In modern Western culture, sexuality is normally viewed as a means to demean and oppress women. In the land of Uruk, this is not the case. The women in the Epic of Gilgamesh maneuver their sexuality in a manner that not only provides themselves with power and intellect, but also uplifts Gilgamesh and Enkidu and grants them the strength they need to endure their journey. Although women such as Shamhat, Ishtar, and Ninsun did not serve as overwhelmingly powerful heroines in this epic, it is undeniable that they had a tremendous influence over those around them. Female sexuality completely shaped the course of this epic.
In the beginning, Gilgamesh had a warped view of femininity. He sexually assaulted the women of Uruk and caused chaos and disorder within the community. The poem states, “Gilgamesh would leave no girl to her mother/ The warrior’s daughter, the young man’s spouse,/ Goddess kept hearing their plaints” (5). He stripped the young woman of their purity and took them from those who they belonged to. However, once the citizens of Uruk revealed Gilgamesh’s actions to Anu, Gilgamesh’s behavior completely turned around along with the course of the story. This shift in attitudes regarding sexuality was the inspiration that Gilgamesh needed to become a respectable and successful leader. This is what led him to become a warrior and embark on his epic journey.
The first female character who had a large influence was Shamhat. Enkidu was extremely uncivilized and grew up in the forest with no concept of humanity. The sole reason as to why Enkidu was able to pursue the journey with Gilgamesh was because of Shamhat’s efforts to civilize him. Anu proclaimed, “When the wild beasts draw near the water hole / Let her strip off her clothing, laying bare her charms. When he sees her, he will approach her / His beasts that grew up with him on the steppe will deny/ him” (8).
Through the text, it is evident that during this time, prostitution was not looked down upon and seen as shameful like it is today. On the contrary, it was seen as a gift. Shamhat’s task was viewed in a heroic light and her sexuality was seen as delightful and attractive. Shamhat taught Enkidu everything he needed to know, from assimilating into society to fulfilling his sexual desires in a healthy way. Without the assistance of Shamhat, it is very possible that Enkidu would have never moved past his life of savagery in the forest. After they had sex for seven days and seven nights, Enkidu was unable to go back to the forest and live among the beasts. This is proof that the knowledge and civility that Shamhat imparted onto Enkidu was vital in the grand scheme of the poem.
Ishtar is another example of a strong minded woman who maintains a healthy relationship with sex. Although Gilgamesh continuously denied her hand in marriage, it can be said that the lack of sexual intercourse combined with Gilgamesh’s newfound relationship with sexuality played an important part in how the journey unfolded. “Come along, Gilgamesh, be you my husband, to me grant your lusciousness / Be you my husband, and I will be your wife” (6). Something can be said about the boldness that is required for a woman to be so forthcoming with a man, nevermind propose to one. Ishtar’s confidence serves as another example of strong and assertive female characters who take pride in their sexuality.
Although Ishtar seemingly took pride in her rampant sexuality, Gilgamesh’s reasons as to why he denied the proposal are undoubtedly rooted in misogyny and double standards. Gilgamesh exclaims, “Which of your lovers did you ever love for ever? What shepherd of yours has pleased you for all time?” (3). Gilgamesh claims that Ishtar has been cruel to ex lovers and is constantly falling in and out of love. He views her as a sexual predator, which is extremely ironic and hypocritical due to his past actions. However, Gilgamesh’s advanced understanding of sexuality at this point is what led him to progress in his journey. He realizes that he does not need sex to civilize him and that he has already found his balance. Without this act of rejection, it is very likely he would not have advanced to the next part of his journey. Ishtar’s fervent advances and outright confidence led Gilgamesh into a deeper understanding of what he needs.
The smaller roles of women in the poem further verify the importance of sexuality and feminine strength. Although women such as Ninsun and Siduri played rather small parts, their sexuality and wisdom was of much importance. Despite Gilgamesh’s past mistreatment of women, he still confides in strong women for advice and guidance throughout the poem. Siduri is introduced as a sexually ripe woman of great power and wisdom. She informs Gilgamesh about the journey he is about to embark on, signifying her knowledge and power. Ninsun, Gilgamesh’s mother, is also portrayed as nurturing and strong. She had deep insight into her son’s personality. Her sexuality was also mentioned, as she wore ‘a robe worthy of her body’ and ‘jewels worthy of her chest’ (3).
In The Epic of Gilgamesh, the women’s deep connection with their sexuality helped them to not only reach their own goals, but to strengthen those around them. They keep their roles as mothers, wives, and rulers while simultaneously identifying with their sexuality and using it to their advantage. Something can be said about the openness and acceptance surrounding femininity and sensuality in the land of Uruk. Allowing women to be open with their sexuality without shame or guilt opens many doors in ways that may be unexpected. Without the help of the strong women in this epic, Gilgamesh and Enkidu would have been unable to embark on their journey.