Some Other End to Friendship

Gilgamesh: Some Other
End to Friendship
Myth to Science Fiction
8 October 2014
Gilgamesh makes his way
towards the shore in order to meet
Urshanabi, who serves as
Utnapishtim’s boatman and can
conceivably bring him to the latter
man’s island when he returns.
But Gilgamesh does not make
his way calmly.
True to form, he roars forward,
axe in hand, shattering the stones
that lie along the way.
These stones take on various shapes
in different translations.
– In some, such as Mason’s, they’re simply
stone charms.
– In Mitchell’s, they’re stone men.
– In others, they’re stone poles.
Regardless of their forms, however,
the stones serve a specific, critical
They provide Urshanabi with a means
of making his way across the Sea of
Death safely, whether through magic (in
the case of the charms) or power (the
men power the ship, and the poles don’t
shrivel when they touch the water).
By shattering them, Gilgamesh has
unintentionally obliterated the things
he needed in order to get where he
wants to go.
There’s a certain cruel humor to
the image of the savage king
blundering his way forward,
annihilating the very things that
can help him.
Mitchell’s translation goes so far
as to show the stone men haplessly
trying to flee, at which point
Gilgamesh destroys them and, in a
final insult, throws the shards into
the Sea of Death.
However, one must never lose
awareness of the central grief
metaphor that underlies the whole
journey to the “underworld.”
If Gilgamesh’s voyage through the desert
represents one’s initial reaction to loss, and
his passage through the Mashu tunnel
represents the deepest part of one’s pain, his
experiences with Siduri and the stones show
a different phase of the grief cycle: lashing
out, resisting help out of either fear, pain, or
In this phase, the victim (unintentionally)
does harm to those trying to help him/her
come to terms with his/her loss.
Not only does Gilgamesh ignore Siduri’s
considered words, but he hurts her,
intentionally pushing himself away from her.
Now fate has presented him with the ideal
means to his end, but he’s so wrapped up in
himself (as Siduri warned just prior to the
incident) that he can’t help but undermine
his own efforts.
Unsurprisingly, Urshanabi is
none too pleased to discover that
Gilgamesh has shattered his stone
whatevers; without them, he, too,
now has no way back to
Utnapishtim’s island.
He will not help Gilgamesh…
unless, in an interesting twist,
Gilgamesh atones for the damage
he’s caused by helping himself.
This is another rehabilitative
effort in disguise, but it’s different
from what Siduri was trying to do.
If the barmaid’s consolations, with
an emphasis on comfort and on
forgetting both pain and the source of
one’s misery, represent “warm love,”
Urshanabi’s represent “tough love.”
By giving Gilgamesh a purpose – a
specific directive (chop down three
hundred trees, then drag them back to
the coast where we’ll do something with
them) – Urshanabi is forcing him to
focus on something other than his own
This is, of course, exactly what Siduri
was trying to do when she encouraged
him to recognize life’s possibilities.
But the specific task Urshanabi gives
him – chop down trees – is eerily
reminiscent, intentionally so, of the
adventure that cost Gilgamesh his only
Moreover, in an echo of what
Gilgamesh did upon emerging from the
tunnel through Mashu, the boatman
asks Gilgamesh to recount exactly what
brought him to these strange shores,
which brings everything that Siduri was
telling him to forget back to the surface.
One can wonder how this helps
Gilgamesh, who has spent altogether
too much time chewing his pain already,
and lost much in the process.
Simply put, Gilgamesh’s grief
was beginning to resemble a
feedback loop – the figurative
scratched record we alluded to
earlier – and was, in turn,
beginning to feed on itself.
By forcing Gilgamesh to
consider the source of his grief,
rather than focus on the grief itself,
Urshanabi takes an approach
familiar to any medical
practitioner: address the
underlying cause, not the
symptoms (which is Siduri’s main
Urshanabi’s directives make
Gilgamesh’s pain both more real
and more familiar – and it’s that
familiarity that’s important, for we
move past such losses through
renewed purpose, the passage of
time, and self-reflection and
It’s fitting that, in some
translations, Urshanabi goes so far
as to accompany Gilgamesh on his
return trip to Uruk; in many ways,
he’s the one who gives Gilgamesh
what he really needs.
So Gilgamesh tells his tale of woe,
follows Urshanabi’s directives, and
builds his own poles for rowing.
With his new companion – and it’s
worth noticing that, at this stage,
he’s no longer physically alone –
Gilgamesh pushes off from the
shore, taking control of his fate
rather than rushing blindly forward
(as he did in the “initial grief”
passage in the Mashu tunnel, not to
mention during the business with
the stones).
Each of his poles rots soon after
touching the Waters of Death.
The reason one would use stone poles
over once-living wooden ones is that the
Waters destroy that matter as swiftly as
they ravage human bodies.
You can touch the Waters, but
prolonged contact is…not advised.
When the last of the poles has fallen
away, the grieving king uses his own
clothes – the animal pelts that have
served as his “shields” up to this point –
as a sail, and the boat continues onward
on the combined strength of his
vulnerability and ingenuity.
In the end, Gilgamesh does reach
By this point, he’s said to “resemble loss
itself,” whereas Utnapishtim’s eyes are full of
hospitality – the same thing the harlot offered
an abandoned Enkidu at the beginning of the
(In a poem full of parallel language, plot
parallels are worth noting as well.)
When he first realizes that Utnapishtim is
not partly divine like himself – that he is, in fact,
a frail old man with failing vision – Gilgamesh
is disappointed.
But when Utnapishtim asks him why he has
come all this way, Gilgamesh speaks to him
We’ll use Mitchell first, then Mason, for this
next passage.
I have wandered the world, climbed the most
Mountains, crossed deserts, sailed the vast
And sweet sleep has rarely softened my face.
I have worn myself out through ceaseless
I have filled my muscles with pain and
I have killed bear, lion, hyena, leopard,
Tiger, deer, antelope, ibex, I have eaten
Their meat and have wrapped their rough
skins around me.
And what in the end have I achieved?
When I reached Siduri the tavern keeper
I was filthy, exhausted, heartsick. Now let
The gate of sorrow be closed behind me,
And let it be sealed shut with tar and pitch.
Gilgamesh was speaking but only to
His weight of grief,
Not to demand an understanding:
My friend has died so many times in
And yet he still seems so alive,
Like a younger brother,
Then suddenly like soft tissue,
A dried leaf…
Is there something more than
Some other end to friendship?
Utnapishtim then speaks to his
counterpart with a hand on the
younger man’s shoulder, as one
survivor to another.
He talks about many things –
everything from the wisdom of
seeking guidance from “the blind”
to the value of loyalty and human
connection…and the true cost of
obtaining the eternal life that
Gilgamesh seeks.
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