…
Despite my bravado, there is, here, a depth of doom I have not felt before. Surely I have prevailed over much worse in my years of war? I breathe deeply and unsheath my sword, speaking its name beneath my breath as it rises, singing and alive, into the air. For a heartbeat of supreme power we are one… Then it spins to show me the attacker from behind, a man made of stone only feet away from me. Together, the sword and I move around faster than he can attack and he falls back, saying they will make the boatman’s vessel too heavy for me. He stops but his eyes never leave the shining black of my hissing sword… What he has said gnaws at my mind in a way that distracts… heavy… the world sinks through my mind and heart.
“We are the cold men!” comes the next voice, seeking to decoy me from the first at an angle just behind my line of vision. We spin again, sword and warrior set to strike; only to be pulled to water-wading slowness by the awful power of the second Stone Man’s words. The cold lead sinks into my bones. Sapping my internal fire…
“Strike!” the stone voices mock me.
“Like you destroyed the Bull of Heaven!”
“Like you destroyed the Cedar Forest.”
In an agony of slowness, I cease trying to spin to kill them.
“Will you destroy the ground you walk on?”
I stagger into the centre of the clearing. The boatman waves the Stone Men away; they have done their work. For the first time in my life, I am lost–within and without.
Urshanabi’s eyes are gentle, intelligent. The love in them breaks the ice that has embraced my blood. He tells me I cannot cross the Waters of Death to meet with Utnapishtim with war in my heart. With what do I replace it?… But, my question dies unspoken as he holds out both his hands for Deep Cut…
Arms that seem not to be mine straighten, then pull back, in an agony of doubt. But then something inside breaks and I lay my beloved sword on the gentle palms that wait. His eyes say what I cannot. More than anyone other than Ninsum, my mother, this man understands what is happening to me…
It is not rage that powers me through the dark Underworld faster than any giant cat can run. It is not fear of being burned to a crisp by shining Shamash, should he catch me before I can race the dawn. At the ninth hour I break through the darkness as Shamash the Sun begins to burn my heels. Before me the garden of the gods opens out. Trees and shrubs of precious stones: rubies, lapis and coral clusters. I walk through its splendour as though in a dream.
Utnapishtim is not what I expected. He is an ordinary man. To my eyes, he looks just like me. “I was going to fight you, but I gave away my sword,” I say. He seems unmoved by my former gesture…
He asks why I am ragged, thin and hollow-cheeked. Without anger, I can only tell him of the recent misery of my existence. He begins to say things I know are important to my understanding of immortality; that I have worn myself out with ceaseless striving and am simply a day closer to death.
For a while I do not respond, then I remember that, after mourning my beloved Enkidu for seven days a maggot fell out of his nose. Utnapishtim is silent, understanding this and wondering if I do…
When he responds it crushes what is left of my spirit. “Do you not compare your lot to that of a fool?”
I hold my fists to my temples. “I want the gates of sorrow to be shut behind me!”
He toys with me, saying that, at the end of all things, the gods had been assembled by Enlil to grant he and his wife Shiduri, eternal life. Then asks who will assemble the gods for me?
My hands indicate I will do anything to earn this eternal life… he says nothing, but, seeing how tired I am, invites me to try to stay awake – as an immortal would. He knows, I see later, that I will be unable, but will lie about it. His wife, Shiduri, bakes me seven daily loaves which slowly rot as my exhausted body sleeps. But I wake up clutching the first and last of these and denying I slept. They look at me with understanding and pity.
Utnapishtim and his wife confer and make me an offer. They tell me that at the bottom of the Great Deep grows the Herb of Immortality. If I can dive to its depth, risk the skin of my hands on its barbs and return with it, then I will be allowed to take it back to Uruk.
Sword or not, I grasp this lifeline… and, with heavy rocks tied to my ankles, succeed in diving for the precious Herb.
