The epic of Gilgamesh is a heroic poem originating from Mesopotamia. It exists in twelve tablets that have since been translated into different languages including English. Gilgamesh ruled Uruk around 2700 B.C.E. and his fame, according to history, survived because of the major building projects that took place during his reign and his reports on the teachings of Utnapishtim (Sandars). The story revolves around the lives of King Gilgamesh and Enkidu the wild man. The two are great friends until Enkidu dies and Gilgamesh decides to seek immortality in a bid to escape death. The quest to find immortality begins after Enkidu dying but in the end, Gilgamesh admits failure and goes back to his kingdom a changed man (Sandars).
The attitudes of the gods in the Epic of Gilgamesh relate to the cultural and societal norms among human beings. A number of these norms are present in the epic story, in the form of attitudes and courses of action taken by the gods. This paper seeks to show specific attitudes among the gods and relate them to the societal organization that is present among human beings. Quotes and specific examples from the text will couple the analysis. The paper will also carry out an in-depth analysis on the cause behind any of the gods' actions and the attitudes behind the same. These will in turn be compared to what is customary among human beings based on culture.
The gods show an attitude of mercy towards the people under Gilgamesh’s reign. This leads to their decision to create Enkidu, a man equal in strength to that possessed by Gilgamesh (Crowley). The response of the gods was in Enkidu's creation and this was a success as seen in the end of the narration as it portrays Gilgamesh as a better and more compassionate leader (Sandars). The gods heard the pleas of the people in Uruk and decided to help them. Among humans, those in power in the society play a role of protecting the people beneath them. The attitude of the gods towards the pleas of the people is like that of a leader towards his people in any given culture. The gods came up with a plan to help the people much like the laws set among communities to avail the people with solutions to any forms of transgression. The laws can therefore, be seen as the ‘Enkidu’ in the societies of men.
The seventh tablet carries records of the events leading to Enkidu dying. Enkidu’s death was the gods' punishment to the duo for killing the bull of heaven that Anu sent forth before which they had killed Humbaba, guardian of the Cedar Forest in the chronicle (Crowley). It is important to note that the bull was carrying seven years famine to the land of Uruk because of Gilgamesh’s refusal of the advances made by the goddess of love, Ishtar (Carnahan). The gods believed a crime deserves punishment, something that is common in the society. However, cultures do not shun the act of discouraging sexual advances from the opposite gender; the gods saw this as an abomination and sought to punish the proprietors. People react in the same way. When wronged one seeks justice and as mentioned above, people use the laws to fulfill the same.
“What could I offer the queen of love in return, who lacks nothing at all? Balm for the body? The food and drink of the gods? I have nothing to give to her who lacks nothing at all. You are the door through which the cold gets in” (Carnahan 45) These were the words of Gilgamesh in response to the advances of the goddess Ishtar. She was in love with the Uruk king something that is normal in the human culture (Carnahan). The plot shows erotic love as in the case of the goddess and the king while platonic love is present between Gilgamesh and Enkidu. The society encourages these two forms of love that offer harmony and peaceful coexistence among the people. Love is also seen as a drive for change as is clear in the change of Gilgamesh from a cruel leader to one who learns to value his people that later commemorate him as a hero and a leader of Mesopotamia. The society emphasizes the need for love among its people for a peaceful coexistence. It is love that leads to procreation in marriages and loyalty between leaders and their people. The role of love is vital on the survival of culture and norms of the society.
Culture teaches people to fear and respect the supreme beings lest they get angry. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the gods give good reason for this, as there are different accounts of their displeasure and wrath. Displeasure can come from lack of obedience by the humankind or even the disregard of an order from a god. A notable account is that of Utnapishtim saving human kind from a great flood that gods the gods sent (Carnahan). Fear and respect for a supreme being are traits that are clear in many societies. This is why there are worship places and offerings made as a way of appeasing God to this day. This has been so since time immemorial as in the records from different religions. For instance, the bible carries the account of Noah, a man whose story is very much like that of Utnapishtim. The anger of God is something people try to avoid and in turn avoid His wrath.
