Written by Natalie Nobile
In ye olden times, we had real women. Women with long flowing hair who were properly grateful to be protected and provided for. These women knew feminine strength was their inherently emotional disposition, which is why they always make such caring mothers—it’s in their nature! Yes, back at the beginning, there were no frivolities like gender politics. Everybody lived as they were born: according to the great Freud, their “anatomy” was their “destiny.”
Or not. Ancient societies were overwhelmingly patriarchal, and women were dehumanized, but women didn’t always just accept that. It may seem so, but readers must account for obfuscating biases. When interpreting female characters in ancient literature, we encounter two problems within the texts themselves. Most of the first translators were men—largely in the 18th to 19th centuries. As a result, the bias of the translators became entangled with the text. Worse, these stories were (usually) products of patriarchal societies, and thus unlikely to record women as they actually were—you know, with thoughts and stuff. But it’s illogical to assume that because women were represented by male writers and historians as without agency, this was true. In fact, fragmented portrayals of women who went against their society pepper the peripherals in one of the earliest written works: The Epic of Gilgamesh.
“Madwoman!” you cry. “The whole heart of this story is King Gilgamesh’s quest to understand his bestie Enkidu’s death, and his ultimate acceptance of civilization’s value! There aren’t any proto-feminists here; get back in the attic!” NAY. In this bromance, rebellious women have simply been covered by patriarchal indignation. Most women in Gilgamesh act like one of three reductive stereotypes: Maiden, Mistress, Mother. A young virgin, the Maiden represents ideals of female purity. The traffic of women as ‘gifts’ between men (like fathers ‘giving away’ the bride), demands that the gift hasn’t been ‘unwrapped.’ The Maiden is unused material, ready to be used. Physical use is where the Mistress comes in. An eroticized depiction of womanhood focusing on the use of female bodies for male pleasure, the Mistress does not freely express her sexuality, but is instead a fantasy of female sexual abilities. Not to get Oedipal or anything, but in this sense the Mistress stereotype is oddly similar to the Mother. The Mother is not a realistic depiction of motherhood, but a Madonna-fied ideal; her every thought and action are compelled by ‘motherly emotions’ for her children. Who she was before motherhood doesn’t matter: she belongs to her offspring. This trinity represents patriarchal constructs of how women should behave. But do any of the women in Gilgamesh burst free from these stifling confines? Spoilers: yeah.
Try as we might, a good maiden is hard to find—perhaps because the story hyper-focuses on Gilgamesh and Enkidu’s bromance. Whatever the cause, the few maidens we encounter are unnamed, present in the story only by mentions of their sexual use. Gilgamesh exercises the right of prima noctum: “By divine decree pronounced, / From the cutting of his umbilical cord, she is his due.” From his birth, Gilgamesh has the right to use female bodies as he wills. Gilgamesh’s wild “rampages,” in which he “leaves no girl to her mother,” imply another explanation for Uruk’s lack of maidens: he has seduced or raped them all. The role of the Maiden lives entirely in her ability to become a sexualized mistress, and then, presumably, a childbearing mother—overwriting the identity of her youth. The Maiden’s character depends on her nascent sexuality, which is all possibility and neither controlled nor acted upon by her.
Maiden, Mistress, and Mother, though stifled by society, are nevertheless put on a pedestal by it.
The Mistress in Gilgamesh appears as Shamhat, often euphemistically translated as a ‘dancing girl.’ In reality Shamhat is a sacred priestess of Ishtar (a culturally venerated form of sex work) who “lay[s] bare her charms” to seduce Enkidu into civilized society. But Shamhat has no personal motivation, only doing “women’s work”—here, pleasuring men with sex—because she is commanded to by her tyrannical, rapist king, Gilgamesh. Though Shamhat is “not bashful,” there’s no sign she would choose this gig of her own accord. Indeed, she is denied not only voice and choice, but also recognition as human. When Enkidu “yearn[s] for … a friend,” only Shamhat’s tales of “Gilgamesh” make “her words [find] favor” with Enkidu. Shamhat, the woman he’s had sex with for “six days, seven nights,” cannot provide him human friendship. She’s described as “like a guardian deity,” teaching him the ways of civilization, but this compliment rings hollow. Gilgamesh never mentions paying Shamhat for her week of work, which belittles her labor. She exists as a portal (yes, her character is basically a vagina) to facilitate Enkidu’s journey rather than truly participate in it. Shamhat represents not a female sex worker, but rather a fantasy of one who works for free. After all, objects don’t need money for labor.
Ninsun, Gilgamesh’s mother and exemplary of the Mother, provides the consoling voice of wisdom in this tale. But rather than wise matriarch, she’s basically a Magic 8-Ball for Gilgamesh to shake answers out of. Ninsun, “knowing and wise, who understands everything,” interprets her son’s dreams without a stray word, speaking only when spoken to. Later she shows more personality, even asking the sun god, “Why did you endow my son … with a restless heart?” Questioning a god? Promising! And yet, the only reason Ninsun asks this question is her emotional upheaval over Gilgamesh’s safety. Since Gilgamesh passes through his danger with flying colors, Ninsun’s worry is framed as foolish – a woman who just can’t understand that a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. Ninsun acts more powerfully when she takes Enkidu “as [her] adopted son,” accepting him into the family of Gilgamesh. If we examine this action, however, accepting another son simply fulfills her role as an idealized mother; it’s power only in the domestic sphere. Her adoption of Enkidu mirrors his previous initiation by Shamhat. Shamhat shows Enkidu the physical pleasure a woman can provide; Ninsun shows him the familial comfort a woman can provide. The other Mother figure, Aruru the birth goddess who “created the boundless human race,” is “summoned” and “commanded” to create. Instead of acknowledging her power, the epic treats her like a vending machine that takes orders and spits out humans. In Gilgamesh, the Mother is less of a character and more of a fecund field for men to sow their seeds in and take comfort.
