Few people would expect a radically modern attitude toward religion or the gods from the oldest story in the world. The epic of Gilgamesh is a story over a thousand years older than the Iliad or the Bible. It was only discovered – written in Cuneiform on hundreds of baked clay tablets – in 1850, and the text wasn’t deciphered and translated until the end of the 19th century. Stephen Mitchell, the author and translator of many religious and poetic pieces – and whose translation and commentary I’m relying on here — has said that Gilgamesh “is a work that in the intensity of its imagination stands beside the great stories of Homer and the Bible.” German poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) wrote: “Gilgamesh is stupendous! I consider it to be among the greatest things that can happen to a person. I have immersed myself in it, and in these truly gigantic fragments I have experienced measures and forms that belong with the supreme works that the conjuring Word has ever produced.”
The story lives up to its hype. Gilgamesh was a historical person who ruled the city of Uruk in what is now Iraq over 4,750 years ago. He saw himself as “modern” because writing had just been invented in Mesopotamia a couple centuries earlier. At any rate, his religious questions – and his answer – sound a bit ahead of all times, including ours.
He didn’t question the existence of the gods. He knew they existed – he had even killed one!* Instead, he asked whether or not the gods were of any use to people. He had lost his soulmate, the wild man Enkidu, who really was his other half, his completion. The gods were angered at Gilgamesh for killing one of them, though they blamed the wild Enkidu for his brash threats against the other gods. But killing a god demanded vengeance, and the gods decided to kill Enkidu, who fell ill and died several days later. So the gods needed to be considered, but killing the only person Gilgamesh had truly or deeply loved didn’t make them useful. (Some translators say the original text implies a sexual relationship between the two men.)
Consumed by grief, Gilgamesh no longer saw a meaning or purpose to this life, and wondered if the gods could at least grant him immortality as reparation for the deep pain of living without his soulmate.
There were no contemporary reports of the gods doing this, but there was the legend of an old man named Utnapishtim and his wife, who were granted immortality long ago for making an ark to survive The Flood. (This was the original story, from which the much later Flood story in the Bible was derived.)
Gilgamesh traveled to the ends of the earth, where he found that the legend was true. He put his questions to old Utnapishtim: What is it, this immortality business? Can the gods do it? Where can he find them to make his case? But Utnapishtim told Gilgamesh the gift of immortality had been given to him and his wife as a one-time deal, and the gods didn’t do that any more.
Disappointed, Gilgamesh asked just what we might ask today: were there any pharmaceuticals that could do the trick? Yes, there was one, but it too was just a one-time deal. It was a plant that grew at the bottom of a deep lake, but had the power to remove the fear of death – and perhaps to make one young again.
Gilgamesh feared death, but not a deep lake. He swam to the bottom, got the magical plant, and returned to his boat. He rowed to shore – he was still very far from home – and when he saw a clear pool, he got in to bathe, leaving the magic pharmaceutical plant lying beside the pool. Anyone who understands stories will know this was a mistake. The plant was eaten by a snake, which then quickly slithered away – shedding its skin as it went.
With the loss of that magical plant, all hope of living forever vanished, giving Gilgamesh much to think about on his long trip home. Yet it was during that trip home that he finally came to his wisdom: the wisdom that could indeed remove the fear of death. He had built great walls around the city of Uruk, and knew those walls would let at least his name live on. So, he realized, we can find an earthly sort of immortality through things we do and build. And the wisdom about living – which had been offered to him early in his journey when he was not ready – was finally his to own:
“Savor your food, make each of your days a delight, bathe and anoint yourself, wear bright clothes that are sparkling clean, let music and dancing fill your house, love the child who holds you by the hand, and give your wife pleasure in your embrace. That is the best way for a man to live.”
He rebuilt the temple that was sacred to Ishtar – a move to calm his people, though a kind of calm he no longer needed. (So from the start, there was a naïve literal form of religion for the masses, and a nuanced form for the spiritually adept. It’s reminiscent of Seneca the Younger’s famous quote: “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.”) For Gilgamesh, the gods were useless, and the meaning of life had to be found through plunging fully into this life here and now rather than worrying about one that he knew would never come elsewhere and later.
In believing the gods existed but were useless, he was neither a theist nor an atheist. He was, in the world’s oldest story, the first person whose attitude about the gods can be called apatheism. The gods are there, but he just didn’t care, and proceeded to live the rest of his life fully and well without worrying about them, filled instead with friends, dancing, music, love, creating things, writing poems, and rejoicing in the awe-inspiring but transient gift of life. Then, when the time came, he would just slide away, out of this life which, if lived fully and well, was quite enough. Many people today may still find Gilgamesh’s solution to the meaning of life to be more life-giving and empowering than the answers to be found in a lot of churches.