Women in the Epic of Gilgamesh and Mesopotamian Society

Categories: Epic of Gilgamesh

In the Epic of Gilgamesh, gender plays a very significant role, because while women were not the most powerful gods nor the strongest or wisest of all humans, they still had tremendous influence over others around them, and even today, over those who study and learn about the women of the time of Mesopotamia. Though the main characters of the story, Gilgamesh and Enkidu, are male, women did not necessarily play a minor role. One particular issue that is demonstrated among several others in the Epic of Gilgamesh is the status of women.

Since this is a story of women's status many years ago, it is indeed an interesting issue to discuss, particularly today, since women still struggle for equal rights in every place and everything they do. It is interesting to learn about the history of women’s status in societies, such as the Mesopotamian society. Throughout The Epic Of Gilgamesh, the roles of women are mixed. Women are represented as harlots, as wise, and as gods.

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There is a substantial amount of gods which are represented as women and it could represent a society with multiple views towards women. A society where no definitive set of rules were made for women and perhaps a society more open to a equal perspective. It can easily be seen that while men were considered to be the most powerful and wisest humans and gods, women had the power to significantly influence these men. Several women mentioned and described in the Epic Of Gilgamesh carried roles that had important effects on the men they encountered.

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Of course, this is not much different from the society we live in today, because while many may believe that women have still not reached the point of true equality, it is hard to say that they are inferior and the significance of their roles in society is undeniable. Though Gilgamesh is known for his misbehavior with women, he knows that he cannot always have his way and do whatever he wants with every women. When he is outside his own territory, this is something that would naturally apply to him. However, it is ironic that he would have to take advice from women, especially when he was so used to misusing them.

This was a turn around in Gilgamesh’s nature, as he was left without any options to become immortal. Because of the mistreatment of women, it can be seen that the status of women in this regard demonstrates hidden power. They may be rejected and abused at one point in time, but at another point even a completely different woman will be able to avenge cruel actions. However, as observed in the Epic of Gilgamesh, he is spared of the severest human actions. Ironically, this is through the sympathy of a woman. Women play many more roles than men in this classic.

Ninsun, the mother of Gilgamesh, for example, plays the role of the loving, caring mother and also that of the wise counselor that provides guidance. From the very beginning, Gilgamesh seeks guidance from his mother. When he has two dreams about an axe and a meteor, full of concern, he seeks the advice of his mother. At this point, she plays the role of the guiding, comforting mother by analyzing his dreams and relating the two objects to something good, Enkidu, that will soon come into Gilgamesh's life.

"My son, the axe you saw is a friend... nd I, Ninsun, I shall make him your equal. A mighty comrade will come to you, and be his friend's saviour... ". After Enkidu and Gilgamesh become the best of friends, they decide to go to the cedar forest and take on Humbaba. Again, Ninsun takes on her motherly role by praying to Shamash, the sun God, to protect Gilgamesh and Enkidu, whom she has also taken in as a son. “O Shamash, rise against Humbaba the mighty gale winds... let rise thirteen winds and Humbaba's face darken, let the weapons of Gilgamesh then read Humbaba! ”.

Clearly, gender plays a significant role in terms of Ninsun being a wise woman in a motherly position. Ninsun is not the only woman that takes on the role of a wise woman who provides guidance. After passing through the twin mountains of Mashu, Gilgamesh encounters Shiduri, the tavern keeper. Lost in his wanderings, he is forced to seek advice from her on how to reach Utanapishti. It is ironic because after his blatant abuse of power and mistreatment of women, as mentioned above, it is a woman that he seeks advice from in one of his weakest moments.

She tells him how to reach Utanapishti and the dangers that lay in between and tells him to find Ur-shanabi so that he may continue his journey. In addition to providing guidance, women also play powerful roles. Shamhat, for example, uses the power of sex and curiosity to lure Enkidu away from his wild environment. After having sex for seven days and seven nights, Enkidu was no longer able to return to live amongst the animals and was forced to learn the ways of civilized life, which Shamhat taught him. It is easy to see that at this point in the epic, Shamhat clearly possessed the upper hand over Enkidu.

He succumbed to her every word, learned the ways of morality and man, and was even convinced to go stand up to the mighty king of Uruk, which ultimately led to the friendship between Enkidu and Gilgamesh. Ishtar also takes on the role of a powerful woman. The goddess of love used her sexual power over men. Not only did she use it to get the man she wanted, but she used this power to dominate and hurt the men that loved her. Knowing that her love would eventually lead to his loss of independence and power and his ultimate downfall, Gilgamesh rejects her marriage proposal.

