This storm was like no other he had known. Shipwrecks he was used to. They marked time, served as reminders. A certain event had happened before the third shipwreck, another after the fifth. Far from dismayed, what he felt was a strange, drunken recklessness, relief almost. Not only had he lost his course, the compass points themselves had disappeared. That was his last exact observation. He knew nothing of what happened next, until the moment when he opened his eyes in a tent. A light breeze stirred the fabric. He had slept, but for how long? Days? Years? In the darkness he recognized a shape. Stretched out, motionless. Another sleeper. For a while Sindbad said nothing. Then the other woke, looked at him, and said:
“This is the home of Utnapishtim, in Dilmun.”
Utnapishtim got up and parted the flaps of the tent. In came a blade of light that lay beside Sindbad. Utnapishtim sat on a stool beside him and said:
“I know who you are. There’s no need to say anything. If you want to listen to me, I’ll be here.”
Then everything grew muddled for Sindbad. When he woke again he had an impression of great clarity. Utnapishtim was still sitting on the stool. He said:
“I’ve been silent so long I don’t know where to start. Anywhere would do. But ancient custom has it that everything begins with the gods.”
There was a brief silence. Then the voice resumed:
“In the beginning the gods walked the earth. They kept themselves busy. They dug ditches, raised up walls. Most of all, they searched for water. It was hard going. They felt oppressed by a heavy yoke. Not all the gods were equal. There were higher gods and lower gods. The Anunnaki had withdrawn to the heavens. They had left the Igigi to struggle on earth. One day they were bound to rebel. Men would learn from them. The Igigi dug out the bed of the Tigris. They grumbled among the heaps of earth they had turned up. Ever more exasperated. What could they do but take arms, attack the sky? Enlil the warrior, the counselor, was roused from his bed. They barred all the doors. They begged help of Anu, who had power over the heavens, and from Ea, deep in the fresh subterranean waters. Enlil wept. He didn’t know what to do. Anu said the Igigi were right. Their lives were too hard, their outcry could be heard in the highest heaven.
“Then the gods realized they must create substitutes for themselves: men. But how? For them to be truly alive, a god must die. Mami, the midwife, could mix some clay with the blood of the god called Geshtue. The other gods would purify themselves, three times in a month, immersed in water. A spirit penetrated the clay with Geshtue’s blood. And the clay began to throb. From then on, the spirit remembered the god he had belonged to.
“Mami went into the chamber of destiny, together with Ea. She began to knead the clay, streaked with blood. And whispered one of her spells, for she had once been a sorceress. Seven lumps of clay to the right, seven to the left. They became men and women. Now she placed a mud brick in the middle. Where we come from everything begins with mud bricks. She cut it in half with a piece of bamboo and, one by one, placed the lumps of clay beside each other. Nothing else was required. Soon afterward, those shapeless pieces of clay began to mate. Ishtar watched and was pleased.
“It was Ea, my protector, who explained to the Anunnaki what they must do. Ea had always been the most farsighted. Left to their own devices, the Anunnaki would have become mired in endless conflicts. But Ea spoke the crucial words: ‘Let men carry the gods’ burden!’ Simple words that we still live by. That you, Sindbad, live by. They spell out the basics: the burden, the gods. All else is superfluous.
“Of Geshtue, I shall say very little. His name means ‘ear,’ no memorable deeds are attributed to him. But I do know he was thought intelligent. Perhaps that was why he was chosen. They killed him, all acting together, during the Anunnaki council. They shed blood together and together they purified themselves in water. The water of Ea.
“I have never understood why a god had to be killed in order for men to exist. In any event, it wasn’t Ea who suggested it. All he said was that some creature had to be found who could take the place of the gods. But the Anunnaki were all in favor of the killing. And the deed had to be done in a particular place: along the Durmahu, the bond, the rope, the axis that ties the heavens to the earth. I heard this from the seven Apkallu, the Holy Carp, the Seven Sages of Ea, who were close relatives of mine.
“I have told you these stories of the gods and the burdens because, when you lived in Baghdad, before you met Sindbad the Sailor, they called you Sindbad the Porter. You went around all day with heavy burdens on your head. Moving merchandise from one place to another. It was your whole life.”
Copyright © 2020 by Adelphi Edizioni S.p.A. Milano
Translation copyright © 2022 by Tim Parks