When Gilgamesh descends into the underworld to discover the secrets of eternal life he finds the only mortal to have been given this godly gift. This figure is Utnapishtim, and his name connotes “the far Distant One” who dwells at the “confluence of the rivers.” These are not terrestrial waters, but celestial waterways that swirl through the cosmos in specified stellar riverbeds where souls travel finding their eternal fate. Upon meeting the only mortal who knows how to obtain immortality, Gilgamesh asks the paramount question of the epic, “How does one obtain eternal life?”
The answer Utnapishtim gives is one of the most curious responses in all of ancient myth. Utnapishtim replies, “I will reveal to you a secret of the gods.” And then this immortal who dwells on far distant shores relates a flood story. Literally, Utnapishtim tells a story so very close to the biblical account of Noah. As the Mesopotamian version is much older, we can only conclude that the biblical tradition is a hand-me-down from much older and foreign sources.
How does the flood story answer the question of eternal life? It makes no sense. Indeed, scholars have written it off as extracurricular nonsense; a story interjected, out of place, and told for its own sake. This response remains the official, academic take.
Yet, a curious parallel is found in Chapter 175 of the Egyptian Book of the Dead. In this portion of the funerary text the deceased descends to the underworld to find the secrets of eternal life. And those secrets are contextualized within a flood story. Here is Raymond Faulkner’s translation:
O Thoth, what is it that has come about through the Children of Nut? They have made war, they have raised up tumult, they have done wrong, they have created rebellion, they have done slaughter, they have created imprisonment, they have reduced what was great to what is little in all that we have made; show greatness, O Thoth!—so says Atum. Shorten their years, cut short their months, because they have done hidden damage to all that you have made. I have your palette, O Thoth, I bring your inkspot to you; I am not among those who have done hidden damage, and none work harm on me.
Thus says Ani: O Atum, how comes it that I travel to a desert which has no water and no air, and which is deep, dark, and unsearchable? [. . .] [Atum Replies:] You shall be for millions on millions of years, a lifetime of millions of years. I will dispatch the Elders and destroy all that I have made; the earth shall return to the Primordial Water, so the surging flood, as in its original state. But I will remain with Osiris, I will transform myself into something else, namely a serpent, without men knowing or the gods seeing. [. . .] I have made what appertains to his place in the Bark of Millions of Years, and Horus is firm on his throne to found his establishments. (BD Chpt 175)
This chapter entitled “for not dying again” opens up to a grim scene. The people of the earth have become corrupt; everywhere they commit rebellion and slaughter. The population of the earth does “secret damage” or evil acts done in darkness and exacted on all living things. This is exactly the same world depicted in the Hebrew account, “And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen. 6.5). In the biblical tale God vows to wipe the population out with a great flood. The wickedness of the world and God’s vow to destroy it survives in Greece, where the same scene is portrayed in Homer’s Illiad, “when Zeus flings down his pelting, punishing rains—up in arms, furious, storming against those men who brawl in the courts and render crooked judgements, men who throw all rights to the winds with no regard for the vengeful eyes of the gods—so all their rivers crest into flood spate, ravines overflowing cut the hilltops off into lonely islands” (16.457-63).
Of the Egyptian text, it should be noted that other translators have taken this same passage and have replaced the flood imagery with the waters of creation. Instead of a great flood that destroys the wicked and through which the deceased must pass, the waters become the liquids of fiat lux, the birthing waters of the world which recreate and renew the deceased. Yet, in these translations the wicked world and the Bark of Millions of Years remain.
So which is it: are the waters through which the Egyptian dead descend the mythic flood waters or the waters of creation? Complicating this issue (and the different translations) is the fact that most world flood myths are told in the context of their respective creation stories. The waters of the flood were meant to be the waters of a new creation. This is certainly how the Bible treats the two parallel events. Read Genesis closely and you will see that the biblical flood is a reproduction of the biblical creation.
Earth is created by dividing the waters above from the waters below (1.6-7). The flood occurs when the waters above and the waters below commingle (7.11). Creation begins when the “Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters” (1.1). Noah sends forth a dove upon the face of the waters (8. 9-11). Creation congeals when the first dry land emerges from the waters (1.9). The dove returns to Noah with an olive leaf, indicating that the first dry land has appeared from the waters (8.11). Vegetation, animals, and man appear on earth (1.11-12, 20-27). Noah lands and releases all manner of life upon the earth (8.16-19). God commands Adam and Eve to multiply and replenish the earth (1.28). God commands Noah to multiply and replenish the earth (9.1).
Curiously, in the Egyptian funerary texts the coffin of the deceased is treated as a boat, “towed by ropes through the waters of the cosmic sea, which is represented by drenching the coffin with water as it is pulled through narrow passages from one chamber or world to another” (MJSP 154). Furthermore, “In the Amduat, the name given throughout to the successive fields of the duat (underworld) is simply n.t, meaning ‘body of water,’ […]” (MJSP 156). Moreover, these underworld waters are always considered to reside in the heavens (MJSP 347); for the crews which tow the boat through the cosmic waters are none other than the Imperishable Stars (circumpolar stars) and the Unwearying Stars (the seven planets) (MJSP 154). Sailing through the underworld is a journey through the cosmos, an idea firmly entrenched in the Egyptian cult as there are over 370 specific astronomical terms employed within the funerary texts (HM 73).
