The Epic of Gilgamesh was written in 2100 BC and was also the first piece of literature that was written which was later discovered. In this epic there is a king named Gilgamesh who ruled a city called Uruk. His life and problems in his life were discovered on stone tablets and it is to be the oldest and first written piece of literature.
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Essentially this epic is about Gilgamesh becoming comfortable with death and trying to gain eternal life. In this paper I will be writing about how the roles of women is positive and yields to be important when analyzing this piece of literature. (Buried Book)
The main characters in this epic consisted of Gilgamesh, Enkidu, Humbaba, Siduri, Utnaphishtim, and Shamhat. Gilgamesh is half man half god and was the king of the city Uruk. Gilgamesh is known for his handsomeness and his strength and later became conceided. Gilgamesh even created laws which included by sexually exploiting young women by being able to have sex with them the night before their wedding. The citizens of Uruk reach out to the gods about the dictatorship happening in Uruk. The god Aruru responds and has the goddess Aruru to create an equal to Gilgamesh who will be Enkidu. (Evolution)
Enkidu is currently a man who lives with the animals and encounters a trapper who went to Gilgamesh out of fear. Upon request the trapper goes back to the watering hole that he previously spotted Enkidu at and he’s accompanied by a woman named Shamhat who is a prostitute. Once Shamhat and Enkidu encounter each other the prostitute persuades Enkidu to have sex with her. Afterwards the animals reject him since he has been civilized according them; Enkidu then goes to Uruk with Shamhat and starts living with her. Eventually Gilgamesh and Enkidu meet Gilgamesh and later become friends after having a fight after wanting to determine dominance. (Norton Anthology)
Gilgamesh randomly decides that one day he would go to the Cedar Forest to kill Humbaba who is a monster who guards the forest. Even though Enkidu and the city of Uruk was against the voyage, both Gilgamesh and Enkidu set out to kill the monster Humbaba. When they arrive to Cedar Forest, Shamash who is the god of the sun helps them overpower the monster who soon starts to plead for his life. Enkidu ignored Gilgamesh’s instincts to grant the monster life and kills him. Afterwards, both Gilgamesh and Enkidu chop down the tallest tree in the forest and dedicates it to the god Enlil. To get back home they built a raft and float down the Euphrates river along with the head of Humbaba. (Norton Anthology)
At this time in the epic, Ishtar who is a goddess has developed a crush on Gilgamesh and asked for his hand in marriage. After rejecting her proposal for marriage due to the ending to all of her other past relationships/lovers, Ishtar got seriously pissed off and borrows the Bull of Heaven from her dad Anu and releases it to earth to practically get revenge on her friends. But it backfires on Ishtar because Gilgamesh and Enkidu ends up killing the bull and when Ishtar returns to earth, Enkidu throws one of the bull’s legs at her face. Afterwards Enkidu has a dream that the gods has to kill either Gilgamesh or Enkidu due to the damage they can do together (the killing of Humbaba, the Bull of Heaven, and the tallest cedar tree being chopped down). The god Enlil picked Enkidu to be killed and fairly quickly afterwards Enkidu becomes very sick all of a sudden and eventually dies due to the sufferage of the sickness. (Norton Anthology)
After Gilgamesh finds out about Enkidu’s death it seriously affects him due to his views of Enkidu being his equal. Gilgamesh started to think that no matter how much power or abilities you have you will eventually die and the only thing people can remember you by is your achievements or pieces of your work. He sets out on a voyage about basically finding eternal life and to talk to Utanaphishtim who is the only human that has been granted eternal life due to basically building Noah’s Ark. This journey that Gilgamesh decides to embark on is entirely exhausting due to going to Mount Mashu, going to the underside of the world, and almost getting scorched by the sun. Once Gilgamesh gets to where Utanaphishtim resides, Siduri the innkeeper takes Gilgamesh to the ferryman Urshanabi who took him to Utanaphishtim. After going through all of the obstacles to get to Utanaphishtim, he basically tell him that humans cannot have eternal life. (Norton Anthology)
The gods decided a long time ago that humans will not have eternal life and to make that happen they create the flood. Although Utanaphishtim and his wife got a heads up about it and then created a giant ship and loaded two of each animal of the ship and also some craftsmen. After the flood was over the god Enlil granted his family immortality. Utanaphishtim honestly does not think that Gilgamesh is worthy of such a gift and so then challenges him to a keep awake contest. Of course Gilgamesh fails horribly, tells him to go on, and fires his innkeeper due to allowing Gilgamesh through to visit Utanaphishtim. After his wife finds out about the visit he requests to invite Gilgamesh back to inform him about a plant that will revitalize your youth to whoever consumes the plant. (Norton Anthology)
