Humanity vs. Divinity: The Role of Religious Perspective in The Epic of Gilgamesh and Beowulf

Throughout history, civilizations have been largely defined by their practiced religions; religion often influences both the societal structure of a civilization and how it chooses to record its own history.  By examining how the ancient poems The Epic of Gilgamesh and Beowulf reflect the religious ideologies of Sumerian and Anglo-Saxon civilizations, where the poems respectively originated, a greater understanding of how religion has been historically used in literature to accentuate the power of a nation’s ruler – in this case Gilgamesh and Beowulf themselves – can be achieved. However, it is imperative that the differing religious perspectives of each poem’s author are considered in order to fully understand the significance of this religious accentuation. While The Epic of Gilgamesh highlights the importance of Gilgamesh’s humanity during his journey for eternal life, reflecting the ideologies of polytheistic Sumer, Beowulf proclaims Beowulf’s faith in God as the reason for his success as a warrior and king, reflecting the ideologies of Anglo-Saxon Christianity. This difference between the two heroes is seen most evidently in the way their roles as king are religiously justified, as well as in the way that their concepts of humanity and divinity are represented by the authors of each text. These ideas are primarily discussed in Tablets I and X of The Epic of Gilgamesh and in Sections IX, X, XI, and XXXVIII of Beowulf.

The religious justification of Gilgamesh and Beowulf’s royalty highlights a significant historical difference in how both texts were affected by the religions of their regions, as seen in the way that each poem addresses the religiosity of the kings. Beginning with The Epic of Gilgamesh, the poem’s narrator uses the ideologies of ancient Mesopotamian polytheism to justify King Gilgamesh’s reign over the city of Uruk. Being born “two-thirds… god and one-third… human,” Gilgamesh’s royalty is said to derive from his own divinity (Tablet I). It is also said that his physical strength is so great that “no rival can raise weapon against him,” indicating his fulfillment of the role as strong leader that was imperative to the success of the warring city-states at the time (Tablet I). In this way, Gilgamesh’s individual strength and power, attributed to his demigod status, are the reason for his success as king. Comparatively, the role of Beowulf as King of the Geats is justified through the values of Anglo-Saxon Christianity, in that Beowulf claims his leadership is the result of his unfaltering loyalty to God rather than his own accomplishments. Although Beowulf is similar to Gilgamesh in that he also exhibits superhuman feats of strength throughout the poem, the two heroes differ in that Beowulf holds no divine ancestry. Instead, the divine aspect of his rule is simply his faith in God. This concept is seen during his battle with the dragon threatening the Geats near the end of the poem, in which he exclaims, “Thanks I do utter for all to the Ruler, / Wielder of Worship, with words of devotion, / The Lord everlasting, that He let me such treasures / Gain for my people ere death overtook me” (Section XXXVIII, Lines 42-46). Here, Beowulf thanks God for the service he could provide to the Geats before his death, expounding on his belief that God’s blessings are what allowed him to live such a successful life. This stands in direct contrast to the fact that Gilgamesh serves as his own source of divine right, drawing a further distinction between the two heroes in the way that their humanity is represented by each text’s author.

This distinction between the origin of Gilgamesh and Beowulf’s leadership gives insight into how the author of The Epic of Gilgamesh places importance on the humane over the divine, while the author of Beowulf places importance on the divine over the humane. This can be seen throughout the ways that the two heroes are able to overcome their respective challenges within the poems’ narratives. For instance, in The Epic of Gilgamesh, the narrative transforms from a celebration of Gilgamesh’s divine excellency to a recount of his quest for eternal life. This quest is inspired by the death of his companion, Enkidu. Following Enkidu’s death, Gilgamesh begins to question his own mortality and seeks out Utanapishtim, the sole survivor of the great flood, in order to learn the secret to eternal life. Upon reaching Utanapishtim, Gilgamesh exclaims, “My friend whom I love has turned to clay. Am I not like him? Will I lie down, never to get up again?” (Tablet X). This concern, expressing a vulnerable and humane side of Gilgamesh that was absent during his description as king earlier in the poem, is met with this reply from Utanapishtim: “How alike are the sleeping(!) and the dead. The image of Death cannot be depicted” (Tablet X). With this, Utanapishtim insinuates that death is not a monumental experience; all things must die eventually, and dying is no more consequential than sleeping. With this information, Gilgamesh begins to find solace in the ephemerality of life and embraces his humanity. Thus, the focus is taken from his divinity and placed on his humanity, something that was uncommon in Sumer during the time of polytheism, when life was still heavily centered around the gods. In contrast to this idea, the poet of Beowulf explores humanity’s relationship to the divine in a time and location where a king’s reign was not attributed to his own divine status, but rather to the extent of his faith in God. Strong leadership, the poet claims, comes from God’s favorability instead of man’s prowess. An example of this assertion in Beowulf comes in Sections IX and X, when Beowulf recounts his swimming match with Breca, in what Unferth calls an attempt to “humor [his] pride” with “vainest vaunting” (Section IX, Lines 10-11). Beowulf, seemingly unable to finish the race, is left stranded in the ocean for days before finding land again with the sun’s light, which he refers to as “God’s beautiful beacon” (Section X, Line 12). With this, Beowulf insinuates that his victory over this aquatic challenge relied not on his own physical ability, but on the intentions of God. Another example of this idea comes in Section XI when Beowulf prepares for his battle with the demon, Grendel. On the night prior to their encounter, Beowulf states, “Dare [Grendel] to look for / Weaponless warfare, and wise-mooded Father / The glory apportion, God ever-holy, on which hand soever to him seemeth proper” (Section XI, Lines 23-26). By making the claim that God will decide the “glory apportion” of his battle with Grendel, Beowulf reemphasizes the idea that divine intervention is the root of his success. Standing in contrast to Gilgamesh’s embracement of his humanity in The Epic of Gilgamesh, Beowulf’s praise of God in these sections express how the importance of divinity was often placed over the importance of humanity by Anglo-Saxon cultures.

In conclusion, it is this distinction between how the authors of The Epic of Gilgamesh and Beowulf chose to represent the religions of ancient Sumerian and Anglo-Saxon cultures within their poems that shows how religion has been historically used to accentuate the reigns of great kings in literature. As the author of The Epic of Gilgamesh emphasizes the role of humanity in balancing the overwhelming authority of the divine in Sumerian culture, the author of Beowulf emphasizes the importance of divine intervention to the success of men’s lives that was prevalent throughout Anglo-Saxon culture. In both instances, the poems’ authors reflect the religious ideologies of their respective countries through their narratives’ heroes, effectively cementing these ideologies into the countries’ historical and literary records alike, forever linking the two in the eyes of later generations.

Works Cited

Beowulf. Translated by Lesslie Hall. Project Gutenberg, Jul. 2005, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/16328/16328-h/16328-h.htm#I

The Epic of Gilgamesh. Translated by Maureen Gallery Kovacs. http://www.civ.strangegirl.com/fullgilgamesh.html

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