24 April 2014
The Gilgamesh Epic -- Now in Convenient Blog Form!
Some readers have claimed this 4500-year-old Sumerian/Babylonian tale as "the world's first Gay Romance," though not everyone buys that. But with or without the homoerotic spin, it certainly qualifies as one of the earliest known prototypes in the ever-popular "buddies on a roadtrip" genre -- wrapped together with that most pressing but unresolvable of all theological questions, namely:
"Are the gods total retards, or just vindictive assholes, that human life should tend to suck so much and then we die?!?"
Today, however, the poem is probably much more famous for being "that other ancient Middle Eastern saga in which a geezer builds a humongous boat and fills it with animals to escape a Global Flood." But to be clear, the Gilgamesh Epic is not in any sense "about" the Flood. Gilgamesh himself isn't a witness to the deluge, which occurred long before he was born; here, the Flood is a story-within-a-story that another character relates in the past tense, and only near the end of the Epic.
In the broadest terms, the Epic's major plot arc describes how a superhuman-but-mortal Sumerian king, traumatized by the death of his best friend, tries and fails to discover the secret of eternal life -- yet although he fails to attain literal immortality, his Fame becomes immortal.
Compared with the works of Homer or Vergil's Aeneid, this "epic" is fairly brief -- the David Ferry version comes in at just under 90 pages. But since not everyone enjoys wading through long poems in iambic-pentameter couplets, and since it's full of unfamiliar Sumerian or Akkadian names that are sometimes easy to confuse, I've put together a handy-dandy "Cliff Notes" guide for lazy kollidge stoonts:
The "standard, complete, canonical" version of the Gilgamesh Epic as we know it comes from a series of about a dozen known tablets written in Babylonic cuneiform and dating to circa 650 BC -- signed by an anonymous poet with the pen-name Sin Leqe Unninni, roughly "May the moon-god be my muse". However, the story ultimately comes from Sumer, not Babylonia, and there's clear evidence that at least some portions of it go back, in oral folklore, to 2500 BC or earlier. (To whatever limited extent Gilgamesh was based on a historically genuine king of Sumer, his reign would've been circa 2700 BC.) It could be argued that there were originally some three or four self-contained legends describing the adventures of Gilgamesh and his friend Enkidu, and these separate tales were later woven together by Babylonic editors into a single coherent epic poem.
Note, by the way, that Sumer and Babylonia were both centered in the same general vicinity: the valley-plain between the lower Euphrates and Tigris rivers, in what's now SE Iraq -- basically, the region downstream of modern Baghdad, all the way the Persian Gulf. However, Sumer and Babylonia were ethno-linguistically separate, and they peaked in different millennia.
The oldest known human settlements in Sumer go back to "only" 4500 BC (whereas Jericho, in W Jordan, was well-established by 6000 BC). The region's major natural resource was its incredibly fertile river-delta soil, so as their agro-tech improved, Sumerians gradually transitioned from subsistence farming to affluent net-exporters of food crops. The population and wealth began a huge boom around 3300 BC, and Sumer flourished for nearly a thousand years until things started downhill circa 2400 BC, with a complete collapse by 2000 BC. Early on, the Sumerian economy was organized around its temples, and the priestly caste likely ran everything -- but as the concept of heriditary monarchy caught on, the priesthood would've seen its political control reduced. [You should probably keep this in mind when king Gilgamesh meets the goddess Ishtar!! -- ed.] In linguistic terms, Sumerian was totally unrelated to the Semitic family that includes Hebrew, Arabic, and Aramaic; and spoken Sumerian "died" along with Sumer, though it lingered on as a written liturgical language until the early AD era.
Babylonia (named for its capital, Babylon) essentially replaced Sumer, as various waves of Semitic-speaking nomadic peoples began vying for power in the unraveling Sumerian state. A Semitic tongue known as Akkadian became the primary language of Babylonia, which began to emerge as a distinct culture circa 2100 BC -- with the religion and literature of old Sumer often borrowed wholesale and translated to Akkadian. The reign of the celebrated law-giver Hammurabi (starting circa 1790 BC) definitively cemented Babylon's status as an imperial city, and the empire flourished until 538 BC -- the year when the Indo-European-speaking Persians, led by Cyrus, captured Babylon once and for all ("Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin!" -- Daniel 5:25).
