The Epic Quest for Eden

What must it have been like for the first man and woman, to be expelled from paradise?

Beyond the unbearable guilt, there was must have been the sheer horror of it all: banishment from the presence of God, not to mention from a habitable garden with abundant food to a world of scarcity and wild beasts. Then there was the terror of death.

Scripture itself says little of what went through the minds of Adam and Eve or their descendants as they contemplated the loss of Eden, and, with it, everlasting life.

But we don’t have to imagine: One of the oldest texts in the world gives us a moving depiction of one ancient king and his epic quest for Eden.

The Epic of Gilgamesh was written sometime around 2000 B.C.—that’s more than a millennium before Homer and even before all of the Old Testament books, with the possible exception of Job. Yes, even before Genesis, which under the most conservative estimates was composed in 1445 B.C.

The epic was found on a bunch of clay tablets in the ruins of ancient Nineveh by a British explorer in 1850. Written in Akkadian cuneiform script, it was not until two decades later that a museum worker translated the work and discovered what has turned out to be one of the great literary treasures of the ancient world. When it comes to epic story-telling, the adventure, pathos, and philosophical depth of the Epic of Gilgamesh is the peer of any of the great works of the later Romans and Greeks.

The story centers on an ancient Mesopotamian king Gilgamesh and his friend Enkidu—their friendship, their noble quest, the untimely death of Enkidu, and Gilgamesh’s epic journey to find the secret of immortality so that he might avoid the fate of his dear companion.

After Enkidu’s death, Gilgamesh is so overcome with grief that he went in exile from his city into the wilderness. But it is more than just grief that struck him. Gilgamesh also was seized by an unknown fear:

Must I die too? Must I be as lifeless as Enkidu? How can I bear this sorrow that gnaws at my belly, this fear of death that restlessly drives me onward? If only I could find the one man whom the gods made immortal, I would ask him how to overcome death (Book IX, from Stephen Mitchell’s translation).

Gilgamesh is determined to avoid the same fate. And so he embarks upon an epic journey to find this immortal, a man named Utnapishtim, who survived the great Deluge. (Utnapishtim may be the historical Noah found in the Old Testament, a question beyond our consideration here.)

To reach Utnapishtim, Gilgamesh must travel to the underworld racing through the same tunnel that the sun uses when it passes under the earth at night before rising again—this, all of course according to pre-modern cosmology of ancient Mesopotamia. On the other side, his journey is fraught with many perils and encounters with strange beings and characters. But he finally makes it to the immortal one.

Utnapishtim refuses to divulge the secret to immortality until Gilgamesh first passes a test: staying awake for seven days. If he can cheat sleep, perhaps he can cheat the sleep of death, so Utnapishtim says. Worn out from his trials and tribulations, Gilgamesh immediately falls into a deep slumber.

He is later awakened and panics when he realizes his failure. But at last Utnapishtim takes pity on him and discloses the secret to immortality: it can be obtained from a plant that grows on the bottom of the ocean. If Gilgamesh can pluck it, he will find immortality. Of course, we know what he was really looking for was Eden—for the fruit of the tree of life from which man had been banished so long ago.

Amazingly, Gilgamesh is able to perform the feat—only to have the special elixir of immortality snatched away from him by a snake!

(A side note: in this story of the plant and the snake we again have echoes in this secular story of the Genesis story, evidence perhaps of a shared memory of the events of Genesis. Of course, only the Book of Genesis contains the divinely inspired and authoritative account of those events.)

When he had first met Utnapishtim, Gilgamesh had lamented his struggle and its seeming futility:

I have wandered the world, climbed the most treacherous mountains, crossed deserts, sailed the vast ocean, and sweet sleep has rarely softened my face. I have worn myself out through ceaseless striving, I have filled my muscles with pain and anguish. 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? … Now let the gate of sorrow be closed behind me, and let it be sealed shut with tar and pitch (Book X).

Such was the existential despair of early man without Eden.

At the end of the Gilgamesh Epic, we find our titular hero returning to his home city of Uruk. He points out the city’s many magnificent features to Utnapishtim’s boatman, who had accompanied him on his way back. But after all he has been through and sought after, his words of pride ring hollow. No city, no human achievement or art can replace the beauty of the Garden of Eden.

The story ends there. We can imagine that Gilgamesh returned to his post as king, overseeing the mundane affairs of his city as he did once before. But he could not have been truly satisfied with his life, such as it was. One suspects that Gilgamesh remained restless at heart, while resigning himself to a life without hope for one after.

His story is not an invitation to us to imitate him, but to gain greater appreciation of the hope that we have been given in Christ—the hope that someday we will not only return to paradise, but one even more glorious than the Eden of old.

image: Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg) / WikiMedia Commons

Stephen Beale

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Stephen Beale is a freelance writer based in Providence, Rhode Island. Raised as an evangelical Protestant, he is a convert to Catholicism. He is a former news editor at GoLocalProv.com and was a correspondent for the New Hampshire Union Leader, where he covered the 2008 presidential primary. He has appeared on Fox News, C-SPAN and the Today Show and his writing has been published in the Washington Times, Providence Journal, the National Catholic Register and on MSNBC.com and ABCNews.com. A native of Topsfield, Massachusetts, he graduated from Brown University in 2004 with a degree in classics and history. His areas of interest include Eastern Christianity, Marian and Eucharistic theology, medieval history, and the saints. He welcomes tips, suggestions, and any other feedback at bealenews at gmail dot com. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/StephenBeale1

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