The Gilgamesh Epic
Then and Now

Gilgamesh was a king of Uruk, which was a Sumerian city-state. He lived ca. 2800-2500 BCE. Centuries after his death, there were a series of five stories written about the exploits of Gilgamesh, which were morphed together into The Epic of Gilgamesh. Interestingly, one can see how the storyline of this epic influenced Homer’s Iliad and the Odyssey along with parts of the Old Testament.

The storyline created by various writers over centuries was that Gilgamesh was addressing his finiteness. He had a dear friend and colleague, Enkidu. Gilgamesh was handsome, and Enkidu looked like a wild person with horns. Regardless of their looks, Gilgamesh learned a great deal from his dear friend.

Enkidu and Gilgamesh

Tragically, when Enkidu died in the arms of Gilgamesh, he was so overwhelmed by Enkidu’s death that he was driven to find a means to assure his own immortality.

The grief of Gilgamesh

In spite of working hard and doing good, Gilgamesh grasped that he wasn’t immortal. So, he went on a quest for the Holy Grail. His version of the Holy Grail was immortality. On his quest, he discovered Utnapishtim who was the only person in the world that had achieved immortality. This immortal told Gilgamesh about how the gods created everything including humans. However, humans were creating problems for the gods. Therefore, the gods created a huge flood. Utnapishtim built a boat large enough for him and his family along with some animals.

Utnapishtim’s flood narrative was the basis for the Old Testament narrative of Noah and the Flood. Essentially, the writer of Genesis copied the flood narrative of Utnapishtim and changed names and some details.

Gilgamesh pushed Utnapishtim to address immortality. In response to Gilgamesh’s questioning, Utnapishtim told him to find a special flowering plant, which would cause him to stop his aging process. Gilgamesh was driven. He finds this particular plant and returns to Sumerian city-state where he was king. Initially, his intent was to test regenerative effects of the plant on some old men. However, a snake ate it. Nonetheless, Gilgamesh watched the snake skittered away sheading its skin.

Gilgamesh learned an important lesson of life. He failed his quest for immortality. More importantly, he grasped a central reality about life itself. If he did good and noble things in his life, his immortality would be in being remembered as a good and noble person. Gilgamesh repeatedly failed in his quest for his Holy Grail. Nevertheless, his failures were a teaching moment for him, and people remembered him long after his death. His immortality has spanned 5,000 years.

When I was in high school, I had to memorize a hundred lines of prose or poetry each semester. At the time, I hated to memorize prose or poetry. However, what I deemed as a curse turned into a blessing. During the six decades since I was in high school, a day never goes by without me remembering various lines.

For example, I memorized a part of The Vision of Sir Launfal by James Russell Lowell. The poem was about Sir Launfal, an Arthurian knight. He went in search of the Holy Grail. Lowell’s lengthy poem begins with Launfal riding out of the castle to begin his search. Seeming out of nowhere, Launfal saw a leper. He haughtily threw some coins to the leper.

Launfal leaves on his quest for his Holy Grail

However, during his self-righteous quest of finding the Holy Grail, Launfal finally grasps the errors of his mindset. Again, seeming out of nowhere, Launfal see the leper again. The poem ends with these stanzas.

The heart within him was ashes and dust;
He parted in twain his single crust,
He broke the ice on the streamlet's brink,
And gave the leper to eat and drink;
'T was a mouldy crust of coarse brown bread,
   'T was water out of a wooden bowl, –
Yet with fine wheaten bread was the leper fed,
   And 't was red wine he drank with his thirsty soul.

"Lo, it is I, be not afraid!
In many climes, without avail,
Thou had spent thy life for the Holy Grail;
Behold, it is here, – this cup which thou
Didst fill at the streamlet for me but now;
This crust is my body broken for thee,
This water His blood that died on the tree;

The Holy Supper is kept, indeed,
In whatso we share with another's need, –
Not that which we give, but what we share, –
For the gift without the giver is bare;
Who bestows himself with his alms feeds three, –
Himself, his hungering neighbor, and me."

Gilgamesh, Sir Launfal, you, and I won’t live forever. Each of us can live like the younger know-it-all Sir Launfal in his search for the Holy Grail, or we can live like the older and wiser Sir Launfal who helped others. Know this truth. Our immortality will be in being remembers for what we do for others.

This is a reading of the Vision of Sir Launfal.