What does The Epic of Gilgamesh say about the relationship between humanity and the divine?

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As is the case with most pantheons in the ancient world, The Epic of Gilgamesh tells the story of a world more or less run by the whims of the gods. The gods repeatedly intervene in Gilgamesh’s life, sometimes in positive ways—such as the creation of Enkidu to be his...

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As is the case with most pantheons in the ancient world, The Epic of Gilgamesh tells the story of a world more or less run by the whims of the gods. The gods repeatedly intervene in Gilgamesh’s life, sometimes in positive ways—such as the creation of Enkidu to be his equal—and sometimes in negative ways, like Ishtar creating the Bull of Heaven out of malice and scorn. Similar to Greek mythology, there is ample intermingling between mortals and gods. Ishtar’s proposal to Gilgamesh aside, Gilgamesh himself is the product of a deified parent. His mother is Ninsun, a minor deity, which accounts for him being two-thirds god and one third man. There is also the case of Tammuz, who is referenced in some versions of the story. Tammuz was born mortal but became Ishtar’s consort, which led him to become the deified god of shepherds. Lastly, while Utnapishtim and his wife are not gods, they are survivors of the great flood who were granted immortality.

Utnapishtim and his wife are important figures, because The Epic of Gilgameshis a story about the fruitlessness of trying to become immortal. Even Gilgamesh, the powerful king and hero who is more god than mortal anyway, fails in his quest to live forever. And yet, Utnapishtim and his wife seem to undercut the moral of the story. The real moral of the epic then might not be that immortality is impossible to achieve, but that it is left entirely to the will of the gods. The Epic of Gilgamesh, like so many ancient works, might be another instructional tale about the perils of hubris in the face of the divine.

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Your appearance is no different from mine; there is nothing strange in your features (Gilgamesh 538).

The relationship shown in Gilgamesh between humans and their gods is a fairly straightforward one of mutual dependency and trust, despite the obvious power imbalance. The gods are described as being very similar to humans, in behavior as well as appearance. The two groups depend upon each other in their day-to-day lives. Like humans, the gods have feelings and emotions and expect humans to provide them with pleasure and devotion to keep them happy. Humans provide their gods with sacrifices and obey their wishes; this is a transactional service, as, in return, humans expect the gods to keep them safe or guide them.

This is not to say, of course, that humans and gods are on the same level. The humans view their gods in Gilgamesh as immortal and omnipotent beings. However, we see that the gods are not infallible and do make mistakes. For example, when Enlil causes the flood, Ea criticizes him for doing so, questioning how such a hero could make such a mistake (Gilgamesh 541). The gods, meanwhile, are aware of their own foibles—like the humans, they were frightened by the flood when they realized what they had done.

The relationship between humanity and the divine in this poem, then, is a symbiotic one in which, unlike in many other poems from polytheistic societies, humans are as important a part of the overall balance as the gods are, because neither is infallible or self-sufficient. 

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Although the Epic of Gilgamesh was not a theological work per se, it reflects many of the religious beliefs of its period, allowing the reader to infer many things about how people related to their gods in ancient Mesopotamia.

First, it shows a polytheistic religion in which the gods often disagree among themselves about issues concerning mortals. The gods are anthropomorphic and interbreed with mortals, with some mortals having partially divine ancestry. The gods are more powerful than mortals, but they are still similar in nature to humans in character, prone to favoritism and prejudice, just like powerful human rulers. Humans fear the anger of gods due to this power but also try hard to curry favor with the gods to benefit from the gods' power. 

Another quality of the relationship is one described in Latin as "do ut des" or "I give that you might give." Humanity's relationship with the divine is often portrayed as a form of favor exchange.

Kings are shown as having a duty to mediate between the divine and the human, creating and enforcing laws that reflect divine will. Thus kings are expected to be just; Gilgamesh's behavior at the beginning of the book is outrageous precisely because it violates this duty.

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In the Epic of Gilgamesh, humanity and the divine are inextricably intertwined. The gods repeatedly intervene in the lives of men when their actions make them angry, and Gilgamesh himself is part divine. What is more, the gods are associated with physical places and people, for whom they act as patrons. Shamash is Gilgamesh's patron, for example, and Anu takes care of the town of Uruk.

The gods, like those in Greek mythology, are constantly scheming and plotting against each other, and people are often the unwitting victims, caught up in these mighty struggles. Likewise, they often hold humans collectively responsible for the offenses of just one person. When Gilgamesh spurns the goddess Ishtar's amorous advances, for example, she persuades her parents to unleash a divine bull on Uruk. 

In addition, the famous Flood itself, noted for its similarity to the Noahic story from the Old Testament, is the result of wrathful gods, angry, essentially, that mankind is too loud and clamorous. Only Utnapishtim, warned ahead of time by the goddess Ea to "take up into [a] boat the seed of all living creatures," survives with his family. Utnapishtim is rewarded with immortality for his exertions. The relationship between mortals and gods, therefore, is often contentious, and those who have not been chosen as favorites by the deities are condemned to suffer.

 

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