There is some consensus regarding Babylon and Mesopotamia on some of them has been pointed out by both Yannis and Brian Donovan. That said the question of Sacred prostitution in Mesopotamia has been quite challenged those past 20 years. The "translation" of harimtu into sacred prostitute is due to miss Gerda Lerner (a feminist),This translation is... debatable (to say the least), as the way she is implying Shamhat episode demonstrates temple harlots was an accepted institution.
The beginning of the Epic
At the beginning of the text we encounter Gilgamesh who
does not leave a girl to her mother
the daughter of the warrior or the bride of a young man
Clearly so Gilgamesh is raping every girls... To that the gods are answering by creating a reflect of Gilgamesh Enkidu.
Aruru cleaned her hands, she takes some clay, and threw it into the wild,
In the wild she created the mighty Enkidu
After being discovered the Harlot Shamhat is sent to tame Enkidu, let see her approach:
Shamhat detached her robe, exposed her sex, and he took her voluptuously
She was not restrained but took his energy
It is fairly important to notice here the close parallelism:
- Gilgamesh the civilized is sexually harassing young girls
- Shamhat the harlot is sexually harassing Enkidu
Another thing to notice is the reversal:
- In Gilgamesh scene, the sexual assault is perpetrated by the male Gilgamesh
- In Shamhat scene, the sexual assault is perpetrated by the female Shamhat.
- In Gilgamesh scene the females are supposedly pure and innocent while Gilgamesh is depraved
- In Shamhat scene Enkidu is pure and innocent (well savage) while Shamhat is an harlot, a whore, a prostitute
As Enkidu is at its core a reflect of Gilgamesh, Enkidu/Shamhat scene is the mirror of Gilgamesh/girls scene.
Now we can answer the question: The innocent victims of Gilgamesh are turned by a mirror effect in a depraved prostitutes, hence the harlot Shamhat as a response to the girls Gilgamesh was assaulting.
Wild vs Savage
On common explanation of this part is Enkidu represents the wild, while Gilgamesh the civilized... Let's twist the neck of that thing. After Enkidu has been tamed by Shamhat he goes with her in Uruk, and this is what happens:
[Gilgamesh] will have sex with the promised, he first, then the husband.
At the young man's speech, Enkidu become angered
Notice here we are confronted to a new reversal:
- The civilized Gilgamesh is acting like a wild beast taking every women first, and clearly it is stated that the civilized people are not truly liking it, while doing nothing
- The savage Enkidu is reacting instantly and does the right thing going to fight Gilgamesh
Once again observe here the reverse situation: the civilized appears to act like a prank while the savage is acting righteously, and he is the only one doing so (which clearly indicate the sense of this is certainly not the "civilized Gilgamesh accepting the wild Enkidu". Gilgamesh is a prank, and he is throughout the Epic)
Let's return to the figure of Shamhat. There is a series of named women in the Epic:
- The harlot Shamhat
- The tavern keeper Siduri
- The goddess Ishtar
And there is a series of faintly unnamed ones:
- The wife of the scorpion-man
- The wife of the wise Uta-naphistim
Which illustrates enough the importance of Shamhat, let's examine her:
after having tamed Enkidu, she tells him:
You are beautiful, o Enkidu, you are like a god
Why do you roam in the wild with the wild beast
Come, let me bring you into Uruk,
The city of Gilgamesh who is wise
but who uses his power over his people like a wild bull
Notice the wild bull used later as the Mighty Great Bull of Heaven. See also Shamhat kindness, especially for the people of Uruk (who are sending her to a potential death, may I notice).
Now let's take a look at this:
They placed some food in front of [Enkidu]
They placed some beer in front of him
The harlot spoke tho Enkidu:
Eat the food, Enkidu, it is the way here,
drink the beer as it is the custom in the land
And with have that:
Shamhat removes her clothing,
and clothed [Enkidu] with one piece > While she clothes herself with the second one
In the example I gave Shamhat is acting like a mother educating Enkidu, teaching him to eat, to drink, to socialize, and going as much as sharing her own outfit. From the harlot we got, we have a motherly figure, and notice the education she is giving to Enkidu is good because he will then act righteously... Compare with Enkidu's true mother Aruru.
What you have here is a piece of reversal where each social conventions are taken upside down:
- Gilgamesh is an idiot
- Enkidu a wild beast
- Shamhat an harlot
Still at the end:
- shamhat appears as a tremendous mother
- Enkidu is a good guy
- Gilgamesh is still an idiot
Notice also, except his mother, Gilgamesh only embrace, kiss, hold one another character: Enkidu, which always leads to believe their relationship is of homosexual nature (Jacobsen noticed in its days: "throughout the Epic, the relationship with Enkidu replaces marriage", another safe reading also Anne Kilmer noticed the used of Akkadian words pukku, mekku to emphasize this).
I would like to talk here of the original text and especially some of the terms used:
The trapper to Shamhat: I - 80: anu ú shamhat rummi kirimmiki
the term used: rummi kirimiki is quite hard to translate, kirimmu is meaning: crook of arm, as protection to child (Concise dictionnary of akkadian) So a basic translation could be:
Here he is Shamhat, open your arms
BUT rummi Kirimmiki is so intertwinned with a mother holding her child.
Notice than when we are introduced to Shamhat we learn she is an harlot (Harimtu in akkadian), then we see her turning into a fairly loving and dedicated mother, before in tablet 2 turning into a wise councelor, fairly similar to Ninsun (II-67/68 milkum sha shinnishtim imtaqut ana libbishu = the councel of the woman [Shamhat] struck him deeply). Do I have to notice the science of the poet who is putting the little epic of Shamhat (a mere whore of no importance sent to tame a wild man, and becoming a loving caring mother), inside the bigger Epic of Gilgamesh (a bad king going into a vain Epic and coming back with high knowledge... the first words of the Epic are Sha nagba imuru, where nagbum means, source of water, whole, entirety (CDA), so either, he who saw the deep, or he who saw the source, or he who got wisdom).
One of the key to understand the Epic is seeing the constant reversals used throughout the Epic, later on you have THE reversal, in tablet VI with the Ishtar episode (so often misunderstood as Ishtar being bitch-slapped, as Aphrodite's scene by the way), and toward the end the ultimate reversal with Enkidu closing the Epic. In the Epic the role are inversed, the wild men are teaching the civilized men, the harlots are the best mothers possible, Enkidu becomes an obvious lover.
Truth also is Shamhat episode with this whore becoming the lover then mother of Enkidu is... quite disturbing at its core, looking a lot like Jocasta (much more than a society encouraging public sacred prostitution).