The Ancient Roots of The Shepherd: The First Journey in the Afterlife
What happens after we die? It’s an eternal question, asked by humans from the earliest recorded history.
It is not an accident that the oldest extant piece of literature presents its protagonist grappling with this question. That piece of literature, the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, dates from perhaps as far back as 2100 BCE in Sumerian cuneiform. Because none of the surviving versions of the Epic are complete, scholars have divided the various versions into two major categories: an Old Babylonian tradition that dates from around 1750-1600 BCE and a Neo-Assyrian tradition that dates from around 750-612 BCE. There are also fragments that have survived from the Middle Babylonian period around 1250 BCE.
In many ways, the Epic of Gilgamesh is a superhero story. Gilgamesh himself is the product of a human father and mother who happens to be a goddess. He is described as “two-thirds of him is god, one-third of him is human” (Tablet 1).
Gilgamesh is “awesome to perfection” and it is claimed that “there is no rival who can raise his weapon against him.” He is (ironically) referred to as “the shepherd of Uruk-Haven” (a kingly metaphor). Apparently, his sexual exploits with the sons and daughters of Uruk (as in all of them) cause the people to appeal for the help of the God Anu. They beg the God to send Gilgamesh an “equal to his stormy heart.”
In response, the God commissions the goddess Aruru to create Enkidu, described as a “savage fellow” whose “whole body was shaggy with hair” and who lived in perfect communion with the animals. This Tarzan-like character, is described as “the mightiest in the land, he is strongest, his strength is mighty as the meteorite(!) of Anu!”
Gilgamesh and Enkidu, like many superheroes, battle when they first meet (see Tablet 2) but eventually win each other’s respect and become best of friends.
The two enjoy a series of battles and adventures, including a battle with the nightmare demon Humbaba and, after insulting the love goddess Ishtar, a brutal clash with Ishtar’s father’s “pet,” the Bull of Heaven.
The affront to Ishtar does not, however, go unpunished. Shortly after their victory against the Bull of Heaven, Enkidu falls ill, a disease that will prove terminal. While lying on what will become his deathbed, Enkidu relates a dream he has had about the afterlife, the place he calls “the House of Dust” (Tablet 7):
"Listen, my friend, to the dream that I had last night.
The heavens cried out and the earth replied,
and I was standing between them.
There appeared a man of dark visage--
his face resembled the Anzu,"
his hands were the paws of a lion,
his nails the talons of an eagle!--
he seized me by my hair and overpowered me.
I struck him a blow, but he skipped about like a jump rope,
and then he struck me and capsized me like a raft,
and trampled on me like a wild bull.
He encircled my whole body in a clamp.
'Help me, my friend" (I cried),
but you did not rescue me, you were afraid and did not.. ."
"Then he... and turned me into a dove,
so that my arms were feathered like a bird.
Seizing me, he led me down to the House of Darkness,
the dwelling of Irkalla,
to the house where those who enter do not come out,
along the road of no return,
to the house where those who dwell, do without light,
where dirt is their drink, their food is of clay,
where, like a bird, they wear garments of feathers,
and light cannot be seen, they dwell in the dark,
and upon the door and bolt, there lies dust.
On entering the House of Dust,
everywhere I looked there were royal crowns gathered in heaps,
everywhere I listened, it was the bearers of crowns,
who, in the past, had ruled the land,
but who now served Anu and Enlil cooked meats,
served confections, and poured cool water from waterskins.
In the house of Dust that I entered
there sat the high priest and acolyte,
there sat the purification priest and ecstatic,
there sat the anointed priests of the Great Gods.
There sat Etana, there sat Sumukan,
there sat Ereshkigal, the Queen of the Netherworld.
Beletseri, the Scribe of the Netherworld, knelt before her,
she was holding the tablet and was reading it out to her Ereshkigal.
She raised her head when she saw me----
'Who has taken this man?'”
When Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh mourns bitterly (Tablet 8). But then his thoughts turn to his own mortality (Tablet 9) and he voices his fear of death. Motivated by this fear, Gilgamesh sets off to find Utanapishtim, the son of Ubartutu, a man who has achieved immortality in hope that Utanapishtim might be able to share his secrets.
He sets off on a journey and comes to Mount Mashu, the gate to the afterlife which is guarded by scorpion beings (Tablet 9):
Then he reached Mount Mashu,
which daily guards the rising and setting of the Sun,
above which only the dome of the heavens reaches,
and whose flank reaches as far as the Netherworld below,
there were Scorpion-beings watching over its gate.
Trembling terror they inspire, the sight of them is death,
their frightening aura sweeps over the mountains.
At the rising and setting they watch over the Sun.
When Gilgamesh saw them, trembling terror blanketed his face,
but he pulled himself together and drew near to them.
