The Epic of Gilgamesh

Tablet X

An old man stands on the shore, watching the boat approach. The old man wonders what happened to the Stone Things and who the stranger is standing next to Urshanabi. When they get out of the boat, the old man asks Gilgamesh to identify himself. Gilgamesh tells him what he told Siduri and Urshanabi—about his grief for Enkidu, his fear that the same fate awaits him, and his desperation to avoid it if possible. The old man asks Gilgamesh why he grieves about mortality—nothing lives forever. The old man says the gods established that men would suffer death, and that when the gods give life, they also decide the day of death. He says that death is our certain destiny, even if we don’t know when it will happen.

Analysis

Siduri the veiled barmaid is a traditional figure in Mesopotamian mythology and poetry, and in the Hurrian language her name means “young woman.” The goddess of wine-making and beer brewing, she is usually considered a manifestation of Ishtar. Her warmth and kindness to Gilgamesh throughout this episode are notable, since he treated Ishtar with such contempt in Uruk.

Scholars have failed to explain what the Stone Things or the Urnu-snakes are or why Gilgamesh destroys them. A fragmentary verse suggests that Gilgamesh also attacked a winged creature, who might have been Urshanabi himself. A later fragment of verse suggests that those Stone Things were magical images of some sort, and some scholars have speculated that they were lodestones, a type of mineral that possesses polarity. The tablets are frustratingly incomplete on this matter, and no other versions to flesh them out have been found yet. Thousands of clay tablets recovered from Mesopotamian digs over the years are still awaiting translation, and thousands more remain beneath the ground. The Italian Assyriologist Giovanni Pettinato recently discovered and translated a never-before-seen account of Gilgamesh’s death. Perhaps someone will discover a solution to the mystery of the Urnu-snakes and the Stone Things too.

None of the three characters Gilgamesh meets in this tablet recognize him when they see him, and they all give him the same advice, which emphasizes that he should stop his quest for immortality. Each of them takes note of Gilgamesh’s unkempt appearance, listens patiently as he describes his terror of death, and reminds him that death is certain and life is all we have. Even Utnapishtim, who is himself immortal, advises Gilgamesh against pursuing his search for immortality, which suggests that Utnapishtim, in all his knowledge, has an idea about the value of life that Gilgamesh has not yet discovered. Utnapishtim has foiled death, but he will not help Gilgamesh to do the same. Utnapishtim says that Gilgamesh inherited his father’s mortality and, like everything else in the mortal world, he is subject to death. Gilgamesh must continue to live as a mortal and accept death as part of life’s natural and inevitable cycle.