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Utnapishtim’s name means “He Who Saw Life,” though “He
Who Saw Death” would be just as appropriate, since he witnessed
the destruction of the entire world. The former king and priest
of Shurrupak, Utnapishtim was the fortunate recipient of the god
Ea’s favor. His disdain for Gilgamesh’s desperate quest for eternal
life might seem ungenerous, since he himself is immortal, but Utnapishtim
must carry a heavy load of survivor’s guilt. He doesn’t know why,
of all the people in the world, Ea chose him to live, but he does know
that he tricked hundreds of his doomed neighbors into laboring day
and night to build the boat that would carry him and his family
to safety while he abandoned them to their fates. What Utnapishtim
gained by his trickery was a great boon for humankind, however.
He received a promise from the gods that henceforth only individuals
would be subject to death and that humankind as a whole would endure.
When Utnapishtim tested Gilgamesh by asking him to stay awake for
a week, he knew that he would fail, just as he knew that Gilgamesh
wouldn’t profit from the magical plant that had the power to make
him young again. Gilgamesh is one-third man, which is enough to
seal his fate—all men are mortal and all mortals die. Yet since Utnapishtim
“sees life,” he knows that life extends beyond the individual—that
families, cities, and cultures endure.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Epic of Gilgamesh!