[Back to Table of Contents]
One might split the Epic's plot-arc into roughly two halves:
- In the first half, the urbane king Gilgamesh meets an extremely rustic (practically caveman-ish) commoner named Enkidu. Despite their different backgrounds, both guys are Herculean figures with the strength of a dozen men, and they're drawn to each other instantly -- which isn't really a surprise, since Enkidu had in fact been custom-built by the gods to be a perfect friend for the king. But after several swashbuckling adventures, poor Enk is divinely liquidated, as indirect punishment for Gil's hubris.
- In the second half, Enkidu's untimely passing has plunged Gilgamesh into an existential depression. Hoping to obtain the secret of immortality and thereby cheat death, the king goes on a long and perilous solo quest to locate the Babylonic "Noah," called Utnapishtim. After telling a very familiar-sounding story of a worldwide deluge, Utnapishtim judges Gilgamesh unqualified for the gift of endless life -- and Gilgamesh can only console himself with the knowledge that the glorious city he founded will survive after he's gone.
Introduces Gilgamesh, king and founder of the great walled city of Uruk. Said to be 1/3 human, 2/3 divine -- his mom, Ninsun, is a minor goddess who fell for a human man, as in Xanadu -- and he possesses superhuman strength and stamina. Between his expensive urban-improvement projects and his insistance on droit de seigneur with every bride in Uruk, he is physically, economically, and sexually exhausting his subjects. The Urukians pray for relief, and the birth-goddess Aruru sculpts the wild-man Enkidu out of earthly clay and divine saliva, to be Gilgamesh's tireless adventure-sidekick and BFF.
TABLETS 2 & 3
Born fully adult, and ignorant of human ways, the "hairy-bodied wild-man" naively believes himself to be some sort of gazelle, and annoys all the hunters by smashing their traps. The hunters complain to King Gilgamesh, who's intrigued by the reports and sends Shamhat (Uruk's most super-deluxe callgirl) to investigate. The temple-harlot's method for civilizing Enkidu is to whip out her irresistible Jugg-R-Nauts™, followed by 7 days and 7 nights of sex -- pausing just long enough to dazzle him with innovative technologies like beer, and meat that's been cooked before you eat it. At this point, she has no trouble at all persuading Enkidu to accompany her back to Uruk, and the Wild Man barges in on the king just as Gilgamesh is about to exercise his royal privileges for the umpteenth time by deflowering someone else's bride. Both guys fly into a rage, leading to a buck-naked, all-night rasslin' match that shakes the city's foundations, and by morning they've decided that they REALLY like each other. [The first vague hint, but not the last, that they might be "more than just friends." -- ed.] Sealing the bromance with hugs and kisses, the king orders that Enkidu be given all the honors due a prince. For their first roadtrip, the dynamic duo plan to slay the demon Huwawa, guardian of the sacred Cedar Forest where no Sumerian dare set foot -- and Lady Ninsun begs her "adopted son" Enkidu to watch over his "brother" Gilgamesh.
TABLETS 4 & 5
The friends set out on a long, perilous journey to find Huwawa, during which Gilgamesh suffers terrifying nightmares that Enkidu, however, explains as good omens. (Gilgamesh: "I dreamt that a monstrous bull attacked us!" Enkidu: "The bull was really the sun-god Shamash in disguise, coming to aid us in our quest.") The demon tries to confuse G&E so they'll attack each other, but thanks to their mutual loyalty -- plus a generous spoonful of deus ex machina from the sympathetic sun-god -- they're able to surprise Huwawa in a weakened state, and kick the snot out of him. The demon pleads for mercy, but they ultimately kill him (grabbing his tongue to pull him inside out!) in apparent fulfillment of the "auspicious" dreams as interpreted by Enkidu. However, Gil pushes his luck a bit by hubristically cutting down the world's tallest cedar -- to be carved into an ostentatious wooden Arc du Triomphe, naturally. [It's not altogether clear why Shamash is so eager to help G&E kill the demon, but possibly he agrees with Gil that the gods are being selfish in not allowing mortal humans to log the cedars. If so, then this episode might mythically explain how the people of unforested SE Iraq got access to the cedars of Lebanon: by defeating a Lebanese king (or tribe) named "Huwawa". --ed.]
