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Is the relationship between Enkidu and Gilgamesh homoerotic, and, if so, is this an important element of the story?
Throughout the epic, descriptions and language of Gilgamesh and Enkidu’s relationship suggest that the love between them is more than platonic, but evidence does not exist to say with any certainty that their relationship is sexual. For example, Gilgamesh and Enkidu love each other like man and wife, which seems to imply a sexual relationship. They kiss and embrace frequently, and in several scenes they cuddle together against the elements when they are on their quest to the Cedar Forest. What Gilgamesh does not do plays a role in defining the relationship as well. After Enkidu blocks the door of the bride chamber, we never hear about Gilgamesh sleeping with a woman, and he even finds a reason to reject Ishtar. These bits of evidence, however, do not add up to a definite conclusion. Much of the language the poet uses to describe Gilgamesh and Enkidu’s relationship may actually be metaphorical, so loving Enkidu “like a bride” might not mean what we suspect it does. Also, we do not know with any certainty what sort of sexual relationships were acceptable among Mesopotamian nobility, rendering the relationship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu even murkier.
No matter what kind of relationship Gilgamesh and Enkidu have, women still play an important role in the epic’s action and themes. For example, a female prostitute tames Enkidu, and Ishtar promises Gilgamesh the world in exchange for his love. When Gilgamesh refuses Ishtar’s advances, he unwittingly dooms Enkidu to death. The love between him and Enkidu is tragic, while the love represented by Ishtar and the temple prostitutes is inevitable. Gilgamesh and Enkidu must submit to the female life force. Nearly every encounter the friends have with women is charged with tension in some way—the feminine is undeniably important.
Compare and contrast the role of the serpent in the Bible and in Gilgamesh.
Serpents play vital but vastly different roles in Gilgamesh and the Bible. In Gilgamesh, the serpent is ultimately a source of good. After a long and perilous quest, Gilgamesh secures an herb that will, if not make him immortal, restore his youth. He hasn’t yet used it when the snake steals it. Some interpreters suggest that he wanted to “test” the herb on the elders of Uruk first, while others, giving him the benefit of the doubt, say that he was being a good king by wanting to share it with his subjects before enjoying it himself. Though the snake robs Gilgamesh and his people of their chance to enjoy eternal youth, its action also convinces Gilgamesh to end his quest and restores Gilgamesh’s sanity. In this way, the snake is his benefactor. The gift that Gilgamesh carries back to Uruk now is himself. No longer obsessed with self-preservation, he will live in the here and now, focusing his energies on the betterment of his kingdom.
In the Bible, the serpent is evil and brings about consequences that aren’t so positive. It tempts Adam and Eve into disobedience by convincing them to aspire to something that belongs only to God—knowledge. When humans aspire to know things or the deeper meanings of things, the parable suggests, they are overreaching, usurping a divine prerogative. As punishment, God casts Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden and brands them as sinners. The serpent killed their innocence, so the serpent in a sense brought both death and knowledge into the world. The here and now that Adam and Eve must endure will be shadowed forever by their sin.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Epic of Gilgamesh!