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Divine Kingship and Gilgamesh

June 10, 2008

I’m working through Religion and Power: Divine Kingship in the Ancient World and Beyond, ed Nicole Brisch (available here). While my purpose for reading the conference volume relates to my dissertation, I found some interesting insights into Gilgamesh in Piotr Michalowski’s paper “The Mortal Kings of Ur: A Short Century of Divine Rule in Ancient Mesopotamia.”

Reflecting on the divine kinship of Shulgi, Michalowski holds that the claim to deity was in reaction to the death of his father, Ur-Nammu. Apparently, Ur-Nammu is one of only two kings to have died in battle in Mesopotamia’s three millennial history (the other being Sargon II of Assyria). Ur-Nammu’s death caused a crisis in Ur III that Michalowski believes precipitated the unification under the deity of Shulgi.

Michalowski notes that the first twenty odd years of Shulgi’s reign was spent consolidating the homeland before attempts at military expansion. He correlates this with the time that Shulgi first claims deity for himself. Further, this transition also tracts with a new scribal curriculum focusing on hymns to Shulgi and — guess who? — Sumerian tales of Gilgamesh (or to be pedantic: Bilgames).

While Gilgamesh was important as an ancestor and a bridge between the human and divine, he also served an even more important function: he dies. Michalowski states:

The unique symbolic status of Gilgamesh provided the answer as an ancestor who embodied the central paradox of divine kinship: the inevitable death of the king. (p. 37)

Hence, the myths of Gilgamesh helped to cement the new mythos necessary to keep Ur III together after the cosmic tragedy of Ur-Nammu’s inauspicious death.

What effect, if any, this has on how I teach Gilgamesh is immediately clear. However, those of us who teach Gilgamesh in an historical rather than literary context might find the paper quite useful.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. ntwrong permalink
    June 11, 2008 1:31 am

    Looks interesting.

    John Hobbins is running some sort of ‘blogathon’, which involves shooting 10 probing questions at a random biblioblogger, and getting 10 answers back. You might have got his email. I chose you. I understand you are allowed to give me 10 questions, too, if you wish. I’m not really sure how it’s meant to go, so I’m going to wait unti John does one. In the meantime, let me know if you find the whole idea objectionable or unconscionable…

  2. June 12, 2008 8:48 am

    I didn’t get that email, but sure.

  3. ntwrong permalink
    June 12, 2008 6:03 pm

    Thanks. Apparently it’s only 3 questions.

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