Hand up if you’ve read The Epic of Gilgamesh (be honest, now). Other hand up if you actually remember The Epic of Gilgamesh (again, be honest). Well, if you’re one of the latter (you can put your hands down now), you’ll remember that Gilgamesh seemingly suffered from both a low IQ and EQ. He was kind of a jerk, a dumbass, and extremely prone to bad decisions and subsequent histrionic self-pity. That said, his journey was a lesson for all of humanity about the futile nonacceptance of mortality.
But there was much more to the story that tends to get overlooked and, depending on which version you read, I’m not talking about the terrifically unfair and bogus eviction of Lilith from her tree-house. No, I’m talking about the thing that would have brought Gilgamesh some sense of accomplishment: acquiring the plant of immortality.
Of course, Gilgamesh blew that chance, but we’re left with a tantalizing image before the serpent carries it off in its belly: aquatic, thorny, beautifully fragrant, rosy-red . . . it even seems (to me at least) to demand a blood sacrifice as it pricks Gilgamesh when he grabs it. Oooh, exciting! Well that story is well over four-thousand years old.
An even earlier one involving a supernatural plant also comes from the Akkadians and the hero appears to have succeeded in obtaining it. Like Gilgamesh, Etana is an ancient king, but he’s otherwise very different: he’s pretty bright and seems more mature and together—no mention of using his kingly right to sleep with the virgin brides of his domain. For this, he is eventually rewarded (we think, because the climax of the story broke off of the tablet and is lost) with the plant of birth, or life, and he is able to have a son—Balih—who, according to the Sumerian King list, succeeds him.
These plants were critical to the ultimate desires of these two kings and clearly held an imaginative fascination for the people of the time. They represent something divine and much higher than ourselves. Such is the same in later Greek mythologies involving mythic life/immortality-giving herbs.
Some examples are: The Herb of the Gigantes, which would have saved the giants, had Zeus not stuck his nose into yet another conflict; The Herb of Glaukos, which turned Glaukos from a fisherman into a sea-god; ‘ The Herbs of both Polydos and the Naiad, Moria, which brought back to life a king’s son and a brother.
Ancient peoples were intimately connected to plants—to the point that they imbued them with the most incredibly important powers (which many actually had and still do). Even modern-era humans, right up to the Victorians, had a deep bond with plants (in fact the Victorians ascribed so many meanings to them that there are entire encyclopedias devoted to that). Until the industrial era, humanity understood how critical plants are to our very survival.
How many people do you know live with plants, know about them or have a deep, abiding respect for them? Yet they make the very oxygen we breathe, food we eat, some clothing we wear, and some parts of the homes in which we live, and are the original source of most medicines—humans could not survive without them. Yet plants wouldn’t shed a tear through their stomata if mankind disappeared. They don’t need us for squat.
Gilgamesh took the plant of immortality for granted and lost all he’d suffered for; Etana worked incredibly hard, took incredible risks, and I assume valued above all else the gift of the plant of life.
The Vitaortus goes a step farther: it needs a ‘human’ to ultimately survive, but it will give supernatural gifts in return. It is a relationship; perhaps one that certain kinds of farmers like viticulturists and orchardists can relate to. Without that special human to care for it, tend it, love it, it will eventually perish--and with it, its special powers that are so vital to other supernatural lives. And in the story of the Vitaortus, those supernaturals are finally coming to learn the lesson Gilgamesh didn’t learn until it was too late—humble conscientiousness in the face of something previously unrecognized.
So the next time you pass those assembly-line plants at Ikea, or Home Depot, think of their ancestral counterparts and all the magic they may hold. With the next glass of wine or juice, think of the vine or tree that produced it. There are mythical tales that were told about so many of the actual plants we live with, that a multi-volume encyclopedia would be needed to hold them all. Vitaortus was born from a love of those myths. And of course, what better creature to need a supernatural plant than a vampire?
And then there are the plants of Alchemy, mythical and not . . . but that’s for another day.