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The Epic of Gilgamesh

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Does the author of The Epic of Gilgamesh criticise Gilgamesh or prompt readers to question him?

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The author of the Epic of Gilgamesh frequently criticizes the protagonist, particularly at the beginning of the poem, when he is oppressing the people of Uruk, and even the gods agree that something must be done to curb his arrogance. Throughout the poem, Gilgamesh's conduct raises ethical questions for readers about how to behave toward others, particularly if one has unusual gifts and responsibilities.

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The Epic of Gilgamesh is so distant from any modern culture that it is difficult to make confident assertions about the social attitudes it appears to depict. Nonetheless, Gilgamesh is a deeply flawed individual by any standards, and the writer of the epic appears to be critical of him at many points. This is particularly true at the beginning of the poem, when the writer's criticism of Gilgamesh's tyrannical behavior is echoed by the people of Uruk and approved by the gods themselves.

Gilgamesh exhibits many of the characteristic faults of despotic rulers. He is lustful and regards all the women in his kingdom as his to prey upon. He is cruel, exhausting his people through forced labor projects. He is violent, imperious, and insatiable in his appetites. Even allowing for thousands of years of cultural difference, Gilgamesh is a terrible ruler.

Even after the coming of Enkidu, whose friendship greatly improves his character, Gilgamesh is open to criticism on many fronts. His vandalism of Humbaba's cedar woods is a peculiarly senseless type of quest, and his grief and anger often seem like mere petulance, particularly when the events that cause them are largely his own fault. This is particularly true when he loses the chance of immortality. Gilgamesh's conduct to Utnapishtim in general seems childish, as he takes on the challenge to remain awake for a week, instantly fails through lack of self-control, then lies about his failure in a shameless and futile manner.

All these instances of poor conduct on Gilgamesh's part raise questions for readers to ask themselves about how to treat others and about basic standards of integrity and self-possession. In particular, the author begins the poems by juxtaposing descriptions of Gilgamesh's splendid attributes and abilities with an account of the tyranny that has forced his people to appeal to the gods. People who possess special abilities and status often think they are above the rules that apply to ordinary people. Gilgamesh's behavior is a warning against this line of thought, since his example shows that an exceptional person can do an exceptional amount of damage if he refuses to act morally.

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In The Epic of Gilgamesh, what questions/criticism does the writer raise? What is most important or effective about the reading, and do similar problems persist today? How or why, and what examples can you come up with?

There are certain themes and concerns that recur across the entire Epic of Gilgamesh. I would suggest that perhaps foremost among these themes is the intertwining of excellence and arrogance (and the self-destructiveness of that arrogance) that tends to be embedded within Gilgamesh's own characterization and partially divine nature.

Gilgamesh is a king; he is one-third god; he has super-human strength and physical capabilities. However, his pride is a weakness that frequently leads to disaster: he and Enkidu anger Enlil with the killing of Humbaba, and, later, Gilgamesh shames and castigates the goddess Ishtar to her face. After Enkidu's death, Gilgamesh's attempted quest for immortality represents a further variation on this same combination of themes: the very fact that he can even seek out the secret of immortality in the first place indicates his superhuman status, and yet his attempted quest must end in complete and utter failure, given Gilgamesh's own status as a mortal.

As to the second part of your question, that would require an element of thematic translation on your part, reimagining these concerns and ideas within a more modern context. For example, while there is no perfect modern equivalent to Gilgamesh himself (the partially divine warrior king of Ancient Uruk), there remains a great deal of inequality in modern society today. You might think in terms of wealth gaps and reimagine the modern-day Gilgamesh as a member of the wealthy elite or perhaps someone of celebrity status.

Another option would be to focus on politics and the themes of power. At the same time, you would also want to remember Gilgamesh's very real fallibility and human flaws, a consideration which, in a modern context, might bring up various scandals and the kind of behavior and mistakes that can ruin reputations and careers.

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