Aspects of Mesopotamian History in Gilgamesh: A Verse Narrative

There are various aspects of Mesopotamian history that can be found in the epic Gilgamesh: A verse narrative, including society and religion. For instance, Mesopotamian culture can be learnt from the epic. From the story, we can learn that ancient Mesopotamia was led by a strong male leader who was assisted by several city elders who form a counsel. This was the traditional form of government found in Mesopotamia because Gilgamesh was a strong leader who brought together city elders to lead the city. He was expected to become a just ruler but he had a lot of abuses which resulted in the start of Enkidu in the story.

In terms of religion, the ancient Mesopotamia is clearly described in the story as a polytheistic society. From the class notes and textbook, it is clear that the Mesopotamian religion was a polytheism religion which existed as the only religion in Mesopotamia for more than one thousand years before it began to decline between 2nd and third centuries. Polytheism means that gods are attached to natural occurrences in the society. For instance, in Gilgamesh Shamash was considered as the god of the sun. His wife was referred to as the goddess of the moon. The goddess of love and war was referred to as Ishtar while the god of arts and water was called Ea. This approach in which gods are associated with nature is common in polytheistic religions such as that of Mesopotamia.

The gods identified in Gilgamesh are also highly personified. This means that they can act like human beings, for example by developing relationships (Mitchell, 2004). These personified gods chose their favourite modes to guide and their unfavourite ones to destroy. The personified gods also fight amongst themselves. For instance, in Gilgamesh Enlil chose to destroy mankind using floods and Ea saved Utnapishtim by advising him to build a boat. During the flood, Enlil stayed in a safe place in his palace while the other gods were soaked in the gates and became miserable.

In tablet nine of the epic, Utnapishtim and his wife survived the Great flood in Mesopotamia. The gods gave them immortality. Gilgamesh the great king also prayed to the moon god to save him from a pride of lions while he was crossing a mountain at night. He manages to kill the lions and use their skins to make clothes. This is one among many incidences in which the gods played a significant role in Gilgamesh. The aspect of personification of the gods in Mesopotamia is also clear from the actions of Ishtar and other gods. Ishtar regretted the destruction of humanity, and other gods wept with her. Utnapishtim also joined those who were weeping when the destruction happened. He made sacrifices for the gods, which indicates that sacrifices were common religious practices in Mesopotamia.

The floods instigated by Enlil brought a lot of anger to the other gods. Ea criticized Enlil for bringing disproportional punishment upon the people, while Ishtar vows that he will never forget that day. Enlil blessed Utnapishtim and rewarded him and his wife with eternal life. This shows that the epic demonstrates the personification of gods in the ancient Mesopotamia. This is because gods disagreed with each other. A gift of eternal life was a unique gift from Enlil to Utnapishtim (Mason, 1970). As a way of demonstrating the uniqueness of the gift of immortality, Utnapishtim asks Gilgamesh to sleep for six days, and when he fails to do so, he argues that Gilgamesh cannot conquer death if he cannot even conquer sleep. This demonstrates the importance of religion in the story of Gilgamesh as he looks for immortality.

Religion is also demonstrated in the story through the parallelism of the story with the stories of the bible including the Garden of Eden, Ecclesiastes’ advice, Noah’s flood and others. The story of Enkidu/Shamhat is a parallel of the story of Adam/Eve. In both cases, a man is created from the soil and he is introduced to a woman who tempts him. In the biblical and the Gilgamesh stories the man agrees to eat food suggested by the woman, and hides his nakedness. In both cases, man also goes away from his realm and never comes back. This also shows the role of religion in Mesopotamia as illustrated through Gilgamesh.

According to George (2003), Utnapishtim in Gilgamesh can be associated with Noah of the bible because both were instructed to construct a boat in order to avoid floods. The bible story follows the story of Gilgamesh flood, mentioning all points from the Gilgamesh in the same order. This shows that the bible and Gilgamesh drew their stories from an existing tradition about floods in Mesopotamia. The biblical stories and the Gilgamesh epic therefore diverged from a common Mesopotamian tradition.

Furthermore, the story of King Nebuchadnezzar in the book of Daniel in the Bible can be associated with the story of Enkidu in Gilgamesh because both kings demonstrated some level of madness. They both demonstrate mocking and sarcastic characters. Some scholars also suggest that the advice of Siduri in Gilgamesh has also borrowed from the advice from Ecclesiastes. For instance, both stories use a proverb which says that, “a triple-stranded rope cannot be easily broken” (Jacobsen & Abusch, 2002). This shows that there is a common use of proverbs and advice as a common way of life in the history and society of Mesopotamia.

In Mesopotamian history and society, there is also a culture of gender division which is demonstrated in the epic Gilgamesh. The fact that the king of Mesopotamia was supposed to be male, for example Gilgamesh, indicates that the ancient Mesopotamia is characterised by masculine dominance. The king of gods is also required to be male, increasing male dominance in the society. It may also be argued that women were guided by emotions and instinct more than reason. This is demonstrated in Gilgamesh because Ishtar, a major goddess, controls love and war which are two of the most common human aspects guided by emotion. In this case, male and female gods are given different roles in Mesopotamia, bringing about gender division as a common practice in Mesopotamia where the story of Gilgamesh was developed and narrated across the world.

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B. Economics & Finance, B/ED, Writer, Educator with experience of 12 years in research and writing.

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