What is the role of gods in The Epic of Gilgamesh?
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In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Gods come off as very powerful and interfere with the lives of humans as they chose. There are multiple examples throughout the text of them trying to control life in a certain way. For instance, when people complain about Gilgamesh being a ruler who does not treat his people well, Aruru (the Goddess of Creation) creates Enkidu, who is supposed to be the equal of Gilgamesh. Later on in the story when Enkidu and Gilgamesh face Humbaba, it is the God Shamash who helps defeat the monster.
The Gods in Gilgamesh are typical of epics of that time, as they are shown as constantly interfering in the lives of humans. They display an ability to use their immense power to affect daily events. Also, the Gods are symbolic of what Gilgamesh strives to be. While the main protagonist may be partly divine, he is still mortal and will die. That explains why Gilgamesh doesn't just settle around and start a family, but instead goes on quests to defeat monsters. He wants his name to live forever, as a God will live forever.
The Gods are shown as more powerful than humans, they are shown as interacting and interfering with humans, but something important to note are that Gods are presented as being like humans. They have problems, personalities, and moods. For instance, when Gilgamesh wants nothing to do with Ishtaar (God of War and Love), she feels insulted and wants to get revenge. I think what the epic really conveys are that while Gods may be imperfect, but they do control much of what happens in the human world, and what Gilgamesh strives to be.
The gods in this ancient epic demonstrate that they are in no way more divine or sensible than mortals, and, as Gilgamesh and Enkidu discover, in some ways their divine powers make them even more childish and irrational and capricious than their human counterparts. The world of this epic is one where piety to the gods is expected and it is foolish in the extreme to intentionally anger them, however it is also a world where piety does not automatically guarantee protection. For an example of how childish and fickle the gods can be, note how Ishtar tries to tempt Gilgamesh to sleep with her in Tablet VI when she is overcome with lust. Gilgamesh points out the irony of this in his open rebuke to her: the goddess of love has become enslaved by the passion that she herself is, in theory at least, in charge of:
I have nothing to give to her who lacks nothing at all.
You are the door through which the cold gets in.
You are the fire that goes out. You are the pitch
that sticks to the hands of the one who carries the bucket.
You are the house that falls down. You are the shoe
that pinches the foot of the wearer.
Ishtar has become dominated by the very human attribute that she is supposedly in charge of, and Gilgamesh, in his taunts, plays the role of the younger heroic male rejecting the advances of the older, jaded female. There seems to be little divine about the gods in Gilgamesh, therefore, and in some ways their divine power only gives them license to be more childish and more fickle than humans. Although piety is something that is endorsed, likewise there is equal stress laid on their capricious and sometimes cruel nature.
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