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Mother, Goddess, Seductress, Harlot: Women in “The Epic of Gilgamesh”

In The Epic of Gilgamesh, the female characters hold small roles, but they are in no way secondary to the male characters, as their roles are pivotal to the story. Through their roles as mothers, harlots, and goddesses, they manipulate the story according to their actions. The female characters in the tale are also shown to have fantastic influence over the male characters, and seem to be capable of changing their choices and even bringing about their deaths. Consequently, the centrality of their roles stems largely from their abilities to alter the roles of males.

It is tempting to argue that the roles of females in The Epic of Gilgamesh are secondary and serve just to pave the way for male characters, such as Gilgamesh and Enkidu, to fulfill their much more important roles. Rivkah Harris supports this view by saying that “Women are regarded positively only when they assist Gilgamesh (and Enkidu) in their activities, when they nurture, advise in maternal fashion”[1]. Indeed, the most apparent help for this argument is the part of the harlot, Priestess Shamhat. Her principal function is the taming of Enkidu, tempting him away from his feral techniques utilizing her sexuality and her maternal instincts, and bringing him into the civilized globe to teach him the ways of males. The trapper’s father tells his son that “She will be there, stripped naked and when he sees her beckoning he will embrace her, and then the wild beasts will reject him”[two]. In this way, Shamhat’s sexuality is employed as a tool by a man, in order to tame a man, suggesting that her part is that of a stage prop rather than being a character in her own proper. Adrien Janis Bledstein argues that “In relation to Enkidu, a harlot enacts numerous roles: she is a seductress, wise counselor, mother, and servant. Obtaining fulfilled these male want-fulfillment functions, the woman disappears”[3]. Certainly, as she leads Enkidu towards a civilized lifestyle, she offers a service in allowing his character to progress and his part to unfold, as this leads him to go seeking for Gilgamesh and in the end to befriend him. After her service has been fulfilled, her role comes to a close, reflective in a way of her profession as a prostitute in which she fulfills men’s sexual desires with no any further attachments. It can as a result be argued that her sexuality and other feminine virtues are employed simply to serve males, and to pave the way to Enkidu’s future greatness, arguably creating her a secondary character whose part is merely a supporting one.

Harris also argues that “women play subsidiary and supportive components. All except the Goddess Ishtar help Gilgamesh in his search for immortality”[4]. In fitting with this view, it could also be argued that Utanapishtim’s wife is one more instance of a female function serving simply as a implies of paving the way of a male character’s function. Her actions lead her husband to reveal to Gilgamesh the location of a plant which restores youth, as she asks him “Gilgamesh came right here wearied out, he is worn out what will you give him to carry him back to his personal nation?” (116). Here, a male character’s role is when again supported by a female character’s function as she assists Gilgamesh acquire valuable data about the whereabouts of the youth restoring plant so he can progress with his quest for immortality. The truth that her name is never revealed, and that she is rather referred to as an extension of her husband, as soon as again marginalizes her as a secondary character. It can also be noticed to reflect her role which, it could be argued, is merely supplementary to that of her husband. John R. Maier adheres to this view as he states that “wives in the poem are, considerably, anonymous, identified only via their husbands”[5]. It could also be argued that Utanapishtim makes use of his wife as a tool for teaching Gilgamesh a lesson, as he orders her to “bake loaves of bread, each day one particular loaf, and put it beside his head and make a mark on the wall to quantity the days he has slept” (114) in order to prove to Gilgamesh that he failed his activity to keep awake for a week. Right here, she fulfills a secondary function by assisting her husband, rather than taking on a central function.

