In the beginning of the Epic of Gilgamesh, the prostitute Shamhat civilizes the wild man Enkidu through sex:

She did for the man the work of a woman,
his passion caressed and embraced her.
For six days and seven nights
Enkidu was erect, as he coupled with Shamhat.

When with her delights he was fully sated,
he turned his gaze to his herd.
The gazelles saw Enkidu, they started to run,
the beasts of the field shied away from his presence.

Enkidu had defiled his body so pure,
his legs stood still, though his herd was in motion.
Enkidu was weakened, could not run as before,
but now he had reason, and wide understanding.

Source: The Epic of Gilgamesh, translated by Andrew George, Penguin Books

Do we know of other stories of wild/feral men or women getting civilized through sex? And if so, how do they differ (if at all) from the archetypal story of Shamhat?

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2 Answers 2


The Graeco-Roman equivalent is Hermaphroditus and Salmacis. Although in Ovid's Metamorphoses, the original text must be older, as it is preserved on an inscription (the so-called "Pride of Halicarnassus") found near Salmacis (a fountain near Halicarnassus). I reproduced the relevant part below:

"Pride of Halicarnassus" lines 11-22:

Father Zeus made the sons of Earth famous ritual attendants
who guard the secret dwelling
Nor was the reward they got in return for their toil one of ingratitude:
They received good things for their good deeds:

Having settled the lovely promontory sung of as dear to the immortals
by the sweet stream of Salmakis, she (Halikarnassos) controls
the beautiful dwelling of the nymph who once received
our boy, Hermaphroditos, in her kindly arms
and bred him to become an extraordinary man, who invented matrimony

for mankind and was the first to fasten the matrimonial bed by law.
She in her turn under the sacred streams dripping in
the cave tempers the savage minds of men.

Translated by Signe Isager, from Isager's article "The Pride of Halikarnassos: Editio princes of an inscription from Salmakis," Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 123 (1998): 1–23.

Ovid's tale turns it outright into a rape, which you can read on Theoi (as it's too long to post in full here).


Story time! I will briefly summarize the corresponding parts of some stories which I believe have some parallels to the Šamḫat-episode in the epic of Gilgameš, providing each time a link to Wikipedia which often contains more substantial summaries of the stories.


The most obvious parallel might not be a mythological, but a literary creation: Tarzan, a young boy taken care of by apes in the African jungle. Grown up as a handsome young man, a prototypical noble savage, he meets Jane, a young American woman. They fall in love, and as Jane leaves for America again, Tarzan decides to follow his love and to enter into “civilized” society.


Another well-known story type, one with roots in folklore, is the group of fairy tales to which belongs the Beauty and the Beast: a girl falls in love with a monster or a beast, who turns out to be a charming prince: the curse that made him a monster is overcome by love. See also The Frog Prince (a girl kisses a frog who becomes a prince) and East of the Sun and West of the Moon (a girl goes to live with a White Bear, who at night, in bed, takes off his bear skin and becomes a man). (Besides, there are also different stories about women having intercourse with a bear, resulting in bear-like children, for example in Sámi mythology, in Icelandic saga’s, in Saxo Grammaticus’ De Gesta Danorum — but that is not directly linked with our subject here).

A similar story type with switched gender roles are the tales about swan maidens (a swan — or some other kind of creature — takes of her swan clothes under which she is a woman, a man takes away her clothes and she marries him). As an interesting example, I would like to mention Vǫlundarkviða, in the beginning of which three brothers take three swan maidens as their wives. Later, the swan maidens disappear “to fulfill their fate” and they are not mentioned again in the rest of the story.

The Bible

In the Bible we find different parallels to episodes in the epic of Gilgameš, and also for this episode we can find a biblical parallel that is in some respects closer to the Šamḫat-episode, and a bit different from the stories I mentioned above: it is the story of Samson and Delilah. The life of Samson is told in the Book of Judges, chapters 13 to 16, the Delilah-episode occurs in chapter 16. Samson is an Israelite with some characteristics of a “wild man”: superhuman strength, killing a lion with his bare hands, eating honey from a carcass, living in a cave in the rock of Etam, killing a lot of Philistines with a jawbone of a donkey as his primitive weapon… One day, when Samson is seen visiting a prostitute, the Philistines try to arrest him at the city gate, but Samson simply destroys the whole gate an carries it with him. Later, he falls in love with Delilah (her name means “the faithless one” — an ominous name indeed). His Philistine enemies pay her to find the secret of Samson’s strength. She asks Samson to tell her how he can be overpowered, and after some persistence, Samson tells her he will lose his strength if his hair is cut. When he falls asleep in her lap, she lets a servant cut his hair and then delivers him to the Philistines.

Important differences

All these stories have in common that an uncivilized being is civilized by the love of a human of the opposite gender. It may be clear though that the differences with the Šamḫat-archetype are considerable:

  1. Note that the sexual aspect remains implicit in most versions. This may be explained by the fact that in most cultures where the mentioned stories were written down, sexuality often was a taboo topic, to be avoided in literature. The Šamḫat-episode is rather explicitly sexual, and romantic aspects seem to be absent here.
  2. Note that the civilizing characters often do not have an explicitly sexual background, they are no temple prostitutes like Šamḫat — but rather young women with maybe little or no sexual experience (or young men, in the stories of the swan maiden type). The sexual background of Delilah is not clear, she might be more promiscuous: just before her name is mentioned, Samson is said to be visiting a prostitute — but this does not necessarily imply that Delilah is a prostitute, too.
  3. Note that Šamḫat is explicitly sent in order to civilize Enkidu, while the female characters in most other stories are not explicitly sent by someone in order to tame the wild man/beast. The changement of wild man/beast into civilized man takes place as an often unforeseen consequence. Only the faithless Delilah betrays Samson on purpose.
  4. Note that Šamḫat plays just this one role in a much larger and much more complex story. She has a clearly defined role, she fulfills this role, and then she disappears out of the story. In most other stories, the female character is also the main character (not just a plot device), and the story is often told through her perspective (only in the story Samson, Delilah plays a less central role, and in Vǫlundarkviða the episode with the swan maidens is just a small part in the beginning of the story).

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