The Role of Kingship in Ancient Sumerian Society
The Epic of Gilgamesh gives many insights into the day to day workings of Sumerian society. The tale begins with the men of Uruk lamenting that Gilgamesh is not the leader he should be. “Yet the king should be a shepherd to his people…” (pp. 4). This gives the impression that the proper role of a Sumerian king is that of a benevolent protector. Gilgamesh, however, is described as far from that. He claims the wives and daughters of others, and his lust is unlimited, and he takes whatever he desires. It leaves one with the impression that while his people might call upon him as a powerful warrior to defend them against outside threats, they in turn are not protected from him.
As he prepares to embark of the forest journey, Gilgamesh seeks the advice of a group of counselors. “The counselors of Uruk; the great market, answered him…” (pp. 8). The presence of a counsel suggests that Gilgamesh is responsible for more than the role of a normal warrior; a group of counselors would be needed to advice him in day-to-day operations of a city in areas which he had no expertise. His further orders to the armory and his interest overcoming the forest of cedar suggests that he is looking to expand his kingdom and claim natural resources for building or weapons. After he defeats Humbama, he and his companion work to turn the felled forest into what one might consider to be usable farmland where his people can grow crops. “…while Gilgamesh felled the first of the trees of the forest Enkidu cleared their roots as far as the banks of the Euphrates” (pp. 11). There would be no reason to clear roots if the land was intended just for logging.
While the role of a Sumerian king is not specifically stated in the Epic of Gilgamesh, the evidence between the lines suggests that kings such a Gilgamesh had the great responsibility of both protecting and providing for their people.
Sandars, N.K. . The Epic of Gilgamesh. London: Penguin...