Gilgamesh sought a man named Utnapishtim, who lived on a remote island and enjoyed eternal life.
The journey was long and dangerous. Along the way, Gilgamesh arrived in the garden of a goddess, who advised him to accept death and return to his home.
But Gilgamesh refused, and the goddess directed him to the boat that took him to Utnapishtim’s island.
Gilgamesh asked Utnapishtim for the secret to immortality.
Utnapishtim told Gilgamesh how the gods, especially a god named Enlil, grew disgusted by mankind and decided to drown everyone in a flood. But one god, Ea, the god of wisdom, wanted to spare human beings.
He instructed Utnapishtim to prepare for the flood by building a giant ship and loading his family and various animals inside. The heavens opened, and it poured rain for six days and nights. All people were drowned and turned into mud.
On the seventh day, the ship rested on land, and Utnapishtim offered thanks to the gods. Enlil was furious that a human family survived, but Ea calmed him with kind words, and Enlil decided to grant Utnapishtim and his wife immortality as a peace offering.
After finishing his story, Utnapishtim challenged Gilgamesh to a test of endurance, if Gilgamesh could stay awake for seven days and six nights, Utnapishtim would grant him immortality.
Gilgamesh, however, was so weary from his journeys that he soon fell asleep. When he awoke, Utnapishtim took pity on him. He told Gilgamesh of a prickly plant at the bottom of the sea that bestowed immortality on whomever ate it.
Overjoyed, Gilgamesh tied stones around his body and dove into the sea. He sank to the bottom, retrieved the plant, and set off for his homeland, convinced that neither he nor any of his people would ever die.
Tragically, as Gilgamesh bathed in a pool during the journey home, a snake discovered the plant and ate it.
Gilgamesh wept bitterly. He and his people would never escape the pain and darkness of death.
The Mesopotamians used this story to explain how snakes appear to have eternal life, because in reality, snakes shed their skins and look “young” again.
A colossal stone relief of the hero Gilgamesh was created by Assyrian artists between 1500 and 600 B.C.
The Assyrian kingdom and its gods were later absorbed by the Babylonian empire.