However, I am inclined to argue that, although the female characters in The Epic of Gilgamesh do play tiny roles, they are in no way secondary characters. Their roles do seem to be based about supporting the male characters, but this tends to make them central characters in their personal correct. Shamhat’s part of taming Enkidu and in turn setting him on his path to befriending Gilgamesh is just as critical as the roles of Gilgamesh and Enkidu, if not much more so, as with no her the majority of the events in the tale could not have taken place. Additionally, her capability to transform Enkidu from feral to civilized highlights the power of female sexuality as the epic tells how “For six days and seven nights they lay with each other, for Enkidu had forgotten his house in the hills…the thoughts of man had been in his heart” (65). The verb “forgotten” (65) shows the extent of the influence that the character of Shamhat has on the character of Enkidu, taking him away from his old life and introducing him to a new one. The trapper’s father also tells the trapper to “let her woman’s energy overpower this man” (63), additional emphasizing the power that girls hold over men. Shamhat plays a dual part as both a seductress, and as a mother figure, as she teaches Enkidu the techniques of civilized guys. This presence of two roles inside a single lady tells us anything about attitudes towards ladies in Mesopotamian society. It suggests that there was no definitive function for girls, but rather a diversity of roles. It is reflective of a society which worshiped Goddesses as effectively as Gods, and was rife with prostitution as properly as women devoted to marriage and getting mothers[6]. Shamhat tells him “Endiku, eat bread, it is the employees of life drink the wine, it is the custom of the land” (67). This scene is reminiscent of a mother teaching a kid table etiquette. Stephen Mitchell argues that the achievement of Shamhat in taming Enkidu surpasses the achievements of any of the male characters in the tale[7]. Certainly, rather than looking at her as a paving stone for Enkidu’s journey, she can as an alternative be seen as the origin and creator of his new life, and therefore a central and nearly goddess like character. She is at the centre of a chain of events which make up The Epic of Gilgamesh.

Her mothering role also represents the Mesopotamian view of girls as bearers of young children and bringers of life. The reliance of Enkidu on Shamhat in order to fulfil his part is reminiscent of a youngster getting dependent on its mother. The excellent masculine characters like Enkidu and Gilgamesh could not achieve greatness without having a female influence or mothering figure being there to nurture and guide them. The mothering figure behind Gilgamesh is Ninsun, and as opposed to Shamhat to Enkidu, she is his biological mother. She has an important impact on Gilgamesh’s function as she interprets his dreams to mean that he will make a friend, telling him that “he will come in his strength like one particular of the host of heaven. He is the brave companion who rescues his pal in necessity”. This interpretation of Gilgamesh’s dream is shown to be correct as Enkidu seeks out Gilgamesh. Ninsun’s words are also a driving force behind the initiation of the friendship among Gilgamesh and Enkidu as Gilgamesh says in response that “[he] shall befriend and counsel him”. By foreshadowing their friendship, she aids to make positive that it becomes a reality.

In addition, the role of Utanapishtim’s wife can be seen to be a lot more central than the function of her husband, as it is in the end her who makes up his thoughts to help Gilgamesh. Her display of empathy towards Gilgamesh is a really feminine show of virtue which in turn makes it possible for Gilgamesh to not only uncover the plant, but to understand a valuable lesson and come to terms with his personal mortality right after it is stolen from him by a snake. She is an additional example of females getting wonderful influence more than males, as her great nature appears to rub off on her cold-hearted husband. Ultimately, her decision is the final a single, not her husbands. He even repeats nearly her precise words to Gilgamesh saying “what shall I give you to carry back to your own nation?” (116). This emphasizes the way in which she is in a position to bend the will of her husband just via speaking a couple of words. The manage she exorcises over her husband is subtle, as it appears on the surface that her husband is in control as he orders her to bake bread and she does so. Nonetheless, she makes use of her empathetic and mild nature to make a plea to her husband to take pity on Gilgamesh, which he adheres to practically right away. The way in which she apprehends her husband for mocking the sleeping Gilgamesh is reminiscent of a mother teaching a kid moral rights and wrongs, as she tells her husband to “touch the man to wake him, so that he could return to his own land in peace”. In spite of insisting on letting him sleep for seven days, Utanapishtim in the end adheres to his wife’s request, as soon as far more emphasizing her influence over him, and presenting her an embodiment of her husband’s conscience. She has a significant impact on the story via her display of kindness towards Gilgamesh, and her influence more than her husband.

