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The Epic of Gilgamesh: Role of Women

Historic overview:

The Epic of Gilgamesh is considered to be one of the greatest masterpieces in world literature. And it is arguably the longest Akkadian cuneiform that has been discovered till this point in time. One can argue that the epics main theme is the fear of death and Gilgamesh’s quest for immortality, and this actually has nothing to do with women, but if one reads between the lines, one will find out that woman are the main reason that the Epic of Gilgamesh ended the way it did. The epic predates Homer’s writing by almost 1500 years! And therefore it stands as the oldest piece of epic in world literature.(Mark 2010). The lack of sources could also be because this epic is really old.

Gilgamesh’s mother is the goddess Ninsun who is the holy mother and the great queen. It is said that Gilgamesh was a Demi God- who was said to have lived an exceptionally long life, records of his reign in the Sumerian king list state that he reigned 126 years. (Mark 2010).It is still unclear weather this historic figure actually existed or not.


The Role of Shamhat:

Shamhat is the temple prostitute who is responsible for the humanization of Enkidu. It was she, the whore par excellence, who taught him about sex. Once accomplished, he was transformed from his customary behaviour as a wild animal into a specimen of humanity. To acquire knowledge, both sexually and educationally, was something expected of everyone, and morality had no role to play in this story.(Stol,2016,417). Shamhat makes Enkidu human "Enkidu was weakened, could not run as before, but now he had reason and wide understanding "(Tablet I, lines 201-202,George,1999:8)Her name is thought to mean a provocative or gorgeous woman, and in fact a nickname for a prostitute.The passage describing Enkidu’s encounter with her is the only one we have from cuneiform literature describing such a woman at work.(Stol,2016,405) Shamhat actually contributed to the knowledge that we have today about prostitutes in ancient Mesopotamia. Shamhat is also the person who took Enkidu to Gilgamesh; she is responsible for Gilgamesh meeting him. If it were not for her then they would have not met and thus the entire epic might not have happened " Come, I will take you to Uruk-the Sheepfold, to the sacred temple, home of Anu and Ishtar, where Gilgamesh is perfect in strength, like a wild bull lording it over the menfolk, so she spoke to him and her word found favour, he knew by instinct , he should seek a friend" (Tablet I,lines 209-214,George,1999:8)

The Role of Ninsun:

As mentioned previously Ninsun is Gilgamesh’s mother.She is also known to being the divine mother of the kings of Ur (Lion&Michael 2016:124) In the beginning of the epic when Gilgamesh and Enkidu are planning to go to the Cedar forest in Lebanon to slay Humbaba they go and they seek counsel from her. Gilgamesh speaks about how he plans to celebrate New Year’s twice over if Ninsun will set their feet in steps of good counsel. It is evident that Ninsun is worried about her son and his quest to slay Humbaba. Ninsun prays for the sun God Shamash , and as she is praying she says that may the days be long and the night be short, that itself is rather indicative as to how worried she is about her son Gilgamesh and her newly adopted son Enkidu. Ninsun is the one who asks Shamash to rouse against Humbaba the mighty gale winds, which ends up playing and contributing a huge factor and blinding him and thus Gilgamesh and Enkidu are able to defeat him.

Ninsun tells Shamash that if he does help with Gilgamesh’s quest she will make sure that he will have:

’’ a restful seat, and a bed for the night shall be what awaits you.

The gods, your brothers, shall bring food to delight you,

Aya the Bride shall wipe your face dry with the fringe of her

Garment’’. (Tablet III, lines 96-99,George 1999:25).

Ninsun after promising Shamash all things mentioned above, asks him again to take care of her son and her newly adopted son.

”Again Wild-cow Ninsun made her request before Shamas’’(Tablet III,line 100,George 1999:26). Ninsun repeating her request twice is indicative of how worried she is and on how much she cares. A part in the epic where Gilgamesh and Enkidu perform certain rituals in aid of a safe journey is very badly damaged, and therefore makes it impossible to analyze. (George 1999:27)

Shamash obviously rouses against Humbaba the mighty gale winds:

“Shamash roused against Humbaba the mighty gale-winds:

South Wind, North Wind, East Wind and West Wind” (Tablet V,lines137-138)

The reason that Shamash does that is because Gilgamesh’s mother, Ninsun asks him to, and as mentioned earlier, she promises him certain things. Although it was not Ninsun who actually sent out the mighty gale winds that ended up by blinding Humbaba, she was actually responsible for Shamash doing that. If she did not ask Shamash to do so and if she had not promised him what she did, then Gilgamesh and Enkidu might have actually been slain by Humbaba instead of vice


“He slew the ogre, the forest’s guardian,

At whose yell were sundered the peaks of Sirion and Lebanon,

The mountains did quake,

All the hillsides did tremble”(Tablet V, lines 30-34, George 1999:51).

