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Gilgamesh, Search, and Immortality

By - July 30, 2004

gilgameshtabWhy Search?

On a fine sunny morning, not long after the birth of my third child, I typed “immortality” into Google and hit the “I’m feeling lucky” button.

In an instant, Google takes me to the “Immortality Institute,” dedicated to “conquering the blight of involuntary death.”

Not quite what I was looking for. So I hit the search again, but this time I took a look at the first ten results, etched in blue, green, and black against Google’s eternal white. Nothing really caught my eye. Cyronics stuff, a business called Immortality Inc. – pretty much what you might expect. I couldn’t put what I was looking for into words, but I knew this wasn’t it.

Then I noticed the advertising relegated to the right side of the screen.

There were four ads. The first was someone who claimed to have met “immortal ETs.” Pass. The third and fourth were from eBay and Yahoo! Shopping. These mega sites had purchased the “immortality” keyword in some odd and obliquely interesting hope that people searching for immortality might somehow find relief through…buying shit online. (In fact what Yahoo and eBay were doing was a sort of secondary search arbitrage – buying top positions for a search term on Google and then creating a link to the exact same search term on their own site). Interesting, but I wasn’t searching immortality so I could go buy stuff. I took a pass on those as well.

But the second paid link pointed to the Epic of Gilgamesh, “mankind’s first epic,” which I hazily recalled as the first story ever written down – in Sumerian cuneiform, if memory served (and it did, thanks to my mother, a middle school English teacher for 25 years). I clicked on the link – by that action earning Google a few ephemeral pennies – and landed on an obscure bookseller’s page. The Epic of Gilgamesh, the site instructed me, recounts mankind’s “longing stretch toward the infinite” and its “reluctant embrace of the temporal. This is the eternal lot of mankind.”

Bingo. I didn’t quite know why, but this was the stuff I was looking for. My vague desire to understand the concept of immortality had brought me to the Epic of Gilgamesh, and now I was hooked. But I didn’t want to buy a book, I wanted to read the epic, right there, right now. So I typed the title itself into Google, and once again found myself larded with options. But this time the organic results nailed it: The first two offered direct translations of the stone tablets upon which the Epic is written. Clicking on the first link, I found a Washington State professor’s summary of the Gilgamesh story, a summary which echoed much of my own inarticulate thoughts about the importance of search:

Gilgamesh was an historical king of Uruk in Babylonia, on the River Euphrates in modern Iraq; he lived about 2700 B.C. Although historians (and your textbook) tend to emphasize Hammurabi and his code of law, the civilizations of the Tigris-Euphrates area, among the first civilizations, focus rather on Gilgamesh and the legends accruing around him to explain, as it were, themselves. Many stories and myths were written about Gilgamesh, some of which were written down about 2000 B.C. in the Sumerian language on clay tablets which still survive….written in the script known as cuneiform, which means “wedge-shaped.” The fullest surviving version, from which the summary here is taken, is derived from twelve stone tablets… found in the ruins of the library of Ashurbanipal, king of Assyria 669-633 B.C., at Nineveh. The library was destroyed by the Persians in 612 B.C., and all the tablets are damaged. The tablets actually name an author, which is extremely rare in the ancient world, for this particular version of the story: Shin-eqi-unninni. You are being introduced here to the oldest known human author we can name by name!

In my search for immortality, I had found the oldest known named author, within thirty seconds I came to know his name and his work. This man, Shin-eqi-unninni, now lived in my own mind, and in a sense, has through his writings, with an assist from Google and a university professor, become immortal. Even stonier, if you will, Gilgamesh’s story is one of man’s struggle with the concept of immortality, and the story itself was nearly lost in an act of literary vandalism.

The opening lines of the first tablet certainly resonate:

The one who saw all [Sha nagba imuru ]I will declare to the world,
The one who knew all I will tell about
[line missing]
He saw the great Mystery, he knew the Hidden:
He recovered the knowledge of all the times before the Flood.
He journeyed beyond the distant, he journeyed beyond exhaustion,
And then carved his story on stone. [naru : stone tablets ]

What does it mean, I wondered, to become immortal through words pressed in clay – or, as was the case here, through words formed in bits and transferred over the web? Is that not what every person longs for – what Odysseus chose over Kalypso’s nameless immortality – to die, but to be known forever? And does not search offer the same immortal imprint – is not existing forever in the indexes of Google and others the modern day equivalent of carving our stories into stone? For bloggers, in particular, I believe the answer is yes.

Loyal readers know they must suffer through my tendencies to wander off into the desert of joint-after-midnight meanderings (even if the joints have not been formally broken out), but there you have it. I searched for immortality, and dadgummit, I think I found it.

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23 thoughts on “Gilgamesh, Search, and Immortality

  1. Bro says:

    What’s next for you?

  2. Michael Savoy says:

    Profoundly cosmic, moving, thought-provoking. Sigh. All it needs is an audiolink to ‘Thus Spake Zarathustra’.

