Myths of Babylonia and Assyria
The quest of the plant, flower, or fruit of life is referred to in many folk tales. In the Mahabharata, Bhima, the Indian Gilgamesh or Hercules, journeys to north-eastern Celestial regions to find the lake of the god Kuvera (Kubera), on which grow the "most beautiful and unearthly lotuses", which restore health and give strength to the weary. As Gilgamesh meets with Pir-napishtim, who relates the story of the Deluge which destroyed the "elder race", Bhima meets with Hanuman, who informs him regarding the Ages of the Universe and the races which were periodically destroyed by deluges. When Bhima reaches the lotus lake he fights with demons. To heal his wounds and recover strength he plunges into the lake. "As he drank of the waters, like unto nectar, his energy and strength were again fully restored."
Hercules similarly sets out to search for the golden apples which grow in
those Hesperian gardens famed of old,Fortunate fields, and groves and flowery vales.
There is a remarkable resemblance between the Babylonian account of Gilgamesh's journey through the mountain tunnel to the garden and seashore, and the Indian story of the demigod Hanuman passing through the long cavern to the shoreland palace of the female ascetic, when he was engaged searching for Sita, the wife of Rama, who had been carried away by Ravana, the demon king of Ceylon. In the version of the latter narrative which is given in the Mahabharata, Hanuman says: "I bring thee good news, O Rama; for Janaka's daughter hath been seen by me. Having searched the southern region with all its hills, forests, and mines for some time, we became very weary. At length we beheld a great cavern. And having beheld it, we entered that cavern which extended over many yojanas. It was dark and deep, and overgrown with trees and infested by worms. And having gone a great way through it, we came upon sunshine and beheld a beautiful palace. It was the abode of the Daitya (sea demon) Maya. And there we beheld a female ascetic named Parbhàvati engaged in ascetic austerities. And she gave us food and drink of various kinds. And having refreshed ourselves therewith and regained our strength, we proceeded along the way shown by her. At last we came out of the cavern and beheld the briny sea, and on its shores, the Sahya, the Malaya, and the great Dardura mountains. And ascending the mountains of Malaya, we beheld before us the vast ocean (or, "the abode of Varuna"). And beholding it, we felt sorely grieved in mind.... We despaired of returning with our lives.... We then sat together, resolved to die there of starvation."
Hanuman and his friends, having had, so far, experiences similar to those of Gilgamesh, next discovered the eagle giant which had burned its wings when endeavouring to soar to the sun. This great bird, which resembles the Etana eagle, expressed the opinion that Sita was in Lanka (Ceylon), whither she must have been carried by Ravana. But no one dared to cross the dangerous ocean. Hanuman at length, however, obtained the assistance of Vayu, the wind god, his divine father, and leapt over the sea, slaying monsters as he went. He discovered where the fair lady was concealed by the king of demons.
The dark tunnel is met with in many British stories of daring heroes who set out to explore it, but never return. In the Scottish versions the adventurers are invariably pipers who are accompanied by dogs. The sound of the pipes is heard for a time; then the music ceases suddenly, and shortly afterwards the dog returns without a hair upon its body. It has evidently been in conflict with demons.
The tunnel may run from a castle to the seashore, from a cave on one side of a hill to a cave on the other, or from a seashore cave to a distant island.
It is possible that these widespread tunnel stories had origin among the cave dwellers of the Palaeolithic Age, who believed that deep caverns were the doors of the underground retreats of dragons and giants and other supernatural enemies of mankind.
In Babylonia, as elsewhere, the priests utilized the floating material from which all mythologies were framed, and impressed upon it the stamp of their doctrines. The symbolized stories were afterwards distributed far and wide, as were those attached to the memory of Alexander the Great at a later period. Thus in many countries may be found at the present day different versions of immemorial folk tales, which represent various stages of culture, and direct and indirect contact at different periods with civilizations that have stirred the ocean of human thought, and sent their ideas rippling in widening circles to far-distant shores.