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.