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In Tablet VI of the Epic of Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh rejects Ishtar's advances after describing the harm she has caused to her previous lovers (e.g. she turned a shepard into a wolf).

I have a few questions about that part of the story:

  1. Why does Ishtar do those horrible things to her lovers?
  2. Is there a broader significance to that scene?
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I understand the question to be asking what is the author’s intent in having Gilgamesh describe Ishtar’s prior lovers in the way he does, and what, as a literary matter, did the author want to convey through that scene. I agree with Jeffrey Tigay (p. 42) that there was a single creative mind behind the Old Babylonian, Akkadian text, who deserves to be viewed as an author, not simply as a complier or editor of earlier textual sources and myths. From this perspective, looking at the background of other myths is necessary and helpful, but we know that creative authors do change earlier material around for their own purposes, so in the end we must figure out the authorial intent. Since the earlier answer has already covered the Sumerian general background well, I’ll not dwell on that myself but focus on authorial intent.

Having said that, however, I should mention that the Sumerian myth Gilgamesh and the Bull of Heaven (see on ETCSL) is fairly relevant here. In that story Inanna is upset at Gilgamesh because he seems to want to usurp her ceremonial functions at the Eanna temple (and also spend too much time hunting in the wilds), and so she sends the Bull of Heaven after him, which he and Enkidu kill as in the Gilgamesh epic. Unlike in the Gilgamesh epic, here there is nothing about Gilgamesh rejecting the goddess as a lover (it appears at the beginning of the myth that they already have been lovers), but like in the Gilgamesh epic this myth does show Gilgamesh as having an overweening pride and disrespect for the goddess, which is what gets him into trouble, so this hubris motif is consistent as between the two stories. I don’t think that the Sumerian background generally portrays Inanna (later Ishtar) and Gilgamesh as eternal enemies, which would be unimaginable for this king of Uruk where Inanna had her Eanna temple as tutelary deity of the city he ruled (meaning that as king he may have annually undertaken a sacred marriage ritual with her). In another Sumerian myth known as The Huluppu Tree, it is Gilgamesh who is Inanna’s hero and benefactor. There he chased a serpent, the Anzu-bird, and Lilith away from Inanna’s sacred tree in her garden after her own brother Utu had ignored her entreaties and refused to do so. Gilgamesh came to her rescue, and then fashioned parts of the tree into gifts for her. It is possible that in the aftermath they became lovers. Thus, I think the cause of their spat in the Gilgamesh epic is particular to this story, which gets us back to what its author was up to.

From a literary standpoint, I think Gilgamesh’s encounter with Ishtar in the epic should be considered against Enkidu’s earlier sexual encounter with the cult courtesan Shamhat, from whom he gains wisdom and becomes civilized. Gilgamesh, on the other hand, already has this knowledge and a high degree of wisdom when he confronts Ishtar. But here he is too smart and knowledgeable for his own good. So when Ishtar makes her advances, he calls up the litany of her failed relationships with other lovers and says he wants no part of that. But he goes on and on about it in a prideful way and is really insulting to Ishtar, something that a human (or demigod like Gilgamesh) should never do to. This is a display of hubris, which explains the long litany. If he is to refuse, he should at least do so politely and diplomatically, but he did not apply his wisdom here. Further, humans must stay in their proper place in relation to deities and not rise about their station. Thus, Gilgamesh probably should not have refused at all, and acted according to his station in life. Recall that, as king of Uruk, Gilgamesh probably would have been obligated to undertake annually a sacred marriage ceremony with her, in which case his rejection of her would be an improper dereliction of duty in violation of the established cosmic order. His and Enkidu’s pride brings on the onslaught of the Bull of Heaven, where they display even more hubris, Enkidu by throwing the haunch of the dismembered Bull at Ishtar. This sets up the real punishment. Gilgamesh instead of Enkidu could have perished in response to vanquishing the Bull, but the gods decide that Enkidu should die. Nevertheless, Gilgamesh suffers greatly by reason of Enkidu’s death, which is necessary for the plot because this is what gets him thinking about immortality and sets him off on his quest for that. In that quest he displays more pride and ambition, but in the end he has to be reconciled with human life and his fate as it is.

On the other hand, Ishtar too is being portrayed negatively here. From her own behavior (e.g., she does the proposing) and what Gilgamesh describes about her in the litany, it becomes clear that she is acting badly, in fact much like a man, so it is understandable why Gilgamesh rejects her. Contrast this with the story’s favorable portrayals of Shamhat and Siduri, who reflect more traditional feminine profiles favored by the author. Thus, both Ishtar and Gilgamesh are aspiring to go beyond their proper stations, as a result of which each of their expected roles has become inverted to some extent: Gilgamesh attempting to become divine rather than living as a man, and the goddess acting like a man rather than serving in a more conventional female role.

Sources:

Dalley, Stephanie. Myths from Mesopotamia. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1989. Contains text of Gilgamesh epic with annotations.

Foster, Benjamin, trans. and ed. The Epic of Gilgamesh. New York: Norton. 2001. Norton Critical edition with critical essays.

Jacobsen, Thorkild. The Treasures of Darkness. New Haven: Yale University Press. 1976.

Leick, Gwendolyn. A Dictionary of Ancient Near Eastern Mythology. London: Routledge, 1991.

Tigay, Jeffrey. The Evolution of the Gilgamesh Epic. Wauconda, Illinois: Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers. 2002.

Wolkstein, Diane, and Samuel Noah Kramer. Inanna: Queen of Heaven and Earth - Her Stories and Hymns from Sumer. New York: Harper & Row. 1983. Contains The Huluppu Tree myth.

