Gilgamesh.  If there was ever a classic example of a  cautionary tale about leaders misusing their power to the detriment of the lives of the people, and the displeasure that this abuse caused the gods, the Epic of Gilgamesh is it.  A Number 1.  While there is a great deal going on in the myth, its warning against bullying tactics as a political ‘strategy’ is as important today as it was more than 4500 years ago.

The earliest extant version of the story dates to about 2100-2000 BCE, from the time of the Sumerian revival in Mesopotamia.  The Ancient Near East was a collection of City States, constantly battling for supremacy.  We have no precise dates for the historical King Gilgamesh (sometime between 2800 and 2500 BCE is likely), but he is mentioned in the Sumerian King List and tradition holds that he conquered the previous ruler to become king, and assumed that hereditary lineage in order to increase his legitimacy and authority.  According to the stories, Gilgamesh’s mother was the goddess Ninsun- Lady Wild Cow- making him 2/3 divine (not sure where they got that fraction, but that’s what the tablets say), and following his lifetime he was seen as a god in Mesopotamia.  Being a descendent of the divine wasn’t a requirement in Mesopotamian kingship, but it sure didn’t hurt.

Gilgamesh was the king of Uruk, the modern city of Warka in what is now central Iraq.  There remains a large complex of monumental architecture dating from the 4th millennium BCE that corresponds with the description found in the myth.  He appears as a character in many stories, but his Epic touches on fundamental points regarding the organization of Sumerian/Mesopotamian society and how the worldview defined such things as redemption, friendship, kinship, death, immortality and the afterlife.  But the myth begins with the importance of the responsibility of kingship, emphasizing the lengths to which the gods will go when the king is misbehaving and endangering the social order.

The foundational dichotomy upon which Mesopotamian society was built is that of the perpetual need to balance order and chaos.  The material world was created out of the body of the goddess of chaos, and her influence is constantly trying to reassert control.  The gods, and then the humans that they created to alleviate their burdens, have to maintain the order that is required to stave off these attacks of chaos.  All beings must follow these rules- and the human king is meant to be the exemplar for his followers.

From this perspective, Gilgamesh, for all his gifts and talents, was not, at first, a good king.  He was the King of not just Uruk, but of Hubris, and his womanizing, glory-seeking and bullying violated the proper order and left his people in despair- and also great danger.  Through the forced labour of his citizens, and taking them away from their regular daily tasks, Gilgamesh built the great walls around the city, not for the protection of his subjects, but for his own glory in posterity.  He acted as he desired, regardless of the complaints of his advisers and priests.  At his command ‘his weapons would rise up, his comrades have to rise up‘ and go to war for the furtherance of his glory.  He had no peer, all others were beneath him.

I don’t think it’s much of a stretch at all (sadly) to see direct correspondences with many world leaders today, right now and in the recent past.  I could list specific corresponding examples with one leader in particular, but I’ve already ranted about that guy enough this month.  Suffice to say the story of Gilgamesh recounts what ultimately happens when a leader, meant to be the example for the people, does not fulfill his ordered role.

The gods, of necessity, responded to the king’s breach of order and the complaints of the people.  The goddess Aruru, who first created humanity, took clay and created Enkidu, the warrior and wild man, to confront Gilgamesh.  After a mighty battle to standstill, respect and then great friendship grew between Enkidu and Gilgamesh.  They discovered that working together on the correct, properly ordered, path of justice was the only way to uphold societal stability AND keep the gods happy.  No more bi-partisan politics for Gil and The Wildman.

Gilgamesh was forced to look outside himself and his own immediate, short-sighted, selfish desires, and learned, through trials and heartbreak, that his role was not to be remembered for his personal greatness or to achieve immortality outside of the proper order of things, but that he had to assume the responsible rule of his people for as long as he was granted the time to do so.  And by fulfilling his role with responsibility and care- for ALL his people- he DID, ultimately, achieve lasting love and remembrance.  So much so that he remains a recognized figure thousands of years after his kingdom passed into history.

