The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the most famous epic stories from ancient times. Benjamin Foster is right that the Gilgamesh Epic “offers a splendor of language, imagery, themes, and ideas to the modern reader.”1 This epic story has been translated into many different modern languages, and as well as into a cartoon movie, a children’s storybook, etc.2 Many scholarly books, articles, and essays have been dedicated to investigate, examine, and interpret its meaning.3 This said, this paper is written to examine particularly the relationship between two main characters of the narrative, namely Gilgamesh and Enkidu. A brief survey of scholarship concerning these two characters will be explored in the first part of the paper in order to locate this project in a larger context of scholarship. I will further propose a reading strategy from a postcolonial literary theory. My intention is to see the possibility of using the “civilizing mission” concept to understand the power relation between Gilgamesh and Enkidu. The aim of this paper is to show that Gilgamesh, who has succeeded in ‘civilizing’ and subjecting Enkidu under his influence, turns out ironically to be powerless in the absence of this ‘civilized beast,’ Enkidu. This irony of Gilgamesh reflects the irony of colonial empire that is fully dependent on their colony.
The publication of Thorkild Jacobsen’s article “How Did Gilgamesh Oppress Uruk” in 1930 has triggered a lot of subsequent discussions concerning the nature of the relationship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu. Jacobsen basically argues throughout this article that the way Gilgamesh oppresses Uruk, especially in tablet I, is not through labor force, but rather sexual assault. The explanation of this oppression is analyzed through comparing Uruk’s oppression with the relationship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu. Jacobsen gives special attention to Gilgamesh’s dream of the coming of an axe, and his mother interpretation of the dream. Jacobsen comes to the conclusion that, “The meaning of the dream, however, is clear from its content. Gilgamesh sees an axe with which he cohabits as with a woman; as the axe is equivalent to Engidu, the dream cannot mean anything but that homosexual intercourse is going to take place between Gilgamesh and the newcomer.”4 Because Enkidu is created to be a sexual contender to Gilgamesh, Jacobsen argues that the absence of Enkidu is sexually disastrous to the people in Uruk.5
After the publication of this article, scholars are divided in responding to Jacobsen’s proposal. Scholars, who reject a homosexual theory, usually argue that the sexual overtone of this relationship is not strong enough to support this conclusion. Benjamin Foster, for example, argues that Gilgamesh and Enkidu are friends, but there is “no sexual basis at all.”6 Jeffrey Tigay, similarly, does not think that “friends’ grasping each other’s hands and sleeping together has homosexual overtone.”7 For him, men in Middle East even today still hold hand in public without any homosexual implication. Even though Jacobsen himself probably has changed his mind, many scholars today still hold to the idea that Gilgamesh and Enkidu are involved in a homoerotic relationship. Jerrold S. Cooper points out that the verb râmu8 (GE, I.291f) does not have to denote sexual love, but the verb hababu “when used for human activity always denotes sexual intercourse.”9 Anne Draffkorn Kilmer similarly argues that the word play hassinnu:assinnu and kisru:kezru are strong indications that the relationship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu has a sexual overtone.10 So, according to Rivkah Harris, the relationship between these two male characters “is not simply that of male and female but that of husband and wife.”11 In addition, Susan Ackerman argues that Gilgamesh’s rejection of Isthar indicates that his relationship with Enkidu, whom he loves like a wife (tablet I), should be understood as “an intimate and exclusive sexual relationship.”12 This list of scholars can go longer. The point that I am trying to show here is the discussion concerning the relationship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu has been centered on sexuality and friendship.
In this paper I am proposing the idea of “civilizing mission” as a lens to see the relationship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu in political terms. In postcolonial studies, the concept of “civilizing mission” has become crucial in understanding the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized. Civilizing mission is basically a colonial project to bring the colonial civilization to the uncivilized world. Maria Lugones, an Argentinian literary scholar, explains that the distinction between men and women has become the sort of ‘mark of civilization’. She explains13:
With colonial modernity, beginning with the colonization of Americas and Caribbean, the modern hierarchical dichotomous distinction between men and women became known as characteristically human and a mark of civilization. Indigenous peoples of the Americas and enslaved Africans were understood as not human, as animals, as monstrously and aberrantly sexual, wild… The bourgeois white Europeans are civilized; they are fully human… But to the extent that the civilizing mission and conversion to Christianity has been always present in the ideological conception of conquest and colonization… the Priests and the church overtly presented their mission as transforming the colonized animals into human beings through conversion.
