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Definition: Gilgamesh from Philip's Encyclopedia

Hero of the great Assyro-Babylonian myth, the Epic of Gilgamesh. He went in search of the secret of immortality. Having overcome monsters and gods, he found the flower of life, only to have it snatched from him by a serpent.

Summary Article: GILGAMESH
From Encyclopedia of Erotic Literature

The longest and best known work in Mesopotamian literature was based on oral and written narratives concerning Gilgamesh, the king of Uruk. The standard version of the epic was discovered in the library at Nineveh (eighth-seventh centuries bce). It incorporates some but not all known Sumerian Gilgamesh stories, episodes from the Old Babylonian version from the early second millennium, and completely new material. The colophon mentions the authorship of a scribe called Sin-leqqe-unini, a scholar who lived during the Kassite period, around 1500 bce. The work is not primarily an erotic novel. The main theme is the problem of death and dying and the quest for immortality. It deals with heroism and kingship and the values of Mesopotamia's urban civilization. However, episodes describing sexual encounters and the ambiguous love between Gilgamesh and Enkidu raise fundamental and subtle questions about eroticism and human relationships. There is now a vast secondary literature about the epic, and numerous translations in different modern languages have appeared. The following summary inevitably reveals my own subjective understanding of the original text which is fragmentary in many places and thus still poses many unresolved difficulties of interpretation. Gilgamesh as introduced in prologue, is two-thirds divine (his mother is the goddess Ninsun) and one-third mortal. His vitality is likened to that of a rampant bull who gives no rest to the young men and women of Uruk. The gods answer the complaints of the people by specially creating a being that will match his ardour. This is Enkidu, shaggy-haired and wild, who lives far from the cultivated plains in the semi-desert. He eats and drinks like the beasts and destroys the traps of the hunter. He is thus described as the antithesis to Gilgamesh, who as king of the ancient city of Uruk, represents the values of urban civilization. The king hears about Enkidu and rather than sending a group of young warriors he dispatches Shamhat, the voluptuos one, a courtesan, to meet the beast-like creature. She lies down uncovered, opens her legs and is encouraged take wind of him, to do for him, the primitive man, as women do. Their love-making lasts for six days and seven nights and thereafter the wild animals turn away from Enkidu and he has lost the power of his legs to run as before. He realizes that he has been transformed and the courtisan takes him to the city, where Gilgamesh is perfect in strength which arouses Enkidu's desire to challenge him. Shamhat tries to modify his aggression towards Gilgamesh by revealing to him two dreams which Gilgamesh recounted to his mother who interpreted their meaning for him. Both dreams involve an object falling from the sky which he is unable to lift but which he loves as a wife and treats as equal. In both cases the word for the object can be construed as a pun referring to male and to certain cult personnel attached to Ishtar who may have had connotations with ambiguous sexuality. Shamhat reiterates Ninsun's interpretation that Gilgamesh is about to gain a male friend and advisor, a companion in strength, and that they will love one another. Enkidu completes his transformation by drinking beer and eating bread for the first time, having his hair cut and donning clothes. When he finally meets Gilgamesh, barring his way to father-in-law's house (where presumably Gilgamesh intends to claim his droit de seigneur), he bars his way and they wrestle in the public square until the doorframe quake. The text becomes broken here and when it resumes the two protagonists acknowledge each other's strength and qualities and seal their friendship with an embrace. Enkidu weeps, and again a gap on the tablet obscures why. The text then describes their first adventure, to cut down cedar trees in a forest sacred to the god Ellil. They succeed, having killed the guardian spirit monster Huwawa, and return triumphant to Uruk. The next episode concerns Gilgamesh and his relationship with the city-goddess Ishtar, who in Sumerian literature was described as the one whose love legitimized and blessed the ruler of the city. In the epic Ishtar's proposal of marriage is rudely rejected by Gilgamesh who recounts the miserable fate of her human and animal ex-lovers and expresses his fear that he would be treated in the same way. The goddess vows revenge but Gilgamsh and Enkidu kill the Bull of Heaven sent to destroy them. The heroes return to the palace where they lie down to sleep. Enkidu dreams that the gods had decided to punish him for the slaying of their creatures and that he will die. The dying Enkidu curses the huntsman and courtesan for bringing him to Uruk. She shall suffer deprivation and humiliation, to be slapped by drunkards and suffer homelessness. But he relents when he remembers that she had brought him to Gilgamesh and he blesses her instead, that she should grow wealthy and prominent in society, with husbands leaving their wives for her sake. Enkidu dies and the grief-stricken Gilgamesh leaves his city and begins his quest for Utnapishtim, the survivor of the great flood, to ask him how he obtained eternal life. The story then unfolds, incorporating numerous adventures as well as the flood-narrative. Gilgamesh realizes that human destiny is death and returns to his city, where he inspects the ramparts and orders his story to be written on copper tablets, thus securing another kind of immortality.

The erotic content of Gilgamesh, apart from the initial seduction of Enkidu, is marked by ambivalence. The homo-erotic tenor of Gilgamesh1s love for Enkidu as communicated by the dreams and is more complex if one considers that Gilgamesh takes on the role traditionally held by female personages who marry the outsider or steppe dweller. The eroticized notion of the Other is here projected onto Enkidu, but their own identities undergo a profound transformation in the process. In the Sumerian narratives, the female representative of urban civilization brings about the assimilation of the outsider. Here, the value system of the steppe clashes with that of urbanism—Gilgamesh rejects Ishtar and turns himself into a creature of the wilderness in his quest for knowledge. His failure to find the answer opens up the possibility of return to Uruk where he will complete his destiny on earth.

  • Parpola, Simo, with the assistance of Mikko Luukko; Kalle Fabritius. The Standard Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh: Cuneiform Text, Transliteration, Glossary, Indices and Sign List, Helsinki: Neo-Assyrian Text Corpus Project, 1997.
  • George, Andrew. The Epic of Gilgamesh. Harmonds-worth: Penguin Classics, 2003.
  • George, Andrew. Kalle Fabritius The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic: Introduction, Critical Edition and Cuneiform Texts. 2 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.
  • Translations
  • Bottéro, Jean. L’épopée de Gilgames: le grand homme qui ne voulait pas mourir. Paris: Gallimard, 1992.
  • Dalley, Stephanie. Myths from Mesopotamia. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
  • Ferry, David. Gilgamesh: A New Rendering in English Verse. Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books, 1993.
  • Foster, Benjamin. The Epic of Gilgamesh: A New Translation, Analogues, Criticism. New York: Norton, 2001.
  • George, Andrew. The Epic of Gilgamesh. The Babylonian Epic Poem and Other Texts in Akkadian and Sumerian. Harmondsworth: Allen Lane, 1999.
  • Kovacs, Maureen Gallery. The Epic of Gilgamesh. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1989.
  • Jackson, Danny P. The Epic of Gilgamesh. Verse rendition (Introduction by Robert D. Biggs). Wauconda, IL: Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers, 1992.
  • Further Reading
  • Harris, Rivkah. Gender and Aging in Mesopotamia: The Gilgamesh Epic and Other Ancient Literature. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2000.
  • Leick, Gwendolyn. Sex and Eroticism in Mesopotamian Literature. London and New York: Routledge, 1994.
  • Maier, John. Gilgamesh: A Reader. Wauconda, IL: Bolchazy-Carducci, 1997.
  • Tigay, Jeffrey H. The Evolution of the Gilgamesh Epic. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982.
  • Gwendolyn Leick
    © 2006 by Taylor & Francis Group, LLC

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