The gorgeous-yet-tightly-wound goddess Ishtar falls head over heels in love with blueblooded superstud Gilgamesh, who tells her to get lost. [Yet another vague hint that G&E's male-bonding might NOT be 100% platonic. --ed.] Not only does Gil reject the goddess's overtures, but he does so in gratuitously rude language, and Ishtar complains bitterly that she's been slandered. ("Waaaah, Daddy, you know what the king of Uruk said?! He called me a crazy truckstop-whore who'll put out for anything with a penis!" To which her own father Anu basically responds: "Errmmmm... well, that wasn't very nice of Mr. Gilgamesh, honeybunch -- but technically, you know, it doesn't count as slander unless it's *false*.") Next she pulls a Veruca Salt, demanding that Anu unleash the monstrous Bull Of Heaven to stomp the adobe walls of Uruk into mud-pies: "Daddy, if you don't give me the Bull of Heaven RIGHT THIS INSTANT, I'll let all the zombies out of the Underworld to eat the living." [This is not a joke. -- ed.] Ishtar gets her way, and after hundreds of Urukians perish in the ensuing earthquake, G&E tag-team to kill the Sacred Bull -- piously offering its heart as a burnt sacrifice to their divine patron Shamash. However, in a second act of hubris, Enkidu lobs a slimy chunk of bull-intestines at Ishtar; she ducks, but suffice to say the gesture does NOTHING to improve the poor bint's mood.
By now, Ishtar is frothy with rage, and many of the other gods are distressed by the slaying of the Sacred Bull and the felling of the Tallest Cedar. The god-council generally agrees that either G or E or both must die for the crimes (only Shamash the sun-god defends both of them). Enlil, god of wind and destiny, decrees that it's not yet Gilgamesh's time, so E is made a scapegoat for G's offenses. Most of the tablet describes the agonizing fever that kills Enkidu slowly over 12 days -- during which time G, hovering like an anxious spouse, never leaves the bedside. In his delirium, E at first curses the temple-harlot Shamhat ("If that damn whore hadn't tempted me with her civilized breasts and beer and BBQ'd meat, I wouldn't be dying now!"), but then repents of his anger ("On the other hand, she did introduce me to my best buddy Gil!") and gratefully heaps every possible blessing upon her. As the disease progresses, Enk has terrifying dreams of a faceless lion-man who drags him into the dusty gloom of the Underworld. The tablet ends with the sound of Enkidu's death-rattle, and thus concludes the first half of the plot-arc.
Most of the tablet has been lost. The surviving bits and pieces describe how Gilgamesh "sits shiva", as it were, until a worm falls out of Enkidu's rotting nose on the seventh day. Gil also recites some memorial prayers, and commissions a magnificent jeweled statue to be carved in Enk's honor. [If the Gilgamesh Epic were a movie, the worm in Enkidu's nose could easily demand top-of-the-marquee billing, it gets mentioned so often from here onward. --ed.]
Consumed by grief for Enkidu and fears of his own mortality, Gilgamesh sets off to find Utnapishtim, the Babylonic "Noah.", in hopes of learning/stealing the secret of Eternal Life. [NB: In the Babylonic account of the Flood, "Mr. and Mrs. Noah" had been granted immortality as a reward for a job well done. --ed.] The first stage of the journey is to get past the Twin Scorpion Monsters of Mt. Mashu -- they guard an entrance to the underground passageway through which the sun travels every night, from the west horizon to the east. The scorpion-twins, who are just trying to be helpful, warn Gilgamesh to turn back; but eventually, seeing his superhuman determination, they let him by unmolested. Roughly the entire second half of the tablet describes how long, dark, airless, and sca-a-a-ry the tunnel is. (This trackless "subway" is a dozen leagues in length, or something in the neighborhood of 50-60 km, and Gil's torch won't stay lit. ) Presumably, if Enkidu had been there to crack jokes, the whole thing would've seemed like a delightful larf -- but without his Sidekick, the Hero is knock-kneed with terror.