Ishtar stands in stark contrast next to soft, caring Ninsun. Sexual as she is, Ishtar may appear to be a mistress, but who can control her? She commands men, telling Gilgamesh, “you shall be my bridegroom.” Rather than waiting for him to speak, or offering herself, she tells him what she wants. Ishtar acts in ugly ways, throwing male lovers aside as if they were the mistresses. Gilgamesh responds to her advances with a litany of insults; Ishtar’s father, Anu, justifies the jibes, saying Ishtar “provoke[d] the king.” She, however, has no respect for the society that sanctions such abuse, and simply wants to take revenge against Gilgamesh by setting a beast on him. She coerces Anu, saying that “if you don’t give me the Bull of heaven, / I’ll strike [Uruk] to its foundation.” Anu complies.
Ishtar threatens Uruk, a demigod’s city, and gets away with it! Ishtar is uncontrollable because she is powerful, in the most basic sense. Though Ishtar is depicted as speaking like “a low-class streetwalker,” in her ‘trashy’ behavior she is free. Ishtar is a caricature of a sexual woman, greedy and forward—but her derogatory characterization is a double-edged sword. Though it is intended to make light of her, her wicked ways lead to liberty: Ishtar experiences a degree of freedom enjoyed by no other woman in her society. Nobody expects wisdom, or purity, or service from Ishtar’s conduct; they expect ugliness and faithlessness, lust and callousness, pure wicked glee. In her rejection of social norms, Ishtar becomes an exception to the norm, free from submission to men. Her behavior is tolerated, but not wanted; she is desirable sexually, but not romantically; from the pantheon of heroes, she is an outcast, a maligned goddess. Still she, a woman, drives events which lead to the death of Enkidu and Gilgamesh’s quest for immortality. After Enkidu’s death, Gilgamesh makes sacrifices to “Ishtar, the great queen,” asking her to accept his offerings, “welcome [Enkidu,] and walk at his side.” In the end, he too must bow to her power.
But let’s wait on the girl power party hats. Ishtar breaks the rules of society, yet the writer who inscribed this epic wrote her dialogue as ‘trashy.’ Assuming the authorial intent of a scribe who died over 3000 years ago and whose writing remains only in literal bits and pieces, is thin ice. Nevertheless, it’s within reason to assume that this scribe did not intend Ishtar’s disregard for social norms to be a laudable quality, but rather a laughable one. Ishtar is an antagonist, and though she wreaks havoc within society, she’s still subject to it. Were she free to exercise all her power and authority, she wouldn’t have to ask for the Bull of Heaven: it would just be her bull. What if Ishtar did fully rebel? Are there any women in Gilgamesh who don’t bow to men, even if only to manipulate them?
I’m so glad you asked. Allow me to present the Tavern Keeper at the End of the World, Siduri. In all likelihood, Siduri was a cult iteration of Ishtar (see Abusch). So the ‘tavern keeper’ is an Ishtar that has taken her rejection of social norms one step further: she lives outside society entirely. In an epic that often evokes the loneliness of the wild, Gilgamesh’s arrival annoys her. When he approaches, she “bar[s] her door.” Gilgamesh threatens to “shatter [her] doorbolt,” but she responds by questioning his identity, asking why his “cheeks are emaciated” and why he is “clad in a lion skin, roaming the steppe.” The attributes she notes imply doubt not only of his proud name and honesty, but also of his strength. She tells him he “shall not find” immortality, and that he should return to civilization and have a family, for that “is the work of mankind.” Unbidden, she explains her opinion of his life’s meaning. She discourages his quest, since at “the waters of death, what will [he] do?” Siduri doesn’t believe in him. At most, she gives him directions, in which she embeds a direction to give up. She does not actively work against Gilgamesh, but she doesn’t need to—his power means nothing to her. Thus the socially unacceptable woman, like Ishtar, casts off the bonds of society by becoming lone Siduri. By not aiding Gilgamesh, she occupies a grey space in the morality of this epic. Siduri’s appearance is too brief to divine much from, but her very existence destabilizes the text’s gender roles.
Ironically, if Ishtar and Siduri were judged by male standards, they’d be heroes rather than obstacles to overcome. In her rowdy sexuality and violent power, Ishtar is much like Gilgamesh; in her distance from civilization and cautious attitude, Siduri is like Enkidu. They both escape the repressive sex-gender system of their society by being outcast from it, but in context with the epic’s main themes—the value of human companionship and society—this is a drastic punishment. Maiden, Mistress, and Mother, though stifled by society, are nevertheless put on a pedestal by it. For our two outcasts, however, it appears the benefits outweigh the loss. When a story’s society no longer expects someone like Ishtar to do what is required, acceptable, or pleasing, the outcast woman attains freedom greater than her female peers. In the reader’s mind, the ancient woman and her expected roles of Maiden, Mistress, and Mother part ways. Like Siduri, she can forge a new path to heroism as a lone voice in the wilderness, her words unbound by man-made law.