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Gilgamesh tells Utanapishtim that he can't believe he (Utanapishtim) is only a regular human being. How has he ended up being granted immortality?
Gee, thought you'd never ask.
Utanapishtim's story begins in the city of Shuruppak, on the banks of the Euphrates, many, many years ago. In those days, Shuruppak was inhabited by the gods.
For some reason (we aren't told why), the gods decided to destroy the world with a flood. (Translators differ on this section since many of them like to supply reasons for the flood.)
The flood would have come as a total surprise, were it not for the actions of one of the gods—Ea, the trickster.
Ea went up to the wall of a house made of reeds and said, "Hey! Hey you there! Wall made of reeds! I want to tell you a secret: destroy your house and make a boat. Put animals onto it—every kind. The boat should be in the shape of a cube. You didn't hear it from me."
Then Utanapishtim (who had been "coincidentally" listening on the other side of the wall of reeds) replied, "but, my lord, what should I tell the people of city?"
"Oh," said Ea, "Just tell them that the god Enlil hates your guts, and wants you to leave town. Oh yeah, and the god Ea is going to rain down … good things on the rest of you."
Utanapishtim went to work. He assembled the craftsman of Shuruppak and got them to help out. Everyone helped, even children and sickly people.
When the boat was finally finished, it was totally ginormous: cube-shaped, with each side 120 cubits in length. That is like 180 feet—or half a football field, including the end zone.
Clearly proud of himself, Utanapishtim then goes into serious detail about the cube-ship's specs: six decks and seven levels (counting the roof), interior divided into nine compartments, more punting poles than you can shake a punting pole at, crazy amounts of raw bitumen used for caulking—you name it.
No doubt about it, this is one serious cube-ship.
Utanapishtim also says that he handsomely rewarded the workmen with food and drink, so that every day spent building the cube-ship was like a feast.
Finally, the ship was ready to set sail. Utanapishtim put all his family members on the boat, and also all the animals of the field, and, oh yeah, also all the craftsmen of the city. (You need those guys to rebuild civilization, you know?)
Then the rain began to fall—a torrential rain. In no time, it had rained so much that even the gods themselves had to climb up to the highest heaven to escape from the water.There, they huddled together, weeping, they were so terrified.
The storm continued for six days and seven nights. When it finally calmed down, Utanapishtim was able to open a hatch and look around. At first, he couldn't see land anywhere, but eventually the boat drifted to a stop on the peak of Mount Nimush.
The boat stayed on top of Mount Nimush for seven days. On the seventh day, Utanapishtim released a dove. It came back: it couldn't find land. Then Utanapishtim sent out a swallow. The same thing happened: it came back; there was no dry land. Finally, Utanapishtim sent out a raven. This time, the bird didn't come back: it had found dry land. The flood was over.
Utanapishtim released all the animals from the boat. Then he himself got out, and made sacrifices.
The gods smelled the sacrifices and were happy, clustering around the smoke like flies. The goddess Beletili (another name for Aruru) was especially pleased; she said that all the other gods should prevent Enlil, the king of the gods, from coming to the sacrifice. She held him responsible for the Flood that destroyed nearly the whole human species.
Speak of the Enlil … and the Enlil appears. When he showed up on the scene, the king of the gods was furious to find out that some humans survived the catastrophe. Looking for someone to blame, Enlil correctly pointed the finger at Ea.
But Ea shot right back, accusing Enlil of being unjust for destroying all of mankind just to punish a few bad apples.
Enlil didn't respond directly to Ea's criticism. Instead, he found Utanapishtim and his wife and made them kneel down beside him.
He blessed them both and said that, from now on, they would no longer be human. Instead, they would be able to dwell far away from humankind, at the Mouth of the Rivers. (This must be where Gilgamesh is now.)
Here Utanapishtim ends his story. Then he makes his point: "So you see, Gilgamesh, that's why I'm so awesome. Do you think the gods are going to intervene on your behalf? Puh-lease!"
But Utanapishtim is willing to give Gilgamesh a chance: "OK, hot-shot. Here's what: you stay awake for six days and seven nights, and then we'll see about immortality for you."
Gilgamesh doesn't seem to think this is a major challenge—but then, the very second he sits down, he falls sound asleep.
Utanapishtim immediately starts mocking Gilgamesh, but his wife tells him to stop. She says that he should wake Gilgamesh up and send him on his way.
That isn't good enough for Utanapishtim, however. Instead of waking Gilgamesh up, he gets his wife to bake a loaf of bread for every day that Gilgamesh remains asleep. Every time she finished a loaf of bread, she should put it beside the sleeping man.
As it turns out, Gilgamesh ends up sleeping for six days and seven nights—the same amount of time he was supposed to be staying awake.
Just as Utanapishtim suspected, when Gilgamesh wakes up, he doesn't believe that he was ever asleep. But when Utanapishtim points out the loaves, which range from fresh to moldy (thus showing how long each one has been sitting there), Gilgamesh is forced to accept the truth.
Gilgamesh is bummed that Death is still after him.
But Utanapishtim doesn't answer Gilgamesh. Instead, he turns to Urshanabi, the ferryman, and fires him, but not before telling him to take Gilgamesh away and clean up him.
Urshanabi does as he's told. When Gilgamesh is all decked out in his fancy new duds, he and Urshanabi get in the boat, and start to sail away.
Just then, Utanapishtim's wife intervenes, pointing out that Gilgamesh worked hard to get there and is now heading away with nothing.
Gilgamesh must have been eavesdropping, because in no time he's turned his boat around and come back to the shore, hoping to get something for his trouble.
Utanapishtim tells Gilgamesh that he needs to find a special plant that grows on the bottom of the sea. If he eats it, he will become young again. (Not the same as becoming immortal, but not a bad deal all the same.)
Gilgamesh thinks this sounds like a great idea. He digs a hole in the ground until he reaches groundwater. Then, he attaches rocks to his feet and sinks down to the bottom; there, he finds the plant and grabs it.
At this point, he cuts the rocks off his feet and lets the underground current of water carry him out to the sea. Once he's there, he bobs up to the surface, and lets the waves carry him back to the shore where he started.
Not a bad round trip, if you ask us—plus Gilgamesh is now one magical plant the richer.
Time to head back to Uruk. Gilgamesh doesn't plan to eat the plant right away. Instead, he'll test it out on one of the old men of Uruk. If it works on the old man (makes him young again), then Gilgamesh himself will eat it.
Hm, seems like a sound plan.
In any case, Gilgamesh and Urshanabi set out for Uruk. They stop for the night beside a spring of water.
Gilgamesh decides to have a bath, obviously.
But he doesn't take the magical plant in with him. Big mistake. Instead, he leaves it on the ground.
While Gilgamesh isn't looking, a snake comes up and steals the plant. As the snake slithers away, it sheds its old skin—maybe because the plant has rejuvenated it?
Gilgamesh starts crying. He thinks that his entire quest was a waste.
But, all the same, he and Urshanabi keep heading for Uruk.
And when they arrive at the city, Gilgamesh triumphantly lists the notable features of Uruk—thus echoing the opening lines of the epic.