The Epic of Gilgamesh: By Jan Barendrecht


The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the oldest known written stories, the earliest versions date to about 2000 B.C. The epic hails from ancient Babylonia, a kingdom that was located in the area between the rivers Euphrat and Tigris in what is now Iraq. The epic was originally written on clay tablets in cuneiform, the wedge shaped characters of the Sumerian language. The fullest surviving version of the epic, however, was written in Akkadian, another Babylonian language.


The Gilgamesh Story

The epic tells the story of the king of the city state of Uruk, Gilgamesh. He is 1/3 human and 2/3 divine, and reigns the city sternly. He behaves badly enough to attract the attention of the gods and the gods send the wild man Enkidu to fight Gilgamesh. Enkidu confronts Gilgamesh, but it is Enkidu who is defeated in the end. Gilgamesh acknowledges that Enkidu is his equal and the two become friends. Together they travel the land in search for challenges and adventure. They cut down the Cedar Forest in Iran and defeat the Guardian of the Forest, Humbaba. Later, Gilgamesh refuses the advances of the Goddess of Love, Ishtar, which necessitates Gilgamesh and Enkidu’s killing of the Bull of Heaven, a divine nemesis. These acts anger the gods and they decide that Enkidu must die for the two friends’ trespassing. Gilgamesh appeals the gods to allow Enkidu to live, but without success. After Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh is distraught with grief for his friend and fear for what he realizes will be the end of himself, his own death. He sets out on a quest for immortality and travels far and wide in search of Utnapishtim, survivor of the great flood and the only human the gods have been known to confer immortality upon. Gilgamesh finds Utnapishtim and appeals to him for immortality. Utnapishtim promises to give this to Gilgamesh if he can stay awake for seven days and six nights, but Gilgamesh fails in this task. Utnaphishtim is nevertheless merciful and gives Gilgamesh a plant that will reverse age and give him his youth back. But the plant is stolen by a serpent which disappears into the sea. Gilgamesh then returns to the city of Uruk and his reign there. He points to a site on the city walls where the epic is inscribed, and asks the reader to look around and see the city and its inhabitants as his legacy and mark of feats.

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Interpretations of the Story

Most sumerologians have interpreted the ending of the epic to mean that Gilgamesh failed in his quest for immortality and that the only way to attain this status is to leave a material legacy. The epic is filled with different symbols that are intertwined with the mythos of the Sumerian world and which must have been familiar signifiers for Sumerian readers, needing no explanation. Today, however, much of the symbolism of the epic remains a mystery, including the epic’s conclusion. We here present an interpretation of the epic seen from a gnostic point of view, written by Jan Barendrecht. I hope the readers will enjoy and be intrigued by this interpretation of the epic. No matter how one chooses to interpret the epic’s conclusion, it is in itself a testament to its longevity and power, that we today, 3000 years after it was written, still discuss this story.

A Longer Summary of the Epic

For those who wish to know more, below are links to a site which contains a longer and more detailed summary of the epic, more information on Sumerian mythology and a traditional interpretation of the epic:

From a Gnostic Perspective

The hero of the epic is Gilgamesh, a half-god, son of a goddess and a human father – that made him 2/3 god and 1/3 human (and that IS interesting – indicative of knowledge about the dominance of genes?) But being 1/3 human made him a mortal nevertheless – a condition, urging him to find an escape from death, death being the fate of all mortals.

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Tradition had taught Gilgamesh, that one of his forebears, Utnapishtim, the hero of the flood, had escaped death, as he had been taken to the “heavenly stay”, together with his spouse. So Gilgamesh decided to go there too, in order to receive the secret of eternal life from his forebear. What brought him to this, was what he thought to be an invitation by Anu, “highest god”, himself: the verse could read like a description, made to his mother, the goddess Ninsun, of a burnt out rocket, falling back to earth. How his mother responded isn’t known – that part of the epic is too damaged to read. But undoubtedly, the event is interpreted by Gilgamesh as an encouragement to start his adventure, to acquire the treasure of eternal life and at the introduction of the epic, the author is calling Gilgamesh “the sage who experienced everything”:

Secret things he has seen What is hidden for man, he knows; He even brought messages dating from a time before the flood. Also he undertook a long journey, exhausting and very difficult; He returned from it and engraved (the story of) his efforts in a pillar of stone.

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So far the intro, leading to the description of the journey, the adventures and the hardships.

Another tablet can be translated as:

When people were made, they didn’t know the eating of bread, they didn’t know the wearing of cloths, they were eating plants with their mouths like sheep and were drinking water from a ditch.

Such an “animal-like” human, Enkidu, is also described in the Gilgamesh epic and the text describes how Enkidu, by a process that could be called domestication, is “tamed” and becomes human. Anyone who has brought up a dog or could closely watch a dog being brought up, will know that surrender and devotion will arise by themselves, when an such an animal is freed from the conditioning, called “basic survival”, easing the recognition of the real nature.

On the “quest for eternal life”, Enkidu is the loyal friend of Gilgamesh and it is difficult, not to see a metaphor like “lower and higher Self”.

Interestingly, the inseparable friends have to travel through a tunnel (one of the “classical” Kundalini experiences) and the notion of flying and “visiting heaven” is the classical way of referring to samadhi. The various phenomena encountered, like meeting a guardian, can be recognized as belonging to the class of “Kundalini stimulated perceptions”.

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Those, having sensed the nadis in all chakras, will know that a picture of it, pretty much can resemble a tree, the crown chakra being its crown. On arrival in “heaven”, Gilgamesh receives a plant which when fully grown, will release the “elixir of immortality”. But much to his dismay, that priceless plant is snatched away by a big snake that lives in the sea. Kundalini often is depicted as a snake and the ocean stands for “the source of all life”. So losing the plant to the snake is suggesting, there is no control whatsoever on the “process of becoming immortal”, the growing plant always remaining “outside” the sphere of possession.

The notion that the epic has a gnostic side, is furthered also because Enkidu has to die – after Gilgamesh scorns the goddess of love (refuses her advances, refuses duality) and Enkidu even manages to offend her… Which is a deed, Enkidu must pay for with death, “leaving” only the “higher” Self… The mentioning of the “netherworld” is symbolic for the unconscious and when the “dungeon of murkiness” is empty, liberation/nonduality is “fact”.

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Gilgamesh and the Bible

In a certain sense, there is a similarity between the Gilgamesh epic and the New Testament: to both, one can attribute profound gnostic “truths” and yet, both stories can also be seen from a historical perspective. Such a veiling, by mixing “timeless truth” with historical events, did save at least these stories from being destroyed or becoming forbidden literature. But the historical perspective from the Gilgamesh epic is a sad one: it shows that by the mere process of domestication, man has become God and that the plant, growing the elixir of immortal life, has to be obtained in youth, as the journey requires the attributes/properties of a youth (like courage and abundant energy). At least in that respect, humanity failed – some cultures prescribing “the quest” to be appropriate when the kids have left the parental home. As the greatest gift to a child is to be born into a family where the members are *knowers*, it is obvious why ignorance has become “default.”

The illustration shows the Goddess of Love with two other gods (recognizable by the hats with horns) in a ceremony, inaugurating Zimri-Lim as the king. A righteous kingship requires surrender of all selfishness – hence the tokens of kingship are offered by the Goddess of Love.

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