The Epic of Gilgamesh

Tablets XI and XII

Enlil listened and understood. He took Utnapishtim and his wife by the hands and made them kneel. Then he touched their foreheads and blessed them, turning them into gods. For saving humanity, he granted them eternal life. But they alone deserved that gift.

When Utnapishtim finishes his story, he looks at Gilgamesh with scorn and asks if he really thinks he is worthy of becoming a god and living forever too. He tells Gilgamesh that, as a test, he should try to go a week without sleeping. Gilgamesh accepts the challenge, but when he sits down to begin his test he falls into a deep sleep.

Utnapishtim shows his wife how Gilgamesh sleeps. His wife tells him to wake Gilgamesh and let him return home. Utnapishtim tells her that if Gilgamesh wakes now, he’ll deny that he fell asleep. Utnapishtim tells his wife to bake a piece of bread each day, leave it next to him, and make a mark on the wall. These things will prove to Gilgamesh that he slept.

After seven days, Utnapishtim touches Gilgamesh on the forehead and wakes him. Gilgamesh says he’d been close to falling asleep but denies actually sleeping. Then Utnapishtim shows him the seven pieces of bread and the seven marks on the wall. The first piece is dry as dust, the second only a little moister. The third is soggy and rotten, the fourth moldy, the fifth spotty, and the sixth only a little stale. The seventh is fresh from the oven. Gilgamesh is full of despair that he has not managed to escape the possibility of death. Utnapishtim tells Urshanabi, his boatman, that Urshanabi can never return here. He orders Urshanabi to take Gilgamesh to the washing place so Gilgamesh can clean himself and reveal the beauty he has been hiding. He tells Urshanabi to have Gilgamesh bind up his hair, throw the skin he wears into the sea, and put on a spotless robe so he can return to his city in honor. Gilgamesh washes himself and changes into royal garments. Then he and the boatman board their boat and pole themselves away from shore.

Then Utnapishtim’s wife asks her husband if there is anything he can give Gilgamesh to take back to his land. Gilgamesh poles the little boat back to shore. Utnapishtim says he will tell Gilgamesh one of the gods’ secrets. He tells Gilgamesh about the thorny plant that grows beneath the waves called How-the-Old-Man-Once-Again-Becomes-a-Young-Man. Gilgamesh ties stone weights to his feet and dives into the sea. When he finds the plant he cuts the stones from his feet, and the waters cast him onto shore. He tells the boatman that he will share this plant with the elders of Uruk and then take some himself and be young again too.

But one night, when they stop to camp, Gilgamesh takes a swim in a pool of cool water. A snake smells the plant and steals it. As it slithers away, it sheds its skin. Now the serpent is young again, but Gilgamesh will never be. Heartbroken, Gilgamesh sits beside the pool and weeps.