What is the role of gods in The Epic of Gilgamesh?

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The Epic of Gilgamesh , in its treatment of the gods, tends to parallel the tensions readers see in the later Homeric epics. The gods are deeply human in their personalities, complete with various personal failings. At the same time, they occupy tremendous power over human beings and over the...

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The Epic of Gilgamesh, in its treatment of the gods, tends to parallel the tensions readers see in the later Homeric epics. The gods are deeply human in their personalities, complete with various personal failings. At the same time, they occupy tremendous power over human beings and over the full course of human civilization. Even if the gods may be similar to human beings in personality, in terms of their overall power and role within the cosmic order, the differences are vast and profound.

We can see this tension throughout the poem. Consider the portrayal of the goddess Ishtar, with her attempted seduction of Gilgamesh, only to be scorned. Prideful and enraged, she goes to her father, demanding he release the Bull of Heaven, an act which shows the devastating and overwhelming power of the gods. However, perhaps the strongest statement concerning the cosmic gulf which separates the gods from humanity lies in Gilgamesh's own fate.

Ultimately, Gilgamesh's defining quest is his attempt to acquire the secret of immortality, a quest which he fails at completely. In the end, Gilgamesh, for all his feats and achievements, remains unable to overcome death. As the epic would suggest, mortality is the critical feature which defines human existence, and its absence is similarly critical in defining that of the gods.

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The role of the gods in The Epic of Gilgamesh is somewhat ambiguous. On the one hand, it seems that they care about the ordinary mortals of Uruk who are constantly being terrorized by their psychotic, out of control king. They show their attentiveness to the good folk of Uruk by creating valiant Enkidu and sending him down to subdue the crazed monarch and divert him to a different path.

On the other hand, however, one could see their actions in this regard as utterly self-serving. The more god-like Gilgamesh becomes, the more of a threat he poses to the authority of the immortals. So the gods, in sending Enkidu down to restrain Gilgamesh, could be said to be involved in a power grab, an attempt to re-establish the control over the people of Uruk that has been taken away from them by the tyrant king. In creating Enkidu the gods are not so much creating a savior of humankind as a savior for themselves.

They also want to remind Gilgamesh that, however powerful he may be, he's still just a mortal and therefore not on the same level as the gods. In that sense, their role is to impart wisdom to mortals, to ensure that they know their place in the cosmic pecking order.

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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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