Study Guide

The Epic of Gilgamesh Sex

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Chapter 1, Tablet 1

for six days and seven nights Enkidu stayed aroused,
and had intercourse with the harlot
until he was sated with her charms.
But when he turned his attention to his animals,
the gazelles saw Enkidu and darted off,
the wild animals distanced themselves from his body. (1.172-180)

In these lines, we see the trapper's father's theory (and also the theory offered by Gilgamesh himself) being put to the test. Shamhat does offer herself sexually to Enkidu, Enkidu does have sex with her (setting some sort of world record for endurance), and, at the end of it, discovers that the animals don't want to play with him anymore. Does this strike you as strange? In modern culture, isn't sex often seen as an "animal" activity, quite different from "higher," more "civilized" human activities? And yet, here, sex is what separates Enkidu from the animals, and paves the way for him to become a human being. Can you think of any reasons why it might work this way?

Gilgamesh does not leave a girl to her mother(?)!" (1.59-74)

Here, we get a look at Gilgamesh's tyrannical behavior before the goddess Aruru creates Enkidu as a match for him. The usual interpretation of these lines by scholars is that is tormenting the young women of Uruk by sexually exploiting them (that's the whole "does not leave a girl to her mother" bit). In the rigidly hierarchical Sumerian society in which the poem takes place, sex doesn't always occur as a matter of choice between two loving people. Sometimes, sex happens because one party (here, Gilgamesh) has more power, and is able to force the other party (the young women of Uruk) to make herself sexually available. That said, given that the people of Uruk disapprove of it and complain to the gods about it, maybe this bad behavior reflects more on Gilgamesh personally than it does on his society as a whole.

Enkidu … his utterly depleted(?) body,
his knees that wanted to go off with the animals went rigid;
Enkidu was diminished, his running was not as before.
But then he drew himself up, for his understanding had broadened. (1.181-184)

After having sex with Shamhat, Enkidu feels like he has lost his strength and animal nature. Okay, so we're not that surprised about the strength part (Enkidu did just have sex with Shamhat for six days and seven nights), but we still want to ask about the "animal nature" part. What is it about sex with Shamhat that makes Enkidu become human? The last line of this passage is especially interesting for showing how Enkidu's mind has been expanded ("his understanding had been broadened") by the experience. How can sex with Shamhat have improved Enkidu's intellect?

"Go, set off to Uruk,
tell Gilgamesh of this
Man of Might.
He will give you the harlot Shamhat, take her with you.
The woman will overcome the fellow
(?) as if she were strong.
When the animals are drinking at the watering place
have her take off her robe and expose her sex.
When he sees her he will draw near to her,
and his animals, who grew up in his wilderness, will be alien to him." (1.120-127)

Here, the trapper's father thinks Shamhat's sexuality makes her extremely powerful, "as if" she were strong. In fact, we think he could have gone even further in his language. After all, if Shamhat "were strong," as the trapper says, could strength alone really make him civilized? And yet, somehow, sex can. In this telling, it looks like love might really be more powerful than war.

Chapter 2, Tablet 2

"For Gilgamesh, the King of Broad-Marted Uruk,
open is the veil(?) of the people for choosing.
He will have intercourse with the 'destined wife,'
he first, the husband afterward.
This is ordered by the counsel of Anu" (2.71-78)

Enkidu learns this from the guy he and Shamhat run into while heading toward Uruk. The young man reveals that a wedding is about to take place in Uruk. But there's a catch: Gilgamesh will have sex with the woman first, and then her husband will. There's a lot of debate among scholars over what the young man is talking about here, but one theory is that Gilgamesh has made it the law that every new bride has to have sex with him before having sex with her husband, Braveheart-style. If so, this looks like another example of power interfering with sex, just like in the first quotation for this theme.

