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literature

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Gilgamesh  

The ancient Sumerian poem Gilgamesh is structured around the love that the heroic male couple Gilgamesh and Enkidu have for each other.

The historical Gilgamesh ruled in Uruk, a city in ancient Mesapotamia, around 2700 B.C.E. Sumerian traditions of his story existed from around 2000 B.C.E., and a Babylonian attempt to recast the diverse ancient materials into a connected narrative was made around 1600 B.C.E.

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His story, thus, predates both the Hebrew Bible and the Homeric epics by more than one thousand years and is arguably the world's oldest surviving work of narrative literature. The Standard Version of the text, which was established between 668 and 627 B.C.E. as part of the extraordinary library of Assyrian ruler Assurbanipal, had been lost until archeologists excavating mounds at ancient Nineveh and Nimrud in the mid-nineteenth century recovered and transliterated the cuneiform letters inscribed on clay tablets.

The poem is structured around Gilgamesh's love for Enkidu, a man created by the gods specifically to contain Gilgamesh's disturbing assertion of his kingly prerogative to enjoy sexually any woman in the community.

Before their fated meeting, Enkidu pined in the countryside "for a comrade . . . who would understand his heart" (Sanders ed.). In the city, meanwhile, Gilgamesh dreams about mysterious objects whose attraction to him "was like the love of a woman," which, his priestess-mother explains, prophesy the imminent arrival of "the strong comrade, the one who brings help to his friend in his need . . . ; when you see him you will be glad; you will love him as a woman and he will never forsake you."

Their decisive encounter occurs when Enkidu prevents Gilgamesh from entering a bridal house, intent on despoiling the bride. They fight like wild oxen but conclude by sealing their friendship in an embrace.

The heroic couple's exploits culminate in Gilgamesh's refusal to become the consort of Ishtar, goddess of love and war, and in Enkidu's defiantly throwing the "thigh" (a euphemism for the genitals) of the newly slaughtered Bull of Heaven in her face after she resentfully unleashed it on the heroic couple.

To punish this effrontery, the gods cause Enkidu to sicken and die. In his last moments, Enkidu laments that he will never again be able to look on "my dear brother," whom he calls the very "water of life."

Gilgamesh's response to the death of his friend is sublime in its excess: After watching over the corpse for seven days and nights, he finally dresses the lifeless body for burial "as one veils the bride" and orders that a statue of precious metals be raised in the likeness of Enkidu. He then sets out on the search for everlasting life and the secret of rejuvenation that dominates the last part of the poem.

Gilgamesh confesses to everyone he meets that "since [Enkidu] went, my life is nothing." His search proves fruitless, however, and he returns to his kingly city where he reputedly composes the epic of his own adventures and carves them on the wall of the temple.

Although the poem refers repeatedly to Gilgamesh's love for Enkidu as the central event of his life without specifying the nature of that love or what form its expression might have taken, the relationship between the two men obviously arouses far more authentic and intense emotions than either feels able to experience with a woman.

Indeed, The Epic of Gilgamesh may be considered the archetype for the great heroic couples of antiquity. The funeral elegy that Gilgamesh recites at the loss of Enkidu rivals both biblical David's much-praised lament for Jonathan, and Achilles's speeches protesting the death of Patroclus.

Enkidu's willingness in one version of the poem to go down alive to the underworld in order to bring back two of Gilgamesh's best loved possessions, only to be held there after breaking one of its taboos, provides a homosexual version of mythic love that braves the threat of death, rivaling the stories of Orpheus and Eurydice, or of Alcestis and Admetus.

Gilgamesh's erection of a statue to memorialize his beloved anticipates the emperor Hadrian's deification of Antinous.

Gilgamesh's story is particularly open to Jungian interpretation: By wrestling with and finally embracing the wild man Enkidu, Gilgamesh is able to contain his own dangerously lawless heterosexual impulses and channel his superhuman energies in heroic endeavors, his love for Enkidu allowing him a psychological completeness unavailable in any other relationship.

Raymond-Jean Frontain

     

 
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This ancient tablet shows Gilgamesh (center) fighting a bull.
  
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    Bibliography
   

Dynes, Wayne R., and Stephen Donaldson, eds. Homosexuality in the Ancient World. New York: Garland, 1992.

The Epic of Gilgamesh. Trans. N. K. Sanders. Rev. ed. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1966.

Gilgamesh: Translated from the Sin-leqi-unninni Version. Trans. and eds. John Gardner and John Maier, with the assistance of Richard A. Henshaw. New York: Knopf, 1984.

Halperin, David M. "Heroes and Their Pals." One Hundred Years of Homosexuality and Other Essays on Greek Love. New York: Routledge, 1990. 75-87.

Speiser, E. A., trans. and section ed. "Akkadian Myths and Epics." Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament. James B. Pritchard, ed. 2nd ed. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1955. 60-119.

 

    Citation Information
         
    Author: Frontain, Raymond-Jean  
    Entry Title: Gilgamesh  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
 
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated March 1, 2004  
    Web Address www.glbtq.com/literature/gilgamesh.html  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
 
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  
 

 

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