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The yearly Wixarika pilgrimage in search of life. Photo from

When these days we talk about the search for life, we think automatically about searching for life in outer space, searching for living conditions that might enable us, or some of us, to leave one day our doomed earth and start all over again in a suitable environment.
That search is far removed from the search for life the Huichol pilgrims undertake each year in meeting with their gods, in a space beyond their mind. Once they’ve found their life, they happily return to the harsh conditions of subsistence awaiting them high in the Sierra Madre, content with the spiritual support the found life provides. What is that life of theirs, we wonder, that makes them joyfully live in poverty with just enough to eat to survive? Maybe their claim of happiness is just a scam, to make themselves believe they are happy so as not to face their utter poverty? After all, why look for life if you are alive, like all of us, who don’t search for life, but work hard to make a better life for ourselves?

When looking for an answer it is good to remember that at the cradle of civilization, one of the first stories written also treated the theme of life offered by a god and that another story told about a man searching for life who returned home empty handed.
In the third millennium Sumerian story of Adapa, this servant of the god of commerce Enki, was tricked by Enki into sacrilegious behavior and hence was summoned to explain himself for his transgression to Anu, the god of heaven. As was the custom in those days, upon arriving at heaven’s gates Anu offered Adapa oil to anoint, and a fresh set of clothes. After Adapa had anointed himself and clothed, Anu offered him food of life and water of life, but Adapa refused both. Anu laughed, and asked Adapa why he had forsaken the food and the water, which would have given him life. Adapa answered him that his lord, Enki, had told him not to eat or drink, because he would surely die. At that Anu got mad and ordered Adapa to be send back at once to his ‘netherworld’.

The second story is the standard Babylonian version of the Epic of Gilgamesh. If in an earlier version of the story Gilgamesh had gone searching for life, in this later version he goes looking for immortal life, afraid of death after his friend Enkidu had died. Helped by sun god Shamash, Gilgamesh is able to cross the boundaries of the world and arrives at the place where immortal Utanapishtim lives. Utanapishtim puts Gilgamesh to the test: he should remain awake seven days and seven nights before the gods can be called upon to bestow the gift of immortal life on him. Gilgamesh hadn’t sat down yet to start his wake, or he falls into a deep sleep from which he awoke after seven days. Realizing that everything is lost, he bemoans himself, upon which Utanapishtim gives him the secret to a plant of rejuvenation to take home. The boatman is told to ferry Gilgamesh back to the world and never come back, effectively cutting the links between the human and the divine worlds. On his way back Gilgamesh is able to get the plant of rejuvenation, but while refreshing himself with a dip in the water, a snake takes off with the plant, sloughing its skin as it slithered away, leaving us proof of the authenticity of the plant's rejuvenating properties. Gilgamesh returns empty handed to his kingdom, the city of Uruk, sobered up and aware that the realm of the gods is for dreamers: the walls of the city are the bounds of civilization that humans must live by. It is a grandiose story, seemingly a statement about the irresponsible behavior of youth and the need for coming to terms with the inescapable realities of life. But then, to the consternation of the scholars, a twelfth tablet was added to the eleven previous ones, dealing with the conditions in the netherworld as told by Gilgamesh’s friend Enkidu, come up for the occasion through a crack in the ground. What to make of it, since the last part didn’t seem to belong at all¹, and even disturbed the perfect harmony of the 11 tablet epic?

Gilgamesh mourning Enkidu by Ludmila Zeman

In the story of Adapa, the main character is deceived by his master, the god of commerce, who wanted to teach his most trusted servant never to aspire to go to heaven to get life. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the hero is ridiculed by having him search, in vain of course, for immortal life. As if the humiliation he suffered was not sufficient to drive home the message, he is fooled with a plant of rejuvenation, the very thing he’d been looking for, and even manages to lose it without ever realizing what he really lost. What these two stories make clear is that civilization starts with the closing of heaven. As long as people were able to go to heaven, i.e. leave their mind behind to travel in a space beyond the walls of the city and the rule of its king, they could anchor their personality in this supramental experience and in this way find their life, their own life, given to them by their god, the ruler of the beyond. Thrown out of heaven and the company of the gods lost forever, man became imprisoned between the walls of the city, unable to extricate himself from civilization and the deceit of its trickster gods. Looking at the epic travails of Gilgamesh in this way, we realize that underneath the apparent meaning of the acceptance of the realities and obligations that come with civilization, hides a justification for taking peoples' lifes away from them. In return they get a new frame of reference, the walls of the city of Uruk, symbolizing the rule of the king. To make the loss of life more bearable, the possibilities for obtaining a pleasant afterlife are given as the happy ending to a sad tale.



Disillusioned Gilgamesh was sent away from beyond the world where he had hoped to find answers for his existential fear of death. But no god gave him his life, and since Gilgamesh, only death awaits mankind. That is the reason why Sin leqe Unninni, the 13th century B.C.E. author of the epic, added the twelfth tablet. This tablet gives the readers the opportunity to aquaint themselves with the afterlife and shows how to take the necessary precautions, as stipulated in this last part of the story. It is no coincidence that a priest of moon god Sin wrote this epic story, since the priests of Sin took care of all the mortuary services which, according to the last tablet, the surviving family members are supposed to perform for the well-being of their loved one's on yonder side of death, as well as for a personal insurance for their own welcoming reception in the netherworld.

¹ The Epic of Gilgamesh,Tablet XII - Translation. Andrew George, 2000  (page 100 of the pdf document:
m"The last Tablet in the 'Series of Gilgamesh', Tablet XII, is not part of the epic at all, but an Akkadian
mtranslation of the latter part of the Sumerian poem of Bilgames and the Netherworld. It was appended to the
mepic presumably because of the relevance of the material: it describes conditions in the Netherworld, where
mafter his death Gilgamesh presided over the shades of the dead." In a later edition George had changed his
opinion, noting that closer study had convinced him that tablet XII was after all an integral part of Sin leqe
mUnninni's work.)

²Healing the planet, healing themselves: Wixárika medicine transcends the personal.
mBy Tracy Barnett,, May 2018. See also
The Last Peyote Guardiansfrom the
msame publisher.