When the hero Gilgamesh travels to Dilmun to seek (or more likely, wrest) the secret of immortality from Utnapishtim, the "Faraway," he is subjected to a little test by the latter. Gilgamesh must stay awake six days and seven nights as a proof that he is ready for immortality. The scene is of great interest for its symbolic undercurrents and its unexpectedly "scientific" turn of mind.

Gilgamesh hunkers down to wait out the necessary period, but "a mist of sleep like soft wool teased from fleece drifted over him." Utnapishtim pregnantly says, "Look at him now, the strong man who would have everlasting life, even now the mists of sleep are drifting over him." It will not escape anyone that here we are looking at an extremely early version of sleep as a metaphor for death. Gilgamesh's epic adventures are a literary recasting of the struggles and problems of human beings in general, and here, in the realm of symbolism, the everyman of the subtext rises close to the surface.

Gilgamesh struggles to stay awake a week; human beings in general struggle against encroaching death; the mist of sleep that comes over Gilgamesh stands for the slow, almost insensible creep of time and its effects. The hero's failure to stay awake parallels our failure to stay alive.

More interesting, perhaps, is the device Utnapishtim uses to prove to Gilgamesh that he in fact spent a week sleeping, rather than just nodding off at the last moment. Utnapishtim causes his wife to bake loaves of bread, one per day. He places the loaves by Gilgamesh's head, and marks off each corresponding day. In the end, "the first loaf was hard, the second loaf was like leather, the third was soggy, the crust of the fourth had mould, the fifth had mildewed, the sixth was fresh, and the seventh was still on the embers."

The natural spoilage of the bread, therefore, a phenomenon everyone knows, will prove to Gilgamesh that things have been going on while he has slept away six days. It is a neat device with an appealing logic. The fate of the loaves is not just a plot device but points clearly to the meaning of Gilgamesh's sleep. The sequence of spoilage--we might as well give the game away and call it 'decay'--mirrors decomposition in significant ways.

Now, it will hardly pay to expect a scientific grade of accuracy in describing the process of human decomposition, but the stages seem to me carefully thought out by the author.

Stage 1: Still on the embers. The body is still warm, perhaps with the last spark of life just dying.
Stage 2: Fresh. What Robert Louis Stevenson called a "mocking, tragical . . . residue," a ghostly semblance of life.
Stage 3: Mildewed. The first signs of decay. Mildew famously spots things but generally does not obscure them.
Stage 4: Mouldy. Earnest attack by bacteria and other agents; whiskers of mold obscure the object.
Stage 5: Soggy. The yucky part where the interior loses its structure, fills with liquified fat and things like putrescene gas, becomes swollen and soggy.
Stage 6: Leathery. If you've ever seen a long dead squirrel (or an Egyptian mummy, for that matter), you have seen the leathery stage.
Stage 7: Hard. Skeletal, I presume.

The author of the Gilgamesh has neatly sidestepped attack by insects (though he hasn't elsewhere in the epic), but apart from that, this is not too bad a recapitulation of the stages of decay in a hot, dry climate. Thus as Gilgamesh succumbs to sleep, symbolizing the victory of death over even the mightiest of people (not to mention all the rest), the events subsequent to death are brought vividly to life (as it were) through the device of showing mouldering loaves of bread. The bread serves to put us on notice as to the significance of Gilgamesh's inability to stay awake, and vice versa: the author of the Gilgamesh (and presumably his audience) evidently enjoyed the power of juxtaposed images linked in a symbolic realm.

Stevenson's 1878 essay "Aes Triplex," which examines various ways of confronting death (and ends up advocating a romantic one), should be read by everyone who appreciates good essay style. Here is the full quotation I briefly referred to above:

"Again, in taking away our friends, death does not take them away utterly, but leaves behind a mocking, tragical, and soon intolerable residue, which must be hurriedly concealed."


Sandars, N.K. 2002. Gilgamesh. In the Norton Anthology of World Literature second edition (2002), ed. Lawall and Mack, pp. 12-42.
Stevenson, Robert Louis. 1878. "Aes Triplex."