Immortal Viper


I was interested to read this snaky passage in the ancient epic Gilgamesh. I'll take a stab at rendering it here (not that I read the lingo; I'm just updating older English versions). Our mythic hero has gone diving for the flowers that will protect him and his people from the horrors of death, when. . . . 



His shovel dug until the wounded earth
began to suppurate. He dug some more,
with naked hands he clawed the mud
aside until the mud was dirty water,
then water clean enough to drink but cold
as winter. Into this seeping blackness
he dove; beneath it, lit with a fungal light,
the plant grew, the one he'd heard would make
a man immortal. He took it in his hand
and it wounded him.
            Its thorns had teeth. Its roots refused
his invitations. He broke the bony stalk,
but the fiber of it resisted almost to the end
of the air he'd gulped. He saw the blood ravel out
like black strings from his wounded hand.
At last the plant gave way and he rose
through water cold enough to make his jaws ache.
In breathless panic he touched the rooty roof of the deep.
He couldn't find the opening he'd made.
He pawed and pushed for it and finally, his chest chilled
and on the verge of bursting, his head popped through.
He had to shoulder up and out as if from a womb.
Lying finally in the sun, his hand too cramped with cold
to let the plant go, he gulped the air. The wounded hand
bled a thread—red now—into the swirling mud.
The stalk he'd broken off was black as a charred bone.
Its leaves waved even in the shallow mud,
suspiring. As for the flowers along the stalk,
their hundreds of white foliations
lay folded within them. When he rubbed one flower
like a pebble between his finger and thumb,
it smelled of honey and blood and sexual dreams.

He found a pool where he could bathe and bind his hand,
in warm water exposed to the sun this time.
A stream ran into the pool and made it bubble and sing.
But from downstream a snake swam, drawn by the scent
of the flowers. In the water it tossed like a tassle in wind.
On land now, it seemed to pour like handfuls of wheat,
in no direction particularly, but somehow
its mixed motions moved it forward, toward the plant.
It made no sound. The bending of the grass made the man see.
He lunged out of the water to seize the snake.
It was gone with the flowers of immortality in its mouth.
And what the man had seized was its sloughed skin,
white as the hottest fire, the pattern of the snake's hide
lingering like a ghost's afterthought in the white. 


Photography by D'Arcy Allison-Teasley

2 comments:

  1. I had to read the Epic of Gilgamesh in college (I was somewhat familiar with the story already due to an abiding interest in folklore and myth as a kid) and recall this scene. It is interesting that, while the Hebrew Bible tells of man being induced by the snake to eat the fruit that confers knowledge of good and evil, but God evicts them before they can eat the fruit that confers immortality, the Babylonian epic has the snake actively steal the plant that would confer immortality and eat it...though from what I recall of Gilgamesh, he learns to accept mortality from this episode.

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  2. That's right. I think I translated that part, too--will see if I can find it.

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