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.