He points out her previous relationships. "You loved the speckled allallu-bird, but struck him down and broke his wing... you loved the horse, so famed in battle, but you made his destiny whip, spur and lash. ". Rejected and angered, Ishtar exercises her divine power and has her father send the Bull of Heaven against Gilgamesh and Enkidu. While the two conquer this opposition, this display of power ultimately has the most significant effect on Gilgamesh's life. The Gods decide that Enkidu, Gilgamesh's best friend and brother, must die for this act.

Clearly, Ishtar's role in the Epic of Gilgamesh was a very powerful one in which she manipulated both men and gods to get what she wanted, in one way or another. In "Ishtar", the feelings of hate, love, rejection and punishment come to the surface as to show that killing was not for all to do and that is permissible to a king two-thirds god and not to anyone such as Enkidu. Ishtar, the goddess, is a powerful woman as if to recognize the power of women as they give life to men through their love as well as their ability to destroy men.

The Epic Of Gilgamesh presents many good examples of women and their status in Mesopotamia as well as the story itself. One last example of the importance of women along with their status is observed when Gilgamesh is in search of immortality; when he fears that death will sneak upon him some day. It is through the involvement of women in his quest that he presses on in his search. This is seen when he meets the woman of wine; Gilgamesh explains what he is searching for and would like to avoid death.

To this, the woman advises him to enjoy life as it is, but he insists on getting what he has set out for. As a result of this insistence, the woman directs Gilgamesh to his next important step in search of immortality. Knowing that he has to find his way to Utnapishtim, the woman says that he has to take a ferry across the ocean, but in the course of this Gilgamesh has to avoid touching the deadly waters. When Gilgamesh approached Utnapishtim and his wife, he asked how they became immortal, and to this they replied that the gods favored them because they both survived the Great Flood.

This clearly meant that the gods did not favor one over the other; the gods made both of them immortal. It might also be asserted that the gods might have been infuriated by Gilgamesh’s treatment of women when he was arrogant. Being born to a goddess had probably been the origin of his power that he abused, and this might have displeased the gods. However, in the end, Gilgamesh was humbled and at the time of his death, his people faithfully mourned for him. It is evident from all this that in the end, women were the ones that emerged victorious in a manner of speaking.

This is because they were no longer oppressed by Gilgamesh, and Gilgamesh was emotionally broken because of a female figure (the goddess of love). Initially, it was her wrath that got his life twisted around. Since then, Gilgamesh tried everything he could to become immortal. He even had to seek advice from women; a thing that he might have wanted to do. However, going back to the beginning of the epic, it is a female figure whom Gilgamesh relies on from the very beginning to achieve what he wants. The harlot whom he sends to bring Gilgamesh to him is the first time that the reader sees his dependence on women.

The same thing is reflected towards the end of his life as well as during his quest for immortality. Finally, it can be seen that in the Epic of Gilgamesh, it is Gilgamesh himself that helps to create a somewhat defined status of women and what respect they deserve in society. His actions reveal that women can be looked up to, and that they should be given that position as well. This is demonstrated by the way he listens to the woman of wine and also Utnapishtim’s wife. It is through Utnapishtim’s wife’s sympathy that Gilgamesh reveals what creatures women are.

This is reinforced by his change in attitude towards women when he returns to Uruk where he lives peacefully with all the men, women and children. Gilgamesh was compelled in the end to learn about the relationships of family and women, which closely relates to the word domestication, a word that used to reflect the only duties of a woman and how women were expected and supposed to know everything about maintaining a family, her life, and other life aspects. Because Gilgamesh made an attempt to learn and understand and treat people better, specifically women, he was able to communicate with his people better.

As a result they began to have feelings for him and mourned his death in the end. The Epic Of Gilgamesh represents some kind of order in the then chaotic experience of Mesopotamian life during that time, especially for women, and for men who did not treat people well. It can be said that the Mesopotamians achieved a certain degree of control and management on their society but naturally at the expense of women, ordinary citizens and slaves. Overall, it is quite evident that The Epic Of Gilgamesh has a great deal to say about women.

It highlights the importance of being domesticated and leading a domesticated life and it speaks for all those who have domesticated lives, mainly women, as they are the ones that hold their homes together. Though men cannot be ruled out due to their vital actions in family life, and their importance as Gods, husbands, and humans in general throughout The Epic Of Gilgamesh and in Mesopotamian times, it needs to be emphasized that women should have had an equal status then, just as women today should have an equal status.

Updated: Nov 01, 2022
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Women in the Epic of Gilgamesh and Mesopotamian Society. (2016, Dec 26). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/women-in-the-epic-of-gilgamesh-and-mesopotamian-society-essay

Women in the Epic of Gilgamesh and Mesopotamian Society essay
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