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

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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.