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Gilgamesh and God
The cultures of ancient times were often dominated by the religious system and religious ideology of the populous. Many stories from ancient cultures define how that culture viewed those in power, either secular power such as their king or religious power such as their deity. Often, the two types of authority were combined so that the king was in some way descended or connected to their god or gods. The religious aspect of the Mesopotamian culture had a heavy impact on the way the civilization functioned. Each person was expected to believe in the god or gods of the majority population as well as to have a personal god to whom the individual would dedicate all their actions and to whom they would appeal in all things (Jacobsen 1976,-page 159). The Epic of Gilgamesh tells the story of a Sumerian king who was so powerful that he angered the gods who directly tried to impede his progress in invading and taking over the country of Uruk. Although the story of Gilgamesh is considered an epic example of fictional narrative, his actions are indicative of the secular kings who really existed. In essence, the story of Gilgamesh is the story of all the kings of ancient tradition.
The story of Gilgamesh is a search for identity and purpose. For the first half of the story, he is obsessed with claiming of territory and the oppression of his perceived enemies. Gilgamesh thinks only of his current desires and does not give much if any consideration for the results of his wants. This changes when he makes a friend who accompanies him on his journey. Together they fight monsters, including the Bull of Heaven. There is not much purpose for their journey, save that Gilgamesh desires adventure and challenges which are not met by the cowering members of his kingdom's population. After his friend Enkidu is killed, the story of Gilgamesh becomes one of a quest for immortality. Stephen Mitchell (2004) writes of the hero's journey:
The more we try to fit Gilgamesh into the pattern of archetypal journey, the more bizarre, quirky, and postmodern it seems. It is the original quest story. But it is also an anti-quest, since it undermines the quest myth from the beginning (page 52).
Unlike the traditional hero's quest, Gilgamesh does not go out into the world for a noble of philanthropic purpose, but rather to satisfy a desire. He wants to gain land and is willing to oppress and distress others in the process.
In this tale, Gilgamesh has ultimate and nearly unlimited powers and is therefore considered above other human beings. The text states that the established mythology behind Gilgamesh's birth is one of divine intervention. "Who else can say, 'I alone rule, supreme among mankind'? The goddess Aruru, mother of creation, had designed his body, had made him the strongest of men -- huge, handsome, radiant, perfect" (Mitchell 2004,-page 72). For the population who were ruled by him, Gilgamesh would have seemed to be all-powerful, being able to dictate all aspects of their lives, including have the power to take the virginity of young brides on their wedding nights. This view of monarchs was present in other works of the region, such as in the poem "Adapa" where again a man wishes to obtain immortality and has been granted gifts of super-human ability from the gods. It is said that "Ea, created him as the model of men" (Pritchard 2011,-page 73). The connection between king and god is also present in "The Legend of Sargon." The mother of this leader is a mythical creature while the father is unimportant because he does not have the same mythological import (Pritchard 2011,-page 82). The leader is described as being the most sage, capable, and most importantly blameless. Nothing that he does is evil or wicked because this man chooses to perform those acts. The leader's actions are infallible simply because he is the leader. Even if he killed someone it would be acceptable because the king is the one who performed the act. Nothing is illegal if it is performed by the leader.
Since Gilgamesh is king, his word is the law in his civilization. There was a system of laws in place within all of the Mesopotamian cultures, but even so the pharaoh or king was always above the restrictions of the civilization. Throughout this area of the world, the nation states had strict rules of behavior and conduct which everyone was supposed to participate in, including those in positions of authority. In Egypt, this code of laws of conduct were called ma'at. It was personified by a female deity and means "truth, justice, righteousness, order, balance, and cosmic law" (Pinch 2002,-page 159). Ma'at was the law of the Egyptian people and those who chose to violate the law were subject to severe punishment, up to and including their deaths. Violators of the law understood what was expected of them in terms of behaviors. The only group who was above the laws of the land was the leaders, such as the pharaoh or in Gilgamesh's case, the king.
Gilgamesh has not been a king who has done right by his people. Of Gilgamesh, it is said, "The people suffer from his tyranny, the people cry out that he takes the son from his father and crushes him, takes the girl from her mother and uses her, the warrior's daughter, the young man's bride" (Mitchell 2004,-page 74). It does not matter if a woman wants to be the lover of Gilgamesh. This is evidenced a few pages later when it is said that he went to a young woman's house to take his position as lord which grants him the ability to deflower any maiden who marries in his kingdom. "The priest will bless the young couple, the guests will rejoice, the bridegroom will step aside, and the virgin will wait in the marriage bed for Gilgamesh" (Mitchell 2004,-page 87). No one is spared the appetites of this harsh king. His will is the law and he has the law to support his will. He has behind him both political power and physical power which makes it so that no one dares oppose him. Throughout ancient history, kings were similarly powerful and looked on with the same mixture of awe and fear as Gilgamesh. Many of the kings of ancient times would behave similarly to how Gilgamesh acts. They were ruthless individuals with few moral qualms to curb their behaviors. Ancient Mesopotamia had many kings just like Gilgamesh including
Egyptian pharaohs also had the supreme power over their citizenry that is evident in other ancient cultures of the Mesopotamian region. One artifact from Ancient Egypt which remains is called "The Loyalist Instruction from the Sehetepibre Stela." In this document, the ways in which the leader of the Egyptian people was supposed to behave and the way in which this leader was viewed is obvious. The people of Egypt are ordered to obey the pharaoh in all things without questioning his motives. "Adore the king…He is Perception, which is in (all) hearts, and his eyes pierce through every being. He is Re, by whose rays one sees, for he is one who illuminates the Two Lands more than the sun disk" (Simpson 2003,-page 173). Like Gilgamesh and some of the other Mesopotamian leaders, the pharaoh is viewed as above humanities and as powerful as the deities of the culture's religious beliefs. The line of descent for the throne of Egypt was set up as explained in "The Contending of Horus and Seth." Two brothers, Horus and Seth, each had an eye on taking the throne for himself, but only one person could take the role of pharaoh (Pinch 2002,-page 82). The story of Horus and Seth is one of sexual violation and violence, indicating a common thread with the story of Gilgamesh, that only the aggressors can be successful.
The presence of gods is very important to the tale of Gilgamesh because their actions directly impact his quest. It was believed that the goddess Aruru specifically designed Gilgamesh to be an all-powerful entity, worthy of ruling all of the men in his kingdom. The gods gave him the ability to rule which prevents others from daring to attempt to usurp any of his domain. It is Aruru who is called upon to make an equal to Gilgamesh who will stop his evil ways, because it is believed that no living human being has the ability to do so. "Go and create a double for Gilgamesh, his second self, a man who equals his strength and courage, a man who equals his stormy heart. Create a new hero, let them balance each other perfectly, so that Uruk has peace" (Mitchell 2004,-page 74). Because of the god-like abilities of the human Gilgamesh, the only person capable of thwarting him is another being who was created by a deity. Normal people would be far less likely to…[continue]
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