Having finally groped his way through the horrible tunnel, Gilgamesh stops at a seaside café-slash-microbrewery owned by a veiled matron named Siduri. [NB: In ancient Sumeria, beer-brewing was apparently a matriarchal industry, with the secret recipes passed from mother to daughter. --ed.] In the universal manner of bar-flies throughout history, he rehashes his autobiography ("Blah-dee blah blah, and the next thing I know, I'm watching a worm fall out of my best friend's nose, 'cause he's dead -- and, welp, here I am, lookin' for the key to immortality!"). Siduri very wisely counsels that the best thing to do is have a drink, sing a song, and Cheer The F**k Up, because all men are fated to die sooner or later. But finally she discloses that Utnapashnim lives on a remote island surrounded by a sea whose waters are fatal to the touch; and only the boatman Urshanabi -- who lives on a slightly-less-remote island -- can safely ferry travelers over this "sea of death." Gilgamesh somehow reaches the island home of Urshanabi, who also thinks the king is on a fool's errand, but eventually agrees to take him across the uncrossable waters. First, however, Gil must cut down 120 trees to make 120 rowing-poles, each over 100 feet long! They reach Utnapishtim's island just after the 120th pole breaks.
Finally, Gil meets the old man Utnapishtim, who describes at some length how he survived the ancient Flood, in a narrative whose key details somewhat parallel the Genesis account [for comparison, see Part III, below --ed.]. Utnapishtim next insists on testing Gilgamesh to see if he's worthy of being entrusted with immortality. Although Gil flunks the test almost as soon as it begins, "Mrs Noah" feels sorry for him, and convinces her husband to send the king home with a small consolation prize: the top-secret underwater location of a plant that miraculously restores youth. (The plant doesn't actually make you death-proof, but by eating some leaves every few decades and avoiding fatal accidents, you could live indefinitely.) Tying rocks to his feet, Gil goes deep-diving and successfully plucks a sprig of the magic seaweed, but doesn't eat it immediately -- planning, instead, to share some with all the wise elders of Uruk. Alas, on the trip home, the Herb-Of-Youth is stolen and gobbled up by a hungry serpent, thus mythically explaining why snakes shed their skins. [Cf. Yahweh's curse on the snake in Eden: "From this day forth, you shall crawl on your tummy and bite people's feet" -- ed.] Weeping at the pointlessness of it all, Gilgamesh concludes that he is destined to die eventually, as Enkidu did -- though his majestic city will live after him and his name will be immortalized, THE END.
TABLET 12 (Special Bonus Tablet!!!)
A totally separate "Enkidu Dies and Gilgamesh Mourns" poem that has no plot-continuity at all with the main epic. In this one, Gilgamesh rather negligently drops his most favoritest Drum and Drumstick [huh? --ed.] down a bottomless hole into the Underworld, and Enkidu volunteers to fetch them back. Oddly enough, Gil lets Enk make the trip alone (they're practically Siamese twins in the canonical story), though the king cautions his friend not to engage in various mundane acts while he's down there ("do not wear shoes; do not perfume your hair"), lest he be trapped for all eternity. [Cf. the Greek myth in which Persephone snacks on pomegranate seeds. --ed.] Predictably, Enkidu ignores the warnings -- so he's grabbed by the Underworld, and can't return. Out of pity for Gilgamesh, the god Ea persuades the king and queen of the Underworld to grant Enkidu a few hours of "furlough" so that he can visit his old friend in the world of the living. E reveals to G that the contentment of the dead in the hereafter is in direct proportion to the number of descendants they had: "The man with seven sons sits here as on a throne... But the man with none to mourn him is fed with garbage that dogs won't touch," THE END. [Back to Table of Contents]
Major Human (or Demigod) Characters
- Enkidu -- "hairy-bodied wild man" with no earthly parents; he was created fully adult by the gods to be a Best Friend Forever equal in might to the superhuman Gilgamesh; but killed by a divinely-sent fever about halfway through the story
- Gilgamesh -- Sumerian king, purported founder of the city of Uruk. Said to be 1/3 mortal, 2/3 divine. May have been very loosely based on a historic ruler of the same name who lived circa 2700 BC. In mytho-historic terms, Gilgamesh and his Uruk may represent the appearance of hereditary monarchies in ancient Sumer, as the richest agricultural settlements gradually grew into walled cities (each with its own "kinglet"). Posthumously deified as a benevolent Underworld judge-of-souls.
- Ninsun (aka Lady Rimat-Ninsun) -- mother of Gilgamesh; reportedly a minor goddess, though she lives in the human realm
- Shamhat -- temple-harlot-with-a-heart-of-gold who civilizes Enkidu with her womanly charms, and introduces him to Gilgamesh
- Siduri -- a wise female tavern-keeper who warns Gil to turn back but finally points him towards a ferry-service run by...
- Urshanabi -- aged boatman who warns Gil to turn back but finally takes him across the deadly-poison sea in order to find...
- Utnapishtim -- the Babylonic "Noah"; he and his unnamed wife were granted immortality, and are enjoying their eternal retirement on an island off-limits to regular mortals
- Anu -- god of the sky/heavens; also Ishtar's dad
- Aruru -- goddess of birth; creates Enkidu from clay and her own spit
- Ea -- god of earth and oceans; in the distant past, he had defied the majority will of the god-council by sneaking off to warn "Noah" about the Flood
- Enlil -- god of winds and destiny; seems to function as "tiebreaking president" of the Divine Council
- Ishtar -- goddess of love, sex, beauty, vegetative fertility, and violence; occasionally soft-hearted, but implacably hostile to Gilgamesh after he refuses to sleep with her.
- Shamash -- god of the Sun; the only deity who's totally consistent in sticking up for Gil and Enk
Notable Non-Humanoid Critters
- Bull of Heaven -- sent by Ishtar to destroy Uruk in punishment for Gil's rudeness; but G&E rip out its heart and keep the beautiful lapis-lazuli horns as a trophy
- Huwawa -- demonic protector of the sacred Cedar Forest [Not necessarily evil -- more of a fire-breathing Lorax? --ed.]; slain by G&E in their first big adventure
- Male and Female Twin Scorpion-Beings -- hideous but rational husband/wife monsters living on Mt. Mashu; allow Gil to pass, after trying to discourage him
- Urnu-Snakes and Stone Things -- Taboo creatures (and/or lucky talismans?) desecrated by Gil on the island of Urshanabi, who gripes that "crossing the sea-of-death would've been much easier if hadn't messed around with the Stones and Snakes!!!"
Other Humans Mentioned in Passing
- Etana -- an ancient king, now residing in the Underworld
- Lugalbanda -- deceased human father of Gilgamesh
- Puzuramurri -- a chief workman on Utnapishtim's boat; but apparently (?) not taken aboard
- Tammuz (slain) and Ishullanu (transformed to either a frog or a mole) -- two of Ishtar's many, many ex-boyfriends
- Ubartutu -- late father of Utnapishtim
Other Deities Mentioned in Passing
(NB: Not necessarily "minor gods", but of minor plot importance here)
- Adad -- god of storms/lighting
- (the) Annunaki -- collective name for various divine offspring of Anu
- Antum -- a wife of Anu, and mother of Ishtar
- Belit-Seri -- Underworld scribe; keeps the tablet of scheduled deaths
- Ennugi -- god of canals
- Ereshkigal and Nergal -- queen and king (respectively) of the Underworld
- Erra -- god of plagues
- Innana or Irnini -- aliases of the goddess Ishtar
- Mammetum -- an alias of the goddess Aruru
- Namtar, Ashak, Ninazu -- various "courtiers" of the Underworld king and queen
- Ninurta -- god of war
- Nisaba -- goddess of grain and/or the harvest
- Sin -- god of the Moon
- Sumuqan -- god of cattle
Places Real and/or Mythical
- Apsu -- a subterranean sea ruled by the god Ea
- (the sacred) Cedar Forest -- lair of the guardian demon Huwawa; presumably overlapped with modern Lebanon
- Egalmah -- royal palace compound in Uruk
- Irkalla -- the Babylonic "Hades," underground realm of dead souls
- Mt. Mashu -- legendary double-peaked mountain (mashu means "the twins"); abode of Mr. and Mrs. Twin-Scorpion-Creature; apparently within or bordering the Cedar Forest
- Mt. Nisir -- mountain where the huge boat finally lands; may correspond to a real peak in NE Iraq (i.e., somewhat southward of Turkey's Mt. Ararat)
- Shuruppak -- Utnapishtim's former home city somewhere on the Euphrates; eradicated in the worldwide Flood
- Uruk -- real ancient city near SE end of Euphrates; called "Erech" in the Bible; mythically founded by Gilgamesh
Summary of Gilgamesh's route in Tablets 9 to 11*
*for nostalgic Infocom fans with a compulsion to map everything
- The divine plan is to wipe the land of all life, then start anew (i.e., it's not an eschatological story about the End Of Time, but a "second creation" story)
- Flood covers the entire world (i.e., it's not a localized catastrophe à la Sodom and Gomorrah)
- One man receives a divine message to build a lifeboat (i.e., as opposed to escaping the Flood by climbing up a high mountain)
- More specifically, the plan is to build a REALLY HUGE boat (i.e., as opposed to a really huge fleet of normal-sized boats!)
- The man and his immediate family are the only human beings who go on the boat (in addition to representatives of all land animals that have been taken aboard)
- "Boat" is essentially a cubical crate (built to float, not to sail efficiently); dimensions of the vessel, and the construction materials used, are described at some length -- though the precise details differ in the two accounts
- Not only rain from the sky, but the bursting of huge subterranean reservoirs contribute to the Flood
- Several named species of bird, including a raven and a dove, are sent out from the boat as floodwaters subside
- After the Flood, a beautiful sign in the heavens symbolizes that such a disaster will never recur.
- In the Babylonic version, one city -- prosperous Shuruppak, on the Euphrates -- is specified as bringing down the divine judgment against all mankind (it's as though Yahweh had decided to torch the entire world for Sodom's crimes). Shuruppak's exact offense is never stated; it was a "divinely favored city" that somehow fell from grace. [Possibly Shuruppak is singled out merely because ancient Sumerians regarded it as Capital Of The World, the way some New Yorkers see Manhattan! -- ed.]
- Noah is selected because he's a "righteous man" (when he's not passing out naked and drunk). Utnapishtim is apparently chosen because he's rich enough to foot the bill for the mammoth shipbuilding project, and he happens to live in Shuruppak.
- In the monotheistic version, God decides to flood the world; God decides to warn Noah; and God then promises to never do it again. But the Sumerian deities like to do things by majority vote, instead; and only the likeable god Ea takes it upon himself to warn Utnapishtim on the sly. (Ultimately, Ea isn't punished by the other gods for throwing a wrench in the Plan -- after much argle-bargle, they decide that in hindsight, it was a good idea that someone told Utnapishtim to build the damn boat!)
- Noah tries to warn everyone about the impending Flood, but is ignored. Utnapishtim is explicitly told NOT to warn anyone outside his own household -- instead, he's supposed to give his neighbors a total BS story about how loaves of bread are going to fall from the sky!! [In ancient Akkadian, the words for wheat and suffering were phonetically similar, and likewise the words for bread and darkness. So the weird "cover story" that Ea gives to Utnapishtim is, in fact, a series of morbid puns. --ed.]
- Babylonic account makes no distinction between "clean" and "unclean" species brought onto the boat.
- In the Bible, it's the dove that locates dry land after a raven fails to do so. But according to Utnapishtim, the dove fails, and the raven succeeds! [Folklorically, crows tend to be credited as far brainier than pigeons. But in Kosher dietary law, domesticated doves are "clean" -- while ravens, as carnivorous carrion-eaters, are "unclean." I would GUESS this is why the Babylonian and Hebrew versions disagree as to which bird had the honor of finding land. -- ed.]
- The sign-in-the-sky is not a rainbow, but Ishtar's enormous lapis-lazuli pendant. [NB: Although Ishtar is a destructive megabitch in the main epic, in this story-within-a-story she's much nicer, and weeps for all those who drown! -- ed.]
- Date of Noah's Flood relative to lifespans of later Genesis figures (e.g., Abraham and Lot) can be reckoned based on Biblical geneologies. But Utnapishtim's Flood occurred in an unspecified "Long Long Ago"...
- ...however, Utnapishtim is still around to tell the tale in the 1st-person singular, since he and his wife were made demigods after the Flood
IMHO, their friendship should be understood as blending spiritual love, masculine camaraderie, and erotic passion.
But as with many things, it depends on who you ask.
Clearly, Tablet 1 establishes that both men had prodigious heterosexual appetites; and outside of the Gilgamesh Epic itself, the general lore about this legendary founder of Uruk says that the king had many sons by many wives -- everyone who was anyone wanted to claim descent from this hero of heroes. Then, too, while the hetero bang-a-thon between Enkidu and the temple-harlot Shamhat is related in racy detail ("she showed him her breasts and the secrets between her thighs and he lay down on top of her for seven days and seven nights..."), no sort of homosexual frolics between Gilgamesh and Enkidu are ever actually spelled out in such unambiguous language...
