David & Jonathan
and the Epic of Gilgamesh, Part 1

By Bruce L. Gerig

Introduction to the Epic of Gilgamesh – A 4,000-year-old tale of love, death and adventure, the Epic of Gilgamesh is the world’s oldest epic masterpiece.1 An epic is a “long, exalted, narrative poem, usually on a serious subject, centered on a heroic figure.”2 Because this Epic is not as widely-read as it might be and because it is extremely helpful in shedding light on the David and Jonathan story, we shall now give it some extended attention, including in Part 1 a review of its formation and basic story and of some key passages, and then in Part 2 a discussion of homoerotic elements in the epic and other analysis, especially relating all of this to the David and Jonathan story.

Formation of the Epic – Gilgamesh (Sumerian: Bilgamesh) was an early ruler of the city-state of Uruk (called Erech in the Bible, Gen 10:10, and Warka today), around 2700 B.C.3 By the late 3rd millennium, in heroic tales passed on orally from generation to generation, Gilgamesh had become a very popular figure in Sumer (region of the lower Euphrates and Tigris rivers, in what is now S. Iraq), especially among the rulers of the Third Dynasty of Ur (2112-2004 B.C.;4 also Abraham’s birthplace, Gen 11:31). Seven short poems about various tales of his exploits and experiences (115-450 lines each) have survived.5 These stories, first written down in Sumerian ca. 2100 B.C., are often referred to as the Sumerian Gilgamesh poems (SGP); and these rulers of Ur claimed that they were descendents of the ancient royal house of Gilgamesh.6 Then after Hammurabi, king of Babylon, conquered the southern region of Sumer (1763 B.C.7), a Babylonian tradition about Gilgamesh appeared. The longest and most original of these stories, known as the Old Babylonian Version (OBV), combined elements from the earlier Sumerian tales into a new, cohesive plot which described how an arrogant, overbearing king was chastened by the realization that he too will die.8 Various lines were reworded, dropped and added; and sections added later included the Prologue, Story of the Flood, and Tablet XII.9 Written in a Babylonian dialect called Akkadian, this epic ran a thousand lines or more in length.10 New twists in the story include the revelation that Enkidu, Gilgamesh’s companion, must die as divine punishment for the heroes’ slaying of the sacred monster Humbaba (Sumerian: Khuwawa); also Gilgamesh, consumed with grief over Enkidu’s death and fearing his own mortality, journeys to the end of the world in search of a secret for eternal life. Because of its fragmentary ending, it is not clear how the OBV story ends.11 In addition, later “middle versions” have survived, written between 1500-1000 B.C.12 In the 2nd millennium B.C. the Gilgamesh story must have been widely known, as documented by texts unearthed at the Hittite capital of Huttusa (now in eastern Turkey) – written in Akkadian and also translated into Hittite and Hurrian – along with fragments at Ugarit (on the Syrian coast), at Akhataten (on the Nile, in Upper Egypt), and at Megiddo (in lower Galilee, 50 miles W of the Jordan River). The last site points to the existence of a Canaanite or later Palestinian version and also to the possibility that early Biblical authors were familiar with this story.13 The longest, fullest narrative of the Epic of Gilgamesh, today called the Standard Version (SV), included Tablets I-XI and traditionally was credited to the poet-priest-editor Sin-leqe-unninni (Kovacs: Sinleqqiunninni, p. 46),14 who made important perhaps definitive contributions to this final version,15 dated ca. 1300 B.C.16 This final, stabilized text is best known from 7th century copies that were discovered in the royal library in Nineveh (in N. Iraq) of the Assyrian king Assurbanipal – although substantial parts have been found also at other ancient sites. The SV text originally contained ca. 3,000 lines. Although only about three-fifths of the whole has actually been recovered,17 scholars have been able to fill in numerous gaps by taking over text from other similar passages and related versions.18 The poet Rainer Maria Rilke called the Epic of Gilgamesh “overwhelming” and “the greatest thing that one can experience.”19 William Moran described it as “the supreme literary achievement of the ancient world before Homer,” and Tzvi Abusch as deserving a place in Western literature “beside Homer and the Books of Judges and Samuel.”20 From our standpoint, the Epic of Gilgamesh has special interest because its central theme involves the love between two men;21 and, as Tom Horner noted, no one “has ever been more broken up over the loss of his (or her) beloved friend than the hero of this, the world’s first great love story.”22

