In the Epic of Gilgamesh, do the Gods work to advance in human ends or work to defeat them?

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rreitmeyer123's profile pic

rreitmeyer123 | (Level 3) Adjunct Educator

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In Gilgamesh the gods do not hurt people unless they feel they have been wronged in some way. The gods have their own set of rules that they feel everyone should live by, though their reactions to a human breaking these rules is often very petty and childlike. Piety is important to these gods, they think that they should be revered and praised at every possible moment. The gods can help people but to anger them is ill-conceived because they will respond in extreme ways. Gilgamesh is on a search for immortality in this epic, he thinks that it is unfair that only the gods can live forever. The gods feel wronged by his arrogance and his pride, so they send the wild man Enkidu to best him in battle; this is an effort to show him his own mortality. However neither Gilgamesh nor Enkidu can best the other and they become friends. Enkidu dies and this scares Gilgamesh even more and he begins a quest to escape death as opposed to his first one which was in spite of it. His second quest to Utnapishtim reveals how foolhardy such a quest is, as he describes the flood to Gilgamesh it is revealed that while one human life is fleeting, humanity lives on. So Gilgamesh learns not a lesson about death but one about life itself. The reason for the gods unleashing the flood is never revealed but Utnapishtim’s rescue from the flood shows the helpfulness of the gods. Utnapishtim is reduced from the flood by the god Ea who is the god of crafts and wisdom, so is responsible for humans' intellect and creativity. It is Ea’s rescue of Utnapishtim that ensures the survival of humanity. Ishtar is another god that ensures humanity because, while fickle, Ishtar is the god of fertility. The gods do not just try to hurt people in the story, however the god Shamash for instance comforts Enkidu as he dies by reminding him of the life he lived. 

readerofbooks's profile pic

readerofbooks | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

This is a great question and the answer is mixed. At times the gods help and at other times the gods hinder humanity. 

Let me give you a few examples. 

First, within the story, Gilgamesh sojourns to meet Utnapishtim. Utnapishtim recounts the flood narrative. It is similar to the account in Genesis. He also says that the gods regretted flooding the earth. From this perspective, the gods did not help to advance the work of humanity. In fact, they almost destroyed it. That said, there was one goddess that helped - Ea.

Second, when Gilgamesh acts in a wicked way toward people, the gods hear the cries of the people. So they decide to keep him accountable by creating a wild man named Enkidu. It works; Gilgamesh sees the error of his ways. So, from this perspective, we can say that the gods help humanity at large by hearing their pleas. 

Third, when Enkidu and Gilgamesh decide to steal trees from the sacred grove, a god named Shamash helps them. However, when the gods find out about this, they decide to punish them, and they take Enkidu's life. 

From these examples, we can say that the gods demand respect. When they do not get it, they strike humanity with punishments. As for whether they advance or hinder progress, it seems that these ideas do not enter into their minds directly. What they want is respect, and humanity is generally left to fend for themselves. 

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