The Epic of Gilgamesh
Even though she only appears in Tablets 1 and 2 (plus getting cursed and blessed in Tablet 7), Shamhat is a major female character who plays a pivotal role in the story. She uses her wily woman's ways to transform Enkidu into a civilized being, and she demonstrates her power in the process. For a culture that is fairly man-centric, we think Shamhat is a compelling female character.
Your Reputation Precedes You
We first learn about Shamhat by reputation. When the trapper asks his father what to do about the wild man who keeps coming to his watering hole, papa tells him to go to Uruk and ask Gilgamesh for help. The trapper's father predicts that Gilgamesh will send him back to the watering hole with Shamhat, a temple-prostitute. (For more info on temple-prostitution, check out our summary of Tablet 1.)
According to the trapper's dad, if Shamhat displays herself beside the watering hole, Enkidu won't be able to resist having sex with her; once he's done that, he won't be a wild man anymore.
(And according to us, this is one savvy trapper's dad. How does he know all this?)
Now, we don't know about you, but if the trapper's dad thinks Shamhat can take the wild out of the wild man, and if her reputation has made its way out to the boondocks where the trapper and his dad live, she must be really good at her job.
We get more evidence of Shamhat's career accomplishments when the trapper arrives in Uruk and speaks to King Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh dispenses the advice that the trapper's father said he would, thus showing that he knows her reputation too—or maybe, as Stephen Mitchell hints in his introduction to Gilgamesh, that Gilgamesh himself has slept with her.
But the real proof comes when Shamhat and the trapper actually arrive back at the watering hole. When Shamhat shows Enkidu her stuff, it does indeed entice Enkidu to have sex with her. For six days and seven nights. And, this sex-a-thon manages to change Enkidu from an almost-animal into a human being. (We almost would have said it'd be the other way around.)
Once again we defer to Stephen Mitchell here: he points out that this superhuman feat easily matches anything Gilgamesh and Enkidu accomplish later in the epic (source 16).
More Than Meets the Eye
But it isn't just sex that transforms Enkidu—and this is where the truly fascinating aspect of Shamhat's personality emerges.
When Enkidu comes back to her after his failed attempt at rejoining the animals, Shamhat continues initiating him into the ways of humankind. She tells him about the wonders of Uruk, and invites him to come back with her to the city. Throughout her description, she seems to be mainly thinking about what's good for Enkidu—she wants him to learn "how to live" (1.214).
We get an even stronger sense of Shamhat's caring personality when she starts playing friend-matchmaker for Enkidu and Gilgamesh, telling Enkidu about the powerful dreams Gilgamesh has been having about getting a new friend. (How does Shamhat know about these dreams? Is this more evidence that she has, in fact, slept with Gilgamesh? Or is this part of the benefit package of being a temple-prostitute: you have access to all kinds of good gossip?)
The beginning of Tablet 2 finds Shamhat still hanging out with Enkidu, even after some days have passed. Here we get more examples of her goodwill. First, she takes off part of her own clothing and gives it to Enkidu; then, she takes him to a picnic being held by some shepherds. There, Enkidu tastes bread and beer for the first time. And then the next day, Shamhat acts as an intermediary between Enkidu and a young man on his way to a wedding in Uruk.
You guys, this just might be the first Hooker with a Heart of Gold ever.
Women: Gateway to Life
Think about it, Shmoopers. Women are literally the gateway to life. (Especially if you're a Bronze Age society with only hazy ideas about conception and birth.) So, it makes sense that a woman should be the gateway for Enkidu into human society. And when the god Shamash reminds Enkidu that Shamhat helped him become friends with Gilgamesh, Enkidu showers blessings upon her—even though he's going to die.
Basically, we think the moral here is: you can hate on women for bringing you into a world that's inevitably going to kill you (and, given the general hygienic standards of the day, probably in an unpleasant way), or you can bless them for giving you the gift of being alive and appreciating all the great things that life has to offer. Which, apparently, are sex, beer, and friendship—in that order. (Hey, we didn't write it.)
Us? We think Shamhat is a pretty nifty lady, and that she certainly deserves ample thanks. Might she actually want something else than what Enkidu wishes for her—that she become the wealthiest, most successful courtesan in the land? Possibly. But, his wish gives us further insight into what a strong-willed, independently minded woman like Shamhat might have dreamt of in ancient Mesopotamian society.