Mesopotamian Women
Mesopotamian Beauty Treatment

Sumerian Women in The Epic of Gilgamesh:

Stupendous and Complementary

Ramy Gadalla

History of Western Civilization

July 26, 2013

Mesopotamians have different views on women. Sumerians in particular have some very fickle views of how women could resemble goddesses, supportive figures, or sexual objects (noting that viewing women as sexual objects is not a bad thing). Women also have various roles in the temple serving the Gods, as well as in their cities, attending to the “exhausted menfolk’s needs.” It is not what Sumerians think of women, but what role women play and how they contribute to the society.

In the Epic of Gilgamesh, Sumerians worship and revere goddess Aruru, the Lady of the Gods, who first creates men with Ea’s help. She takes the pinch of clay that Ea gives her, mixes it with blood from a slaughtered god and creates the first man for the purpose of serving the gods’ needs. Aruru has distinctive role in determining the shape of creation. With similar help from Ea and cooperation from other gods, namely Enlil, Anu, and Adad, the gods of storm, sky, and war respectively, she also creates the king Gilgamesh who is her son. All the gods share to provide him with his powerful features. Finally as “the need arises to create an equal to Gilgamesh,” Ea once more, and the rest of the gods, turn to Aruru to create a replica for him. She receives similar help from Ea and creates Enkidu. Aruru’s example is an analogy for how Sumerians view women as an integrated force that is responsible for shaping and building great kings and heroes.

When Gilgamesh acts in disrespect to Ishtar, insulting her gratuitously and killing her servant Humbaba, he is considered “unwise” and “reckless.” Gilgamesh is also considered reckless as he refuses to marry Ishtar and when she becomes very angry with him and sends him the bull of heaven, “hoping to avenge,” he kills the bull as well. Sumerians respect the goddesses and regard anyone who disrespects them as foolish. However, Gilgamesh grows in wisdom as he shows respect to Ishtar, building the “rampart of Uruk-the-sheepfold, of Enna, Ishtar’s seat,” which “No later king could ever copy!”

Sumerians believe that their sole purpose in life is to serve the gods who in turn each have their distinctive role in controlling the cosmos. A temple called Ennu is built for the goddess Ishtar, “whose responsibilities are sexual love and war,” and the god Anu, who reigns over the sky, in the middle of Uruk. Women are seen as sources of sex, love, and war (jealousy). Men, on the other hand, serve to provide a good environment. Within the temples, Sumerians conduct daily services: Women along with men share in “works ranging from irrigating the gods’ fields, raising their crops and pasturing their livestock to baking their bread, butchering their meat and cooking their bread.” Women are equal to men in keeping life going.

Women also play roles in enticing mighty, strong men and trapping them. Shamhat traps Enkidu by enticing him and making him fall in love with her. Then his flock starts to “spurn him,” and he weakens. He comes back and sits at her feet hopelessly asking her what to do. She then entices him more by praising his charms and likening them to those of the gods: “You are handsome, Enkidu, you are just like a god!” “Her words he [hears], her speech [finds] favor: the counsel of a woman [strikes] home in his heart.”

Prostitution is part of the temples’ rituals. When Mother goddess creates Enkidu, she tells him: “Your brood will belong with the votaries of Gilgamesh … the hierodules and the women of the temple.” Women playing the role of prostitutes provide a chance for giving offspring who in turn grow to become soldiers in the military and serve the gods in the temples.

Gilgamesh ill-treats women severely from exercising the “droit de seigneur.” The women cry and complain before the gods, and the gods hear their mourning and decide to create someone who is equal to Gilgamesh—“a man as mighty as he is”—due to his increasing tyranny, to compete with him, and so they create Enkidu. This shows how women are not to be messed with in Sumeria. People as well as gods care about women’s issues and hasten to their support.

Throughout his journey of acquiring wisdom, Gilgamesh is constantly being endowed with advice from several wise women: He turns to his mother, the Lady of the Gods, for comfort and support when he dreams about Enkidu and fears that he might become his rival. Ninsun acts wisely and satiates her son, saying that Endiku is his friend, not a rival. Likewise, when Gilgamesh sets out to search for Ut-napishti, hoping to acquire from him the secret for living forever, he encounters wise Shiduri Despite his disrespect for her at the beginning, she provides him with abundant advice and contributes significantly to his acquisition of wisdom. As he comes to her in unease and perplex, seeking immortality, she satiates him, “famously saying: But you, Glgamesh, let your belly be full, enjoy yourself always by day and by night! Let your clothes be clean, let your head be washed, May you bathe in water!”

People who live in the Sumerian society act in a collective manner. Women are not separated from men; for where there is a goddess who is responsible for war and sex, there is another god who is responsible for earth and soil. Goddess Aruru does not create men, kings, or Enkidu by herself, but with collaboration from other gods—each supporting their creation with the feature that they control. Although some Sumerians have no middle grounds with women, women still prove themselves right in many situation by how they act. Women are very tolerant, wise, and supporting, like Shiduri who gives Gilgamesh invaluable advice that helps him in his journey to acquire wisdom, despite his disrespect. Also the Mother Goddess is always being a nice and comfortable companion to Gilgamesh and always embraces him and teaches him about wisdom in an indirect way by utilizing logic and reason. Others, like Shamhat, surrender their bodies to prostitution, so there develops the image of women as harlots, but likewise men share in the same act. So women and men are both complementary to each other. It is evident throughout that women are part of the society, always adding to it, benefitting it as well as benefitting from it. Even though they are being ill treated at times, the gods and goddesses are always by their side to give them help and support.