Gilgamesh, Eden, and Political Sex Ethics

Peter Leithart, Touchstone Magazine (March/April 2012, page 7):

When the people of ancient Uruk complained about Gilgamesh’s oppression, the gods fashioned Enkidu, a wild man every whit equal to Gilgamesh. First rivals, then allies, the two heroes embark on a series of adventures and battles.

Goddesses appear in the epic of Gilgamesh, and Enkidu is civilized by a sexual encounter with a prostitute. Having fulfilled her function, she disappears from the story, and women elsewhere play minor roles as willing or unwilling sexual partners. Gilgamesh’s companion-in-arms has to be male because, for ancient Mesopotamians, ruling the world is a man’s work.

The Bible presents a radically different picture. When Adam needs a helper in his work of caring for the garden and ruling the creatures of land and sea, God constructs a woman. Sexuality is caught up in the public and political project of subduing creation. So is family life. So are women.

These ancients texts remain deeply relevant. Europeans mock Americans for our obsession with political sex scandals. We should grow up, they tell us, and let sex stay in the boudoir where it belongs. Prudery and prurience, sometimes both together, play their roles in American sexual mores. But our willingness to judge a man’s suitability for public office by his sexual faithfulness is also a residue of biblical consciousness, and a sign of social health.

2 thoughts on “Gilgamesh, Eden, and Political Sex Ethics

  1. I agree completely with your central thesis that those in positions of power should not abuse that power by the sexual exploitation of inferiors. It may surprise you to find that this point is also made in the opening scenes of the Epic of Gilgamesh. The citizens of Uruk cry out to the gods for relief because Gilgamesh is exercising the right of droit de seigneur, deflowering newly married brides. This would have been just as scandalous to the epic’s Babylonian readers as it is to western readers today. The gods respond by creating a primitive warrior, who is the king’s equal in strength, to distract Gilgamesh from his objectionable activities.

    While the main thrust of your article is fine, I think you may be viewing Gilgamesh and Genesis from a slightly slanted perspective. I realise that you are doing so from a position of Christian faith, so my personal understanding of Genesis may not be acceptable to you. On the other hand, I hope that we may come closer to agreement on the way women are portrayed in the Epic of Gilgamesh.

    Firstly, the depiction of Shamhat the prostitute in tablets one to two of Gilgamesh is far from a negative one. Her actions are not those of a common prostitute, and this is why many commentators feel that she is likely to be a temple prostitute in the service of Ishtar, Uruk’s patron goddess. There is no exchange of money, she seems to have a certain renown – being known by name to both trappers and king, and some even feel that she is an incarnation of the goddess. The key point, however, is the role she plays in the civilization of Enkidu. After tempting him into a week long sexual encounter, she introduces him to a human diet, clothes him, separates him from his animal companions, and brings him to the city of Uruk to find employment and meet the king. Although the harlot is still a harlot, in this story she is not a despised inferior but a wise guide and agent of civilization.

    We should also note that Enkidu is created by a female rather than a male god. This is the norm in Sumerian and Akkadian myth, although she is sometimes accompanied by Enki/Ea, the wise god of the subterranean, fresh water realm of Apsu. The exception is the violent and martial Enuma Elish, where Ea alone creates humanity.

    The divine mother of Gilgamesh, Ninsun, is also portrayed in revered tones as a wise counsellor and guide, whereas the king’s father is hardly mentioned. Ishtar, on the other hand seems somewhat excitable and impetuous. She also seems spiteful when Gilgamesh rejects her advances, although many detect an allusion here to the “sacred marriage” ceremony in which the king had the responsibility of sleeping with the goddess to ensure the ongoing prosperity of the city. Later in the epic she appears in a better light, weeping for those needlessly drowned by the flood. By the end of the epic the newly wise hero seems to have made his peace with the goddess, praising her temple in the enigmatic, closing words of the tale. The tavern keeper Siduri who lives in the magical land beyond the twin mountains of Mashu also confounds our expectations. Female tavern keepers were looked on as rather bawdy types, but Siduri is “veiled in man veils” indicating high status. She also gives sage advice to the hero, providing almost word for word agreement with the later book of Ecclesiastes (9:7-10) in the Old Babylonian version of the epic. Finally, in the flood story which sums up the overall message of the work it is the goddesses who first condemn the chief god for bringing about such senseless destruction. Although Ea makes the most telling argument, it is Ishtar’s lament and the creator goddess’s firm rebuke that come first. This hardly suggests a culture in which women are marginalized, despised, and mistreated.

    On the other hand, our familiarity with Genesis often blinds us to the obvious. Firstly, the creator has become a male god with no consort (although this was not the norm in the first temple period), and even more remarkably the first woman is born from a man – completely reversing the natural order! It is also hard to escape the significance of Eve’s actions in Genesis three and the subordinate role she is assigned at the end of the story. What may surprise you more is that the story of Genesis three seems to be modelled on the template provided by the story of Enkidu and Shamhat. Perhaps the main reason for this is the polemic that runs through Genesis 1-11 against Mesopotamian city culture. Genesis turns that tables and transforms a story about the civilization of a primitive from the wild into a tale about a loss of a immortality and expulsion from paradise. In Genesis the movement from the natural realm to the city is a tragic “fall” rather than an civilizing progression. As such it becomes a parable of exile in which the twin images of a lush and fertile Canaan, and the great city Babylon situated at the other end of the canonical histories loom large. It is also, however, a dramatic reversal of the role of the woman. The unacceptable civilizer and teacher of the Gilgamesh epic has become the one who is subjugated by an animal, whose actions lead to hardship, conflict, and pain. It is precisely for the reason that she becomes the “mother of all living”, a title that bears a startling resemblance to the titles of the mother goddess in the older Mesopotamian myths.

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