As Logones has pointed out above, uncivilized groups of people are seen as animals or beasts. Therefore, the civilizing mission becomes necessary in order to change these people. The idea of civilizing mission is not only a past reality of European colonialism, but also a present phenomenon. Civilizing mission is still alive and well today. Carey A. Watt argues that “the Anglo-American invasion and occupation of Iraq has encouraged a renewed, twenty-first century consideration of civilizing mission… Self-proclaimed civilized peoples in the states such as Britain and America declared that they needed to be protected while the people of Iraq and neighboring states needed to be liberated from a dictatorial and dangerously uncivilized regime.”14 Behind the civilizing mission, there is always a colonial project. Or to put it differently, civilizing mission is “the justification and legitimization of colonial rule.”15 It is the part of the process of creating a colonial subject. This said, I am going to analyze the story of Gilgamesh and Enkidu through the lens of the political interaction between the colonizer and the colonized.
The character of Gilgamesh is described in the epic as a civilized person especially when compared with Enkidu. The narrator of the epic describes him as being “wise in all things,” “full of understanding,”16 He is a strong man who has undergone many hardships.17 The praise of Gilgamesh continues18:
Surpassing all kings, for his stature renowned
Heroic offspring of Uruk, a charging wild bull,
He leads the way in the vanguard
He marches at the rear, defender of his comrades.
Mighty foodwall, protector of his troops,
Furious flood-wave smashing walls of stone,
Wild calf of Lugalbanda, Gilgamesh is perfect in strength.
… Who could be his like for kingly virtue?
And who, like Gilgamesh, can proclaim “I am king!”
Gilgamesh was singled out from the day of his birth
Two-thirds of him was divine, one-third of him was human!
The Lady of Birth drew his body’s image,
The God of Wisdom brought his stature to perfection.
What is this saying? Gilgamesh’s perfection or goodness goes beyond a normal human being to the extent that his humanity is only one-third. Moreover, the way Shamhat introduces Gilgamesh to Enkidu is also reflecting this glorious depiction: “Oh, let me show you Gilgamesh, the joy-woe man. Look at him, gaze upon his face. He is radiant with virility, manly vigor is his. The whole of his body is seductively gorgeous.”19
However, this is not the only information in the Epic about Gilgamesh. The positive description is only one side of the coin. On the other side, Gilgamesh is depicted as a frightful oppressor as well. Yes, he has so much power, but he also abuses it.20
In the enclosure of Uruk he strode back and forth,
Lording it like a wild bull, his head thrust high.
The onslaught of his weapons had no equal.
His teammates stood forth by his game stick,
He was harrying the young men of Uruk beyond reason
Gilgamesh would leave no son to his father,
Day and night he would rampage fiercely
Gilgamesh would leave no girl to her [mother]
The warrior’s daughter, the young men’s spouse.
The nature of the oppression of Uruk has long been debated among scholars. Tigay says that it is “one of the most elusive problems of the epic.”21 There are three common proposals to understand the nature of oppression of Uruk: sexual, corvée labor, and athletic contests.22 Just as have discussed above, since the publication of Jacobsen’s article in 1930, scholars are divided as to whether the nature of the oppression is sexual or not. With regards to the corvée labor, Tigay rejects this proposal because he thinks that the relationship between the building of Uruk’s walls and the oppression cannot be establish.23 While agreeing with Tigay, Jacob Kley comments further that “The sweeping statement… that ‘Gilgamesh does not release the young maiden to her mother/suppose’ etc., can only refer to a mass and continuous activity, such as domestic labor, which Gilgamesh imposed on the young women (just as on the young men).”24 Moreover, there are some indicators in the text that the oppression is related to a sort of athletic game. Scholars are debating these issues. However, the point still stands in the text that Gilgamesh is an oppressor, and he has misused or abused his power. Gilgamesh’s oppressive behavior pushes the people of Uruk to bring a complaint to Anu. As the result, Anu asks Aruru to create “a partner for Gilgamesh,” namely Enkidu, who is “mighty in strength,” 25 so that “Uruk may have peace.”
PhD Candidate in New Testament and Early Christianity, Vanderbilt University
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Categories: (H) Article
Enkidu is civilized through his encounter with Shamhat, a prostitute. As opposed to our own society, what does this say about views toward sexuality and femininity in ancient Mesopotamia?
Rather than being seen as a negative attribute, Shamhat's sexuality and its ties to the temple cement her importance in Mesopotamian society. She is a means to tame Enkidu as opposed to a means for him to behave like an animal. Throughout the poem, the role of women is unavoidable and important. Although Enkidu and Gilgamesh insult Ishtar, Gilgamesh specifically points out her temple to Urshanabi.
Compare and contrast the role of the serpent and the flood in the Bible and the Epic of Gilgamesh. What similarities and differences can be found?
In both books the serpent is presented negatively; a force that deprives humanity of some pleasure or immortality. In the Bible, the serpent is a deliberate force of temptation, and Adam and Eve are cast out as sinners. It is clearly depicted as an evil presence. In Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh’s own carelessness deprives him of immortality. In his case, the role of the serpent is necessary for him to move past his feelings toward life and death and become a better king, making this serpent less of a villain and more a catalyst for change.
The flood stories in both texts are very similar, and some scholars believe that they refer to a singular event. However, there are differences between the accounts.
