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The epic poem of Gilgamesh is recognized as one of the earliest works in literature, originating back to the existence of ancient Mesopotamia. Since then, numerous versions of the story have been published, including one by David Ferry, called Gilgamesh. Regardless of the version, they all contain the same plot. In the epic poem, Gilgamesh is a tyrannical king in Uruk, Mesopotamia and the people of the city cry out to the gods to bring them peace from his ruling. Throughout his reign, Gilgamesh has been sexually exploiting women and taking the lives of men at his will. As a result, the gods create a man named Enkidu and assign him as Gilgamesh’s companion, in an effort to make him a better king. Gilgamesh does have an understanding of his obligations as a king, but he both fails and succeeds in satisfying them.
One of Gilgamesh’s obligations is to protect his people. As a king, Gilgamesh has absolute authority over his people, but he arbitrarily exercises his power. In one instance, Gilgamesh attends a wedding and “Before the husband, Gilgamesh will lie/ in pleasure with the bride in the marital chamber” (2.2.14). In other words, Gilgamesh thinks he has the right to sleep with whomever he wants and disregards the consent of women. This careless action instills fear among the people of Uruk and as a result, the old men resent Gilgamesh and beg the gods to alleviate some of their burden. Gilgamesh is supposed to be the “protector of the people,” but “Neither the father’s son/ nor the wife of the noble; neither the mother’s daughter/ nor the warrior’s bride was safe” (1.2.4). Gilgamesh’s people no longer trust him and not only do they need protection from others outside of Uruk, but also within the city from their uncontrollable king. The gods respond by creating a soulmate, Enkidu, who will protect Uruk’s virgin brides and men from Gilgamesh.
Although the people of Uruk failed to receive protection from within their city, they were protected from external forces because of Gilgamesh. For instance, Gilgamesh built an “outer wall [that]/ shines in the sun like brightest copper; the inner wall/ is beyond the imaginings of kings” (1.1.3). Gilgamesh had many achievements as a king, such as irrigating the fields, digging wells and planting orchards, but his greatest achievement was the construction of the city walls (1.1.3-4). This was because Mesopotamia’s geography consisted of flat, barren plains that made its cities easy to attack. Hence, Gilgamesh built the walls to defend his people from potential enemies. Furthermore, the city of Uruk had a strong army that was able to defeat its enemies in battles. This was due to the fact that Gilgamesh was “the vanguard and rear guard of the army/ Shadow of Darkness over the enemy field/ the Web, the Flood that rises to wash away/ the walls of alien cities” (1.1.4). These descriptions of Gilgamesh suggest that he devoted all of his strength in the battles against Uruk’s enemies and was even capable of facing them alone. Because of his strength, Gilgamesh succeeded in protecting these “alien cities” from entering his own and attacking his people.
Another obligation of Gilgamesh is to be unselfish. Gilgamesh finds himself deeply mourning over the loss of his companion, Enkidu, and he becomes fearful of his own death. He leaves his people and embarks on a dangerous journey in the wilderness to “find out how death could be avoided” (1.9.48). He threatens to abandon his duties as a king and “wander in unknown places, seeking” if he does not find Utnapishtim, the only man who was granted immortality by the gods (10.1.57). As a king, Gilgamesh has numerous responsibilities, including one to look after the the militaristic well-being of Uruk. The city has never been attacked under Gilgamesh’s dominion and with him wandering in the wilderness without knowing when he will return to his people, Uruk will be vulnerable to its enemies. Therefore, Gilgamesh is selfish for placing his own needs before his people’s.
However, Gilgamesh, later, demonstrates a different motive for his dangerous journey into the wilderness. After he has reached Utnapishtim’s territory, Utnapishtim informs Gilgamesh of a plant that will restore the youth of a man. He tells Urshanabi, Utnapishtim’s wife, that he “will carry the thorny plant back to [his] city/ [He] will give some of the plant to the elders there/ to share among them…And [he] will take [his] share of the magic plant” (11.7.80). Gilgamesh’s intention suggests that he is thinking about the well-being of his people, especially when he wants the elders to eat the plant before him, so they can be rejuvenated. This act of unselfishness could also be an act of compensation to the elders for Gilgamesh’s exploitation of the virgin brides and men.
The main responsibility of a king is to administer the well-being of a kingdom; thus, a king must fulfill numerous obligations, such as to protect his kingdom, in order to carry out this responsibility. Gilgamesh’s role as a king can be seen as one of both failure and success. For instance, he abuses his absolute authority by exploiting virgin brides and men, but on the other hand, he is efficacious in ensuring that potential enemies do not attack his people. Although initially, Gilgamesh as as ruler was not always displayed in a good light, he ultimately became a better leader for his people.
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