I am washed, dressed in finery, fed and sent on my way with all the trappings of a visiting king. I do not sleep through the entire journey home. Finally, at a watering hole close to my city of Uruk, I pause to rest and bathe, again – within sight of the city’s walls. The victorious Gilgamesh, Lord of the Deep, cannot enter his city dirty and haggard.
I fall asleep, waking shortly after to see that a snake has eaten some of the Herb of Immortality clutched in my hand, shed its skin and is stealing what is left of the precious herb. In total despair, I watch the serpent disappear through the undergrowth.
It is gone…
I look at the glowing walls of Uruk, the city I built… we built…
They despised me when I had everything, how much more will they hate me now that I have nothing… not even my sword?
With my head bowed, I pass through the city gates. From somewhere deep, I feel the real Gilgamesh asking me to say goodbye. I must walk these final steps alone, now that I am no more a king than the lowliest servant in this place. His final thought is that if I let this go, then something wonderful will happen… with that, in the manner of the gods, he is gone.
In the main square the Fate Dancers are announcing my failure, mocking my glorification of Uruk as it was. I raise my head and listen for the end, the words that will tell that, for all my self-proclaimed glory, that the children cry themselves to sleep at night.
When the line comes it is not what I was expecting.
“And in their bed chambers at night, the young-folk sleep soundly.”
The man who was their king has tears, now… and through the waters of understanding I see a figure at the top of the temple steps waiting for me… Shamhat. Her eyes are glistening, too. She comes halfway down the steps to take my hand and pulls me into the temple.
They are waiting, all of them… and someone else. For a third time, Enkidu has been raised from death. Shamhat places my right hand in his left and clasps her hand around our cedar and silver bracelets – a gift from Anu and Aruru when we began, She brings us before the East – the place of the King.
Directed, we kneel at the East and Shamhat binds our joined wrists with red cord.
We, the unblessed players, are then blessed…and raised up.
For perhaps the first time, I, Gilgamesh, tell the truth about what happened with the Great Deep, the walk in paradise and the meeting with the immortal couple.
“They told me where to find the herb of Eternal Youth and I retrieved it from the depths of the Great Deep. It was stolen from me by the serpent that crawls upon the earth on its belly.”
My brother, Enkidu, tells those in the temple that this was no failure. That the gods have granted us a glimpse of true immortality. He raises our arms to show that we bear the tokens of immortality given to us early in the story. For the first time I notice that the humble cedar and silver bracelets bear the symbol of a tree… and that another, larger one adorns the temple.
Shamhat raises our joined wrists… and everyone salutes, raising their bracelets and making the sign for ‘Fear Not’.
Bearing the Mask of Destiny – the centrepiece of the Fate Dancer’s movements – Enkidu and his brother Gilgamesh leave the temple… Beneath the rainbow arch held aloft by the arms of Anu and Aruru…followed by a smiling company of players.
The play is finished.
They are gone now. The last of the crates were packed into the two cars and they left, slowly, as always… reluctant to leave all this depth behind.
Only the pattern remains for a while: the pattern that is the story of the Journey of Gilgamesh, Lord of the Deep. It does not promise easy understanding. The full meaning must be teased out from the carefully chosen words, particularly the enigmatic ending.
Patterns are the mark of existence… For something to come into existence, it must be possible. When it does, the pattern is the dominant principle. The pattern is in no hurry… it is eternal.
Living things are patterns, too…
The pattern waits… as it has always waited, to be brought to life in the hearts and minds that search for the deeper meanings of death and life in a world where the Deep dwells within matter. This beautiful planet needs its Lords of the Deep – now, more than ever…
Thank you, Stuart. Thank you, Sue.
And thank you to the lovely people who came to make it real…
Other parts in this series:
©Copyright Stephen Tanham
This narrative is a personal journey through that ritual drama in the persona of Gilgamesh.
Header image by Sue Vincent, © Copyright.
Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit teaching school of modern mysticism that helps people find a personal path to a deeper place within their internal and external lives.
The Silent Eye provides home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised. The course materials and corresponding supervision are provided month by month without further commitment.