What does Gilgamesh's and Enkidu's constant struggle and defiance of the gods tell us about how the gods were viewed in Gilgamesh's time? Are the consequences that both characters face worth the risk each takes?
The gods as depicted in Gilgamesh's story, as well as Utnapishtim's, are presented as being easily angered and vengeful. Part of Gilgamesh's heroic pedigree is inherent in being two-thirds a god himself, but his acts of defiance also speak to a possibly resentful view of the gods among ancient Mesopotamians. The gods are depicted as being difficult to please, sometimes punishing without explanation or meting out punishments that seem far out of proportion to the original offense, as in Utnapishtim's story. Both characters take on large risks by insulting Ishtar, but Gilgamesh is able to face his own mortality and Enkidu is able to learn of the world of humans and of the value of life. Both also come to understand the importance of friendship in life.
What does Humbaba/Huwawa represent? Use examples from the story to support your position.
Humbaba represents fear and the unknown. Both Enkidu and Gilgamesh experience great fear in the cedar forest when they are about to face Humbaba. They support one another with encouraging words when the other is frightened. One can also argue that Humbaba represents nature itself. As guardian of the Cedar Forest, he has a duty to protect it from harm. Gilgamesh and Enkidu together represent civilization. They seek to tame the natural world for their own purposes.
At various points in the story, dreams foretell events to come. What do these passages reveal about how dreams were valued in Mesopotamian culture? What do they tell us about the dreamer's state of mind?
It is obvious from the text that dreams were regarded as important markers that should be interpreted. It seems fair to say that the ancient Mesopotamians lent a good deal of credibility to them in their day-to-day lives. As Gilgamesh dreams of the meteor and the axe in anticipation of his meeting with Enkidu, he turns to his mother for an interpretation of his dreams. While she informs him of the imminent arrival of Enkidu, it could also be that Gilgamesh is lonely and looking for a companion. Enkidu dreams of the gods deciding his death and of what the underworld will be like. His state of mind is one of absolute fear of his defiance of the gods.
Although Gilgamesh faces his own mortality upon Enkidu's death, he also must now face a life without his friend. Why is this also of importance? What does it teach Gilgamesh about life and the spirit of endurance?
Beyond teaching Gilgamesh that his own life must end, Enkidu's death also forces Gilgamesh to continue living the life he still has left. He is initially so distraught over Enkidu's death that he more or less abandons his kingly duties. Utnapishtim teaches him that life must end, but Gilgamesh also must return to Uruk with the full understanding that his own life must continue if it is to have meaning.
What is the significance of the darkness that Gilgamesh encounters in the passage beneath Mount Mashu on his way to seek Utnapishtim?
The text repeatedly mentions how Gilgamesh is alone at this point in the story. With nothing else visible around him, Gilgamesh is truly on his own on this quest. He is also completely lost, without obvious direction, fumbling in the dark. This metaphor reiterates Gilgamesh's struggle with the loss of Enkidu. He is suddenly finding himself unsure of how to proceed in life.
Repetition is a frequent technique the author(s) used in the Epic of Gilgamesh, as is the theme of duality. Enkidu and Gilgamesh are near mirrors of each other, for example. They undertake two quests: one against Humbaba, the other against the Bull of Heaven. Discuss other examples of duality and repetition in the story. Why does the epic contain these elements?
Repetition reinforces themes present in the story, or attributes of a character. Sometimes repetition can also draw contrasts between different events or characters. Besides reinforcing elements in the story, repetition also suggests that these stories may have had a strong oral tradition and were largely passed down in this manner before being committed to these tablets.
Duality also draws comparisons between characters and again reinforces one of the themes of the story: companionship. Enkidu and Gilgamesh are near mirrors of each other. Gilgamesh and Utnapishtim also share some characteristics, not in appearance, but in the knowledge that they both have gained. Enkidu and Gilgamesh embark on two quests. Gilgamesh's journey to the underworld mirrors his quest with Enkidu.
The story begins and ends with a description of the city of Uruk and its walls and other features? What does this signify?
For Gilgamesh it signals reconciliation with the finite nature of life. He is able to return to where he began and see it, almost with new eyes, and a new appreciation. He accepts his place. It also brings the story full-circle, perhaps an aesthetic choice to mirror the cyclical nature of life.
Comment on Gilgamesh and Enkidu's relationship. Is their love of a sexual nature or a more platonic one? The text describes them as being very close. Why do you think that is?
Although there is language in the text suggestive of a relationship beyond friendship between the two, there is no direct evidence of a sexual relationship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu. At the same time, Gilgamesh declares a love for Enkidu greater than that for any woman. However, Gilgamesh's sexual appetite for women is established early on in the text, where it is written that he sleeps with newly married brides before their husbands do. It is more likely that as the gods created Enkidu to be a counterweight to Gilgamesh, the characters are able to find in each other an understanding that no one else can provide. Only they are able to comprehend what it is like to be the other.