Abuse of Power

My previous post described the killing of Humbaba and Gilgamesh’s depiction of him as a scourge on humanity. However, far from being the evil monster Gilgamesh has made him out to be, Humbaba does not appear to have caused harm to anyone. Quite the contrary.  He lives quietly in the Cedar Forest, minding his own business. He may be fierce and threatening, but if he is to succeed in performing the job assigned to him by the god Enlil of preventing intruders from chopping down the much-coveted trees of the Cedar Forest, surely he has to be fierce and terrifying. Gilgamesh’s desire to kill him is unwarranted and entirely unprovoked; his designation of Humbaba as an evil monster who must be destroyed is inescapably suspect. Gilgamesh has gone looking for trouble. And when you go looking for trouble, sooner or later you will find it or it will find you.

Gilgamesh by Samantha from Indonesia; Taken at Sidney University on 6 July, 2006; via Wikimedia Commons

Gilgamesh by Samantha from Indonesia; Taken at Sidney University on 6 July, 2006; via Wikimedia Commons

Gilgamesh’s action is nothing short of an abuse of power stemming from overweening arrogance. Just because he can kill Humbaba, it doesn’t mean he should kill Humbaba. Humbaba had been subdued, had pledged allegiance to Gilgamesh, and had even promised to help cut down the trees of the Cedar Forest. That should have been sufficient to satisfy Gilgamesh. It bears noting that although the god Shamash assisted in subduing Humbaba, he said nothing of killing of Humbaba. Furthermore, Gilgamesh wouldn’t have had to forfeit the chance to win fame since he could claim to have demonstrated compassion as well as obtained for Uruk the much-coveted logs from the Cedar Forest. But apparently none of this was enough for him, so he slaughters Humbaba. Such an unwarranted and unprovoked action shows a degree of arrogance convinced it can do what it wants with impunity. 

This is where the law of unintended consequences comes into play. It is one thing to kill an enemy in self-defense. It is quite another to kill an ostensible enemy who has done nothing to provoke you, who has been assigned the task of protecting natural resources, who gives you the opportunity to withdraw to avoid conflict, who pledges allegiance to you after you subdued him, and who begs for mercy and compassion. Might does not make right. Gilgamesh has yet to learn this and, as a consequence, he pays dearly for his mistake. 

Gilgamesh is not the last political figure to make this mistake. Nor is he the last to abuse his political power. History, including events in the more recent past, is replete with examples of human beings committing the same error in judgment with disastrous consequences. And as for Gilgamesh, the case against him is compounded. This isn’t the only instance of the law of unintended consequences coming into play in the poem, as we shall see in my next post. 

AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar