The Epic of Gilgamesh
What could I offer
the queen of love in return, who lacks nothing at all?
Balm for the body? The food and drink of the gods?
I have nothing to give to her who lacks nothing at all.
When Gilgamesh returns to Uruk, he washes the filth of battle from his hair and body. He dons a clean robe and cloak, wipes Humbaba’s blood off his weapons and polishes them. When he ties his hair back and sets his crown on his head, he looks so splendid that Ishtar, the goddess of love and war, is overcome with lust. She pleads with Gilgamesh to be her husband. She promises him a harvest of riches if he plants his seed in her body. She tells him they will live together in a house made of cedar, and that she will give him a lapis lazuli chariot with golden wheels. She says that kings and princes will offer him all their wealth. But Gilgamesh refuses to be her plaything. He has nothing to offer her in return, since, as a goddess, she has everything she could ever want. He says that her desire for his body is fleeting, and that she’ll soon lose interest. He tells her he knows what happened to her other human lovers, and they’ve all learned how traitorous and cruel her heart and whims are. Her husband, Tammuz, the shepherd, became a captive in the underworld and is mourned in festivals every year. Another shepherd she loved became a broken-winged bird. She loved the lion, then ensured that he was captured in “ambush pits.” She loved the stallion but contrived harnesses and whips and spurs to control him. When a goat herder loved her, she turned him into a wolf. When her father’s gardener rejected her advances, she turned him into a frog. Gilgamesh asks why he should expect to fare any better.
Ishtar is furious. She goes to her father, Anu, the god of the firmament, and to her mother, Antum, and demands that they let her use the Bull of Heaven. She wants to turn the bull loose so she can watch him gore Gilgamesh to death. Her father does not understand her anger, since all that Gilgamesh said was true. Ishtar erupts into a full-blown tantrum. She threatens to let all of the dead people out of the underworld so they can feast on the living, unless her parents give her the bull. Still Anu hesitates. He warns her that the bull will cause seven years of famine. Ishtar assures him that she has made provisions for the people and the flocks of Uruk, and he gives in.
Ishtar unleashes the bull. The city of Uruk trembles as, bellowing and snorting, it comes down from the sky. A crack opens up in the earth, and one hundred men fall into it and die. Again the bull bellows and again the ground cracks open. One hundred more men are swallowed up. The third time this happens, Enkidu attacks the bull. The bull spits on him and fouls him with its excrement, but Enkidu grabs it by its horns and wrestles with it. He calls out to Gilgamesh, who joins him, and they fight the bull together. At last Enkidu seizes its filthy tail and holds the monster still so that Gilgamesh can thrust his sword between its shoulders and kill it. Then they cut out its heart and offer it as a sacrifice to Shamash the sun god.
Ishtar climbs onto the walls of the city and shouts curses at the two friends. Enkidu picks up one of the bull’s bloody haunches and hurls it at her. He shouts that if she comes closer, he’ll do the same to her. While Ishtar and her followers, the temple prostitutes, mourn the bull, Gilgamesh gathers his craftsmen together and shows them how beautifully the gods had made the creature, how thickly its horns were coated with lapis lazuli. Gilgamesh cuts them off its head and fills them with oil, which he offers in sacrifice to his father, Lugulbanda. Then he hangs them on the wall of his palace as trophies. Gilgamesh and Enkidu scrub the bull’s gore off their bodies in the Euphrates and ride in triumph through the streets of Uruk, basking in the people’s admiration. Gilgamesh boastingly asks the crowds who the best hero is and answers his own question: “Gilgamesh is. Enkidu is.” That night, Enkidu awakens suddenly from a dream and asks Gilgamesh why the great gods are meeting in council.
This tablet reveals a great deal about the mythological background of Gilgamesh, particularly the importance of Ishtar, the goddess of fertility, and the stories about her mortal lovers. In response to Ishtar’s advances, Gilgamesh catalogs the human lovers who, at Ishtar’s hands, became animals—a shepherd changed into a broken-winged bird, a goat herder into a wolf, a gardener into a frog. One of these lovers is the god of vegetation and flocks, Tammuz, an extremely important deity in Mesopotamia. Tammuz is born a mortal shepherd and does not become a god until Ishtar becomes his lover. At one point he dies and goes to the underworld. Reasons for his death vary, but Ishtar is at fault in most traditions. Tammuz is resurrected, and annual festivals celebrate this resurrection with the greenery’s springtime return.
The story about the goddess of fertility and her mortal lover who dies for her and is resurrected is universal, appearing in mythologies and religions of many prehistoric cultures. The goddess and her lover take on different names in different cultures, but the blueprint of the story remains the same. The Greek myth of Aphrodite and Adonis, which Ovid retells in the Metamorphoses and Shakespeare retells in Venus and Adonis, represents a late version of the same story. Some anthropologists would even identify Jesus as an embodiment of the same mythical archetype manifested by Tammuz and Adonis, because Jesus, like Adonis, is a young male god who dies and is resurrected.
However, while Gilgamesh draws on and discusses these myths, it is not itself a myth, but a work of literature. In other words, though Gilgamesh describes the stories central to Mesopotamian mythology, such as those of Ishtar and Tammuz, it reflects upon them and changes them in significant ways. The poem handles mythological materials in such a way as to define and portray Gilgamesh’s character and his state of mind at this point in the story, as opposed to simply trying to preserve and pass on those myths. Gilgamesh has the chance to follow the pattern set by Tammuz and to be the goddess’s lover, but he refuses. In a way, he is refusing his own mythology, standing apart from it. The literary style and tone of this tablet are playfully allusive, witty, vulgar, and blasphemous, reminding readers that this epic is literary rather than sacred.
The portrayal of Ishtar in this tablet is so relentlessly negative that some scholars have speculated that it reflects a deeper agenda. Gilgamesh’s repudiation of Ishtar, they say, signifies a rejection of goddess worship in favor of patriarchy in the ancient world. From a literary standpoint, however, the most notable aspect of this tablet is Gilgamesh and Enkidu’s astonishing presumption. Ishtar is an important goddess in Uruk—her temple is at the center of the city, and her rites secure its safety and prosperity. Uruk’s king, in the role of high priest, ritually reenacts Ishtar and Tammuz’s lovemaking. When Gilgamesh spurns the goddess, he rejects one of his royal duties. Gilgamesh’s love for a companion of his own gender, whether chaste or unchaste, might also have offended the goddess of fertility.
Gilgamesh uses clever language in his dismissal of Ishtar, but no matter how witty he is, addressing a goddess in this manner is unimaginably disrespectful. Enkidu’s behavior, such as throwing the bull’s haunch at the goddess and threatening to slaughter her, is crude and childish. Gilgamesh and Enkidu seem to have forgotten that they are mortals. They have gone too far. When they killed Humbaba and harvested the cedar trees that were under his protection, they defied the god Enlil. Now they are treating the goddess Ishtar like a cast-off mistress. Gilgamesh presents the bull to his craftsmen as though he wants them to fabricate something comparable. Giddy from their victory over Humbaba, exhilarated from their successful combat with the bull, they are drunk with pride. The tone of the poetry reflects their prideful feelings, suggesting that the writer enjoys his wicked subject matter. Though Gilgamesh and Enkidu continue to pay elaborate respects to Lugulbanda and Shamash, their boasting to the citizens of Uruk as they parade through the city threatens to be the last straw for the already angry divinities.
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