What role do women play in society according to the Epic of Gilgamesh?

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In The Epic of Gilgamesh, women play a variety of roles, both good and evil in nature.

On one hand, women are presented as a civilizing force and source of wisdom. Shamhat the sacred prostitute is more than just an object to be used by men for pleasure; she...

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is vital in Enkidu's development from wild man to full-fledged member of human society. Intercourse with her for six days and seven nights is not meant merely to provide him with a good time, but to initiate him into the adult human world and make him whole as an intelligent individual. Shamhat also clothes and feeds Enkidu when his animal companions abandon him, providing a maternal bent to their bond as well. Gilgamesh's mother, Ninsun, is also presented in a positive, supportive light, looking out for her son and giving him guidance. These characters show the male ones how to best live in the world.

On the other hand, women in Gilgamesh can be dangerous destabilizers of human society as well. The goddess Ishtar reacts badly when Gilgamesh rejects her advances, referencing how poorly she's treated her former lovers. Concerned with nothing but getting back at Gilgamesh, she sends the Bull of Heaven down to wreak havoc upon the earth, destroying terrain and killing many. Ishtar in this way represents the dark side of the feminine— overemotional and destructive when men do not bow to her will. She's even able to force her father, Anu, to lend her the Bull of Heaven when she threatens to raise the dead to feed upon the living.

So in the end, the story shows women both as wise nurturers and spiteful destroyers.

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In The Epic of Gilgamesh, women play the role of destroyers. They are portrayed as dangerous, cunning, and ruthless. For instance, Ishtar asks for Gilgamesh’s hand in marriage and promises that she will fulfil his deepest desires. However, Gilgamesh is cautious due to Ishtar’s previous relationships, all of which ended dreadfully. He reminds her of how badly she treated her former lovers when things did not go her way.

Women in the epic poem also play the role of mothers. One of the main characters in the poem is Ninsun, Gilgamesh’s mother. She is always supportive of her son. For instance, she asks Shamash, the Sun God, to give Gilgamesh favor as he goes to Humbamba’s home. She begs the Sun God:

“Entrust him to the care of the watches of the night!” (Tablet III).

The caring nature of a mother is revealed when Ninsun asks Shamash to guide and protect Gilgamesh.

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Women play a complex role in the society portrayed by The Epic of Gilgamesh. On the one hand, they are treated as sex objects. At the beginning of the story, Gilgamesh rapes any woman he wants to, and the priestess/prostitute (depending on your translation) Shamhat is sent into the wilderness to have intercourse with Enkidu.

However, women also represented wisdom. Shamhat, for example, may have been used as a sex object, but the act of intercourse began the process of Enkidu's civilization from beast to man. Shamhat also taught Enkidu about clothing and human food, for instance. Another example of a woman representing wisdom is Siduri, the tavern keeper whom Gilgamesh asks about eternal life. Siduri tells Gilgamesh to stop focusing on immortality--an attribute of the gods--and instead focus on what it means to be human.

Let your stomach be full,
always be happy, night and day,
make every day a delight,
night and day play and dance.
Your clothes should be clean,
your head should be washed,
you should be bathe in water.
Look proudly on the little one holding your hand.
Let your mate be always blissful in your lions.
This, then, is the work of mankind (Tablet X).

It is telling that Siduri had the "proper" view of life, while Gilgamesh--a great king--did not.

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