Gilgamesh wanders the wilderness, grieving for Enkidu. He declares that because he fears his own death, he will travel to find Utnapishtim, who survived a great flood and was granted everlasting life, allowing him to live in Dilmun, “in the garden of the sun.”
Having been transformed by Enkidu’s death, Gilgamesh now becomes obsessed with his own mortality. The “great flood” of the past parallels other mythical floods from cultures of the region—most famously, the flood of Noah in the Bible.
In his sleep, Gilgamesh dreams of the same lions he saw long ago in those same mountains. In the dream, Gilgamesh kills the lion with his axe and sword. After the dream, and after a long journey, Gilgamesh arrives at Mashtu, a mountain range that guards the rising and setting sun. Guards known as “Scorpions” guard its gate. They are half-man, half-dragon. One of the Scorpions says that Gilgamesh must be a god. The other responds, “Two thirds is god but one third is man.” Gilgamesh says he has travelled for Enkidu, to ask Utnapishtim about life and death. The Scorpion warns Gilgamesh that no mortal has ever travelled through the mountains, and that if Gilgamesh dares to, he will be in complete darkness for twelve leagues. He opens the gate for Gilgamesh and wishes him luck in his journey.
Driven to find immortality, Gilgamesh’s feats grow even more heroic. No man has ever passed through the mountains, but Gilgamesh’s fear of his own mortality is so strong that he risks death in order to find a way to overcome that mortality. This scene also shows another symbolic gate, a place where Gilgamesh must make a conscious decision to continue on his quest and transition from the world he knows to the dangerous mountains no mortal has ever passed through.
Gilgamesh soon finds himself in a darkness that becomes more and more complete as he travels, until he cannot see anything in front of or behind him. After eleven leagues, he begins to see light again, and after the twelfth league the sun reappears. He has arrived at the garden of the gods, where gems grow on plants and precious rocks and metal grow as fruit, thorns, and thistles. Shamash sees Gilgamesh approaching the sea in the garden of the gods, and warns Gilgamesh that no mortal has ever crossed the sea, and no mortal ever will. Shamash tells Gilgamesh that he will not find the secret to everlasting life. Gilgamesh says that, “Although I am no better than a dead man, still let me see the light of the sun.”
Gilgamesh’s travel through the darkness in part represents his separation from his divine protector: Shamash, the sun god. In this quest for immortality Gilgamesh is more alone than ever. Many powerful figures tell Gilgamesh that he cannot achieve immortality—that no matter what, he is destined to die someday—but he refuses to believe them, and continues on in the hope that some action of his can overcome destiny and the will of the gods. Gilgamesh is the strongest man on earth, but as this section of the epic shows, not even heroic deeds and great strength can overcome death.
Near the sea lives Siduri, who rules over the vines and makes wine. Seeing Gilgamesh, who is weary from travelling, she determines that he must be a criminal, and she bolts the door to her home shut. Gilgamesh shouts through the door, asking why she bolted it, and he threatens to smash through it if she does not open it. Siduri is suspicious: if he truly is the famous and strong Gilgamesh, then why does he look so gaunt despairing? Gilgamesh says that of course he looks gaunt and in despair, for he has made a long journey and his companion, Enkidu, has died. Siduri tells Gilgamesh that the gods will not allow him to achieve immortality, but that he should enjoy himself with the life that he does have, eating well, dancing, and raising a family.
Siduri’s question of why such a strong and famous king should look so mournful indicates the change that has occurred in Gilgamesh. At the story’s beginning, he cared only about heroism and fame. But the loss of Enkidu has saddened him and even affected him physically, and now he is concerned with death itself more than making a “name” for himself. Siduri urges him to take satisfaction in his mortal life as it is, but Gilgamesh is determined to continue on his quest. This is essentially a kind of hubris: refusing to accept his place as a mortal man.
But Gilgamesh refuses to comply. He demands that Siduri tell him how to get to Utnapishtim. Siduri tells him that crossing the sea is impossible and nobody has ever done it. Only Shamash, the sun, may cross it. Siduri tells Gilgamesh that deep in the forest he may find Urshanabi, “the ferryman of Utnapishtim.” She says it is possible the ferryman will take Gilgamesh across the water.
Gilgamesh is so driven to become immortal that he does not accept his own limits. He is explicitly told that only Shamash, a god, can cross the sea, but ignores this information. He believes himself capable of more than other mere mortals are.
Gilgamesh goes to find Urshanabi in the woods. In his anger, Gilgamesh smashes Urshanabi’s boat’s tackle. Urshanabi asks Gilgamesh he looks so gaunt and in despair, and Gilgamesh (again) asks why should he not, for his companion has died and now he fears death. Urshanabi tells Gilgamesh that because he destroyed the tackle of the boat, it is no longer safe to cross the water. Urshanabi tells Gilgamesh to cut him one hundred and twenty poles of wood, to coat them in bitumen (a crude asphalt), cap them with metal, and bring them back to him. Gilgamesh does what Urshanabi asks and they set off in the boat.
Fixated on finding immortality, Gilgamesh recklessly destroys the tackle of Urshanabi’s boat. Clearly he is not thinking straight, or practically, and this random act of destruction again shows Gilgamesh as a flawed hero. He is an epic hero not because he always does the right thing, but because he is so physically strong and he performs such heroic deeds.
For three days they travel and then arrive at the waters of death. Urshanabi tells Gilgamesh to use the poles to thrust into the water and move the boat along. He warns Gilgamesh not to let his hands touch the water. Gilgamesh thrusts each of the one hundred and twenty poles into the water behind them. Gilgamesh then strips himself and stands up, holding his clothing out to the side, using it as a sail to move the boat forward.
Gilgamesh may be acting recklessly, but he is still strong and courageous. He uses his body as a sail to move the boat forward, something that a lesser man could not do. Indeed, Gilgamesh has several times proved the gods wrong by now, and has done things they declared to be impossible. It makes sense that he’s still unwilling to give up on his goal of immortality, as thus far his strength has always been sufficient to get him what he wants.
Utnapishtim sees the boat in the distance and wonders how the boat has sailed there without its tackle or mast, “why are the sacred stones destroyed,” and why someone other than Urshanabi is sailing the boat. He asks Gilgamesh who he is and why he has come. Gilgamesh introduces himself. Again, with the same words used by Siduri and Urshanabi, Utnapishtim asks why Gilgamesh looks so gaunt and in despair, and Gilgamesh, again using the same words, asks why should he not look gaunt and in despair, for he has made a long journey and his companion has died.
From his first sight of Gilgamesh approaching, Utnapishtim regards his quest as futile and strange. The repetition of questions and answers is a familiar trope in many fables and archetypal stories.
Gilgamesh tells Utnapishtim that he has made the journey to see him. He asks Utnapishtim if he can ask him about life and death, and how to find the secret to eternal life. Utnapishtim replies: “There is no permanence. Do we build a house to stand for ever, do we seal a contract to hold for all time?” He tells Gilgamesh that divine judges and “the mother of destinies” come together to determine the fates of men. Gilgamesh tells Utnapishtim that “your appearance is no different than mine,” and that he is disappointed to find Utnapishtim, who he believed would be a great warrior, lying down and relaxed. He asks Utnapishtim how he became a god, and how he achieved immortality.
Once again, Gilgamesh is advised to accept his place in the universe as a mortal. But he cannot accept that his life will end and that all his deeds will be forgotten—he has seen this happen to his friend Enkidu, and cannot allow it to happen to himself. Urshanabi explains that the power to determine men’s fates lies with gods, not with men, but Gilgamesh refuses to accept this as well.