Updated: Apr 18, 2022
Gudea, a Sumerian king who ruled the Sumerian city-state of Lagash between 2140 and 2120 BC, has been the subject of many statues, but the statue pictured above is unique.
“I’ve seen a lot of pictures of Gudea during my research in Sumerian history, so I know what he looks like,” Starr writes in an article on his website, sumerianshakespeare.com, titled The True Face of Gudea. “I took one glance at the white alabaster face and the distinctive shepherd’s hat (the crown of a Sumerian king) and I said to myself, ‘That’s not just a priest, that’s Gudea.'”
You might be looking at the face in the picture and wondering what makes this particular statue so special. To sum it up, Starr explains what sets it apart:
“There are two things noticeably different about this statue compared to the other statues of Gudea. First, at 12.5 inches high, it is life-size. The seated statues of Gudea, which show his whole body, are less than 18 inches high (they’re called “Little Gudeas”). Second, and most importantly, this statue is a realistic portrait, unlike the other statues of Gudea which are rather formal and idealized, typical of royal portraiture in the ancient world.”
Consider these diorite statues we know are Gudea:
One of many stylized “Little Gudeas”, the type of which were mostly found at temples. (Source)
And another stylized little Gudea depicting the king, not the man. (Source)
Now scroll back up and look at the tilted white alabaster face, which should appear much more alive than the other two. As Starr puts it: “This is clearly the real face behind the other more idealized statues of Gudea.”
So, you’ve now seen the man who happened to be king. Let’s get to know the man, shall we?
There’s something about Gudea
To put it simply, Gudea of Lagash was a great, humble guy.
“He was the model of piety and virtue, working tirelessly for the gods and the welfare of his people,” Starr writes in an article on his website titled, Gudea.
Gudea’s reign brought with it some revolutionary social reform that even a modern eye would conclude made life easier for, and kinder to, the common man, woman and child living in ancient Sumer. He might not have written an extensive code of laws as famous as Hammurabi’s, but keep in mind that he also took the throne nearly 350 years before Hammurabi did. You’ve got yourself a pretty progressive guy here.
The Gudea Cylinders, housed at the Louvre in Paris. They celebrate Gudea of Lagash’s accomplishments. (Source)
“He was concerned about social justice, and not just the exercise of power,” Starr writes.
In The Building of Ningirsu’s Temple, a Sumerian myth inscribed on what is known as the Gudea cylinders, Gudea’s many accomplishments are celebrated, but what catches my attention the most are those of the social justice variety. Gudea worked to help improve the way servants and slaves were treated by their masters, and aimed to protect anyone who needed to be protected:
“He provided protection for the orphan against the rich, and provided protection for the widow against the powerful. He had the daughter become the heir in the families without a son.” – Translation of Gudea Cylinders A and B (Source)
And this raises the issue of motive…
Why was Gudea so darned nice?
Gudea was a great king, because he did what great and noteworthy kings do; he built walls to successfully protect his city and its people from clear and present danger(s), he also built temples, and helped things like art and social justice thrive under his rule. That’s pretty great and nice of him, but that’s what any ruler or leader is supposed to do, if not in ancient times, then definitely in modern times. There’s nothing too fascinating about that.
What’s fascinating about Gudea was that he went against the grain of typical royalty, even when he didn’t need to. Royalty wasn’t really concerned with the common people back then, and there was no one who could make them, and yet Gudea made social reforms that benefited people who’d never even been given a thought by royalty before.
Consider that up until he took the throne, Gudea lived in a time and place where kings were not only anointed by the gods, but were also granted divine status themselves. We need only look at Gilgamesh–he was a great Sumerian god king, and an epic was written about him that seems as much myth as it is a testament to the status a king holds in the eyes of his subjects, for better or worse.
Now, add to this that Gudea was not of royal blood. In fact, very little is known about his origins, save for having been fortunate enough to marry the right woman at the right time. Her name was Ninalla, and she was royalty, the daughter of King Ur-Bau (Ur-Baba). Lack of an attached dumu (son of) to his signature further obscures Gudea’s origins. “This would suggest that his father was only a minor nobleman and not a ranking member of the high nobility,” Starr says.
So, here we have this non-royal marrying into royalty, and suddenly he is in the king pool, and there’s absolutely no resistance to his ascension to the throne. I mean, come on, not only did Ur-Bau let his daughter marry this non-royal man, but he let that non-royal man ascend the throne without hiring a hit man to stop that from happening. That’s pretty amazing.
Another amazing thing that accompanied Gudea’s ascent to the throne of Lagash is that he was now king and he could be a god king, just like all the Sumerian kings who came before him, because that was pretty much part of the package at this point: become king and get one divine status free!
But he didn’t use that card.
“Gudea did not represent himself to be a god, but only as a man who was divinely favored, so it’s significant that Gudea is shown bareheaded, without his crown, and with his hands raised in the ‘reverence position’, as was required of a mortal man when in the presence of a god,” Starr writes about the Seal of Gudea. (See below)
The Seal of Gudea shows him with his head bared, being led and followed by deities to stand before Enlil, the chief Sumerian god. Gudea is the only figure without horns, which are a symbol of divine status. (Source)
Gudea’s humility also extends to him choosing to only refer to himself in inscriptions as ensi, ruler, rather than lugal, king.