The reason for my  adding  this into the essay just to prove that if it was not for Ninsun asking Shamash to help, the story would not have ended up this way, Humbaba might have been able to slay both heroes.

An important thing to keep in mind is that Ninsun helps Gilgamesh with his dreams, in the beginning of the epic Gilgamesh has dreams that make him scared and she soothes him and explains to him that Enkidu is coming. The epic states

'' The mother of Gilgamesh was

clever and wise , well versed in everything '' (Tablet I, lines

258-260, George 1999:10 )Ninsun's interpretation of her son's dreams is " My son, the axe you saw is a friend, like a wife you will love

him, caress and embrace him, and I Ninsun, shall make him your equal.

A mighty comrade will come to you and be his friend's saviour,

mightiest in the land, strength he possesses, his strength is as

mighty as a rock’’ (Tablet I, lines 288-293, George 1999:11) This paragraph from the epic tells the reader how important Ninsun was in calming her son down and in helping him accept and love Enkidu, who also plays one of the most important roles in the epic in being Gilgamesh's companion.  Ninsun’s role in the Epic of Gilgamesh is mostly revolving around trying to offer words of wisdom to both heroes and trying to save them and help them in defeating their “enemies”. So the goddess Ninsun can easily be qualified to be a helper in the epic, she is the one who gives advice to the hero and is always looking out for his wellbeing.

A rather important aspect is that Gilgamesh in the epic is a very honourable person, and according to an article by de Villiers and Prinsloo named "Gilgamesh sees the deep: from shame to honour". Honour can be obtained in two ways, one can either ascribe or acquire it. Ascribed honour occurs passively, meaning it is passed along from one generation to another, it is heridatery. Acquired honour is far more common, yet more difficult to attain, as one has to fight for it and prove himself worthy of having such an honour. (De Villers&Prinsloo 2002:36). In the epic of Gilgamesh, the hero has both types of honour that were mentioned previously. The reason for the hero having these two types of honours goes back to his mother. He has the ascribed honour because his mother is Ninsun and she is a goddess, therefor he has this honour before having to kill anyone or slaying any monster.

The second type of honour, which is the acquired one, Gilgamesh has that because he was able to slay the mighty beast of the cedar forest Humbaba along with his good friend Enkidu, and the main reason that he was able to defeat this monster is because his mother spoke to the sun God Shamash asking him to send through the mighty gale winds,which played a pivotal role in the defeating of Humbaba. Therefor Gilgamesh's mother has actually helped Gilgamesh with obtaining honour, which is a much loved quality, especially at that time and place. According to Foley, Gilgamesh's mother supports her son through the knowledge of and the access to the divine world, and that is why she classifies her as a helper in the narrative.(Foley 2009:109) I completely agree with Foley in her assessment that Ninsun is a helper in the narrative.

The cows with which Goddesses were associated with did not represent the peaceful domesticated animals, but great wild cows. These animals were considered to be very dangerous, but their aggressive protection of their young was also recognised and admired. The cow therefore came to symbolise fertility as well as maternal protective power. (Van Dijik 2011:183) that explains a lot when it comes to Ninsun because she would not stop until her son is protected.

The role of Ishtar:

Ishtar, based on the literary evidence that scholars have was conceived not only as the goddess of love but also as the goddess of battle and strife.(Kramer 1941:114) It is rather difficult to find a copious amount of sources when it comes to the Goddess Ishtar because there is a lack of written data about her from that time (Wessels, 2013:37). That is a problem that I faced with this paper. Most of the written words about this goddess are repetitive. Tzvi Abusch states that the episode of Ishtar with the bull of heaven was rather well known. (Abusch 2015:15). It could be argued that it is a well known episode because scholars such as Foley, Salisbury and Wessels and others mentioned it in their work.

The goddess that is known as Inanna/ Ishtar is considered to be one of the most important deities in the Mesopotamian pantheon. Because of how famous and important this goddess was she had so many names. For example she was known as Inanna to the Sumerian people, Astarte in Syria and Isis in Egypt. (Salisbury, 2001:165)She is known in this epic and in other Near Eastern epics that she has a lot of power and influence. The exact relationship that she has with other gods in what is known as the Sumerian Pantheon is very confusing, and rather vague in one epic she is the daughter of a one God and in the other she is not related to him, so there remains many question marks over her exact relationship with all other deities in the Mesopotamian pantheon.(Wessels ,2013:43). That is a continuation of the point that was made earlier, because of the lack of information regarding her, confusion happens quite often.

