When Gilgamesh arrives at the end of the world, the immortal Utnapishtim explains to him the finitude of things: A mayfly (in some translations a dragonfly) hovers over the surface of the water, for a moment its wings reflect the sun, then there is nothing.

These lines are (as the Flemish translator Herman Vanstiphout remarks) of an unbabylonian beauty and reminiscent of a haiku. To be precise, they are reminiscent of Bashō's old pond, briefly enlivened by the lithe leap of a frog; we do not see the frog but only hear the sound of water.

That splash is a racket compared to Unapishtim’s fly, who during its brief existence is nothing but a glint. Is it swallowed by a wave, a miniature deluge? Although Utnapishtim also speaks of the eternal waxing of the rivers, that seems like overkill. A mayfly is there by the grace of the sun, then there is nothing, not even a sun.

© 2009–2024, Martijn Wallage