In his translation of The Epic of Gilgamesh, Andrew George points out that the beginning of the epic implies that the story is written by Gilgamesh himself, and he observes that this detail fits within a small genre of Akkadian literature: so-called "fictional royal autobiography." In this genre, poets take on the character of famous kings and leave lessons for future rulers.
What lessons might The Epic of Gilgamesh teach to a future king of Uruk?
The Epic of Gilgamesh teaches future kings of Uruk to cultivate sustainable ruling through diplomatic ties. Gilgamesh’s triumphs and tragedies exemplify both sides of the coin to future rulers. The tragedy of Enkidu’s death is brought upon Gilgamesh by the cutting of two diplomatic ties: the slaughter of Humbaba and the and the insulting of Ishtar. While Enkidu perpetuated wrong decision making by urging Gilgamesh to hurry and kill Humbaba, it is still the king’s decision. Gilgamesh could have decided against it and taken Humbaba as an underling leader of the forest. Gilgamesh would have created a sustainable revenue by Humbaba’s cedar tributes. Later, when Ishtar offers herself and bountiful harvests for his people, Gilgamesh insults her which incites Enkidu’s final days. Gilgamesh’s choices not only broke off a profitable connection for the gods, but also initiated the steps for the end of his closest, most beloved ally.
When Gilgamesh uses words instead of brute strength, the outcome is quite the opposite. Her learns how to race the sun from the scorpion men. He learns how to find Utnapishtim from the innkeeper. He learns of immortality and the Deluge from Utnapishtim. He evens mentions his previous plan to beat up Utnapishtim for the information, but instead notices the pattern and begins to talk. As soon as Gilgamesh turns to constructing ties through words instead of muscle, his goal moves exceedingly closer. His story shows a future king how prevalent beneficial ties will be during his reign. The future king only need to recognize and nurture them.
What lessons might it teach to ordinary citizens?
This epic teaches ordinary citizens to pray to the gods first and plea to their leaders second. It is at the townspeople’s prayers that the gods create Enkidu to propel Gilgamesh through his journey of improvement. Yet, it is the country folk’s pleas that convince Gilgamesh to entice Enkidu to join the realm of men. The all-knowing gods knew this would be Gilgamesh’s next step. They willed it to happen. Therefore, they ployed Gilgamesh into inviting his own disequilibrium and eventual peace.
Do these lessons seem to come from the position of a king (writing in the third person), or from that of a scribe?
If a scribe were to create such a tale with an imperfect king, he would likely be punished at court. Most tales have perfect kings and perfect gods fighting the evil forces of the world or other kings. Lessons can still be learned through these stories. While I find it difficult to believe a king truly wrote the tale, I find it even more difficult to believe this tale would be received at court without some form of kingly blessing.
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