Epic Of GilgameshLindsey Johnson
October 9, 2000
The Epic of Gilgamesh1
. Mesopotamia, current day Iraq, derived its name from words meaning, “the land between the rivers,” which refers to the Tigris and Euphrates. This land was inhabited during the fourth millennium B.C.E. and throughout time transcended into political and military organizations. The significance of these cultures revolved around important warrior figures and their impact on society. The most important figure that will be discussed is the protagonist from The Epic of Gilgamesh. Many consider it to be the greatest literary composition written in cuneiform Akkadian around 2150 BC. This epic portrays the life of the great warrior, Gilgamesh. It chronicles how his victories, both militaristic and internal, ultimately determined his superiority. This relates to the ancient Mesopotamian society in many ways, including the role of warriors and the dual nature of Gilgamesh.
It is evident from the beginning of the Epic of Gilgamesh how vital of a role warrior’s played in ancient Mesopotamian society. Warriors were considered top of the social hierarchy. All other authoritative figures were considered subordinate. Uruk’s inhabitants deemed Gilgamesh as their superior: “There is nobody among the kings of teeming humanity who can compare with him…Belet-ili designed the shape of his body, made his form perfect…In Uruk the Sheepfold he would walk about, show himself superior, his head held high like a wild bull.” 2 Gilgamesh epitomizes the ideal hero in the eyes of his society through admirable physical strength, bodily perfection, and bravery. This admiration directly pertains to ancient Mesopotamia and the earliest Sumerian governments. For instance, “When crises arose, assemblies yielded their power to individuals who possessed full authority during the period of emergency.”3 Back then, it was considered common knowledge that early governments based their decisions for the good of the entire community. Gilgamesh demonstrates these same tactics when he finds his community in danger. For example, Gilgamesh seized the Bull of Heaven, which came down from the skies, in order to protect his cherished citizens. 4 Protection of the city is Gilgamesh’s main objective. He states, “I shall face unknown opposition, I shall ride along an unknown road.” 5 Here, Gilgamesh seeks out to Pine Forest where he slays Humbaba, in order to exterminate evil and safeguard his city.
Sumerian cities also faced external tribulations because of their wealth and virtually defenseless entrances o their land. Because the land and location was so flat and vulnerable the cities built defensive walls and organized military forces.6 Gilgamesh built a very similar structure. The wall of Uruk was an amazing barrier that sheltered every square mile of land. The citizens of Uruk claimed the wall to be “the pure treasury.” 7 It becomes evident in Mesopotamian culture as well as with Gilgamesh that major defense mechanisms are needed in order to maintain security. When a city –state gains structure the next step is to become proactively aggressive; therefore, conquering and punishing other cities. For example, “External threats came later to Egypt than to Mesopotamia, but the invasion of the Hyksos prompted the pharaohs to seize control of regions that might pose future threats.” 8 In addition, Gilgamesh displays these same ideas when adventuring into the Pine Forest. Because its citizens adored Mesopotamia’s physical landscape, they would protect their land at all costs.
Gilgamesh’s image and qualities depict those of an ideal man. He controls a great deal of power and status, for he is believed to be two-thirds divine and one-third human. He also possesses power through his kingship. Gilgamesh displays a great amount of hubris. Priding himself with greatness he states, “Gilgamesh is finest among the young males! Gilgamesh is proudest among the males” 9 He is not only spiritually content, but also physically appealing. He represents the ideal man through wealth, handsomeness, and power. These traits were also important of the Egyptian pharaohs. Because the city valued their leader to such a great extent, they built massive pyramids as royal tombs. They also believed that heroes were gods living on earth.10 This helps comprehend the importance of Gilgamesh’s part divinity, part human character. Hammurabi of the Babylonian empire proclaimed that the gods named him “to promote the welfare of the people…to cause justice to prevail in the land, to destroy wicked and evil, so that the strong might not oppress the weak…” 11 The strength of these heroes and their “divinity” demonstrates what kind of leaders were respected and worshiped in Mesopotamia. Moreover, this makes clear the reasons why Uruk featured Gilgamesh as such a powerful hero.
Although Gilgamesh depicts these traits of the ideal man, part of it is a fa?ade. Gilgamesh appears to be brave and valiant, but he has moments of extreme coward ness. When Gilgamesh was in the Pine Forest he admitted his fright when saying to Enkidu, “My heart trembles lest he…suddenly” Enkidu confirms this by responding, “My friend, why do you talk like a coward? And your speech was feeble, and you tried to hide.”12 Although Gilgamesh presents himself as an infallible, fearless warrior, he truly holds a dual nature. As well as his display of weakness, Gilgamesh also shows unkindness towards his people, for he was their king but not their shepherd. His overbearing behavior lead Gilgamesh to “not leave young girls alone”13 He raped the daughters and wives of his own community. While not infallible, the warrior fought to protect the community in times of crisis and jeopardy. This proves the bravest of people at times show fear, and even the strongest can be outfought. For the ideal man, like Gilgamesh, hide insecurities through a fa?ade that presents him as flawless. He displays this fa?ade in order to maintain power and authority throughout his community.
Hammurabi also displayed moments of merciless behavior through his code of law. He distinctively discriminated against the lower class. One law, that of retribution, states, “a noble who destroyed the eye or broke the bone of another noble would have his own eye destroyed or bone broken, but if a noble destroyed the eye or broke the bone of a commoner, the noble merely paid a fine in silver.”14 This reveals the clear distinction of consequence for different social classes that emerged in Mesopotamia. Like Gilgamesh, when a ruler possesses full authority, they are able to punish or reward whomever at the their own will.
According to this information, one can assume many things about ancient Mesopotamian culture. It is obvious that cultures exhibited a great amount of pride for their city, and most of all, their leader. They looked upon their leaders as first-rate heroes. Officers were not elected by family ties but by “merit, skill, and bravery.”15 The citizens believed that deities intervened in human affairs. It was revealed long after Gilgamesh’s death that he was actually considered a god. This helps explain his fear towards death. Gilgamesh wanted to physically be a great warrior until the end of time opposed to just another historic memory. Although it was not actually death he was afraid of, Gilgamesh feared the obliteration of his glory and honor.
In conclusion, the values from ancient Mesopotamian culture correlate to those in The Epic of Gilgamesh. The role of warriors show many similarities, including strength, bravery, and hubris. Furthermore, Gilgamesh compares with historic figures by expressing a dual nature. One may present a fa?ade to hide one’s faults, but no hero is infallible. Above all, it is learned how important heroes in Mesopotamia were, despite their imperfections, for in the eyes of their community, they were recognized like demigods.