The Epic of Gilgamesh
The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the oldest epic tales known to mankind dating back to about 2100 BC. This piece as a whole carries a lot of meaning and themes that we in 21st century could still identify and relate to. The story begins by telling us about Gilgamesh the king of Uruk (which was in Mesopotamia but now known as Iraq) who was two-thirds god and one-third man, he was a well feared king who terrorized his people, he raped any woman who tickled his fancy. My primary argument in this essay is the fact that the females have as much power as the males.
In ancient times women were seen as essential to the preservation of life, the ability to reproduce gave them an edge over men when it came to this aspect of life, it seemed like women had all the power back then, they had great influences on the actions and decisions men make. The representation of women in the epic of Gilgamesh was a bit confusing at first because different women had different roles and traits but they all had significant roles.
The first woman in the ancient tale epic of Gilgamesh to bring forth her wisdom was Shamhat, she was the temple prostitute who was chosen to tame the then wild being we know now to be Enkidu by seducing him away from his natural animalistic state. Shamhat’s strength comes from her embracing her sexuality. Shamhat was successful in doing this because Enkidu’s mind became broad and he knew things animals would not, he is no longer able to return to the animal kingdom as he has been domesticated, this has some resemblance to the story of Adam and Eve, it is said that Eve brought Adam into the world by breaking his innocence. Shamhat’s role brought knowledge and civilization to Enkidu and also brought Gilgamesh both pain and love because with Enkidu now domesticated he was able to mingle and come face to face with Gilgamesh creating a special bond between them.
The second important woman in Gilgamesh is Shiduri, she is the tavern-keeper. Shiduri was introduced to us after Enkidu’s death, Gilgamesh was wandering looking for a way to become immortal because he believed mortality to be a sign of weakness. When Gilgamesh meets Shiduri he explains himself and the reason for his voyage. Shiduri then begins to question Gilgamesh’s logic and then advices him to get over his grief and begin to enjoy life if not he will spend his life running away from death and death as we know is inevitable for mortal beings.
It is quite ironic once one thinks about the fact that Gilgamesh used his position as king to abuse and mistreat women but at his lowest point in life it is a woman he meets for advice. Shiduri informs him on how to get to Utanapishti and also let him know how dangerous the journey ahead was going to be, she also tells him to search for Urshanabi so that he may continue his search.
Utnapishtim’s wife is not a major character but she has a major role in helping Gilgamesh find what he had been searching for. She joined her husband in speaking to Gilgamesh about eternal life when he came to him. Utnapishtim tries telling Gilgamesh the story of the flood but Gilgamesh began to sleep due to his stressful tiresome journey. Utnapishtim became very outraged at the fact that Gilgamesh could not stay awake. It is at this moment his wife began to plead on behalf of Gilgamesh requesting her husband to wake him so he can return to his home. Utnapishtim tells her to bake a loaf of bread for each day Gilgamesh sleeps, eventually Utnapishtim’s wife convinces him to pity Gilgamesh. At the end Gilgamesh didn’t find what he came for but before he left Utnapishtim’s wife had persuaded Utnapishtim to disclose to Gilgamesh where he could find the next best thing, which was a magic plant called how-the-old-man-once-again-becomes-a-young-man, with this plant Gilgamesh would give him everlasting life.
“Images of Women in the Gilgamesh Epic” by Rivkah Harris made me realized just how powerful women were in the Epic of Gilgamesh, it helps explain the kind of role in society women had compared to the roles men had. In some cases, we can see that women had more power than the men, this alone very much goes against social norms. Rivkah Harris also brought up a pretty fascinating point about the epic, the epic was written and read for the male audience to enjoy (220), that being so it would be okay to say that the role and view of women were viewed from the male perspective.
Taking a look at the gods in general they have various powers and they aren’t restricted by their gender instead they are split up by a power structure. There does not seem to be a divide due to sexuality and they are all respected. The female gods tend to behave like the males, showing almost equal levels of passion and strength another thing I realized is there is not any one taking advantage of others because of their gender.
If we are to take a closer look at the gender divides we start to realize that females have nearly as much power as males and sometimes the roles change and I find that very pleasing especially because in this present day and age women are still trying to be treated as equals to men. When it comes to gender, there is a notable amount of good and strong image of women in The Epic of Gilgamesh, it is fascinating to discover that towards the end the notable divides between men and women fade away and their roles begin to lose definition.
The epic of Gilgamesh disputes the idea of gender and sexuality by explaining that there is no parallel between sexuality and masculinity which is why I believe this story has been able to withstand the test of time. The epic of Gilgamesh was like a stepping stone for other pieces of literature and many authors tried to follow suit.
Another key female character in the epic of Gilgamesh is Ninsun. Ninsun is Gilgamesh’s mother, she is not described to be overly sexual like Shamhat rather she represents a mother figure in the story.
Another goddess embodiment is that as an eradicator. In this area, she can choose to appear desirable or scary or however she wants to seduce and asses the hero because the goddess stands for the entire world, she also has to be viewed as threatening and unfavorable. Campbell further explains that the goddess symbol “is the womb and the tomb: the sow that eats her farrow. Thus, she unites the ‘good’ and the ‘bad,’ exhibiting the remembered mother, not as personal only, but as universal” (114). In Gilgamesh, this vicious goddess can be portrayed as the goddess Ishtar.
When she sees Gilgamesh return victorious over Humbaba, she decides to go to Uruk and asks the king to marry her, she says, “Marry me, give me your luscious fruits, be my husband, be my sweet man. I will give you abundance beyond your dreams” (130-1). Ishtar offers to make Gilgamesh rich, his kingdom fruitful, and respected and feared by all people in the world. All this was to come with a price and that price was Gilgamesh would have to marry Ishtar.
Gilgamesh does not fall for her tricks. He replies, “Your price is too high, such riches are far beyond my means. Tell me, how could I ever repay you, and what would happen to me when your heart turns elsewhere and your lust burns out?” (132). His response shows Gilgamesh has very much caught on to her tricks and is not going to fall for it. He then proceeds to lists all of Ishtar’s former lovers and the unfortunate ways they died when they could not please the goddess. Finishing his argument, Gilgamesh says, “And why would my fate be any different? If I too became your lover, you would treat me as cruelly as you treated them” (135). This shows that Gilgamesh is well aware that whatever promises she makes to him will be short-lived and he will face the same unfortunate fate her past lovers faced.