Ishtar wants to trick Gilgamesh. She tries to get him to marry her by promising him gold and chariots of lapis lazuli. She promises him that kings and many important men will fall to his knees, kneel and kiss them, day in and day out. Abusch states that her offer does seem attractive as she offers wealth along with statues and power and of course herself! (Abusch 2015:16) The wise Mesopotamian king does not actually fall for her ways and her well known trickery and malicious ways.

Gilgamesh in the epic in tablet VI describes to her in detail what happened to all the misfortunate men whom she fell in love with and the very ugly fate that most of them ended up in. An example is how she loved the lion that was perfect in strength and how she dug seven pits and seven. He also mentions the shepherd whom she manages to strike down and turn him into a wolf. Gilgamesh mentions all six of her former lovers who are the god Tammuz, the allalu bird, the lion, the horse, the shepherd, and the gardener. Gilgamesh's speech in this episode is rather long as it fills in sixty of the seventy-nine lines, whilst Ishtar's speech takes up only fifteen lines. (Abusch 2015:10)This point also adds on to that female characters were not given a lot of importance. In this specific case her speech is significantly shorter than that of Gilgamesh.

Ishtar’s role in the Epic of Gilgamesh is rather devastating (Foley 2009:106) she is a very persuasive deity who always ends up getting exactly what she wants. Gilgamesh attracts Ishtar and has her attention after the slaying of Humbaba , and she proposes quite openly to him. But Gilgamesh being wise immediately reminds her of the fate that befell most other men that Ishtar fell in love with. The goddess of fertility loses her temper in a manner of seconds and she asks her

father Anu to lend her the bull of heaven.


"Father, give me, please, the bull of heaven,

So in his dwelling i may slay Gilgamesh,

If you do not give me the bull of heaven,

I shall smash the gates of the netherworld right down to its dwelling,

To the world below I shall grant manumission,

I shall bring up the dead to consume the living,

I shall make the dead outnumber the living “(Tablet VI, lines 94-100,

George 1999:50,51)

This phrase and the words that she uses are what prove that she always gets what she wants, although in this case she does not get to marry Gilgamesh as her heart desired. She does all of that to take her revenge from Gilgamesh for saying no to her marriage proposal. She is trying her best to end Gilgamesh's life, therefore she could be seen as a character that wants to obstruct the narrative and stop it from happening. She is a blocker.

Ishtar wants to trick Gilgamesh. She tries to get him to marry her by promising him gold and chariots of lapis lazuli. She promises him that kings and many important men will fall to his knees, kneel and kiss them, day in and day out. The wise Mesopotamian king does not actually fall for her ways and her well known trickery and malicious ways.

Tablet VI in the Epic of Gilgamesh gives a good example as to how the goddess Ishtar is a trickster. She is full of lust, she proposes to Gilgamesh, she gets very angry when her dad refuses to lend her the bull of heaven, yet she gets it at the end, by threatening her dad. (Wessels 2013:51). This is how Ishtar is different from Ninsun, Ishtar wants to kill Gilgamesh because he refuses to marry her, and these are rather selfish reasons to want to kill someone. Gilgamesh’s mother Ninsun wants to protect him and offer him counsel and even intervenes to the gods on his behalf.

Although Ishtar is obviously a character in the epic that completely tries to destroy the hero by sending through the bull of heaven. She did something unconsciously and without realizing and obviously without intention as well. She made Gilgamesh more of a hero than he already was, the way she did so is because she sent through the bull of heaven, yet she was convinced that the bull of heaven would actually be able to end the lives of both Gilgamesh and Enkidu, yet when the pair was able to defeat the bull of heaven, they were hailed as heroes on a bigger scale.  Enkidu dies after the incident with the bull of heaven and Gilgamesh's himself takes up the former existence of Enkidu, roaming the steppe and running with the beasts.His lamentations and agonies for the dead friend find a later parallel in Achilles’ grief for the slain Patroclus. In both cases it is their refusal to accept the death of their friend which forms the basis of their own undying ‘fame’. (Leick,1991:45)

The female characters in the epic of Gilgamesh do not really play major roles, and they are overlooked because at that time in life and in that certain geographical location woman were not thought to have pivotal roles. Yet these women in question are important because they move the story forward. A thing to keep in one’s mind while reading this magnificent epic is that it was actually made by males especially for a male audience. (Nejat 176).

This sums it up, woman did play roles in the epic of Gilgamesh and they were rather important roles but they were not mentioned as much as they should have because Mesopotamia was a very patriarchal society and woman were not deemed very important that is why they are not mentioned as much as the other male characters namely Gilgamesh and Enkidu.


Suleyma Mustafa