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What happens in the ancient epic when King Gilgamesh seeks immortality? How does Gilgamesh’s immortality-search align with Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey? And why isn’t Gilgamesh successful?
We’ll cover the elements of King Gilgamesh’s search for immortality and discuss why he had to fail in this endeavor, according to the standards of the hero’s journey popularized in The Hero with a Thousand Faces.
Gilgamesh’s Immortality Quest and the Hero’s Journey
Why doesn’t Gilgamesh’s immortality quest turn out well? Before we dive into Gilgamesh’s immortality search, let’s look at the elements of the hero’s journey to discover why seeking physical immortality is always doomed.
The 11th stage of Campbell’s hero’s journey is called “the ultimate boon.” In this stage of the hero’s journey, the hero achieves their goal and is reborn as a superior being. This is often shown by the ease with which the hero is now able to obtain the things that they seek. In the Irish legend of the Prince of the Lonesome Island, the hero is rewarded by being able to eat from a table with food that automatically replenishes, freeing him from hunger and want—he has achieved limitless bounty, indestructible life, the Ultimate Boon. This sounds a lot like what Gilgamesh is looking for in his quest for immortality.
This concept of limitless bounty has its roots in infantile psychology, where even the newborn child appears to have some vague idea of mythology and an awareness of a state of bliss beyond the distractions of the day-to-day world. We see this when the infant reacts to being torn away from the mother’s breast, or the temper tantrum when she is deprived of the things she wants. These are actually primal urges, fantasies for bodily indestructibility, endless and instant gratification, and protection from malevolent outside forces. These unconscious, infantile fantasies remain with us and live on in the myths, fairy tales, and religious doctrines that humans have created.
Many folk traditions explore this concept of indestructibility through the motif of the spiritual double or doppelganger. This is an external soul of the individual, another part of the self, that exists free from the injuries that the physical body endures. Only by destroying that soul (sometimes represented as a literal object like an egg) can the individual truly be extinguished. Among some Australian aboriginal people, a young man being initiated to the tribe is taken to a cave and shown a slab of wood with carvings on it. He is informed that this object is, in fact, his body and that he should never remove it lest he experience agonizing pain.
The Folly of Physical Immortality
But the search for physical immortality, instead of spiritual enlightenment, will always end in failure for the hero, for it is to confuse the meaning of what the hero’s journey is supposed to be all about. As the Japanese proverb says, “The gods only laugh when men pray to them for wealth.” This is what happens with Gilgamesh’s immortality quest.
Still, this desire for earthly glory has led humans to undertake extraordinary journeys: famously, the Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon accidentally discovered Florida in the course of pursuing the fabled Fountain of Youth. Sometimes the hero starts out seeking something tangible—weapons to slay his enemies, eternal life, material wealth—but through the struggle of the adventure wins an infinitely greater prize: self-actualization and enlightenment.
Gilgamesh & Immortality
In the ancient Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh (the world’s oldest surviving work of literature), the legendary king Gilgamesh seeks immortality in the form of the plant “Never Grow Old.” He comes to a cave by the sea, where he meets a manifestation of the goddess Ishtar. She urges Gilgamesh to turn back from his quest for immortality and instead accept the pleasures of mortal life, to “Regard the little one who takes thy hand, let thy wife be happy against thy bosom.” But he insists and she guides him to the ferryman Ursanapi (a supernatural helper) who will convey him across the waters of death to the land where Utnapishtim lives (Utnapishtim is the sole survivor of the great flood from the Babylonian creation story and the Babylonian precursor to the better-known Biblical figure of Noah).
Utnapishtim tells Noah that the plant he seeks grows at the bottom of the sea. Gilgamesh thus ties stones to his feet and goes into the sea to descend to the ocean floor. He finds the plant and plucks it from the seabed, though it cuts and mutilates his hand. When he returns to shore, Gilgamesh rests, but the plant is stolen from him by a serpent who instead consumes it and thereby gains the power to shed its skin—thus achieving perpetual youth. Gilgamesh breaks down and weeps at his misfortune.
A story similar to Gilgamesh’s immortality quest is that of King Midas. It shows again how pursuits of material immortality and wealth are rarely rewarded in classic literature.
The Greek fable of King Midas is a neat illustration of the woe that accrues to the hero who seeks mere worldly possessions or wealth from the gods. Midas wins from the god Bacchus the right to request anything he desires. Foolishly, Midas wishes to have everything he touches turn to gold. Bacchus grants this wish, and, sure enough, every twig, apple, and stone Midas touches becomes golden. He orders a magnificent banquet to celebrate what he believes is this glorious bounty, only to realize his folly. When he touches the meat, it becomes inedible gold, as does the wine in his chalice. When his beloved daughter comes to comfort him, she too is transformed into a lifeless golden statue.
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Here's what you'll find in our full The Hero with a Thousand Faces summary :
- How the Hero's Journey reappears hundreds of times in different cultures and ages
- How we attach our psychology to heroes, and how they help embolden us in our lives
- Why stories and mythology are so important, even in today's world