Ancient Mesopotamia - Gilgamesh and the Tree of Eternal Life Illustration

Ancient Mesopotamia for Kids
Gilgamesh and the Tree of Eternal Life

Once upon a time, many thousands of years ago, the city of Uruk in ancient Sumer was ruled by a great king, King Gilgamesh, who was two-thirds god and one-third mortal. King Gilgamesh had magical powers, perhaps not as many as other gods, but still, he had some. He loved his people and he loved his magical powers. He also loved a good fight and a good adventure. Now and then, King Gilgamesh left his kingdom in the hands of his trusty Assembly of wise men, and went off looking for adventure. One of his favorite places to look was in the forbidden forest that bordered the city of Uruk. You never knew what might happen in the forest. But that day, nothing much was happening.

King Gilgamesh sighed heavily. He sat down on a handy log and gazed at the mountain tops, barely visible, way off in the distance. No one had ever traveled to the mountains to take a better look or to see what was on the other side, not even Gilgamesh. The King had heard stories, though, about an incredible plant of everlasting life that could be found on the other side of the mountains. It was just an old wives tale, but still, having nothing better to do, King Gilgamesh started walking. After 40 days and 40 nights, Gilgamesh came to a pass in the mountains. Two extremely big, very huge demon scorpions guarded the pass.

“Go back, little man,” sneered the twin demon scorpions. 

“Do you know who I am?” thundered Gilgamesh. “I am Gilgamesh the GOD. Get out of my way, you stupid bugs,” he snarled. 

The demons knew the name of Gilgamesh. Some of the monsters that had limped through the pass told awful tales of the horrible Gilgamesh, pointing to a missing tail here and a ripped out claw there. Gilgamesh! With a pop, the scorpions disappeared.

Gilgamesh crossed through the pass, and entered the kingdom on the other side. In the distance, he saw a beautiful palace. Near the palace was a rather large boat. The boat was tilted to one side, flat on the ground. There was no town, no river, no sea; there was not even a moat. There was only a boat and a palace. The King and Queen who lived in the palace seemed very nice. They invited him to stay the night. Gilgamesh accepted.

Over dinner, the Queen asked Gilgamesh if he was having a nice trip, as she assumed he was out and about, visiting lands near his own kingdom of Uruk.

“I happened to notice your boat,” said Gilgamesh, mostly to change the subject.

“My boat!” beamed the King. “Isn’t she a beauty? I built it after the gods warned me about the flood. I loaded the boat with every kind of plant and animal. When the rains came, I loaded my family as well. For six days and six nights, rain poured down. It rained so hard that my boat was soon afloat. On the seventh day, it finally stopped raining. It took a few days for the water to ease away. When we opened the hatches, all the animals and all the people walked off the boat. We built this palace, and scattered the seeds to the winds. And that’s how the world began for the second time. We did it!  My Queen and I.”

Gilgamesh shook his head in wonder. The King’s accomplishments made his own seem very small and unimportant. It occurred to him that if anyone knew where the plant of eternal life might be found, this would be the person to ask.

The King hesitated. He did know, but did he wish to tell this brash young man? This would take thought.

Gilgamesh thanked his hosts for a most delicious dinner and took himself to bed. He was so tired after his long walk that he slept for six days and six nights. While he slept, the Queen convinced her husband to tell Gilgamesh the secret of everlasting life.

“He seems like a good boy,” said the Queen. “He’s traveled so far. And he did listen to your boat story without interrupting once.”

“That’s true,” nodded the King. “That was very polite of him.”

Which just goes to show that good manners do pay off. When Gilgamesh finally woke from his nap, and after a huge delicious breakfast of mounds and mounds of pancakes, the King told Gilgamesh how to find the plant of everlasting life.

“You have to dive into the deepest part of the ocean,” the King said. “Then, you have to defeat the giant octopus and cut one branch only from the tree of life.”

Gilgamesh was excited. He could do that. He could dive to the deepest part of the ocean on one breath. In fact, he knew right where the giant octopus hung out. He usually avoided that part of the ocean. He liked to battle monsters, but he needed air to do it well.

Gilgamesh set off that very day, back towards home and the ocean. Once there, he grabbed some heavy rocks and dove to the bottom of the sea. Gilgamesh quickly hit the octopus with the rocks he carried. While the octopus was stunned, Gilgamesh broke off one branch from the tree of life, shot towards the surface of the sea, and swam to shore.

He was going to eat his plant right away. Then he thought he might hurry into town, waving his prize. Then he decided what he really wanted to do was throw a huge party, apologize to the town for his hideous behavior in the past, promise to change, and then eat the tree of life and live forever!

Happily, he curled up, hugging his branch, and fell asleep. While he was sleeping, the gods sent a snake to steal the branch. Only true gods could live forever. Gods that were only two-thirds gods simply did not qualify. The snake crawled quietly up to Gilgamesh and ate the plant! That was not was he was supposed to do. In anger, the gods punished the snake by making it crawl on its belly forever.

As for Gilgamesh, when he woke up and found the plant gone, he wasn’t worried. He knew he could dive down and get another branch whenever he wanted. So rather than dive down again right then, Gilgamesh headed for his hometown, wanting only a warm bath and a great dinner.

As time went on, Gilgamesh enjoyed many more adventures. But he never seemed to find time to dive back down and get another branch from the plant of everlasting life. Why was that, I wonder?


STORIES: Here is another story from The Epic of Gilgamesh, retold by Lin Donn: Gilgamesh: Gilgamesh Makes a Rather Unusual Friend - illustrated PowerPoint for kids

Here is another, offered by the British Museum: Gilgamesh and the Cedar Forest

Other Myths and Stories about Ancient Mesopotamia

Interactive Quiz about the Land Between Two Rivers (with answers)