More than Might: Gilgamesh and Rethinking Acceptable Power in Ancient Mesopotamia

written September 2009

The corrupting influence of power is older than the ancient peoples of Mesopotamia,and the Epic of Gilgamesh provides a window into this ancient struggle over what is acceptable kingly leadership and what, if any, responsibilities does a king have for his subjects? Gilgamesh follows the (possible) maturation process of Uruk’s young ruler, from a cruel despot that later rebuffs the gods to a fatigued leader in search of ultimate answers. Gilgamesh the king remains the focus of the poem, which is telling; we gain only slight insight into the rest of the world via his interactions with various constructions. To look at the over-arching assessment of Gilgamesh as a king both at the epic’s onset and its conclusion is to define the nature of responsible and irresponsible power and authority during this age. While corporal force and strength was institutionally celebrated Gilgamesh’s warring missteps and Uta-napishti’s wisdom sketches a deeper, more complex system of leadership that required the assistance of gods and the good faith and work of the commoners.

The Gilgamesh character we are introduced is a wild, brute force, harassing his subjects without end. The author lauds him for his physical skills alone, Gilgamesh having “no equal when his weapon sare brandished” (George, transl., p. 3). Effective leadership of ancient Mesopotamia indeed required an iron hand in order for the city state to remain stable and survive. For this reason an emphasis on warlike dominance played a vital role in societies such as the Uruk depicted. A king’s central authority evolved from and was reinforced by a divine origin; Gilgamesh himself was said to have been“two-thirds god…and one third human” (2). The epic however serves as a critique of proper power and a progressing view of leadership. The king’s absolute rule- or tyranny- is being called into question by the author: “Though powerful, pre-eminent, expect and mighty, Gilgamesh lets no girl go free to her bridegroom” (4). The author still recognizes the king’s clout in this statement, but begs the merit of power being used for the sake of its use. This clashing social dichotomy that reveres battle and masculine competition is also now questioning the extent to which subjects should submit- at times unwillingly- to the elite class. The“civilizing” of Enkidu from a wild man to a competent ally and Gilgamesh’s own quest thus serves as a guide to proper rule and the construction of ethical boundaries for kings.

The initial great feats of Gilgamesh, first the killing of Humbaba and then defeating the Bull of Heaven, may be seen as the traditional, reactionary response of rulers (80). Yet Gilgamesh’s great strength and talent with weapons have been a hallow victory, and his rejection of Ishtar has left him alienated and outside Uruk’s socio-political structure. Gilgamesh recognizes this only too late. Gilgamesh has violated the natural hierarchy of Mesopotamian society, placing himself above the gods in his rejection of them and apart from the prudent advice of his council of elders. The loss of Enkidu devastates Gilgamesh,proclaiming him “my friend whom I loved so dear” (81). Whether Enkidu was Gilgamesh’s first and only friendship cannot be known, but Enkidu’s death awakens in Gilgamesh a concern for another person that was missing before. The proximity of Enkidu to Gilgamesh is directly related to the concern one has for the other, which strongly suggests that a wise and efficient ruler retains an immediacy with all realms of the kingdom, from the gods to the commoners.

Ultimately defeated by his reliance on solely physical prowess, Gilgamesh seeks out Uta-napishti the Distant. If we are to take Uta-napishti as a legitimate source of wisdom, his advice serves to both reset an adrift Gilgamesh and offer a new definition of power and leadership. Uta-napishti rebukes Gilgamesh for having forgotten his godly lineage, “built from the god’s flesh” while also human(85). As such, a king’s station is naturally above the common lot, or “fool,” and must be served the very best food sand attired in the first dress (85-86). Beyond the perks, such an arrangement of resources sustained and perpetuated the king’s legitimacy. The trade-off for being labeled a godlike is to be ever watchful, a protector of the people, “wakeful, unsleeping” as a night sentry (86).

The story of the Deluge Uta-napishti provides Gilgamesh with a new blueprint of leadership that realigns him within the accepted Mesopotamian socio-political structure. Unlike the rash Gilgamesh, Uta-napishti adheres to the oath of the gods and constructs a boat (89). This is the epic’s strongest evidence that the gods are to be followed for humanity’s own survival, and the boat with “all living things’ seed” parallels both Uruk’s defensive wall and the symbolism of a shepherd. The necessity of wise and just rule becomes paramount upon the construction of the ark, for which Uta-napishti is reliant on carpenters,reed-workers, and shipwrights to complete the vessel (90). Yet Uta-napishti responds by providing his workers with “butchered oxen, lambs I slaughtered daily, beer and ale, oil and wine” (90). This reciprocity of providing a “feast” is a model for responsible leadership in which the toil of the commoners is repaid by the skills and resources of the elites. While seeking the secret of life for himself,Gilgamesh instead is imparted with the wisdom of providing life for his people. The Deluge story stressed the need to remain faithful and humble before the gods, the requirement of more than Gilgamesh’s brawn to solve crises, and the essential need for city-state of Uruk to work cooperatively in to overcome great obstacles.

The ways the character of Gilgamesh grows as a leader are debatable, but Uta-napishti’s wisdom must have been followed, as Gilgamesh is called “wise in all matters” for his travels to the Deep (1). For this reason, Uta-napishti, and the author, may be seen as a romantic reformer, uplifting the high qualities of bravery and strength, while also warning not to overstep the bounds of ethical stewardship, both for the gods and the people.

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