Contemporary world and local leaders should hearken to his tale.  There are no gods to intervene on our behalf, but as the citizens of the world WE have the power to take our politicians to task when they abuse their ‘ruling’ powers.   The leadership of societies remains a sacred (if I may use the term in the vernacular rather than religious sense) trust that MUST transcend personal (or religious or political ideology-driven) desires.  Bullying, whether through greed-based lobbying or defamatory attack ads, is NOT an acceptable means of guiding the progress of the people.  It is shocking to me that our leaders cannot seem to grasp this basic truth.  We need to become like Enkidu, challenging our leaders in ways that foster respect and help them understand the need to work together and for the betterment of all.  We might have to begin with a mighty battle, but, if the Epic of Gilgamesh tells us anything about humanity, we have the capacity to turn that fight into a better future for us all.  If Gilgamesh, the peerless, 2/3s divine king can learn that lesson, then surely our all-too-human leaders can be brought ’round to the sense of the moral of his tale.  One can hope, anyway.

18 comments on “Bullies

  1. […] the Epic of Gilgamesh (which I also discussed here) the Ferryman is named Urshanabi and he acts as a companion to the King of Uruk as Gilgamesh […]

  2. […] did he claim that the figures from mythology were not historical figures.  As mentioned here, we have evidence that a significant character from Mesopotamian mythology, Gilgamesh, is found in […]

  3. […] begin with Gilgamesh.  (I know, not him AGAIN- but the Mesopotamia Exhibit at the ROM began last week and I can’t seem to get that there […]

  4. […] I’ve emphasized before, there can be danger in employing myths as attempts to justify the unjustifiable.  Cautionary […]

  5. […] ‘ve called Harper a bully before.  He, and politicians like him (no names mentioned, Mayor McCheese) aren’t inclined […]

  6. colemining says:

    Reblogged this on colemining and commented:

    Last week on Cosmos… Oh, how that show continues to amaze me. And this last episode spoke about concepts of immortality- and how the development of writing has allowed us to see into the hearts and minds of those who lived millennia before our time.

    The stories remain. Neil deGrasse Tyson spoke of the Hero’s Journey- as undertaken by Gilgamesh as he searched for immortality.

    The episode cleverly pointed to the existence of a Flood myth- one that predates the inspiration for Russell Crowe’s latest film by 1000 years while continuing to explore the reality that to understand our planet and the Cosmos as a whole we have to open our minds to its seeming vastness and our relative insignificance in the scale of space and time.

    I love that show.


    It got me thinking about my guy Gil- and called to mind this post that I wrote way back when I first was finding my voice here at colemining.

    I wrote about him in the context of his initial character- the bullying leader, out for his own agenda- rather than the wise ruler he became as a result of his travel and discoveries.

    Since today was the day that those running to lead this province as the next government were allowed to begin broadcasting their campaign ads, I thought that the topic of bullying and bullies could do with a little revisiting.

    I haven’t had the television on today, so I am able to live in hope (until I do catch a news report or a commercial) that this crop of political leaders will transcend the growing- and repulsive- trend toward attack ads as the norm.

    Let’s keep it clean and on point, folks. There’s too much at stake for lowest common denominator mud-slinging and schoolyard name-calling.

    We go to the polls on June 12. Make your voice heard, Ontario.

  7. Super post, Cole. Loved the way you employed your academic discipline to frame a modern problem in a classical and timeless context.

    • colemining says:

      Thanks, Nav! That was part of the brilliance of the Cosmos episode, actually. How we have found the means to immortality in preserving our words and perspectives to inform new generations. Our best stories retain their value and demonstrate the very humanness that ties us to our history and keeps us moving toward the future.

      Thanks for reading!

      • I enjoy posts such as these, so the pleasure is mine. I just wish I could keep up with all the posts of the blogs that I follow. I was late getting a comment in on Beth B.’s last post, for example.

      • colemining says:

        I hear that. I’m feeling stretched quite thin at the moment- I’d imagine you are too, what with all the excitement about your book! Appreciate you taking the time to visit!

      • Yes, it’s been busy. The marketing part of self-publishing better suits the social media generation than mine.