  • Might it be that an intended message was that you haven't to be a lover of Ishtar to be in a trouble? – rus9384 Jan 22 at 1:19
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The main reason why it exists in the narrative is that it precedes the epic by quite a long time. Before the epic of Gilgamesh was put together as one single narrative, hymns of Gilgamesh were performed separately. These are the Sumerian predecessors of what's commonly read today. They can fortunately for us be easily found on the internet at The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature (ETCSL).

As you can see, there were several hymns in the Gilgamesh cycle, and the bull of Heaven is one of them. All of these except Gilgamesh and Aga were eventually incorporated into a single narrative. This seems to have happened first ca. 2000-1600 BCE. What's often translated and put into books, however, is a recension of this text made roughly a thousand years later. By that time, it would be too late to remove it.

Historically, the scene has to be rather late overall. The original story was probably the hymn of Gilgamesh and Aga. Aga (also Akka) in the myths was the son of Enmebaragesi, king of Kish, whom we know now was actually a real person from inscriptions1. A plausible scenario for the development of Gilgamesh follows:

Enmebaragesi of Kish ruled over Sumer, and was succeeded by Aga, who was then conquered by Gilgamesh of Uruk, leading to Uruk's predominance.

This could have (and would have) been ritually performed at Uruk, where Gilgamesh could then fade into legends. Furthermore, other myths would be attracted to it. First, the Humbaba quest likely originated with the Ur III dynasty.2 Originally entirely separate from the Gilgamesh cycle, the story of Dumuzi and Inanna is well chronicled in the Sumerian literature. You can also read them at the ETCSL. The older view, established by Frazer, was to see Dumuzi was a dying and rising fertility god, but as JoAnn Scurlock points out, the evidence for that is very weak.3 Instead, he appears to:

embrace [the onerous duties of kingship], and to suffer the ultimate penalty for failure.

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If this reading is correct, it explains why Dumuzi, lover of Inanna (later Ishtar) became the predecessor of Gilgamesh (and defeater of Enmebaragesi), itself evidenced by the unusual name appearing as a doublet (he's distinguished in the sources, but it's clear it was one name that became two).5 Dumuzi would be the example of a king failing at his duties, while Gilgamesh would have been a good king (the part about Gilgamesh being a bad king in the beginning is missing in the Sumerian hymns and is presumably a later addition).

Ritually, it appears that there was a differentiation of some sort between Dumuzi and Gilgamesh. The Inanna/Dumuzi relationship looks similar to other goddess/dead mortal ones. Beyond them, we have Adonis and Aphrodite (Adonis actually comes from the Semitic root adon which means "lord", and was a title for Tammuz, the Babylonian version of Dumuzi; Aphrodite has similar myths to Inanna/Ishtar, e.g. she's insulted by Diomedes in the Iliad and reacts suspiciously similar to Ishtar when she's insulted by Gilgamesh, i.e. going up to heaven and crying to her parents; Homer, Iliad, 5.297–430), Cybele and Attis, and perhaps too Aphrodite and Paris.

These couples mean something—though what exactly it's difficult to say—about the function of kingship in ancient Sumer and Babylon. The king was also the chief priest, and there seems to be some sort of relationship between the king and the goddess, as you can see from my post on Shulgi and Inanna.

At this point we can only speculate, but perhaps Gilgamesh's rejection of her is tied to a religious dispute or a political dispute? If there is any truth about Gilgamesh's involvement in the building of the temple of Ninlil as recorded in the Tummal inscription, then there might have been rivalry between worshipers of Ninlil and Inanna that played out in Gilgamesh's favoring of the former over the latter. It's difficult to say for sure, and of course, all this is not only hypothetical, but also likely to remain unanswerable.

(Interestingly, Homer in the Iliadic parallel, used it for polemic against the claims of Aphrodite as a warrior goddess, since Zeus chides her for trying to engage in combat. We know that in Cyprus, where there was a strong Phoenician population, Aphrodite was dressed in warrior garb. I think there's something there.)

Aphrodite in warrior garb. Mosaic, found in Paphos, Cyprus

(Aphrodite in warrior garb. Mosaic, found in Paphos, Cyprus)

Narratologically, the inclusion of the scene makes sense for the overall story, and in fact is one of the more important parts. One of the important themes of the work as a whole is the acceptance of death for mortals. Recall that the original impetus for the slaying of Humbaba is for eternal glory: "I will establish for ever a name eternal!" (Y 187, trans. Andrew George). In order for Gilgamesh to really seek out immortality (almost always denied to mortals, with Ziusudra being the one exception), he must gain a reason for wanting it. This is accomplished in the death of his friend, Enkidu. And who else, except Inanna, who already was responsible for the death of Dumuzi, would be implicated? The association between the two would be even stronger since there are hints of immortality in the Dumuzi hymns.

Thus this scene provides that pivotal climax which leads him to seek out immortality and ultimately the acceptance of his fate, since it is Enkidu from the Netherworld he sees.


General Bibliography

Jean-Jacques Glassner and Benhamin R. Foster (ed.), Mesopotamian Chronicles, Brill: 2005.

Dina Katz, Gilgamesh and Akka, Brill: 1993.

JoAnn Scurlock, "Images of Tammuz: The Intersection of Death, Divinity, and Royal Authority in Ancient Mesopotamia," pp. 151–182 in Experiencing Power, Generating Authority: Cosmos, Politics, and the Ideology of Kingship in Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, ed. by Jane A. Hill et al. University of Pennsylvania Press: 2013.

Jeffrey H. Tigay, The Evolution of the Gilgamesh Epic, University of Pennsylvania Press: 1982.

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