Female Sexuality in The Epic of Gilgamesh

The Epic of Gilgamesh tells the journey of Gilgamesh as he works to obtain immortality.  Although Gilgamesh never achieves immortality, the women of the text play a vital role in the successes he attains during his journey.  Through their sexuality, women, like the citizens of Uruk, Shamhat, and Ishtar unwillingly or willingly employ their sexuality to further advance Gilgamesh and his sidekick Enkidu in their epic journey.  While western society views sexuality as demeaning and oppressive, sexuality represents a sense of civilization and cultivation in the land of Uruk.  Therefore, the use of sexuality, in The Epic of Gilgamesh, creates a particular meaning and value that allows sexuality to provide the main characters with the wisdom and balance needed to endure the epic journey.

Because of his sexual abuse to the women of Uruk, Gilgamesh was taught to control and maintain his sexual desires, which ultimately helped shape into a more respected and admirable king.  The epic opens with Gilgamesh sleeping with all of the women of Uruk before mothers and fathers released daughters from their care and before husbands enjoyed a touch from their wives.  Unlike the women with distinguished titles and particular roles, the female citizens did not flaunt their sexuality.  However, Gilgamesh’s greedy and unrepentant actions left women impure before their time.   The text stated, “Gilgamesh would leave no girl to her [mother]!/ The warrior’s daughter, the young man’s spouse,/ Goddess kept hearing their plaints” (5).  The aforementioned quote is repeated, which emphasizes the purity of the women in the safekeeping of their parents or new husband.  When the author writes, “Goddess kept hearing their plaints,” it shows that the women and men felt disrespected and disregarded by the “uncannily perfect” Gilgamesh (4).  By sleeping with women that did not belong to him, he caused chaos and confusion in the land of Uruk.  Consequently, citizens exposed Gilgamesh’s foul behavior to the Goddess Anu.  Gilgamesh needed to be tamed and understand the value of sexuality, so he would no longer take advantage of it.  Little did Gilgamesh know his new appreciation for sexuality aided him in beginning an epic journey that deemed him a true warrior.  With a shift in focus, Gilgamesh sought to conquer. He wanted to battle and challenge others to secure his superior reign and prove his worthiness as a king.  His shift in attention was caused by his renewed grasp of the purpose of women’s sexuality, to create balance.

Gilgamesh’s extreme behavior exhibited during the beginning of the epic displayed abuse of his kingly powers, therefore calling for balance.  To do so, Goddess Anu created a cultivated Enkidu by calling on the assistance of Shamhat the harlot.  Because Enkidu grew up in the forest among beast, his appearance and behavior needed refinement, thus the need for Shamhat.  Her role was to humanize Enkidu in order to help him achieve a life outside of the forest in which he thrived.  Shamhat’s sexuality represented sophistication, civilization, and the normalization of the culture of the people of Uruk.  Goddess Anu commanded, “Go, hunter, take with you Shamhat the harlot,/ When the wild beasts draw near the water hole,/ Let her strip off her clothing, laying bare her charms. When he sees her, he will approach her,/ His beasts that grew up with him on the steppe will deny/ him” (8).  The hunter needed the accompaniment of Shamhat the harlot in order to create the balance needed to help tame Gilgamesh.  The hunter could not achieve such a task on his own.  “Charms” representing Shamhat’s sexuality evokes a pleasant connotation meaning a delightful or attractive characteristic, proving that the citizens of Uruk did not view sexuality as demeaning.  The fact that the beasts would deny him after his encounter with the harlot proves that his new life would no longer be suitable for the forest and that sexuality was not required to thrive in such an environment.  According to John A. Bailey’s article titled in Initiation and Primal Women in Gilgamesh and Genesis 2-3, “he has acquired wisdom and a quality of divity through sexual experience. We see here a reflection of the high value placed o sexuality in Mesopotamia, where fertility religion asserted that the earth, and sexuality, were the sphere of power of the gods” (139).  Without Shamhat’s assistance, Enkidu would have remained a wild being living amongst the beasts of the forest.  The harlot’s sexuality introduced him to a different way of living that benefited both the citizens of Uruk and Gilgamesh, furthering his advancement in the epic journey.

Because Enkidu was used to balance Gilgamesh’ extreme and radical behaviors, Gilgamesh now knew how to approach women and even reject women’s sexuality.  When Ishtar approaches Gilgamesh and proposes marriage, Gilgamesh denies her of her request.  Remembering her past relationships, Gilgamesh makes an assessment of Ishtar that demonstrates his revived knowledge about the role of women’s sexuality.  In response to Ishtar’s wish, Gilgamesh replies, “[What would I get] if I marry you?/ [You are a brazier that goes out] when it freezes,/ A flimsy door that keeps out neither wind nor draught,/ A palace [that crushes]” (47).  When he asks “what would I get if I marry you,” Gilgamesh realizes that her sexuality will not civilize him.  He has already been civilized; he has already been balanced out.  All of his metaphors in reference to her reputation as a temporary lover reveal Gilgamesh’s growth from the beginning of the text to the middle of the text.  By describing her love as “a place that crushes” he recognizes that meaningless sex does not fulfill the purpose of sexuality, but instead causes detriment to both lovers engaged, thereby misusing sexuality.  Additionally, his rejection of Ishtar’s sexuality helped him advance in another part of his journey, because he defeated the bull of heaven that Ishtar challenged him with after his denunciation of her.  Fumi Karahashi quotes W. Burkert in Love Rejected: Some Notes on the Mesopotamian “Epic of Gilgamesh” and the Greek Myth of “Hippolytus,” stating, “Gilgamesh’s rejection of Ishtar corresponds to the hunter’s taboo: It is sexual restraint that ensures a successful hint.  Hence the denial of love caused the bull to appear” (100).  Without rejecting Ishtar, the opportunity to battle the bull of heaven and win, could not have occurred.  Now Gilgamesh is strengthen as a king and warrior and has added a new achievement to his already growing list of accomplishments.

The Epic of Gilgamesh apprises readers of Gilgamesh’s efforts to gain immortality.  While he fails in reaching his goals, the women reach their goals through their sexuality.  The women find success by carrying out their sexuality to strengthen the major characters.  The female citizens of Uruk, Shamhat the harlot, and Ishtar promote balance and provide wisdom that contributes to the great strides Gilgamesh and Enkidu make on their journey.  Each of the women use their sexuality in different ways and some uses are more accepted than others.  Even still, sexuality moves the figures in the culture of Mesopotamia to growth and progression.  In The Epic of Gilgamesh, the women violate the socially accepted standards of what it takes to be a woman according to western society.  Not only do the female figures not remain stagnant in the roles of motherhood, wifehood, and ladyhood, but they also honor and praise their sexuality.  Perhaps other cultures across the globe should take a second look at sexuality to identify the benefits and superiority of sexuality that are sometimes hidden behind the ridicule often seen in the open practice of sexuality.


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