I am reminded of that remarkable find in the Xinjiang region of China where a series of Caucasian mummified corpses were discovered in an ancient graveyard. The mummies dated as far back as 2000 BCE and each of the deceased was buried inside a boat.
The archetype of the heavenly journey in a boat was remarkably wide spread. I am also reminded of that old book of poetry reciting the lore of the ancient Celts and called the Book of Taliesin. The book appears to have been composed by the 14th century, but many of the poems are recognized as being from the 10th century if not earlier.
In one passage from our archaic book we read a conversation between two interlocutors, one is Gwyddnaw, the priest or hierophant whose name signifies the leader of the boat, “from Gwydd, presence, attendance, and Naw, an old term for a ship” (Davies 245). The other is a neophyte seeking admittance into the Bardic mysteries. The neophyte must enter a coracle, or ark, and literally sail across the waters to an island where the initiation takes place. Our poem has our hierophant declare “To the brave, to the magnanimous, to the amiable, to the generous, who boldly embarks, the ascending stone of the Bards will prove the harbor of life! It has asserted the praise of Heilyn, the mysterious impeller of the sky; and, till the doom shall its symbol be continued” (Davies 250). The initiate responds, “Though I love the strand, I dread the wave: great has been its violence–dismal the overwhelming stroke. Even to him who survives, it will be the subject of lamentation” (Davies 250). To which Gwddnaw assures, “It is a pleasant act, to wash on the bosom of the fair water. Though it fill the receptacle, it will not disturb the heart […]. As for him who repented of his enterprise, the lofty (wave) has hurried the babbler far away to his death; but the brave, the magnanimous will find his compensation, in arriving safe at the stones. The conduct of the water will declare thy merit” (Davies 250-251).
This initiation takes place by the crossing of cosmic waters, as is now familiar to us, whose purpose is to land upon the mooring place upon the garden island where the initiate is taken from his coracle and received “at the stones” (probably a megalithic ring) in an embrace and conducted to his “father” and acknowledged a “complete Bard of the highest order” (Davies 252). The Bard is given a new name, Dedwydd, “one who has recovered intelligence” or one who “has been brought back into the presence” (Davies 252). A curious title as it is synonymous with the Greek Εποπτης, the name that describes the person who has been initiated into the greater mysteries of Eleusis.
In the Babylonian epic Gilgamesh must be led by Utnapishtim, who, like our Gwyddnaw, is the leader of the ark which sails between worlds. Osiris, too, is placed in an ark and led to his place of destiny. This brings to mind a series of flood and ark stories which all have correspondences whose import has never been satisfactorily explained. Clearly the Biblical Noah is such a chief figure, whose ark saved his family from a worldwide flood, though according to one old tradition the entrance into Noah’s ark was “esteemed a passage to death and darkness” (Davies 231); in other words the ark was a representation of the underworld. How could this be if it is the ark that is saving the human race from the world wide flood? It all makes perfect sense, however, if one understands the worldwide flood to be death itself which consumes all human flesh and whose spirits are consigned to the dark, foreboding deeps of the netherworld unless they are initiated within the boat, coracle, ark, or ship whose guide (Utnapishtim, Osiris, Noah, or Gwyddnaw) and his retinue lead the deceased to holy and blessed fields.
Dionysus is also said to have been placed within an ark (Brown 80); while in the Homeric hymn dedicated to this god Dionysus first appears, as if out of nowhere, “by the sand of an empty sea, how it was far out, on a promontory, how he was like a young man, an adolescent” (Boer 9). Like many of our mystery saviors Dionysus emerges from the sea. Moreover, the journey of the ship over the “divine sea” or the ark through the underworld is an image we find with numerous mythological heroes who have sailed the celestial axis of the ancient cosmos and have inherited lordship. A brief list of such ark-floating figures includes: Gilgamesh, Sargon, Osiris, Noah, Moses, Cyrus, Tammuz, Karna, Dionysus, Adonis, Jason, Perseus, Romulus, Siegfried, and Lohengrin, or the Knight of the Swan. Surprisingly, Oedipus himself is also depicted sailing in a chest or an ark on a Boeotian cup of the first century BCE (Edmunds 18), representing a portion of the Oedipus myth that has been lost. Remarkably, one possible etymology for the city of Thebes (Thebai) is tebah, a box or chest, itself a representation of the ark (Brown 194). Nor can we ignore the fact that in the Isis and Eleusis Mysteries, an ark or chest was carried by the procession of initiates which contained the secret tokens of the initiation which in turn symbolized eternal life.
The ark is the mystery precinct or temple where the initiation took place. Moreover the ark is a representation of the cosmos through which the journey is made. More specifically, the ark crossing the waters is an image of the deceased sailing through the underworld on his quest for eternal life, for it is only in the underworld that the secrets of resurrection and immortality are kept (Zimmer 84).
In other words, the answer Utnapishtim gives Gilgamesh may not be so strange after all. We have forgotten the uses to which myth was put. In the oral cult the myth of the flood may have been adapted to the journey through the cosmic waters of death, that consumes all the earth in time. Yet the deceased, placed in the appropriate ark, might find new and dry land upon which to land, in the next world.
Such are the turns of myth.
Read more in my upcoming book, Mythos and Cosmos: Mind and Meaning in the Oral Age.