The Epic of Gilgamesh

Dave Killion — February 17, 2012

Gilgamesh mourns Enkidu

Spoiler alert!

In studying the history of liberty, I have found many scholars begin with the Epic of Gilgamesh, citing it as the earliest written example of using one power to check and balance another. There are various versions of the tale, but a widely accepted version is something like this –

Gilgamesh is king of Uruk, in Mesopotamia. Two thirds god and one third man, all things are known to him. His beauty is perfect, his strength is terrible. He has built great things, and none can withstand him. And like so many men of power, he can not leave the young girls alone. On the night of every wedding, Gilgamesh rapes the new bride, thereby flaunting his dominance and humiliating his people, who can only pray to the gods for relief.

In answer to their prayers, the gods create an artificial man. He is named Enkidu and he lives with the wild beasts, knowing nothing of mankind. In time, Gilgamesh comes to hear of Enkidu, and he sends Shamat to seduce him. A beauty of substantial sexual prowess, Shamat civilizes Enkidu by having sex with him for six days and seven nights. Satisfied, Enkidu tries to return to the beasts, but they don’t know him anymore, and flee his approach. 

Shamat convinces Enkidu to return to Uruk, and tells him of Gilgamesh and his lust. Incensed, Enkidu blocks the street leading to the home of a newly-wedded woman and awaits Gilgamesh. When the king arrives, the two grapple in a ferocious battle until, at last, Enkidu acknowledges the superior strength of Gilgamesh. They embrace, and their friendship is sealed. Gilgamesh and Enkidu then embark on a series of travels and adventures, distracting Gilgamesh from his oppression of his people.

There is more of the epic following this, but this is the portion relevant to the history of liberty. The version linked above can be read in less than half an hour, and is well worth making time for.

Comments

JasonK says

I’m having trouble with the metaphor here. Obviously Gilgamesh represents government but how does Enkidu fit in?

— March 27, 2012

Dave Killion says

It’s an imperfect metaphor, in that Gilgamesh was merely distracted from his tyranny rather then being stymied, but the message is that one power can be contained by checking it with another power. Just as the gods provided a balance to the power of Gilgamesh by creating Enkidu, western governments have been designed so that power is spread between different branches.

— March 27, 2012

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