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The Epic of Gilgamesh

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In The Epic of Gilgamesh, what valued characteristics do the Sumerians see in their hero, Gilgamesh?

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As other contributors have already expressed, The Epic of Gilgamesh celebrates friendship (via the friendship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu), as well as personal bravery and strength (via Gilgamesh's various triumphs). Based on this ancient story, you might expect ancient Sumerian culture to have a certain aristocratic mentality, which celebrates personal...

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excellence and achievement.

In addition, however, I get the impression that The Epic of Gilgamesh also contains a deeply pessimistic vision on the human condition. Indeed, it's worth noting that Gilgamesh's great quest to achieve immortality ends in failure, and while he is able to attain a plant that holds restorative powers (which would reverse the effects of aging), he loses that plant when a snake eats it. For all of his many successes, he ultimately fails in his greatest and most ambitious endeavor. Thus, the story makes a clear statement: human lives are transient, and it is impossible for any human being to overcome their mortal nature.

Gilgamesh has to learn this truth (and ultimately accept it). For all his strength, death is something he cannot overcome and cannot fight. From that perspective, the poem seems to suggest a somewhat complicated vision of excellence, which, even as it encourages people to strive for greatness, demands that they simultaneously recognize their own limitations as human beings.

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Based on Gilgamesh's characteristics, it is clear that the ancient Sumerians value a person's ethical treatment of others. At the beginning of the epic, Gilgamesh is immoral, as he tries to take advantage of the people he rules. He insists on his right to sleep with brides on their wedding nights, and he constantly fights with other men. After fighting with and then befriending the formerly wild Enkidu, Gilgamesh goes on a quest to slay the demigod Humbaba. Although his goal is at first fame, Gilgamesh comes to learn about friendship and integrity after he spurns the goddess Ishtar (who has treated her former lovers badly) and after his friend, Enkidu, is fated to die after they kill Humbaba. While Gilgamesh's goal is initially fame, he comes to value friendship. When his quest for immortality winds up fruitless, he realizes that his name will live on in the great city of Uruk that he has constructed. His realization that his quest to better life on earth is more important than his quest to achieve immortality shows that the ancient Sumerians value improving people's quality of life and ruling justly.

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The story of Gilgamesh is very distantly based on a figure who appears in ancient Sumerian king lists and thus may have been a mythologized account of one of the actual kings of Uruk. The epic itself attempts to give us a sense of the evolution of kingship and how the authority of kings evolved and was legitimated in relation to both religious beliefs and a sense of justice that almost anticipates a form of social contract theory. Thus we can read the epic as a narrative that reinforces many of the values found in the law codes of the period.

Gilgamesh at the start of the epic is a bad king and the trajectory of the epic reflects his path to becoming a better king. The first value reflected is one of hierarchical appropriateness. The king should be subservient to the gods and the people subservient to the gods and the king. Gilgamesh over the course of the epic grows to understand this and readers see that the role of the king is not to be above divine justice but to essentially enact it. What legitimates the king's rule is his commitment to justice and his relationship to the gods.

The king should defend the rights of the powerless, including the poor, widows, and orphans, using power to benefit the city rather than simply for his own pleasure. In Gilgamesh's relationship with Enkidu, we see the value of friendship. In the failed quest for immortality we see the value that humans should worship the gods but not strive to become their equals. While physical strength and power are admired, they must be tempered by wisdom, justice, and self-control.

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Well, let us start this answer by remembering that the story of Gilgamesh is one that begins with Gilgamesh evincing many characteristics that make him a bad ruler. It is his tryannical tendencies that make his people pray to the gods for relief, who send Enkidu to act as Gilgamesh's foil. Their friendship and the adventures that they have together are key aspects leading to the transformation of Gilgamesh.

An examination of these adventures and the kind of qualities that Gilgamesh demonstrates identifies that the ancient Sumerians valued above all else strength and cunning in battle. The ability of Gilgamesh to defeat the giant Humbaba and then also to triumph over the Bull of Heaven, representing famine and disaster, clearly shows these qualities. However, at the same time, let us also remember the way in which Gilgamesh is shown to value friendship and his companionship with Enkidu above all else. Enkidu's death and the way that this haunts Gilgamesh shows a surprisingly human quality to this epic hero that we must not forget, and suggests very strongly that the Sumerians also highly valued close relationships and friendships.

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What does Epic of Gilgamesh suggest were values that were important to the ancient Sumerians?

The Epic of Gilgamesh is in a certain sense a mythical history of how Uruk came to be civilized and how kingship moved from the brute force of an unrestrained strongman to a society governed by law codes in which rulership carried obligations as well as power.

We see a society in which there is a great degree of gender inequality, with women seen as having domestic and sexual roles and men ruling and engaging in hunting and warfare. Marriage is an important institution, and sleeping with another man's wife is considered wrong. Physical strength and attractiveness are admired.

Society is highly stratified, and people are expected to behave in a manner appropriate to their inherited station. That includes both respect for superiors and just treatment of inferiors.

It is important to respect and obey the gods, who may bring disaster upon the individual or the city if they are angered. 

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