Gilgamesh discovers the plant at the bottom of the sea and decides to take it back home to test it on an old man there due to not wanting to risk this mysterious plant on himself. On the way home he stops at a rest stop to take a bath and accidentally leaves the flower behind. A snake discovers the flower and eats it as Gilgamesh and Urshanabi are still making their way back to Uruk. The epic ends with Gilgamesh returning to Uruk and reflecting on how he practically built Uruk and that he will have a reputation and also he feels good with how his life is going and is now comfortable with the thought of death. (A Reader)
In this epic the women have very strong influences on the men which plays an important role. The three main women who play a role in the epic who make the roles of the women have a positive effect are Shamhat, Ninsun, and Ishtar. The first lady Shamhat is first introduced in the epic when she humanizes Enkidu and also is known as a prostitute. Later on in this epic you start to see how she is more than a prostitute and starts to be represented as a more caring woman and leads Enkidu to the way of living in socialization. Shamhat first has sex with Enkidu to humanize him to eventually introduce him to Gilgamesh but in the mean time she is his support system. She gives him shelter when he had left the forest but haven’t met Gilgamesh, introduced Enkidu to Gilgamesh which gave him his accomplice in life, and even loans Enkidu part of her clothing since he was in need. This woman is represented in a positive and caring way rather than just being represented as a prostitute and took away everything that Enkidu known and forced him into a world he never asked for.
The second woman Ninsun was the mother of Gilgamesh and was represented with nothing but kindness and generosity throughout the entire epic. She cares for her mortal son extremely, so much that she gives a good word to Shamash about him right before they left for the fight with Humbaba. Ninsun also interpreted a dream that Gilgamesh had and basically prepared him for someone to come into his life to confide in which is what the city Uruk and the citizens of the city needed due to the extremely demeaning laws concerning women and sex. Even though she is mentioned fairly briefly it is straight forward that she has a caring character especially through her son, Gilgamesh.
The third woman is Ishtar who is the goddess of sex and love. Ishtar develops a dangerous love for Gilgamesh after him and Enkidu killed the monster Humbaba. After this Ishtar plainly asked Gilgamesh to marry her and he simply refused due to the fates of all her past lovers and relationships. After the denial of the proposal she borrows the bull of heaven to get revenge on both Gilgamesh and Enkidu. The killing of the Bull of Heaven was important because it is what lead to Enkidu receiving the death penalty which in turn also lead to Gilgamesh’s voyage to find immortality. Ishtar maintained power of the men during this epic due to her releasing the bull of heaven gave the gods the idea and decision to kill Enkidu which has quite a bit of power to cause an act of that sort.
Back when this epic was written the roles of men was non-existent for necessity to live practically. When we take a look at the roles of women throughout this epic it at first glance seems irregular than usual. Whenever you take a deeper look or understanding then the roles of women have dominant traits. The roles included captivating sexuality, convincing advising, and they also had the ability to have some control of the mens decisions which brought death and the loss of immortality in their lives. The three women mentioned earlier was examples represented in the epic that proves that women roles in this writing is positive and important because it leads to important events throughout the story and the women are looked down upon. (Male and Female)
Abusch, Tzvi. Male and Female in the Epic of Gilgamesh : Encounters, Literary History, and Interpretation, Eisenbrauns, 2015. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://0-ebookcentral-proquest-com.library.uark.edu/lib/uark-ebooks/detail.action?docID=4395070.
Damrosch, David.The Buried Book: The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh.H. Holt, New York, 2007.
Maier, John R.Gilgamesh: A Reader.Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers, Wauconda, Ill, 1997.
Puchner, M., et al, Eds. The Norton Anthology of World Literature, Vol. A, 4th ed.
Tigay, Jeffrey H.The Evolution of the Gilgamesh Epic.University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 1982.
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