The Epic of Gilgamesh relates the legend of the Sumerian warrior-king Gilgamesh – two thirds god and one third mortal – who after much heroic adventure with his trusty companion Enkidu is vicariously confronted with his own mortality through the death of Enkidu (who is ordained to die by divine edict for having participated in the sacrilegious killing of the Bull of Heaven).
After an extended mourning (during which he fastens onto the corpse of Enkidu), he embarks on a perilous quest in search of immortality through communion with Utnapishtim (the Babylonian counterpart of Biblical Noah), who has been granted immortality by the gods.
Utnapishtim informs him that his desire for immortality cannot be granted for immortality is the prerogative of the gods (even though Utnapishtim himself was made immortal by the selfsame gods). He nevertheless bequeaths Gilgamesh with a parting gift by telling him that the elixir of life – which will rejuvenate Gilgamesh (but not render him immortal according to my interpretation) – grows at the bottom of a certain river.
Gilgamesh does find the elixir of life, in the form of a plant, but loses it to a serpent. He returns to Uruk bearing the consolation that his path to immortality lies in the erection of monumental works.
Gilgamesh is thus the prototype of the hero who embarks on the quest for immortality.
In the heavily Christianized Western society, the notion of life extension is likely to evoke the image of Methuselah – the biblical patriarch reputed to have lived the extraordinary long life of 969 years. Despite his longevity, Methuselah cannot lend his name to the Project as he fails to embody the desire for life which defines Project Gilgamesh – he is a ready-made.
Tithonus, too, may be summoned in those minds learned in a little Greek mythology but he fails miserably for he is the abominable specter of “failed life extension” and the tragic emblem of an obstinate error in the public perception of life extension which has acquired the name: the Tithonus error.
Ponce de León, except for his want of antiquity, would have been an ideal candidate. Fact or fiction – the image of a Spanish conquistador scouring the Americas in search for the Fountain of Youth is certainly a powerful emblem for the cause of life extension.
The quest commissioned by Quin Shi Huang’s in search of the Elixir of Life also deserves an honorable mention.
Sisyphus’ outmaneuvering of death, Orpheus’ descent into and return from Tartarus, Herakles’ defeat of Death in the tale of Alcestis, Asclepius’ resurrection of the dead, the Phoenix’s eternal return from the ashes of its predecessor, and the legend of the Wandering Jew (who is punished with immortality for taunting Christ under the weight of the cross), all evoke quintessential themes of life, death, resurrection and/or immortality.
But no story captures the spirit of antiquity, the tragedy of the death, the intense meditation on the meaning of life, and the relentless pursuit and desire for immortality as that of the redoubtable Gilgamesh.
Against the recommendation of Aubrey de Grey, I persisted with the title Project Gilgamesh primarily for the reason advanced above. True, the invocation of Gilgamesh in the title of anything life extension related is clichéd but the appropriateness of the use overrides its banality.
True, Gilgamesh failed. The gods denied him his object. But what of it? We, children of Gilgamesh, live in a new age – an age of infinite scientific possibilities. Where our father failed, we must succeed.