Love of all kinds—between friends, or between lovers—plays a central role in the Epic. For Enkidu, being intimate with a woman signals his joining human civilization. When Gilgamesh rejects Ishtar’s advances, she grows angry, and this leads eventually to Enkidu’s death. But the most important love in the epic is certainly between Gilgamesh and Enkidu. The Epic celebrates this friendship, and how it transforms both men for the better. Only through his friendship with Enkidu does Gilgamesh come to first recognize his own mortality, and finally accept it. Thus, in the Epic, the love of friendship is often stronger than that of romance.
Enkidu was born in the wilderness, and until Gilgamesh intervenes, he is accepted among the wild animals. Repeatedly, it is said that if Enkidu sleeps with a woman, he will be rejected by nature. Indeed, after he sleeps with Shamhat, the animals reject him. The act of sex takes on symbolic meaning for his entrance to human society: its consummation is what makes him human. Thus, the Epic regards sex as in part a corrupting force: through sex Enkidu loses his innocence and his life in the wild.
Gilgamesh’s rejection of the goddess Ishtar’s advances offers another negative perspective on sex and romantic love: Gilgamesh “sins” by turning down the goddess of love and fertility, which provokes her wrath. Importantly, his reason for rejecting Ishtar is that she has been cruel to all of her past lovers. Ishtar, the goddess of love, treats her lovers badly: this shows that the Epic regards romantic love as often harsh and punishing. Ishtar lives up to this view by demanding that Anu release the Bull of Heaven in revenge, which eventually leads to Enkidu’s death.
Ultimately the love that comes with friendship is seen as both more powerful and more positive than romantic love in the Epic. Before he meets Enkidu, Gilgamesh is an arrogant leader, oblivious to his own limitations and mortality, and hated by the people of his city because he sleeps with brides the night before their marriage. But Gilgamesh’s friendship with Enkidu and Enkidu’s death lead Gilgamesh on a quest for everlasting life, and then to accept his own mortality. It is his the happiness and fulfillment he finds in his friendship with Enkidu, then, that ultimately allows Gilgamesh to find meaning even in his finite existence.
Friendship, Love, and Sexuality ThemeTracker
Friendship, Love, and Sexuality Quotes in The Epic of Gilgamesh
When next he comes down to drink at the wells she will be there, stripped naked; and when he sees her beckoning him he will embrace her, and then the wild beasts will reject him.
O Enkidu, there all the people are dressed in their gorgeous robes, every day is a Holiday, the young men and the girls are wonderful to see. How sweet they smell!
When Enkidu was thrown he said to Gilgamesh, ‘There is not another like you in the world. Ninsun, who is as strong as a wild ox in the byre, she was the mother who bore you, and now you are raised above all men, and Enlil has given you the kingship, for your strength surpasses the strength of men’. So Enkidu and Gilgamesh embraced and their friendship was sealed.
Gilgamesh replied: ‘Where is the man who can clamber to heaven? Only the gods live for ever with glorious Shamash, but as for us men, our days are numbered, our occupations are a breath of wind. How is this, already you are afraid!’
O my lord, you do not know this monster and that is the reason you are not afraid. I who know him, I am terrified. His teeth are dragon’s fangs, his countenance is like a lion, his charge is the rushing of the flood, with his look he crushes alike the trees of the forest and reeds in the swamp. O my Lord, you may go on if you choose into this land, but I will go back to the city. I will tell the lady your mother all your glorious deeds till she shouts for joy: and then I will tell the death that followed till she weeps for bitterness.
Which of your lovers did you ever love for ever? What shepherd of yours has pleased you for all time?
My father, give me the Bull of Heaven to destroy Gilgamesh. Fill Gilgamesh, I say, with arrogance to his destruction; but if you refuse to give me the Bull of Heaven I will break in the doors of hell and smash the bolts; there will be confusion of people, those above with those from the lower depths. I shall bring up the dead to eat food like the living; and the hosts of dead will outnumber the living.
‘Who is there in strong-walled Uruk who has wisdom like this? Strange things have been spoken, but why does your heart speak strangely? The dream was marvelous but the terror was great; we must treasure the dream whatever the terror; for the dream has shown that misery comes at last to the healthy man, the end of life is sorrow.’ And Gilgamesh lamented, ‘Now I will pray to the great gods, for my friend had an ominous dream.’
How can I rest, how can I be at peace? Despair is in my heart. What my brother is now, that shall I be when I am dead.
She answered, ‘Gilgamesh, where are you hurrying to? You will never find that life for which you are looking. When the gods created man they allotted to him death, but life they retained in their own keeping. As for you, Gilgamesh, fill your belly with good things; day and night, night and day, dance and be merry, feast and rejoice. Let your clothes be fresh, bathe yourself in water, cherish the little child that holds your hand, and make your wife happy in your embrace; for this too is the lot of man.’
Gilgamesh spoke to him, to Urshanabi the ferryman, ‘Urshanabi, climb up on to the wall of Uruk, inspect its foundation terrace, and examine well the brickwork; see if it is not of burnt bricks; and did not the seven wise men lay these foundations? One third of the whole is city, one is garden, and one third is field, with the precinct of the goddess Ishtar. These parts and the precinct are all Uruk.’