Uršanabi the Immortal
 

"The sun in his glory crosses the ocean, but who else besides Šamaš has ever crossed it ?  The place and the passage are hasardous and the waters of death are deep that flow between"


The Epic of Gilgameš

 
Puzur-Amurri was born in the West, where, a young man, he fought in a battle whose causes he did not understand against a king he had never heard of, found himself on the losing side and was carried off to a city called Šuruppak, on the banks of a river far greater than any he had ever seen.  He was given in slavery to a prince named
   
Utnapištim, and set to work in the marshes to catch carp for the pleasure of the royal household.  Later, he manned a trading ship belonging to his master, and sailed to far-off lands of legend, where he met people whose tongue had never resounded in the streets of Šurrupak.  In time, for he was born to the ocean, he became the steersman of the pride of the docks of Šurrupak, second only to the captain.  But still a slave.
All this was impossibly long ago, before the Flood, before the decision of Enlil, ratified by the Divine Assembly cowed before him, to drown all humankind for the simple reason that their proliferation and their chatter kept the King of the Gods awake at night.  Enki, the lord of the watery Abyss, threw however his protection over mankind, and warned Utnapištim, Puzur-Amurri's master, of the impending disaster.
The prince,  at Enki's bidding, began the construction of a huge ship, into which he piled the animals, bird and plants of the land, his kin, his gold.  Puzur-Amurri oversaw the construction of this vessel that he would have between his hands as the floodwaters rose to drown all he had ever known.  Just as he was told, he lied to the other citizens of Šuruppak about the ark, telling them only that his Prince had incurred Enlil's wrath and, in consequence, was heading into exile in a far-away land.  This terrible lie haunts Puzur-Amurri to this very day, but not as much of the memory of the days that followed.  The storm came : Adad rode in the towering black clouds, rending the heavens with his voice of thunder; the gods of the Underworld pulled over the dams of the dark waters beneath the surface of the Earth, and Ninurta the god of war overthrew the dykes of Sumer.  The Seven Judges of the Nether World raised their torches and lit the land with a livid flame, and Puzur-Amurri manned his tiller, staring into the heart of the storm from which even the gods finished by fleeing, sobbing in the Assembly.  Like the spawn of fish the people of Sumer floated in the ever-expanding Ocean.
When the waters finally receded, the ship grounded on Mount Nisir, and Utnapištim's kin descended from the boat and made offerings to the gods that had betrayed them.  Enlil, moved at first to destroy them, finally offered his blessing, and offered to Utnapishtim and his wife immortal life, on the condition that they remained distant from mortal men.  He gave to them for a home the island paradise of Dilmun-the-Pure.  And Puzur-Amurri thought that he might be able at last to go home, for if he knew that the cities and men of Sumer had returned to clay, he had no idea what might have happened in the distant West.
Yet slavery is not a state which one escapes easily. Enlil gave to Puzur-Amurri a new name, Uršanabi, to mark immortal life and a new cycle of servitude.
  Oil painting by Ginés Quiñonero
 
Uršanabi
 
   
G I L G A M E Š
AN IMMORTAL IN SUMER
     
In the world of men, time drifted by until it could be counted in thousands of years, and one day Gilgameš came to sit on the throne of Uruk.
Who does not know the story of Gilgameš ?  The Great King of many deeds, in which the savage Enkidu was his unfailing companion.  Enkidu, whose tragic death, maniganced by the goddess Ištar, brought the youthful Gilgameš face to face with his own mortality, and drove him on a quest across the steppes to seek out Utnapištim and discover from him the secret of eternal life.  Gilgameš, who passed through the tunnel between the mountains of the West and the East, trod in the garden of Šamaš and came, finally, to the shores of the great Ocean where Uršanabi had moored his boat and was fishing on the beach.
And like many before him, the Immortal took pity on the wanderer whose face was burnt by sun and wind and engraven with sorrow.  He broke the law of the cosmos in carrying the King of Uruk across the very Waters of Death, to Dilmun-the-Pure, where Gilgameš, to his surprise, would find Utnapištim laying nonchalantly in the lush grass.
The price for Uršanabi's transgression was eternal banishment from the shores of Dilmun.  A punishment that, at first, he considered lightly - free at last !  Free to accompany Gilgameš back to Uruk-of-the-Strong-Walls or to any other city he might choose.  Free to live out an infinite number of cycles of Sun and Moon, to both of whose secrets he is privy...
 
Uršanabi has been living in Sumer for nine hundred years now.  He has buried Gilgameš, gone at last to his fate, watched dynasties of kings rise and crumble into dust, watched cities being built and being burned.  He has been a sailor, a merchant, a mercenary, a weaver, a courtier, a farmer, a hermit in the mountains; he has lived in Uruk, in Mari, in Assur, before settling down or, rather, slowly falling into immobility, in Ur, watching with increasing lassitude the dreary world go by...
His is a complex character.  The gods had a reason to deny immortality to Gilgameš and to distance Utnapištim from the world, for if nothing is truly inevitable, the desperation is greater still to see history repeating itself almost inexorably.  Uršanabi himself lives in a rhythm measured not in days but in years.  Whereas some are ill-tempered in the morning or under the hot afternoon sun, and cheerful and sociable the evening come, Urshanabi can spend an entire year in a bad mood.  He can be witheringly insulting and wounding, after all, what is there to lose, in a hundred years no-one will remember.
Although he has had many wives and given genesis to numerous families, he lives at present alone, in a modest abode close to the ziqqurat at Ur.  To provide himself with an income he volunteers for corvee work and holds a post as namsita to the Moon God; during the last ten days of each month, it is he who prepares the food for Nanna's table.