The Gilgamesh was an ancient Mesopotamian epic, which gave the reader an idea of the political structures of one of the first Western Civilizations. The Mesopotamian political system was a primitive form of democracy, where politics and religion intermingled.
The epic described Gilgamesh as “king of Uruk“, but also called him a "god and man“ (Gilgamesh 15). This indicated that Mesopotamians viewed their kings as very outstanding human beings closely related to the omnipresent gods. The fact that a king was the ruler in Mesopotamian society suggested that it was a monarchy; however, the king was not all powerful. Before leaving to kill Humbaba, Gilgamesh consulted the council of elders, seeking their advice: "Thus Gilgamesh and Enkidu went Together to the marketplace To notify the Elders of Uruk Who were meeting in their senate“ (30). Gilgamesh addressed the elders, trying to convince them of the necessity of killing Humbaba: "I want to prove Him not the awesome thing we think he is [. . .] I will defeat him In his cedar forest“ (30). The elders approved of Gilgamesh’s planned expedition: "The old men leaned a little forward Remembering old wars. A flush burned on Their cheeks“ (30). Obviously Gilgamesh was not supposed to take action without the approval of the elders. This indicated that the Mesopotamian society was a "primitive democracy“ (Perry et al. 15). However, political decisions not only depended on the consent of the elders, but it was also necessary to ask the gods for advice. In Gilgamesh’s case, he asked his mother, Ninsun, a minor goddess of wisdom, to give him advise on the forthcoming expedition to kill Humbaba (Gilgamesh 31).
The Gilgamesh was a good description of Mesopotamian society and its political structures. Although the book’s main content concentrated on entirely different matters, it showed that religion and politics were closely related and that Mesopotamian society was a primitive democracy.
Gilgamesh. Trans. Herbert Mason. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1972.
Perry, Marvin, et al. Western Civilization: Ideas, Politics & Society. Volume 1: To 1789. 6th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999.
According to the text, as king, Gilgamesh had complete control over his people and all of the privileges that came with it. Throughout the text, Gilgamesh used his kingship, and the privileges that he believed stemmed from it, to satisfy all of his personal wants even when they were in opposition to the will of the people.
Among the many privileges that Gilgamesh had was his ability to command his subjects to do whatever it was that he desired at that second, regardless of their personal wants, "They had grown tired of his contradictions/" (16) The text says that sometimes he commanded them to rebuild the walls of Uruk, "Sometimes he pushed his people... rebuilding Uruk's walls," (16) Other times he would just let the walls go into ruin, "...let/ The walls go unattended and decay,/" (16) Gilgamesh was also able to command his people to go anywhere and do anything that he said. When the hunter's son came to Gilgamesh and asked for a prostitute to entice Enkidu away from the animals, Gilgamesh told her to go without a second thought, "He sent the prostitute but then forgot/" (17) Gilgamesh's final privilege that he demanded from his people was his right to sleep with a new bride before her husband was able to, "He demanded, from and old birthright,/ The privilege of sleeping with their brides/ Before the husbands were permitted." (15) Although he repeatedly demonstrated his utter lack of concern for his people, there seemed to be some sort of council of citizens that advised Gilgamesh and that he must have reported to, "To notify the Elders of Uruk/ Who were meeting in their senate./" (30)
Throughout the epic of Gilgamesh, the role of the king is shown to be that of a dictator. This dictator is portrayed as a man whose personal wants and desires come before the wants and needs of his people.
When the ancient Sumerians engraved on stone the deeds of Gilgamesh, the poets unwittingly spelled out the ideal characteristics, and hence the role, they envisioned for their king. By this time the ancient Sumerian political system had firmly established itself as a permanent and a hereditary kingship with no input from the citizens and the council of elders playing only an intermediary or advisory role.
To the Sumerians, the king was all wise, “to whom all things were known…[also] knew the countries of the world…saw mysteries and knew secret things.” Also, they gave their king, partial divinity “two-thirds…god” and a kingship bestowed by the gods. With such attributes, the Sumerians may have expected their king not only to be instinctively aware of any imminent danger but also to have the ability to solve resulting problems immediately.
Owing to their extremely vulnerable geographic location, it was essential that the Sumerians had a leader who could also protect and sustain them through invader attacks. Thus, building and maintaining strong protective walls, “[walls] that had no equal” surrounding the city was a major task of the king. In addition, various feats of strength to impress the citizens, such as Gilgamesh vanquishing Humbaba, seemed a vital aspect of the king’s role.
The citizens expected their king to be in constant communion with the gods. Because uncertainly and constant danger from enemy attacks and natural disasters filled the day-to-day existence of the people, they allowed religion to pervade every aspect of life including the political system. In the epic, the king constantly sought advice from his mother, a minor deity. Dreams were the vehicle used to convey various messages from the gods to the king. For example, Gilgamesh, through a dream, knew about Enkidu in advance and was ready to confront him.
Enmeshing divinity and religion into the king’s role to such an extent also probably helped the Sumerians to tolerate to a high degree, abuse or neglect by their king. Accordingly, the epic, that began by glorifying Gilgamesh as an exemplary king, also matter-of-factly detailed how the citizens suffered when the king misbehaved, and ended by stating that Gilgamesh eventually conformed to the wishes of the gods and returned to his kingly duties.
The epic of Gilgamesh provides an example of Sumerian kingship and power. This epic depicts an example of an overbearing and oppressive king. But the epic also shows that a king is unable to successfully rule alone.
Gilgamesh, the king of Uruk, was a tyrant. For example, the epic states, “sometimes he pushed his people half to death with rebuilding Uruk’s walls, and then without an explanation let the walls go unattended and decay” (16). Also, “he demanded from an old birthright the privilege of sleeping with their brides before their husbands were permitted (15).” The aforementioned examples illustrate just how oppressive Gilgamesh was as a ruler.
However, while the epic clearly shows that Gilgamesh was a tyrannical ruler, the epic also shows that a king cannot lead without guidance. He often seeks the help of others. For example, he states, “I am alone and I have longed for some companionship” (20). Similarly, he has dreams that frighten him so much that he confides in his mother for insight. Also, without the knowledge of the boatman, Gilgamesh could not have crossed the “sea of death”(70). In addition, he needed the council of elders’ approval to slay Humbaba, and Enkiduto to destroy Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven.
In conclusion, the epic of Gilgamesh is a prime example of how even domineering kings need guidance to help them rule their kingdom. Hence, it is important to always remember that a king does not rule alone, no matter how powerful that king seems.