The scorpion-being called out to his female:
"He who comes to us, his body is the flesh of gods!"
The scorpion-being, his female, answered him:
"(Only) two-thirds of him is a god, one-third is human."
The male scorpion-being called out,
saying to the offspring of the gods:
"Why have you traveled so distant a journey?
Why have you come here to me,
over rivers whose crossing is treacherous!
The scorpion creatures eventually grant Gilgamesh access, and he travels down the extremely long road that leads into the afterlife. He travels eleven leagues before he finally sees the sunrise (about 60 miles)! By the time Gilgamesh has traveled twelve leagues, he emerges into a forest with jewel-encrusted foliage, with branches laden with fruit (Tablet 9).
The first person Gilgamesh meets in the afterlife is the female tavern-keeper, Siduri. At first, she mistakes him for a murderer based on his appearance but eventually helps him by directing him to see the ferryman, Urshanabi. Of course, Gilgamesh’s first encounter with Urshanabi is complicated by Gilgamesh’s customary rashness (see Tablet 10). However, despite the usual complications common to epic journeys, the ferryman does help him cross the Waters of Death (which cannot be touched or the one who touches them will die) so he can go to the island of Dilmun where Utanapishtim lives.
After much effort, Gilgamesh and the ferryman arrive at Dilmun and encounter Utanapishtim who asks Gilgamesh about his haggard appearance. In response, Gilgamesh relates his whole sad story. Upon hearing of Gilgamesh’s desperate search for immortality, Utanapishtim chides him:
You have toiled without cease, and what have you got!
Through toil you wear yourself out,
you fill your body with grief,
your long lifetime you are bringing near (to a premature end) (Tablet 10)!
Utanapishtim explains that death is humanity’s lot. It comes to all of us, and there is no escaping it. He states: “The face that could gaze upon the face of the Sun has never existed ever (Tablet 10).”
Gilgamesh retorts that Utanapishtim looks just like him, so how is it that HE is immortal and Gilgamesh is not? Of course, this sets up Utanapishtim to relate his story, that of the Great Flood (Tablet 11).
Utnapishtim relates how a great flood was brought to the world by the god Enlil, who wanted to destroy all of mankind for the noise and confusion they caused. Luckily, the god Ea pitied Utnapishtim and warned him, encouraging him to build a ship and put his family, his workers, and his animals on board. The rains came and destroyed everything, except the boat and its passengers.
In the aftermath, Utanapishtim made offerings to the gods. Enlil was angry anyone survived, but Ea advised him accept the outcome. In the end, Enlil blesses Utnapishtim and his wife and gives them life, taking them to the realm of the gods and allowing them to live on the island of Dilmun.
After relating his story, Utnapishtim offers Gilgamesh a chance to attain immortality—albeit halfheartedly. He challenges Gilgamesh to stay awake for six days and seven nights, but Gilgamesh falls asleep and stays asleep for seven! Not sparing Gilgamesh’s feelings, Utnapishtim derides his failure and sends him back to Uruk.
Gilgamesh goes to leave, but Utnapishtim’s wife asks her husband to give Gilgamesh something so that he can return to his city with some honor left intact:
The wife of Utanapishtim the Faraway said to him:
"Gilgamesh came here exhausted and worn out.
What can you give him so that he can return to his land (with
Utanapishtim considers her request and answers to Gilgamesh:
"Gilgamesh, you came here exhausted and worn out.
What can I give you so you can return to your land?
I will disclose to you a thing that is hidden, Gilgamesh,
a... I will tell you.
There is a plant... like a boxthorn,
whose thorns will prick your hand like a rose.
If your hands reach that plant you will become a young
Gilgamesh is able to get the plant by attaching stones to his feet and walking on the sea floor. He has big plans to use the plant to help the old men of Uruk. To his chagrin, he leaves the plant on the shore while he bathes and a snake comes along and takes it (thereby explaining how snakes are able to rejuvenate themselves by sloughing their skin).
At that point Gilgamesh sat down, weeping,
his tears streaming over the side of his nose.
"Counsel me, O ferryman Urshanabi!
For whom have my arms labored, Urshanabi!
For whom has my heart's blood roiled!
I have not secured any good deed for myself,
but done a good deed for the 'lion of the ground'!"
In sorrow, Gilgamesh disconsolately returns to his own city, Uruk.
In the end, this first human epic that explores the afterlife ends with the reminder that immortality is not the possession of humanity. Rather, all of us must make the journey to “the House of Dust.” Make no mistake, the Epic of Gilgamesh is the Father of The Shepherd graphic novel series.
Note: All quotes from the Epic of Gilgamesh are taken from http://www.ancienttexts.org/