Chapter 6, Tablet 6

"You are an oven who … ice,
a half-door that keeps out neither breeze nor blast,
a palace that crushes down valiant warriors,
an elephant who devours its own covering,
pitch that blackens the hands of its bearer,
a waterskin that soaks its bearer through,
limestone that buckles out the stone wall,
a battering ram that attracts the enemy land,
a shoe that bites its owner's feet!" (6.31-40)

Wow, Gil, way to let her down gently. Here, Gilgamesh is reacting to Ishtar. Based on the general context of the speech, it's possible that Gilgamesh could be calling Ishtar bad news simply because she has a tendency to abandon her lovers and then inflict horrible suffering on them. That said, given that Gilgamesh is also saying that Ishtar sleeps around (she's "a half-door that keeps out neither breeze nor blast"), we were wondering if he might also be hinting that she has STDs, especially with that whole "pitch that blackens the hands of its bearer" thing. If so, this would show the sexual double-standard that exists in Gilgamesh's society. After all, you don't hear Ishtar calling Gilgamesh immoral, even though he's slept with countless young women of Uruk.

"You loved Ishullanu, your father's date gardener,
who continually brought you baskets of dates,
and brightened your table daily.
You raised your eyes to him, and you went to him:
'Oh my Ishullanu, let us taste of your strength,
stretch out your hand to me, and touch our vulva.'" (6.62-77)

Dirty pun alert: apparently, in ancient Babylonian, the same word was used for "vulva" (female sexual organs) and "date palm." Supposedly, this was because they looked the same. (Don't ask us.) Given that this is part of a Gilgamesh's rejection of Ishtar, it looks like Gilgamesh doesn't approve of Ishtar's behavior. So, is the problem here that Ishtar has a tendency to destroy the mortals she sleeps with—or is it that she's sleeping with them at all?

Chapter 7, Tablet 7

Let my mouth which has cursed you, now turn to bless you!
May governors and nobles love you,
May he who is one league away bite his lip (in anticipation of you),
may he who is two leagues away shake out his locks (in preparation)!
May the soldier not refuse you, but undo his buckle for you,
may he give you rock crystal(?), lapis lazuli, and gold,
may his gift to you be earrings of filigree(?)." (7.138-151)

Here, Enkidu turns his former curse into a blessing—but note that the focus is still squarely on sex: Enkidu wishes that all rich and powerful men be consumed with sexual desire for Shamhat, and reward her appropriately for her services. Does this series of blessings show a more positive view of women's sexuality than the previous quotation, or is it just the flip side of the same narrow-minded view?

"May you not be able to make a household,
and not be able to love a child of your own (?)!
May you not dwell in the … of girls,
may dregs of beer (?) stain your beautiful lap,
may a drunk soil your festal robe with vomit (?), (7.94-98)

Here, Enkidu is dying and cursing the Shamhat. Even though not everything in his curse against Shamhat is overtly concerned with sex (though there is that wish that "a gateway be where you take your pleasure"), you could say that, in a more subtle way, everything in it is concerned with sex. That's because, what Enkidu is describing, and hoping befalls Shamhat, is basically the life of an elderly street prostitute—a woman who has spent her entire life being exploited by others for sex. Nice, Enkidu.

Chapter 10, Tablet 10

"Now you, Gilgamesh, let your belly be full!
Be happy day and night,
of each day make a party,
dance in circles day and night!
Let your clothes be sparkling clean,
let your head be clean, wash yourself with water!
Attend to the little one who holds onto your hand,
let a wife delight in your embrace.
This is the (true) task of mankind(?)." (Old Babylonian Supplement at 10.72)

Here, Siduri tries to explain to Gilgamesh that he should put all his effort into living the best life that it's possible for a human to live. And key to that life is sex ("let a wife delight in your embrace"). But note how Siduri describes this sex. First of all, it is supposed to be sex with a "wife," that is, with someone that Gilgamesh has devoted his life to, not sex with all of the young women of Uruk, whether they want to or not, and whether they're about to marry to somebody else or not. Also, Siduri makes clear that the point of this sex isn't just for Gilgamesh's own amusement; it is supposed to make the wife "delight" as well. Does this mean that the human connection of sex is what Siduri considers most important?

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