The Lament of Gilgamesh

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This poem was written when I was in Bahrain in the 1980-90s. The Legend of Gilgamesh has fascinated me for quite a long time and continues to do so.

For those who don’t know it, here’s a quick run-down garnered from Wikipedia: The Epic of Gilgamesh is a poem from Mesopotamia and among the earliest known works of literature. Scholars believe that it originated as a series of Sumerian legends and poems about Gilgamesh king of Uruk – which is in present day Iraq.

The story revolves around a relationship between Gilgamesh and his close friend Enkidu, with whom he undertakes many dangerous quests that incur the displeasure of the gods. In one of these quests the two friends kill the Bull of Heaven and so to punish them the gods have Enkidu killed. The latter part of the epic focuses on Gilgamesh’s distressed reaction to Enkidu’s death, which takes the form of a quest for immortality. In this quest Gilgamesh tries to learn the secret of eternal life by undertaking a long and perilous journey to meet the immortal flood hero, Utnapishtim and his wife, who are among the few survivors of the Great Flood, and the only humans to have been granted immortality by the gods. Gilgamesh comes to the twin peaks of Mt Mashu at the ends of the earth through the mountains along the Road of the Sun. He follows it for twelve “double hours” in complete darkness. Managing to complete the trip before the sun catches up to him, Gilgamesh arrives in a garden paradise full of jewel-laden trees; in another legend this is the place referred to as ‘Dilmun’.

Gilgamesh notices that Utnapishtim seems no different from himself and asks him how he obtained immortality. Utnapishtim tells an ancient story of how the gods decided to send a great flood – very similar to the Flood in the Bible and Noah’s Ark. The main point seems to be that Utnapishtim was granted eternal life in unique, never to be repeated circumstances. After instructing his ferryman to wash Gilgamesh and clothe him in royal robes, Utnapishtim prepares to send him back to Uruk. As they are leaving, Utnapishtim’s wife asks her husband to offer a parting gift. That’s when Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh of a boxthorn-like plant at the very bottom of the ocean that will make him young again. In some stories it is the pearls that are considered the “grapes of the sea” that will grant immortality. Gilgamesh obtains the plant by binding stones to his feet (very similar to how the early pearl divers of Bahrain used to descend to the sea bed) so he can walk on the bottom of the sea. He recovers the plant and plans to test it on an old man when he returns to Uruk. Unfortunately, when Gilgamesh stops to bathe, the plant is stolen by a serpent, which sheds its skin as it departs. There is a lot more and it is a far more complex epic than I have placed here.

In the Epic, Gilgamesh returns to Uruk, however, in my imagination, he never really leaves and the following poem draws on several myths around ancient Bahrain, using different names by which it was or supposedly was known – Dilmun, Tilmun, Nidukki, Kur-ni-tuk. Those interested may explore these further through that wonderful resource the Internet.

South, south he rushed

To the midst of the sea

To the place of the rising sun

To the place where some day

A king would live like a fish

Twelve double hours away.

 

The fifth king of Uruk was Gilgamesh

Descended five times from the time of the flood

And son of the goddess Ninsun

He sailed for a day

He sailed for a night

He sailed in search of Dilmun.

 

He wished to eat of the grapes of the sea

Those pearls from its bed would grant him

Eternal bliss and companionship

With the sage king Utnapishtim

In legendary Dilmun

In twice-blessed Dilmun.

 

Twice blessed by the god of sweet waters

Twice blessed by the god called Enki

So south he rushed south by southwest

And he met with a following wind

Until he came upon this jewelled isle

(A sad, far cry from Sumer).

 

Here the date palms stood tall sentinels

Their green arms stretched to the sky

Waving a warning from dusk until dawning

That this idyll would soon pass by.

 

But he heeded them not brave Gilgamesh

For he had reached the isle of his dreams

Then Gilgamesh dropped anchor

And entered the waters green

Where betwixt the salt through the seabed rose

The sweet waters of Bahr ein.

 

With stones on his feet down, down he dived

To the rocks where the pearl beds lay

He closed his eyes against the salt

He pinched his nose with a date palm peg

While he harvested those pearls of rose and grey

Harvested the grapes of eternal day

In the twice-blessed waters of a tiny bay

Off the island of Muharraq near Bahrain

Off the waters green that spread between

Muharraq and Bahrain.

 

How long he stayed beneath the waves

Neither he nor the sages could tell

But he took many shapes beneath the seas

Once a dugong shy then a dolphin spry

Then a shark then a dolphin again

And he sang a song a lament forlorn

Of what he saw had been done to Dilmun

And this was its burden long:

 

“Ah me Dilmun, Tilmun!

What became of your bearded palm trees green?

What became of your shingled shores?

What became of your soft undulating sands?

Of the burial mounds of your immortal clans?

Who has broken these temples and laid them bare

So that emptied and hollowed and ravaged they stare

At the sky and the taunting sun?

Ah me Nidukki!

Did the oil then come?

As Mesopotamia of old had foretold?

And is it true Kur-ni-tuk

That your pearls you forsook

For the sake of the black, black gold?”

 

And at night when a full moon is in the sky

And a Sambuk is sailing silently by

Old sailors at their fish traps say:

If you hear the shudder of an oil-tanker

Start up on a night such as this

Emanating from the sea comes a moan and a cry

And the lament of Gilgamesh.

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