...but on the other hand, hairy-bodied-wild-man Enkidu interrupts Gilgamesh just as the latter is preparing to insert his Tab A into the Slot B of a virginal young bride, yet the two dudes spend all night wrestling, instead. Hmmm! Even more tellingly, Ishtar's sex-goddess seduction powers just seem to bounce off Gilgamesh like bullets off Superman. She's all like, "Fill me with your semen, Gilgamesh, and I'll give you a lapis-lazuli-and-ivory chariot wth solid gold wheels pulled by thunder-steeds; and all the livestock of Uruk shall bear calves and lambs in triplets; and the harvest of your fields and orchards shall be measureless; and the kings and princes of the whole earth shall bow to you...", and he just yawns. I mean, honestly, what red-blooded heterosexual guy could resist a lady who mixes superhuman beauty with that kind of admirably no-nonsense approach to flirtation?? (True, there were those allegations that Ishtar had a habit of turning her boyfriends into small four-legged things when she got tired of playing Sugar Mommy -- but hey, pobody's nerfect!)
...on the third hand, some scholars claim Gilgamesh's dissing of Ishtar has nothing to do with the king suddenly losing interest in the non-hairy-bodied Fair Sex, but rather is a symbolic way of saying that the organized public worship of Ishtar declined under his reign. [Perhaps he slashed state subsidies for Ishtar's temple -- and redirected the funds to the solar-cult of Shamash, instead? --ed.] Or, to put it another way, the king wasn't really flipping the bird at Ishtar herself; he was flipping the bird at Ishtar's priesthood, in some sort of power-play. Certainly, this sort of thing wasn't unheard of in ancient polytheistic societies: gods out-of-favor with a new regime didn't get "banned," but they did suffer budget cuts.
...on the fourth hand, it's worth stressing that IF the guys went gay for each other, Gilgamesh's rejection of heterosexuality with the love-goddess is NOT the "sin" for which poor Enkidu gets zapped. The destruction of the Heavenly Bull and the Tallest Cedar are specifically cited as the grievances, and the only deity who gives a hoot about Ishtar's wounded pride is Ishtar herself.
So who knows? Still, I'd argue that if one takes for granted an implied homosexual relationship between Achilles and Patroklos in the Iliad, then the case for Gilgamesh and Enkidu is, if anything, slightly stronger.
P.S. By the way, however, if G&E were indeed lovers, I would assume that they didn't get into any sort of Rectal Shenanigans, since the king almost immediately acknowledges the wild-man as his peer and equal (even making him a prince). Presumably they would've stayed on second base, so to speak -- i.e., French kisses, heavy-petting, dry-humping -- without penetrating each other. (Ditto for Patroklos and Achilles.)
In many or most societies of the ancient Middle East and Mediterranean*, getting passively cornholed was a Very Special Privilege exclusively reserved for low-caste male slaves, eunuchs, rentboys, foreign POWs... and women. But receptive anal sex was a "pleasure" cruelly denied to respectable freeborn men, who were restricted to the active/insertive role if they hoped to keep their respectability. Even in swingin' Greece, an adult male citizen who voluntarily allowed another man to enter via the back door could be permanently blacklisted from holding public office -- and Aristophanes mocked such guys with the term euryprōktoi, "wide-anus'd"!
In the worldview of ancient readers, then, it would've been culturally unthinkable for Gil & Enk -- as equals and mythic heroes -- to even consider subjecting one another to the masochistic indignity of takin' it in the wazoo. (I'm quite aware that many gay men nowadays defend buggery as Loving And Egalitarian, and some argue that letting a guy up your butt is not intrinsically more submissive or kinky than giving him a nice, easy handjob. But I'd insist that historically speaking, this attitude should be seen as a very recent Western "anomaly.")
* [Indeed, for that time and era, the notorious death-penalty verse in Leviticus 20:13 seems ironically "progressive" in its very harshness, at least insofar as it rejects an unfair double standard for Tops versus Bottoms: "If one male anally penetrates another male in imitation of vaginal intercourse ("as with a woman"), both guys are equally disgraced, and in jeopardy of their lives." --ed.]
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© 2013 by Rob McGee
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