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Gilgamesh Statue, Sydney University;  By Gwil5083 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Gilgamesh Statue, Sydney University; 

By Gwil5083 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The Epic of Gilgamesh continues to speak to us although it was written over 3,500 years ago. It illustrates the personal, political, and social ramifications of the law of unintended consequences. Through the example of Gilgamesh, we see the danger of overweening arrogance; of engaging in an unprovoked attack against a so-called enemy; of a refusal to recognize winning does not always have to entail slaughtering one’s opponent; of an unwillingness to engage one’s former enemies in implementing a solution to a crisis; of the use of excessive force; and, finally, of the failure to exercise compassion.

We see some of these same sentiments expressed many centuries later in William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 94. Shakespeare argues those who have the power and influence to hurt others but who refrain from doing so are to be admired. But if they abuse their power by hurting others, they are to be severely castigated since “Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.” In other words, power in and of itself does not necessarily corrupt. It is how an individual uses the power that determines his/her worth.  And as we saw, the early Gilgamesh was far from blameless in how he wielded his power.

Another connection can be made between The Epic of Gilgamesh and a two thousand year old text, The Art of War by Sun Tzu. In this classic text, Sun Tzu argues a cornered army must be allowed an appropriate and workable exit strategy, a means to save face. The absence of such an exit strategy forces one’s opponents to resort to desperate measures. Here, again, Gilgamesh committed a fatal error by failing to provide Ishtar with a dignified way out of her defeat when he killed the Bull of Heaven. He humiliated her, depriving her of a dignified means to salvage her wounded pride, leaving her with no alternative but to lash out in desperation. She cries out in anger, convincing the rest of the gods on the need for revenge. Enkidu dies; Gilgamesh grieves. Once again, Gilgamesh has blundered.

The poet of The Epic of Gilgamesh communicated some valuable lessons to his audience thousands of years ago, lessons still very relevant today.  Unfortunately, we pay little heed to them, so like the early Gilgamesh, we act with arrogance, excessive force, thoughtlessness, and a lack of compassion. And so, like the early Gilgamesh, we become subject to the law of unintended consequences, unleashing one catastrophe after another, reeling from the shock while wondering what hit us and why.

Finally, for those of you like me who are fascinated by the words and sounds of ancient texts, you can click on the link and hear the words of this epic masterpiece in all their original glory. 

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar