Gudea was a ruler (ensi) of the city of Lagash in Southern Mesopotamia who ruled ca. 2144 - 2124 BC. He probably did not come from the city, but had married Ninalla, daughter of the ruler Urbaba (2164 - 2144 BC) of Lagash, thus gaining entrance to the royal house of Lagash. He was succeeded by his son Ur-Ningirsu.
As the power of the Akkadian empire waned, Lagaš again declared independence, this time under Puzer-Mama, who declared himself lugal, or king, of Lagaš. Thereafter, this title would not be associated with Lagaš, at least until the end of the Gudean period. Lagašite rulers, including Ur-Ningirsu and Ur-Bau, whose reigns predated Gudea, referred to themselves as ensi, or governor, of Lagaš, and reserved the term lugal only for their gods or as a matter of rank in a relationship, but never as a political device. The continued use of lugal in reference to deities seems to indicate a conscious attempt on the parts of the rulers to assume a position of humility in relation to the world--whether this was honest humility or a political ploy is unknown.
Twenty-six statues of Gudea have been found so far during excavations of Adad-nadin-ahhe and Telloh with most of the rest coming from the art trade (these having unknown provenances and sometimes doubtful authenticity). The early statues were made of limestone, steatite and alabaster); later, when wide-ranging trade-connections had been established, the more costly exotic diorite was used. Diorite had already been used by old Sumerian rulers (Statue of Entemena). These statues include inscriptions describing trade, rulership and religion.
Though obviously the foundation and progeny curse was not the only religious invocation by the political powers during the Akkadian empire, it demonstrates a certain standardization, and with it, stagnation, of the position of the gods that likely did not sit well with the people of Lagaš. Ur-Ningirsu I, with whom the Gudean dynasty of Lagaš begins, leaves little in the way of inscriptions, and though some mention of various gods seems to indicate a more central role, it is not until Gudea that there can be a side by side comparison with the old curse of Sargon. The inscription on a statue of Gudea as architect of the House of Ningirsu (Dietz Otto Edzard, Gudea and His Dynasty, pp. 31–38), warns the reader of doom if the words are altered, but there is a startling difference between the warnings of Sargon or his line and the warnings of Gudea. The one is length; Gudea’s curse lasts nearly a quarter of the inscription’s considerable length (pp. 36–38), and another is creativity. The gods will not merely reduce the offender’s progeny to ash and destroy his foundations, no, they will, “let him sit down in the dust instead of on the seat they set up for him”. He will be “slaughtered like a bull… seized like an aurochs by his fierce horn”. (p. 38)
But these differences, though demonstrating a Lagašite respect of religious figures simply in the amount of time and energy they required, is not as telling as the language Gudea uses to justify any punishment. Whereas Sargon or Naram-Sin simply demand punishment to any who change their words, based on their power, Gudea defends his words through tradition, “since the earliest days, since the seed sprouted forth, no one was (ever) supposed to alter the utterance of a ruler of Lagaš who, after building the Eninnu for my lord Ningirsu, made things function as they should”. (p. 37) Changing the words of Naram-Sin, the living god, is treason, because he is the king. But changing the words of Gudea, simple governor of Lagaš, is unjust, because he made things work right.
His era was especially one of artistic development. But it was Ningirsu who received the majority of Gudea’s attention. Ningirsu the war god, for whom Gudea built maces, spears, and axes, all appropriately named for the destructive power of Ningirsu—enormous and gilt.
In matters of trade, Lagash under Gudea had extensive commercial communications with distant realms. According to his own records, Gudea brought cedars from the Amanus and Lebanon mountains in Syria, diorite from eastern Arabia, copper and gold from central and southern Arabia and from Sinai, while his armies were engaged in battles in Elam on the east.
Cylinder A, written after the life of Gudea, paints an attractive picture of southern Mesopotamia during the Lagaš supremacy. In it, “The Elamites came to him from Elam… loaded with wood on their shoulders… in order to build Ningirsu’s House” (p. 78), the general tone being one of brotherly love in an area that has known only regional conflict and rebellion.
However, the common intimation that Gudea was a peaceful ruler (as made by Edzard), who funded his projects through trade, ignores the attention paid to Ningirsu, as well as the martial nature of Southern Mesopotamia in general. While Gudea was not likely an autocrat who ruled over all of Southern Mesopotamia, this part of the world was full of religious fervor and universal conflict.
Gudea built more than the House of Ningirsu, he restored tradition to Lagaš. His use of the title ‘ensi’, when he obviously held enough political influence, both in Lagaš and in the region, to justify ‘lugal’, demonstrates the same political tact as his emphasis on the power of the divine.
And it worked. Ur-Ningirsu II, the next ruler of Lagaš, took as his title, “Ur-Ningirsu, ruler of Lagaš, son of Gudea, ruler of Lagaš, who had built Ningirsu’s house” (p. 183).
More telling is the deification of Gudea, placing him, if not into the Pantheon, closer than your average person. Gudea, following Sargon, was one of the first rulers to claim divinity for himself, or have it claimed for him after his death. And because of this deification, it is not surprising to find what appear to be some of his exploits added to the epic cycle of the mythical Gilgamesh (N.K. Sandars, 1972, The Epic of Gilgamesh).
Gudea naturally was a hard act to follow, and the influence of Lagaš declined, until it suffered the fate that defined Southern Mesopotamia, military defeat, this time to Ur-Nammu, whose Third Dynasty of Ur then became the reigning power in Southern Mesopotamia.