The role of women is a very important topic in “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” and various women are chosen to represent various aspects of the mesopotamian conception of women.
In the ancient times males were inessential to the preservation of life. “The Epic of Gilgamesh” shows how the inability of males to give birth causes a sense of despair and alienation. While the representation of women might seem confusing at first with its wide range of traits, the epic tries to demonstrate all aspects of women, some are dominant in some ways. They are valuable advisors, and have variable attitudes regarding sexuality, they control men’s decision in some ways and bring both death and immortality in men’s lives. In this paper the female characters of The Epic of Gilgamesh will be analyzed and by this way the role of women in Gilgamesh, in the ancient Mesopotamia will be shown.
In early society, females dominated over males because they were able to continue human life by giving birth. Reproduction was considered to be the “essential” experience in early society. Motherhood had a great importance and needed more responsibility, as Gerda Lerner points out that;
But under primitive conditions, before the institutions of civilized society were created, the actual power of the mother over the infant must have been awesome. Only the mother over the infant from cold; only her breast milk could provide the nourishment needed for survival. Her indifference or neglect meant certain death. The life giving mother had power over life and death. No wonder that men and women, observing this dramatic and mysterious power of the female, turned to the veneration of Mother-Goddess. (Lerner, 40)
People thought of their creator as the divine mother. One symbol of birth that people considered significant in society was the snake. To them, this symbolized the power of having children. The snake sheds its skin only to grow new skin. In comparison to the female, the older female gives birth to the newer female. The snake was considered to be the biological understanding of females. Another symbol of birth for the people was earth. The earth is round, and was thought of as an image of the female body when she is about to give birth. They compared the sun rising in the east with a female giving birth to a child. Society centered around females.
They received such respect, that ancient laws were accustomed to them. When we go back in those days, males stayed at home with the children and took care of them, while females handled the system of society. People in the early days even made buildings round, to represent females when they were pregnant. Society also made statues in the image of females to show how they reigned supreme. The statues were made without faces, so they would not limit their perspectives, because the statues represented everyone in society. They also built them as huge and fat, to show the changes females went through when they were about to give birth.
“Gilgamesh” is a presentation of the despair and alienation males felt because they could not reproduce. When Gilgamesh’s brother Enkidu died, he realized the nature of males on earth was to die, not to give birth or live forever. Determined, he goes on a journey in search of mortality. He went to find Utnapishtim, the only hope of everlasting life. He travels to the mountain Mashu, because this was considered the source of life. He goes there, hoping god created male in his image. He meets female-scorpions* at the entrance and they tell him: “No man born of any woman has ever done what you have asked.” Then they explain that males are not immortal: “Two thirds is god, one third is man.” By this, they mean a male is born (one third), and he dies (two thirds) but after that he does not come back again as the female does. He replies with the story of his brother Enkidu, saying he “realized he is here for nothing,” explaining why he is determined to find this hope of life lasting forever.
So the guards let him go through because they are not there to keep anyone out, they are simply there to keep the mountain (the female body) sacred. Inside, he meets Shamash who highly discourages him: “You will never find the life for which you are looking.” Though he takes pity on Gilgamesh, and so he sends him to Siduri. When he finds her, she sympathetically asks: “Why is despair in your heart?” He then tells her of his hope. She then replies: “You will never find the life for which you are looking.” Though she also takes pity on him, she tells Urshanabi to take him to Utnapishtim, the faraway hope of everlasting life. When he gets there, Utnapishtim also asks him: “Why is despair in your heart?” This time, he replies: “The end of mortality has taken over Enkidu..His fate lies heavy upon me.” Utnapishtim, aware that Gilgamesh is unable to face his reality, tries to make him understand: “There is no permanence..It is only the nymph of the dragonfly, that sheds her larva and sees the sun in its glory.” Metaphorically using the dragon fly, Utnapishtim clearly lets Gilgamesh know how the story ends. Males are not mortals, only females are. They do not possess the power that everlasting life brings, only females do. Therefore they cannot procreate, only females can.
After all her explaining, he stubbornly sticks with his theory that there is some kind of hope that males can obtain mortality. Knowingly, Utnapishtim agrees to test Gilgamesh. She gives him the test of the seven loaves of bread. The loaves symbolized generations. Gilgamesh stays awake only for one loaf of bread, proving that no matter what, males are not meant to give birth or take part in the significance of life as the female does. Feeling very discouraged, Gilgamesh makes his way back with Urshansbi. Along the way, Urshanabi tells Gilgamesh a secret. He tells him of a plant that is hidden underwater, a plant that can give him everlasting life.
The only thing he had to worry about was getting pricked by the plant because it was like a rose with thorns. But Urshanabi assured him that if he could get the plant and go on a long journey with it, he would surely find mortality. Gilgamesh is overjoyed, and goes immediately to find the plant. He gets pricked, but safely brings it above water. On his long journey, he comes very close to his destination, but he stops to drink some water from a river. As he places the plant down, a serpent (symbolizing the female) abruptly jumps out of the water and snatches it from him. It dives quickly back into the water, and Gilgamesh starts to weep. In the end, Gilgamesh dies because he faces his true fate and he is unable to handle it.
Moreover when we take a close look at the female characters in “The Epic of Gilgamesh”, The most important, perhaps, is Shamhat. As with the story of Adam and Eve, she breaks the man’s innocence and brings him into the world. While the loss of innocence may be the negative aspect of female interaction with men, it also leads Enkindu to a solid friendship and a path to immortality. The second portrayal is of Ninsun, Gilgamesh’s mother. She is highly regarded by her son, the respect which she reciprocates. She offers him consolation, and even though he refuses to follow all of her advices, she faithfully stands behind him, and her request to Shamash to protect and aid Gilgamesh’s battle ends up saving his life.
Ishtar is the least favorable portrayal of the women in the book. She is extremely capricious and spoiled [when she asks Shamash for the winged bull, and even threatens him]. Whenever she finds some dislike with her lover, rather than trying to mend it she transforms him into some unfavroable creature. She is clearly vain and is not able to take a no for an answer. She is promiscuous and vengeful.
Finally, a character somewhat similar in theme to Shamhat, is the wise goddess, Shiduri. While she is afraid of Gilgamesh, hiding behind the gates of her tavern [indicating to some mistrust toward the male sexuality]. She, as his mother offers Gilgamesh valuable advice, part of which he disregards [which perhaps suggests the motherly instinct of women]. While she is not the end of his quest for immortality, she clearly is a step toward it by offering Gilgamesh valuable knowledge and referring him to the next step.
In conclusion, people in the early days believed that because females could procreate, they were the reason for everlasting life, which made them the most essential figure in society. “Gilgamesh” presents the expression of male feelings concerning their inessential role in life – to die, and to never reproduce. As we can discover from “The Epic of Gilgamesh”, and the female characters in the epic, women were valuable advisors, and had variable attitudes regarding sexuality, they control men’s decision in some ways and brought both death and immortality in men’s lives. According to Gerda Lerner, “Woman, in precivilized society, must have been man’s equal and may well have felt herself to be his superior.” (Lerner, 43) So women in ancient times considered to be equal to men and even superior than man.