Gilgamesh is the semi-mythic King of Uruk best known as the hero of The Epic of Gilgamesh (c. 2150-1400 BCE) the great Bablyonian poem that predates Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey by 1500 years and stands as the oldest piece of epic world literature. The fullest extant text of the Gilgamesh epic is on 12 incomplete Akkadian-language tablets found in the mid-19th century by the Turkish Assyriologist Hormuzd Rassam at Nineveh in the library of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal (reigned 668–627 BCE).
Gilgamesh makes a dangerous journey (Tablets IX and X) in search of Utnapishtim, the survivor of the Babylonian Flood, in order to learn from him how to escape death. When he finally reaches Utnapishtim, Gilgamesh is told the story of the Flood and is shown where to find a plant that can renew youth (Tablet XI).
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 by flood. 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 carries 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.