What role do gender and gender roles play in The Epic of Gilgamesh?

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jweatherford eNotes educator| Certified Educator

To understand the role of gender in the Epic of Gilgamesh is to understand how a few of the male and female characters behave and function in the story. For this analysis, we will look at the roles and behaviors of Gilgamesh, Enkidu, Humbaba, Ishtar, and Ninsun. As is common with ancient patriarchal literature, the males are sexual, warlike, heroic, and central to the plot, whereas the females are supporting characters, sexual, or maternal/nurturing.

The male figures in the story dominate the epic. The main character in the story is Gilgamesh. He is a warrior-king who goes about raping women. While this fact is reprehensible, it is an undeniable theme of his masculine dominance. Enkidu is also a central figure; he hears of Gilgamesh’s sexual exploits and attempts to stop him, resulting in an intense battle. Enkidu loses and later accompanies Gilgamesh on his quest to defeat Humbaba in the cedar forest. In the epic, Enkidu is only civilized after his six-day sexual encounter with the goddess Ishtar. Therefore, the central characters in the epic, both men, have an underscored element of violence and sex. Perhaps, this struggle with male dominance is most pointedly displayed when Gilgamesh plans to defeat his father, Humbaba. Humbaba is not seen as a fathering figure; he is rather seen as an imposing patriarchal symbol that Gilgamesh must dominate, which he does. These male gender roles exemplify violence and dominance.

The female figures are not central characters, but they espouse very important gender roles. Straightaway, the female characters seem to either be something to be objectified sexually or maternal figures. The first and most obvious form of sexual objectification of females in the epic lies in the tyrannous sexual exploitation by King Gilgamesh. The role of Gilgamesh as an oppressive king who assaults the women of his kingdom speaks volumes about the perceived gender roles of ancient Mesopotamia. On the one hand, there are the sexually exploited women, yet on the other hand, there is the goddess Ishtar, who attempts to sexually seduce both Gilgamesh and Enkidu. Gilgamesh is not flattered by Ishtar’s advances, and for whatever reason, he rejects her. Without missing a beat, the seductress then turns her advances on Enkidu. This entire exchange is quite interesting, as it purports a curious dynamic between a sexual predator, Gilgamesh, and a seductive goddess, Ishtar. Where Gilgamesh takes and plunders sexually, he also denies the sexual advances of Ishtar. This highlights the dominant, oppressive nature of Gilgamesh as a violent warrior king, but it likewise alienates Ishtar’s sexual prowess as inferior.

Another important gender role in the Epic of Gilgamesh is seen with Gilgamesh’s mother, Ninsun. Ninsun does not possess any overtly sexual elements, but she does represent the mother figure in the story. Upon hearing of Gilgamesh’s plan to fight his father, she intercedes for him in prayer, offering sacrifice and the prophesy of his future. She cares for him in this unique way, which demonstrates her role as a mother. After her blessing of protection over Gilgamesh, she makes a very significant maternal and nurturing move by “adopting” Enkidu as her own son. By this gesture we see her caring, mothering character come to the surface. This is important for understanding the role of gender in the story, as it creates a juxtaposition to the sexual prowess of Ishtar and accentuates the maternal nurturing role of women in this ancient epic.

As is seen here, gender plays a very significant role in the Epic of Gilgamesh. This piece of ancient literature is synonymous with other pieces of ancient literature, as it places the roles of males at the center. The males in this sense are the warriors, questing for some great boon, and they are sexual beings. The females tend to fulfill either the good, mothering, intercessor type of role, or they are sexually seductive.

thanatassa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The Epic of Gilgamesh portrays a society in which gender roles are strongly differentiated. Women play a relatively limited role in the epic and are usually portrayed in relationship to men rather as significant characters in their own right. 

The primary relationship of women to men in Gilgamesh is sexual. In the early part of the epic, Gilgamesh is shown as a bad king in the way he takes advantage of his power to sleep with new brides on their wedding nights. The temple prostitute Shamhat is used to civilize Enkidu, but while her sexual favors make him a fit friend for Gilgamesh, they also separate him from nature and wild animals. This means that we see an association between women and domesticity and civilization. 

Ishtar, the goddess of love, appears as an antagonist in the epic. She is a woman who in her sexual aggression and power is almost masculine, but she is condemned for her bad treatment of ex-lovers and spurned by Gilgamesh. The one positive female role model in the epic is Utnapishtim's wife who functions in a traditionally female domestic role, showing qualities of mercy and compassion. 

The leading characters in the epic are Gilgamesh himself, the protagonist, and Enkidu. Male gods and Utnapishtim play minor roles. We see that masculine friendship was greatly valued in the culture and that the epic valued physical strength and attractiveness in men, as well as martial prowess and loyalty. Men are seen as legitimately strong and dominant, but existing with a strict social and political hierarchy. Along with power, ideally, comes responsibility, with a king being judged on how he treats his subjects. 

James Kelley eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This question about gender and gender roles in The Epic of Gilgamesh is challenging. In going about answering it, I think that I would first focus on the key characters in the story, making note of both their gender and their actions, and then look to see if any sorts of patterns emerge. For at least some of the male characters, maleness seems to be tied to destruction or harm: they’re pretty harsh or unkind or wild, break things, kill things, and so on. At least some of the main female characters, by contrast, seem to have a civilizing or nurturing influence (e.g. the prostitute or courtesan, who civilizes Enkidu, or Utnapishtim's wife, who doesn’t want Gilgamesh to leave empty-handed), but they aren’t always all too peace-loving, either (e.g. Ishtar turned past lovers into animals and lobbies to have Gilgamesh killed).

To me, it doesn’t appear that the epic is making a clear and permanent distinction between all men and all women, but the epic does seem to put emphasis on pairings of humans and/or gods. There are a number of references to couples (gods, humans, and animals) throughout the story. Of course, not all of the couples are heterosexual. Gilgamesh and Enkidu are easily the most prominent couple in the story.