How would you describe the role of the gods in Gilgamesh?

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thanatassa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The Epic of Gilgamesh presumes a polytheistic theology, one in which many different gods exist. Gods tend to be specialized, with each god having a particular area of authority, such as weather or fertility. There is a divine hierarchy, with Ea, Anu, and Enlil being the most powerful of the gods.

The gods are essentially anthropomorphic, acting like more powerful human beings and wanting respect, offerings, and worship from their followers. They require these in exchange for the exercise of their powers on their followers' behalf, a process known in Latin as do ut des ("I give that you might give"). The gods tend to squabble among themselves and form factions, with divine disagreements affecting the lives of their mortal worshipers. The gods have sexual relationships with each other and with mortals. Powerful rulers and heroes tend to have some degree of divine ancestry.

Finally, the gods intervene regularly in human affairs. They tend to promote justice and the rule of law but are also concerned with keeping mortals in their place and preventing mortals from challenging the power of the gods. They can be benevolent but also punish transgressions harshly.

thetall eNotes educator| Certified Educator

According to the epic, gods created humanity, and their main role was to control their creation. The gods had power over everything including love, weather, fertility, water, war, and death among others. For instance, Enil, the god of winds and earth, played a critical role in shaping Gilgamesh’s perception of death. Enil cursed Enkidu for the death of Humbaba, and Enkidu died soon afterward.  Enkidu’s death devastated Gilgamesh, forcing him to go on a journey in search of Utnapishtim to seek answers. It was after this journey that Gilgamesh not only grew wiser but also accepted the inevitability of death as a mortal.

Before embarking on their adventure to eliminate Humbaba, Gilgamesh and Enkidu had to request approval from Shamash, the sun god. The event demonstrates that the gods played an active role in directing the lives and activities of humanity.  Even though the gods were immortal, unlike their subjects, they possessed a lot of human characteristics.

rrteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The gods in Gilgamesh are in many ways very "human." They quarrel with each other, hatch schemes to harm one another, and hold petty grudges. On the other hand, they are also awesome in their power, and one of the unfortunate byproducts of their bickering is that humanity is often caught up in it. It is also the case that some of the deities in Gilgamesh respond directly to the prayers of people. Early in the story, Anu, patron deity of the city of Uruk, responds to his people's prayers by asking Aruru to send a powerful man to destroy Gilgamesh, who is a very tyrannical ruler. Thus Enkidu is created. Additionally, the gods decide to destroy humanity through a great flood because mankind has become irritating to them. So the gods play an active, if not always benevolent, role in the lives of men. It is also noteworthy that the defining characteristic of the gods, namely immortality, becomes the object of Gilgamesh's futile strivings late in the story.