An additional way in which female characters in The Epic of Gilgamesh play central roles is by way of their wisdom and understanding. Joseph Campbell makes a point about females in ancient mythology, saying “Woman, in the picture language of mythology, represents the totality of what can be identified. The hero is the a single who comes to know”[8]. In other words, the female inherently knows what the male hero can only uncover out by way of quests and trials. The main example of such a character would be the tavern keeper Siduri. She plays an essential role in the tale as she foreshadows Gilgamesh’s failure in his search for immortality. She tells him that “(he) will by no means find that life for which (he) is looking, when the God’s produced man they allotted him to death”. She also tells him that short-term mortal existence “is the lot of man”. Her words carry the clear message that human beings could in no way, and need to never, hope to attain eternal life. All guys are set to perish at some point, and death is as organic as breathing. Similarly to female characters such as Shamhat and Ishtar who drive Gilgamesh’s (and Enkidu’s) journeys, Siduri tends to make a sound and sensible prediction of how Gilgamesh’s path will unfold. This further emphasizes the concept that girls in The Epic of Gilgamesh play an nearly puppeteer like role, with the male characters merely walking the paths set out for them by females. Gilgamesh chooses to ignore Siduri’s suggestions, top him into misfortune, suffering, and eventually into failure. This shows his judgement to be secondary to that of Siduri’s. Like the character of Utanapishtim’s wife, Siduri also assists Gilgamesh by telling him exactly where to uncover Utanapishtim, which aids him to progress with his quest. This is one more example of ladies generating it achievable for males to achieve their goals. They are not secondary or subsidiary characters, they are instead the driving force behind the actions of males.

The character of Ishtar is an instance of a powerful female character, who imposes her influence over male characters. As opposed to the other female characters, she sets out to destroy the two male leads rather than to assistance them or help them. Her actions lead straight to the death of Enkidu, showing her domination more than a principal character, and rebuffing the possibility of her categorization as a secondary character. In addition, Gilgamesh’s refusal of Ishtar’s proposal is primarily based on his worry of meeting the exact same fate as her past lovers. He asks her “which of your lovers did you ever love forever?” (86), which suggests that she is a lady of fickle nature, falling in and out of really like with men very very easily. He also compares her to “a battering ram turned back from the enemy”, a metaphor created in reference to her penchant for punishing her lovers when she gets bored of them. This emphasizes the way in which she utilizes her power to dominate men, and in the end destroy them, showing her to be a potent female character. She does not assistance males, but rather causes them to fall. Her function in the tale is essential, as she uses this energy to bring about Enkidu’s death, bringing an finish to his partnership with Gilgamesh, and top the latter to going browsing for the important to immortality. In contrast to Shamhat, who serves as a giver of humanity and of new life to Enkidu, Ishtar is the ultimate destroyer of Enkidu. Enkidu’s part is undoubtedly a main a single, but two females with such sturdy roles to play in his very existence can surely be deemed as central characters in their personal right.

In contrast to the other female characters in The Epic of Gilgamesh who turn out to be central characters via their female sexuality and mothering approaches, Ishtar switches up the gender roles by taking on the much more male virtue of destruction. Rivkah Harris argues that “the goddess acts like a man, proposing marriage to the hero, a proposal he rejects. She then responds in a masculine style, in search of revenge”[9]. Indeed, she says “come to me Gilgamesh, and be my bridegroom” (85), a request traditionally created by the male. This undermines the earlier view that ladies in the tale are merely supporting or subsidiary characters, as Ishtar makes the request of marriage primarily based on her personal desires rather than the desires of any man. Ishtar shows that girls can be centrally aggressive characters just as a lot as males can, if not a lot more so, as she succeeds in punishing Gilgamesh through the murder of his very best buddy. Ishtar is possibly the most central of all the female characters in The Epic of Gilgamesh, as she plays the part of the antagonist. With no her destructive actions, Gilgamesh and Enkidu would not be faced with a correct trial. She ignites a fierce battle between Gilgamesh and the Bull of Heaven, as she sends the bull down “to destroy Gilgamesh” (87) Ishtar’s function is vital in the tale, as she marks the downfall of the partnership between Enkidu and Gilgamesh.