  3. Should I remember this article?

    “Purpose” by Stewart Brand

  4. Chris Zaharias says:

    Whoa, hold up on the blogging-to-immortality riff – Overture’s search term suggestion tool says “John Battelle” was searched for 30 times, 9 less than “ant hill picture” #:)

  5. I can’t quite find the words to describe how much I appreciate having read this and then having followed the link to the article by Stewart Brand. So thought provoking and so increasingly relevant. This may be wandering off into another concept, but doesn’t it seem like within the past hundred years society has radically transformed from an ideology which associates clear cutting and black smoke with progess to one which is extremely obsessed with preserving the present and studying the past? How much more exponentially do we evolve when we are not permitted to forget the ideas, experiences, and artifacts of our past?

    Rather than the apparently endless optimism that has existed in the past, it seems to me that these days thoughts of the future seem to be rather pessimistic – even to the scale of armageddon. Especially if you were to look at the increasing theme in films (such as my favorite in recent past – 28 Days Later) and the doomsday slant of news often associated with the so-called (oxymoronic) “war on terror” you would notice what seems to be a realization that the human race is coming to a growth limit in some regard or another. It’s always interesting to take note of what remains persistent and especially the things that unknowingly or unexpectedly become persistant (as much as the things that are unknowingly temporal). From time to time I type my name in google out of curiosity, how persistent does this show me to be?

    I’m only 19 and what has begun to regularly take me by surprise is how rarely we think of things as temporal until they are gone.

  6. liza sabater says:

    WOW! John, I’ve been reading you for what seems a long while, and I have to say this is probably your best –because it is the most poetic.

    I have been thinking a lot about the meaning of Google, blogs and searching; particularly in the context of net art sites. I have so many artist friends with sites that are not indexed or that are so browser-bound that months go by without my ever looking at what they’re up to.

    This is by far the best argument to make them consider web standards, XML and maybe even blogging software as their website matrix.


  7. For those interested, here’s a link to Overture’s search term suggestion tool, which tells you how many times a given search term has been searched on in a given month:

  8. Jhershierra says:

    I have met Immortals…Before “PASSING” on that thought…why not explore the idea? There are several books about Immortals. I have them listed on my website as well as my own book about my encounters with Immortals.

    So…nothing ventured…nothing gained 🙂

  9. Pandora says:

    or better still… try flying with the Phoenix of Immortality

    you won’t find this site on Google 😉

  10. Chau says:

    Don’t worry gentlemen, maybe I’ll find immortality one day…

  11. “Oldest named author”? Shin-eqi-unninni is a newfangled, johnny-come-lately
    Assyrian male. And a mere copyist to boot.

    The oldest named author is a woman. And a goddess poet, and Sumerian.

    I swearta the Goddess, it’s a constant war to keep the female contribution to literature from simply being written out of the immortal search-records by blinkered men.

  12. mel stanley says:

    Hi john, have you ever heard or do you know of, a medalion known as the charles 1V imperial apotheosis.
    If not look it up, i would like to say a few words about it. i think you may find it interesting
    kind regards Mel Stanley

  13. WOW! John, I’ve been reading you for what seems a long while, and I have to say this is probably your best –because it is the most poetic.

    I have been thinking a lot about the meaning of Google, blogs and searching; particularly in the context of net art sites. I have so many artist friends with sites that are not indexed or that are so browser-bound that months go by without my ever looking at what they’re up to.

    This is by far the best argument to make them consider web standards, XML and maybe even blogging software as their website matrix.


  14. A very interesting site, I think. The Idea of Technometry was new for me but worth to be read and thought abot it (although I’m not a native english-speaker and have some difficulties whith this language)

  15. Great and excellent article t’s realy helpful. Thanks again.

  16. Jessi says:

    Happy New Year 2007 !!!!

  17. I have been thinking a lot about the meaning of Google, blogs and searching particularly in the context of net art sites.

  18. Darmowe gry says:

    Great work ! I really enjoyed browsing through this site. I will recommend it to my friends. Greetings

  19. mel says:

    Hi i wonder the medalion known as Charles1V imerial apotheosis, given the shape,??? is it not possible that the importance of that, is not in the visible decoration of the surface, but in the skelital structure of what is beneath.
    I allways thought it strange that those three German Car manufacturers, BMWVWMB the producers of the german war machine, were they allways going to be called that. They read the same backward as forward, though yes, in their case they could also fold at the V. if one where to then make a further six folds, they would give the type of skelital shape, that one may expect to find in the medalion, which just out of interest is the shape of a bat sillouetted agaist a moon in a square frame. WOW i better stop befor i get to serious.????? i wonder was Adolf Hitler in search of that
    have a nice Day Mal.

  20. WPPM says:

    People who are obsessed with physical immortality have not really taken time to think about its consequences. Even the Earth and the Sun are not immortals. Have they really thought about what they would do if they achieve physical immortality? What are they going to do for eternity? And after our Sun and solar system die in 12 billions yrs, where will they be? Hanging in space? Relocate to another solar system?

  21. tobto says:

    In fact simple words as Immortality, God, Health, Light can give very interesting search results. Sometime ago I found smart reading concerning ‘TV’ and ‘religion’, asking ‘tv + religion’ or Anyway, this is another Google tool for inspiration