Gudea wearing his crown, a typical stylized shepherd’s hat styled for him with curled lambswool. Well played, True Shepherd. Well played.(Source)
Gudea also worked hard to keep things peaceful and he did a good job, despite ruling during a difficult and dangerous time for Sumerian city-states. Akkadian rule had just been weakened by tribesmen from the north, known as Gutians. The Gutians constantly raided Sumerian city-states, but Gudea mostly only built walls and repaired them when needed for protection, appearing rather pacifist.
Unlike Gudea’s origins, his reign was very well-documented, and we know that he led only one major military campaign. Even the goods brought to Lagash from faraway lands were not the spoils of war, but rather those of commerce and trade, handed to him out of brotherly love, even from what are otherwise enemy lands.
“Unlike other ancient kings, Gudea did not routinely boast of his military prowess,” Starr writes. “He was not the kind of king…who would portray himself marching to victory over the bodies of his enemies.”
Charles Gates writes in his book, Ancient Cities: “For Gudea, a king best serves his city not as a warrior, but as a devoted servant of the gods.”
The Priest King
Another seemingly curious thing about Gudea’s wish and determination to be known as a peaceful ruler was his dedication to serving Ningirsu, the Sumerian god of war and the main god of Lagash. One of Gudea’s most notable accomplishments, in fact, was that he rebuilt a temple dedicated to Ningirsu, among others. Gudea was nothing if not religious, so that was one reason for his devotion.
Of what made the pious part of Gudea build the temple of Ningirsu, Gates writes: “The god Ningirsu ordered Gudea, in a dream, to rebuild his temple; the pious king duly carried out the order, and had the statue made, with an explanatory text carved on it, to commemorate the deed.”
But of what made the strategist part of Gudea build the temple of Ningirsu, Starr says Gudea was also a “tough-minded realist”, who knew where Lagash was on the map in relation to the Gutians, and that the city-state was not strong or big enough yet to fight them. He also knew he needed to build more than just a tough army.
So, temple rebuilding served two purposes, one pious, one strategic.
The rebuilding of the Ningirsu temple eventually helped Lagash and Sumer regain strength and power, because it renewed a feeling of nationalism for Sumerians that proved quite beneficial. It was a brilliant strategy that worked from inside out, and brought with it a fresh new attitude of reclaimed pride and nationalism, and an eventual Neo-Sumerian Revival that united and strengthened all the Sumerian city-states that eventually beat the Gutians and gained complete independence from the Akkadians.
“For Gudea,” Starr writes, “building and restoring the temple of the war god symbolized the re-emerging hopes of Sumerian independence, after two centuries of Akkadian domination and during the ever present danger of attack by the Gutian barbarians.”
Gudea meanwhile was able to build and strengthen his military in a peaceful climate. He produced maces, spears and axes, all in the name of Ningirsu. (Source)
The proud, yet humble priest king. (Source)
As I bring this post to a close, still unsure if I’ve done Gudea the man the justice he deserves, I go back to something I read on the Louvre’s website about one of the typical diorite statues of Gudea, which I think is very telling about the man:
“This stone [diorite] already had a kingly connotation in earlier periods, and it is known through a text that Gudea, anxious to ensure the durability of the work, imposed its use, importing it at great cost from the Gulf region.” – Gudea Prince of Lagash at the Louvre
Such insistence on using a type of stone with kingly connotation and lasting power might be testament to Gudea’s ego, but I don’t see it that way, not only because of all the clear humility he exercised, but especially when I remember something Starr wrote in his The True Face of Gudea article:
“It [the alabaster statue] is obviously modeled from life, with Gudea himself sitting for the portrait.” – Face of Gudea at sumerian shakespeare
The way I see the alabaster statue is that it is of a man who loved his city and his people. He never took what Lagash and its people gave him of good fortune and admiration and support for granted. He wanted future generations to know what he, a non-royal, common man, looked like, and he took the time to perhaps sit for the portrait himself like Starr suggests, so that they would know that anyone can benefit from the greatness of Lagash and Sumer.
What I see in the alabaster statue is that Gudea wasn’t proud of himself. Gudea was proud of his land that made him what he became…
The true face of Gudea. (Source)
Gudea of Lagash became a great man whose greatness will always be known.
Now that you’ve seen his true face, do you think you could recognize Gudea if you ran into him on the street? Let us know in the comments! (I personally think Phil Collins could be his living doppelganger. What do you think?)
Sources and further reading:
Gudea Cylinders http://www.louvre.fr/en/oeuvre-notices/cylinders-gudea
Picture of Gudea Cylinders http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:GudeaZylinder.jpg
Gudea entry at Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gudea
Gudea of Lagash at the Louvre http://www.louvre.fr/en/oeuvre-notices/gudea-prince-lagash-seated-statue-dedicated-god-ningishzida