In addition to their powerful influence over males, the roles of the female characters in The Epic of Gilgamesh are also central to the development of the plot line. As Karen Nemet-Nejat argues, “The female characters in Gilgamesh do not have main roles. Rather, they are crucial in that they move the story forward”[ten]. Indeed, with no the actions perpetrated by female characters, the story would by no means have unfolded. For instance, without having Shamhat, there would be no civilized Enkidu but rather just the original, feral creature we see at the start. Meanwhile, Ishtar engineers Enkidu’s death, an incredibly essential occasion in the plot which leads Gilgamesh to seek eternal life soon after becoming extremely aware of his personal mortality. The females in the tale are the creators of the plot, and the males act in response to the actions of these women. Whilst the male characters seem on the surface to be at the center of the story, that story is supported by the presence of females. Without having the female characters, the story would collapse.

In conclusion, the female characters in The Epic of Gilgamesh have modest roles, but also central roles. Characters such as Shamhat and Ishtar act as driving forces to each the plot line and the roles of the male lead characters, and the extent of the repercussions of their actions make up for their lack of actual time appearing in the tale. Ladies in the tale appear to have fantastic influence more than males, utilizing their sexuality to tempt them handle them, even though they also use their mothering instincts to teach and advise them. By way of sexual temptation and mothering the female characters handle to refashion the activities and choices of the male characters, generating them central to the tale. Ishtar, meanwhile, becomes the central antagonist of the tale, and plays the function of a destroyer of males. The tale depicts males being constructed up and destroyed, and girls can be seen at the center of each processes.


BLEDSTEIN, Adrien Janis (1993) Feminist Companion to Judges, Sheffield, Continuum

CAMPBELL, Joseph (2008) The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Novato, New Globe Library

HARRIS, Rivkah (2003) Gender and Aging in Mesopotamia: The Gilgamesh Epic and other Ancient Literature, Norman, University of Oklahoma Press

MAIER, John R. (1997) Gilgamesh: A Reader, Wauconda, Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers MITCHELL, Stephen (2006) Gilgamesh: A New English Version, London, Atria Books

NEMET-NEJAT, Karen (2014) Women in the Ancient Close to East: A Sourcebook, New York, Routledge

NEMET-NEJAT, Karen (1999) Women’s roles in Ancient Civilizations: A Reference Guide, Westport, Greenwood Press

The Epic of Gilgamesh (1973), London, Penguin UK

[1]Rivkah Harris, Gender and Aging in Mesopotamia: The Gilgamesh Epic and other Ancient Literature (Norman University of Oklahoma Press, 2003), 120 [2]The Epic of Gilgamesh (London Penguin UK, 1973), 64. Subsequent references in parentheses are to this edition. [3]Adrien Janis Bledstein, Feminist Companion to Judges (Sheffield Continuum, 1993), 40 [4]Rivkah Harris, Gender and Aging in Mesopotamia: The Gilgamesh Epic and other Ancient Literature (Norman University of Oklahoma Press, 2003), Preface xi [5]John R. Maier , Gilgamesh: A Reader (Wauconda Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers, 1997), 179 [six] Karen Nemet-Nejat, Women’s roles in Ancient Civilizations: A Reference Guide (Westport Greenwood Press, 1999) ,102 [7]Stephen Mitchell, Gilgamesh: A New English Version (London Atria Books, 2006), 40 [eight] Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Novato New World Library, 2008), 97 [9]Rivkah Harris, Gender and Aging in Mesopotamia: The Gilgamesh Epic and other Ancient Literature (Norman University of Oklahoma Press, 2003), Preface xi [ten]Karen Nemet-Nejat, Girls in the Ancient Near East: A Sourcebook, (New York Routledge, 2014), 177.
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