        I hope that the book’s story becomes an election issue, but I am not holding my breath.

        You keep writing, and I’ll keep reading.


      • colemining says:

        I hear that- all the marketing and use of social media must be a little daunting. It’s certainly not something I’m great at. But it sounds like a pretty wonderful adventure with some fabulous feedback already! Congrats!

        I’m just hoping that people actually turn out to vote this time out. The apathy I’m hearing all around me is pretty staggering. People can’t seem to be bothered to care about taking a part in the future of their province/city/country- they’d rather just complain about it afterward.

        I’ll do my best to keep with the writing- a lot going on, so it’s hard to make the time. Doing my best!

  8. I must admit I understand the apathy – not that I’ve relinquished my voting – just that I understand. Decades ago, I was active in politics, working for local offices of the national candidates of my choice. The more involved I got, the more sickened I became. I saw the compromised, the wheeling and dealing, the lack of integrity on all counts. It seems with each campaign, the more disillusioned I become. I’ve heard stories of optimistic legislators seeking to make a difference who come out the process either embittered or broken because the system crushes them. The ones who survive are compromised and become jaded and cynical – not the ones you voted for.

    When you see and hear enough of these stories, or witness it first hand, it’s no wonder people turn their backs on voting. I remember watching the movie, Primary Colors, and it made me want to vomit because it all rang so true. It’s devastating for those of us who care and feels like we’re throwing our votes away. So the choice becomes don’t vote because it doesn’t really matter, or vote, walk away and shake your head, and don’t complain.

    Tragic, but it’s what it’s come to. And I’m an optimist. 😦

    • colemining says:

      There is so much truth in what you say- and yes, the apathy is understandable on many levels and for many reasons. I can’t feel like I’m throwing my vote away- it’s just too important that we remain a part of the process. That’s the only way that we will be able to change things.

      I do have to say that I feel some optimism- ironically- because a number of people I’ve spoken with are much more engaged with the whole thing and concerned about really examining the reasons to vote and taking the time to investigate the candidates and choose the one(s) who are most likely to lead with integrity because of the poor examples of leaders we’ve had to deal with ’round here lately.

      If the crappy experiences are what it takes to get people to wake up and participate in their own governance, then the lessons from the crappy leaders can at least be deemed to be lessons learned and not repeated.

      At least I hope that’s what will happen.

      I think we have to complain- it’s the first step to attempting to realize change. And we don’t GET to complain unless we contribute to the process.

      Holding onto the optimism. I still feel breezes of change here and there.

      Thanks for reading- and for your thoughtful comments drawn from your own experiences. xo

  9. bethbyrnes says:

    I always like hearing your views on this topic, Cole. We have already had our ridiculous primary Tuesday this week where the American people have apparently not yet had enough of greed and slander, and have chosen more right wing nuts to give us even more of both. I hate to think this is a stupid country, but what else is one to conclude? Anyway, we DVRd Cosmos so we can watch it a few times down the road. I do hope you have time enough to keep on posting as we all look forward to it.

    • colemining says:

      Oh Beth, I’m trying to focus on the positives I’m finding in our election campaign(s) hereabouts- and give all due props to those who refuse to pander to the lowest common denominators and participate in the name-calling and rote sloganeering that seems to appeal to some people.

      I can’t get over how much I’m loving Cosmos. We need more programming like that. If we are to continue to be a society that is glued to our televisions/computers/mobile devices, then we should at least be watching informed and educational shows of substance- and Cosmos is setting a new standard.

      I’m definitely missing having the opportunities to write more- hoping that things settle as more and more tasks are ticked off the list. I’ll do my best to keep on with the posting- and thank you for the support and the kind input, as always. I miss my WordPress peeps! Will try to do some catching up this weekend! xo

      • bethbyrnes says:

        The only way we watch the tube now is through our own DVRd programming. Most of what is on is worthless. Yes, trying to be positive about our political process here. Don’t be a stranger :-). xo.

      • colemining says:

        I hear that! Have to make myself slow down and spend some more time here in the WordPress world. Hope you have a great weekend!

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