The Epic of Gilgamesh
Allegory of the Harlot
Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
There is a whole, whole lot going on with the Harlot. In fact, we here at Shmoop wish someone would write a sequel to Gilgamesh, which just revolves around Shamhat's adventures and interactions with all these Mesopotamian chaps. But, until then, we want to shed light on one more interesting aspect of her character in this poem: the interaction between Enkidu and the Harlot seems to mirror the stages that Mesopotamian society took to become civilized.
No, really; hear us out:
First, there is the trapper interfering with nature: you know, trapping and stuff. When he comes face to face with Enkidu (the symbol of pure, innocent nature) "the trapper's face went stark with fear" (1.98). Similarly, when humanity found themselves out in the wild, face to face with an untamed nature, it was a little scary.
With us so far? Ok, so the trapper goes home and tells his father that Enkidu "wrenched out my traps that I had spread, released from my grasp the wild animals" (1.113-114) and they make a plan to get rid of this interloping wildman. There is no evidence that Enkidu is actually doing the things the trapper accuses him of; perhaps we can read this as humanity's misinterpretation of nature's motives—in other words, nature isn't "after humanity," it just operates independently of any concern for humanity.
Then, the Harlot shows up and she has knowledge of all that is civilization and humanity. Her sex not only links him to the ways of man, but also—since she is a temple-prostitute—to the religious ways of a civilized society. She corrupts his innocence, and physically changes him, at first just making him weaker.
But, her next steps are strategic. She takes him to the shepherds—fellas who have one foot in civilized society and one foot in the natural world—so they can help him change his clothes, the food he eats, and the liquid he drinks. It is only at this point that the transformation is complete, and she walks him into the gates of Uruk and into the modern, civilized world.