And here we are at our first destination of the gender tour!
Tour notes: The copy of Gilgamesh that I will be referencing is translated by Benjamin R. Foster and is from The Norton Anthology of World Literature, Volume 1, Shorter Second Edition, 2009. I am using this version because this one is based on the original clay tablets, mentions the alternative versions of some scenes (also found in the tablets), and leave gaps where something could not be translated, as well as providing other helpful notes.
The Epic of Gilgamesh
Gilgamesh, powerful and arrogant, abuses his subjects. The citizens complain to the gods, who create the wild man Enkidu as a rival for Gilgamesh.
We find out from the voices of female citizens that Gilgamesh has sex with all the girls, literally all of them. And then the gods answer:
“The warrior’s daughter, the young man’s spouse, Anu, kept hearing their plaints. . . . They summoned the birth goddess, Aruru”
and Aruru then makes Enkidu. So a man can’t control his libido and yes, another man needs to come in to fix the problem, BUT the women complained, the gods heard and answered, and a goddess creates Enkidu to fix the problem.
Enkidu lives with the wild beasts, until Gilgamesh hears about him and his strength and sends a hunter to take the harlot Shamhat to essentially civilize Enkidu.
“The harlot said to him, to Enkidu:
You are handsome, Enkidu, you are become like a god,
Why roam the steppe with wild beasts?”
Gilgamesh and Enkidu are both repeatedly described as handsome; in fact, part of the prologue is dedicated just to describing Gilgamesh’s appearance in great detail. In fact, when Shamhat describes Gilgamesh to Enkidu, she makes a point to mention “The whole of his body is seductively gorgeous.”
Eventually, Enkidu agrees to go with Shamhat, as “He was yearning for one to know his heart, a friend.”
Thus, women are worth listening to, and men long for a close friendship just as much as any woman. Another thing to note is that there are more mentions of physical appearance in conjunction with the men than with the women. Even with the harlot, they mention her “charms,” but the phrase seems to be referencing her skills at lovemaking, rather than her physical appearance.
In the next scene Gilgamesh is telling his mother, Ninsun, his dreams so that she may explain them to him.
“The mother of Gilgamesh, knowing and wise,
Who understands everything, said to her son”
So while she’s first introduced not by name, but as Gilgamesh’s mother, she is wise and someone who her son goes to for advice. Note how there is no mention of her physical appearance. Again, the quality that is worthy of note is her knowledge, not her physical appearance.
“My son, the axe you saw is a man.
Your loving it like a woman and caressing it”
and Gilgamesh responds:
“I want a friend for my own counselor,
For my own counselor do I want a friend!”
and it is noted that “Each [Enkidu and Gilgamesh] was drawn by love to the other.”
The point here, is that having someone who understands you, who can counsel you and be your friend is someone you love to the same degree as a wife. They are different, but equally important loves. Sometimes, one person can fill both roles and loves. Whether Mesopotamia ever regarded Enkidu and Gilgamesh as romantically involved doesn’t really matter, they loved each other as strongly as one loves their wife or brother. Further, the women encourage this love, seeming to view it as a normal love, and a necessary one.
On his way to meet Gilgamesh, Enkidu hears about how Gilgamesh has sex with every woman:
“He mates with the lawful wife,
He first, the husband after,
By divine decree pronounced,
From the cutting of his umbilical cord, she is his due.”
And “At the man’ account, his [Enkidu’s] face went pale.”
Enkidu, is NOT ok with Gilgamesh’s actions, and he does something about it when he meets his friend-to-be:
“Enkidu blocked the door to the wedding with his foot,
Not allowing Gilgamesh to enter.”
Because of this, the two fight, and then “They kissed each other and made friends.”
From this point on, there is no further mention of Gilgamesh having sex with every female in his vicinity. Enkidu did not support Gilgamesh, and when Gilgamesh found someone who opposed him, he stopped his cruel actions and ended up gaining a friend. Here we have the classic “men talk through actions” and “men fight then make friends.” These days, there seems to be a degree of “if you’re my friend you’ll support and encourage me no matter what” among men. How many cases have we seen where one or a few guys raped a girl and other friends watched but took no action? Or where a football player is caught doing illegal drugs, and the teammates all deny it? This is not the relationship between Enkidu and Gilgamesh. They disagree and clash, and respect each other for it.
Further, kissing between men is normal. It is normal. This will be an action seen throughout epics and Arthurian romances, and we will see women kiss each other too. The kiss was likely read similar to the type of kiss two long-separated brothers would give each other on reuniting. It is a kiss of greeting, recognition, family, friendship, and, yes, love. But likely was not seen as romantic love. The point here is that men (and women) experience different types of love and can touch each other physically without someone calling “No homo!” Think of football players hugging and slapping each other’s butts after a good play or touchdown.
From here to the end, we’re doing a speed run of the rest of the story and examining only specific quotes.
It’s not just after a highly emotional fight (football or combat or otherwise) that men can touch each other though:
“Clasping each other hand in hand,
Gilgamesh and Enkidu went to the sublime temple,
To go before Ninsun the great queen.”
Here, Gilgamesh once again seeks his mother’s advice, and her blessing for a venture to kill Humbaba.
Dream interpreting was not done just by women, but apparently was something undertaken together by two close friends, as Enkidu and Gilgamesh discuss Gilgamesh’s dreams and their possible meanings.
We also see that “manliness” is NOT blindly charging in alone to defeat obstacles,
as Gilgamesh says, “We cannot confront him separately.” Again, they hold hands as they journey.
For anyone thinking Enkidu is more “womanly” than Gilgamesh, consider that in Tablet V Gilgamesh hesitates to give Humbaba the final blow, but does so after Enkidu encourages him to do so. Remember both that this is a different time period and that gender is very, very complicated.
Skipping ahead again, Enkidu has been cursed to die and does not respond well, and blames the hunter and harlot Shamhat as responsible because they brought him to the civilized world.
Common thing, blaming the woman. However, Enkidu doesn’t get away with it! Well, interestingly, he does apparently get away with cursing the male hunter, but not with cursing Shamhat, for the male god Shamash who admonishes him:
“O Enkidu, why curse Shamhat the harlot,
Who fed you bread, fit for a king,
Who dressed you in noble garment,
And gave you the handsome Gilgamesh for a comrade?”
Enkidu ends up blessing Shamhat instead.
Again, we see guys calling each other out over their treatment of women.
When Enkidu dies, we’re introduced to another theme that we’ll see throughout epics and romances: male grief. No, these are not the images of a stoic man who sheds a single tear:
“Gilgamesh was weeping bitterly for Enkidu, his friend,
As he roamed the steppe”
That’s right, not only does Gilgamesh weep openly and bitterly (no single tear here folks, but rivers of them), but he is in so much grief that he leaves his city and the people he ruled and is just wandering the steppes, sobbing.
For the rest of the Gilgamesh epic, Gilgamesh grieves for his friend, even as he begins to live his own life again. In Tablet X, for example, he talks about Enkidu, saying,
“My friend whom I so loved, who went with me through
Enkidu, whom I so loved, who went with me through
According to Gilgamesh, it is not manly to stand there stoically when your friend, whom you loved, dies. You grieve, loudly, for a long time. I mean, weeping for literal days here. And men don’t just move on on a revenge quest. There is no revenge quest at all, actually! The rest of the story is Gilgamesh coming to terms with his mortality, even as he seeks immortality.
As we move to our next destination, The Odyssey, remember these themes as we go forward: men touching each other, men loving each other, women being sought out for their wisdom, men being described for their beauty and women described for their abilities, and men weeping, loudly, for days.