The Oldest Man in the World

Utnapishtim was the world’s oldest man in Sumerian and Babylonian mythology.  He survived the Great Flood and knew the secret of life and death.  His name means “He who saw life”.  He is also known as Atrachasis, “the exceptional wise one.” 

Depending on the version of the myth, he was either a priest-king of Shurrupak, one of the oldest cities of Mesopotamia on the bank of the Euphrates, or simply an extremely wise citizen of that city.  On the eleventh tablet of the Gilgamesh epic, Utnapishtim tells the story of the flood and his survival.

When the gods planned to destroy noisy and troublesome mankind with a flood, the god Ea, who was a friend of mankind, intervened to save the creatures of the earth.  He instructed Utnapishtim to tear down his house and build a ship.

     “Abandon your possessions

      And the works that you find beautiful and crave

      And save your life instead.  Into the ship

      Bring the seed of all the living creatures.”  (Gilgamesh, tr. by Herbert Mason)

Utnapishtim built a cube-shaped ship, seven stories high, each with nine chambers.  He stored food, wine, precious minerals, and “seed of living animals”.  His family and any others who chose moved inside, including craftsmen and a navigator.  When the time came, Ea ordered Utnapishtim to close the door.   The flood lasted for seven days, wreaking such havok that even the gods were overcome with sorrow.

When the flood began to subside, Utnapishtim surveyed the dead bodies, and fell down on the ship’s deck and wept, struggling with the horror.  The dove, the swallow and the raven found land.  The people left the ship.  For a long time, Utnapishtim stayed in the boat, unable to face the death outside. 

The god Enlil (god of earth, wind and spirit)  visited Utnapishtim and touched his forehead and blessed his family.

       “Before this you were just a man, but now

        You and your wife shall be like gods.  You

        Shall  live in the distance at the rivers’ mouth,

        At the source.” 

Utnaptishtim consented to live far away from his former home and everything he had known.  In some versions of the story, he pleased the gods by re-instituting animal sacrifices to feed them.

He was visited in his isolated retreat by Gilgamesh, who was looking for a way to bring his friend Enkidu.  Utnapishtim refused, saying that eternal life was too hard to bear.  “It is not easy to live like gods.”  (In another version of the myth, Utnapishtim promised to give Gilgamesh the secret if he could stay awake for seven days.  Gilgamesh failed the test.)

Utnapishtim called to the boatman to bathe Gilgamesh, change his clothes, and take him back across the sea of death to his former life.  Utnapishtim’s wife urged her husband to help Gilgamesh, reminding him of the great grief he had experienced.  At the last minute, Utnapishtim revealed the secret of immortality: a magic plant in the river.  Gilgamesh retrieved the plant, but it was eaten by a snake before he got home.

The archetypical figure of Utnapishtim was echoed, much later, in the Old Testament.  Methuselah lived longer than any other man.  Noah built a great ark to ensure the survival of mankind and the animals.

Extremely old people, who outlive their siblings, friends, children and sometimes even their grandchildren, share the loneliness of Utnapishtim.  Immortality is not as wonderful as we imagine.