Death is inevitable. Different societies understand this and accept that no human being can cheat death. Cultures have had different narrations about death and in all of them; one cannot escape it no matter how hard he tries. Gilgamesh learnt this on his quest to find a way to cheat death. Gilgamesh and Enkidu were at one time mighty and strong men. Even with Gilgamesh being a partial god, he was still unable to find immortality. In the cultural norms, a person lives and eventually dies. This is the normal way of existing in the world and God determines when a person is to die. The gods in the Epic of Gilgamesh cause the death of Enkidu. The two warriors are unable to get immortality despite the heroic lives they led.
Anu is Ishtar’s father and like any father in the human culture, he did what his daughter demanded of him. Although Gilgamesh had sound reasons to refuse the goddesses’ advances, Anu still rendered punishment at his daughter’s request. The need to protect ones child is something often seen among humans because the societal organizations expect parents to protect their children. Anu’s anger knew no bounds because of the scorn shown to his daughter and as a result sent forth the Bull of heaven with seven years of famine to the country of Uruk.
Before Enkidu dies, the gods allow him to see the afterlife and tell Gilgamesh about it (Sandars). Humans believe in a life after death and that the gods control it and decide how it will be. Cultures have taught their people about the underworld and the Epic of Gilgamesh confirms that it exists. It can also be seen as a source of hope for the people since it answers what happens after death question.
The poem mentions a test that Utnapishtim uses to decide whether Gilgamesh is ready for immortality. It is safe to assume that if Gilgamesh had passed the test, Utnapishtim would have granted his request (Carnahan). The assessment required Gilgamesh to stay awake for a week to get the immortality he seeks. Since he fails, he returns home without what he was seeking. As readers find out later, he still fails to get his youthful years back after a snake steals the leaves meant to make him young again (Trustees of the British Museum). Since he has failed the first test, he bound to fail in all areas that were to make his mission a success. He fell asleep during the test and it is through the same that he lost the leaves mentioned before (Carnahan). The society has many tests to decide the worthiness of a person to carry out a particular task or assume a certain place in the society. For instance, schools are another form of society’s organization and they have tests for students to make sure they are ready to move to the next grade or get a form of acknowledgement on their achievements. However, people believe that if one fails a first test, he cannot pass the next ones. Therefore, it is human culture to follow certain steps in achieving success and these steps are systematic.
The Epic of Gilgamesh shows different forms of cultural and societal norms that the gods show. The gods use such norms to get what they want and teach lessons to the main characters of the narration. In the end, the gods stay all-powerful while the humans see that they are the weaker beings. The mighty fall to their knees because of their defiance and failure to acknowledge the might of the gods. However, Gilgamesh attempts to get to the same level as the gods who aside from being very powerful are immortal (Sandars). In the end, he fails and the tale ends with the people of Uruk mourning his death (Trustees of the British Museum).
In conclusion, the attitudes of the gods in the Epic of Gilgamesh relate to the cultural and societal norms among human beings. Their actions towards the main characters and the response they show when defied show signs of both compassion and anger. Just as in the case of human beings, gods seem to react to the actions of the people. Other than the people of Uruk who show faith in the gods, the main characters seem to be defiant of the gods’ powers until Enkidu dies and Gilgamesh realizes his mortality. It is therefore clear that societal and cultural practices are common among the gods in the poem.
Carnahan, Wolf. The Epic Of Gilgamesh. New York: Penguin, 1998. Print.
Crowley, Roger. Gilgamesh Epic. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. Print.
Sandars, Nancy K. The Epic of Gilgamesh. London : Penguin Books, 1979. Print.
Trustees of the British Museum. "Gilgamesh, the hero-king of Uruk." Epic of Gilgamesh (2000) : 25-51. Web. 17 Mar. 2013.