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What could I offer
the queen of love in return, who lacks nothing
Balm for the body? The food and drink of the gods?
I have nothing to give to her who lacks nothing
See Important Quotations Explained
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
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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Epic of Gilgamesh!