The Epic of Gilgamesh is among the most popular and earliest written works of literature of ancient civilizations that addresses the issue of oppression. During ancient times oppression was a common occurrence depending on someone’s social ranking. The peasants and slaves were often exposed to hard labor and exploitation without compensation which serves as an indication of social oppression. It is important to note that oppression is a multifaceted word based on the different types of oppression ranging from physical, psychological, emotional, religious and ethnic oppression among others. Oppression is the use of unfair practices and conditions by a dominant group over the oppressed preventing the latter from enjoying freedom. The theme of oppression stands out in The Epic of Gilgamesh based on the relationship between Gilgamesh, his people and the gods.
The issue of oppression often emerges based on the relationship between the rulers and their subjects. The masses are not satisfied with the abusive and tyrannical manner of their rulers which leads to social tensions and conflicts. The concept of few individuals leading or ruling over the majority members of the society is an ancient practice. However, not all occasions have had positive attributes in that some rulers could take advantage of their powers to exploit other members of the society. In the past civil strife, conflicts and wars have been as a result of the strained relationship between the ruler and the ruled.
Oppression is a sensitive issue that threatens the relationship between individuals, societies, and nations at large. History indicates that there have been numerous instances of disagreements and conflicts as a result of oppression. Throughout history, oppression has always emerged as a dominant theme. Oppression takes many forms, but the most common type is political or social oppression. Those in power often flex their muscles to intimidate and oppress those below them. Besides, the elite political figures and other rulers including kings would do everything possible to ensure they remain in power.
The Epic of Gilgamesh focuses on the theme of oppression as evidenced in how the king causes suffering and havoc among his people (Sandars, 2014). The implications of oppression include dehumanization since the oppressed are forced to act and behave in a manner against their will. Oppression lowers the dignity and self-respect since others dominate their lives. People lack freedom and worse, still they lack the voice and resources to rise against the manipulative leaders. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the king is first presented as a dominant and oppressive ruler of Uruk. King Gilgamesh is characterized by being temperamental and unruly as he enforces his dominance over his subjects (Sandars, 2014). Uruk is in a chaotic state as a result of the king’s flaws and seems unconcerned about the will of the people. Gilgamesh did not have any competition on earth since he was said to be half human and half god.
Additionally, the king’s oppressive nature could be said to have been triggered by his greatest ambition of attaining immortality (Sandars, 2014). As a mortal Gilgamesh had already caused his people great suffering and havoc and it could be argued that if he achieved immortality, then his deeds might have worsened. It is apparent that death is inevitable among humans and facing death is among the worst fear of all people.
Death has always remained a mystery to humans and Gilgamesh was determined to stay alive for the rest of his life. Significantly based on the fear and mystery of death, the oppressed had a stronger will to continue living than face the uncertainties of death. It took the intervention of the gods to counter the oppression of Gilgamesh who sent a man from the wilderness by the name Enkidu. The character of Enkidu plays a significant role in the transformation of the rowdy and unruly king to a humble and even wiser Gilgamesh who appreciates and embraces his mortality (Sandars, 2014).
The theme of oppression relates to power as depicted in how king Gilgamesh used his political powers to dominate others. The suffering that he causes his people goes beyond physical or political oppression but exceeds to the extent of emotional torture. For instance, Gilgamesh is said to be a lustful individual whose sexual urge compels him to snatch virgins from their lovers. The king even desired the wives of other noblemen and nothing would have prevented him from taking what he wanted.
“Gilgamesh would leave no girl to her [mother]!/ The warrior’s daughter, the young man’s spouse,/ Goddess kept hearing their plaints” (Sandars, 2014). The oppressive behavior of claiming the bride-rights was the worst demeaning and devaluing torment any person could suffer. The oppressive nature of the king was to the extent that the people prayed against the king, asking for a different one. The king’s actions and behavior reflect on the presence of oppression based on gender stereotypes. Gilgamesh treated women as nothing but tools of sexual gratification. The efforts of feminist movements over the years have been based on seeking justice and gender equality.
In the epic, Enkidu shows his dissatisfaction with the way the king treats the females in his kingdom and advises Gilgamesh to be decent and regard women as valuable members of the society. Enkidu helped Gilgamesh control his sexual desires after which the king transformed and began to be a better king for his people (Sandars, 2014). The God’s were aware of the oppression that the people went through at the hands of Gilgamesh and they sent Enkidu to tame him. Despite the oppression, no man was brave enough to stand against the king who was known to be temperamental as well as energetic.
A twist in the epic occurs when Gilgamesh shifts his attention from oppressing his people, to the outside world where he is more than determined to battle and conquer other lands to prove his dominance. It could also be argued that Gilgamesh might have felt guilty of his actions in the past which made him seek to prove his worth as the rightful king, protector, and defender of his people. As his attention shifts, so does his power ambitions. That is, Gilgamesh expresses his power by battling and defeating others including heavenly beasts as he was on a voyage seeking immortality (Sandars, 2014).
The theme of oppression is dominant in The Epic of Gilgamesh as evidenced in king Gilgamesh who uses his power to cause havoc and suffering among his people. The king’s disruptive behavior could be said to be caused by his desire to prove his superiority as well as the ambition of attaining immortality. As a powerful ruler, he believed that his position was not among humans, but instead, he would have an everlasting legacy if he became immortal.
Gilgamesh is presented as an arrogant and oppressive king who devalues and dehumanizes his people. For instance, the king claimed the bride-rights as he had great sexual cravings which caused social unrest among his people. The abusive use of powers to oppress and cause suffering among the people compelled the intervention of the gods who sent Enkidu to tame the unruly king. Lastly, the king transforms from being arrogant and oppressive to a humble and considerate ruler after he failed from attaining immortality.