The Standard Version traditionally has been divided up into twelve “tablets,” eleven of which form a continuous story, while the twelfth is a partial translation of a separate but still somewhat related Sumerian poem, which was added sometime in the first millennium B.C.23 The best, scholarly translations into English of the Epic of Gilgamesh include those by Maureen Kovacs (Stanford University, 2nd ed. 1989), Andrew George (University of London, 1999), Stephanie Dalley (Oxford University, 2nd ed. 2000), and Benjamin Foster et al. (Yale University, 2001).24 Also, still helpful is the text by E.A. Speiser (University of Pennsylvania, 1969), in James Pritchard’s Ancient Near Eastern Texts, Relating to the Old Testament, 3rd ed. Two other noteworthy translations include an annotated one by John Gardner and John Maier (literary scholars, 1984) and a dramatic, freer one by Stephen Mitchell (a writer, 2004). At least twenty different English translations have appeared since George Smith’s 1870 rendering, which omitted some parts as being too sexually explicit; and even in Alexander Heidel’s 1949 translation some parts still considered ‘inappropriate’ for the general public were given only in Latin!25 It should be noted, also, that since translators have filled in missing lines or sections in different ways, there is no single, authoritative line numbering, which instead varies from translation to translation.26

Basic story – In the Epic of Gilgamesh (SV), Tablet I begins with a prologue which describes Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, returning home from a long journey, weary but having found wisdom and peace. He takes up building projects in the city and writes down a record of all that he has experienced. The narrator then goes back to the beginning of the king’s story, introducing the young Gilgamesh, who was born two-thirds god and one-third human and who was the “most handsome” of men. Yet with the energy of a “wild bull,” he oppresses his subjects so relentlessly that they cry out to the gods for help. Therefore, Anu father of the gods orders the creation of a “match,” a companion, for Gilgamesh. This creature, named Enkidu, at first grazes with animals in the open field, until a hunter sees him and reports this to Gilgamesh, who directs that the prostitute Shamhat be sent out to tame him. When she bares herself, Enkidu couples with her for a whole week, after which the animals will have nothing more to do with him. Meanwhile, Gilgamesh has two dreams – the first of a meteorite and the second of an axe – which his mother, the goddess Ninsun, tells him foretell that a “mighty comrade” will come to him, whom he will “love, caress and embrace.” When Shamhat tells Enkidu about Gilgamesh and his prophetic dreams, he knows somehow by instinct that he should seek out Gilgamesh. Tablet II relates how Shamhat domesticates Enkidu, teaching him how to wash, wear clothes, eat human food and drink beer. That night Enkidu learns from a traveler hurrying by that Gilgamesh plans later that evening to exercise his royal right to lie first with a new bride in Uruk. Enkidu rushes off to the city where he blocks Gilgamesh’s way, and the two wrestle furiously. Finally, however, Gilgamesh’s anger subsides; and they “kissed each other and formed a friendship.” Gilgamesh proposes to his new pal that they go off on an expedition to slay the ferocious Humbaba, Guardian of the Cedar Forest in the west, so that they may obtain some of his precious wood. Enkidu and the city elders try to dissuade the king from this dangerous mission, but Gilgamesh is adamant; so the two companions visit the city forge to have mighty hatchets, axes and daggers made. Tablet III details further preparations for the expedition as Ninsun beseeches Shamash the sun god to give Gilgamesh aid and success. She also adopts Enkidu as her son (and so also as Gilgamesh’s brother) and blesses them both. Gilgamesh gives instructions for the governing of Uruk in his absence.

Tablet IV tells how, en route to Mount Lebanon and its cedars, Gilgamesh has five dreams, which Enkidu interprets as good omens showing that Shamash will help them defeat the monster Humbaba. Tablet V describes the heroes climbing the Mountain of Cedar until they face the angry Humbaba. Only because Shamash releases thirteen winds that blind Humbaba are the two heroes able to slay him. Enkidu advises killing the divine guardian quickly before the other gods learn of it. Tablet VI tells how after the two heroes return to Uruk, Ishtar, goddess of love and special deity of Uruk, looks “with longing” on the bathed, beautiful Gilgamesh and asks him to be her bridegroom. However, he scorns her offer, reminding her of how badly she has treated all of her previous lovers. Furious, Ishtar demands that Anu, her father, release the mighty Bull of Heaven to punish Gilgamesh. When the beast appears, it snorts open huge pits in the ground into which many men from Uruk fall. Then Enkidu grabs the beast by the tail, while Gilgamesh stabs it in the back of the neck, behind the horns; and ripping out its heart, they offer it to Shamash. When Ishtar begins to wail, Enkidu tears off the Bull’s hindquarter and hurls it up at the goddess, who is assembling all of her priestesses and prostitutes to mourn the Bull’s death. Tablet VII relates two dreams then that Enkidu has, one revealing that the gods have decided that he must die to pay for the killing of Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven, and the second showing him the dismal Netherworld that awaits him. Indeed, he does fall ill and after his condition worsens over twelve days, he dies.

Tablet VIII describes Gilgamesh’s shock and grief over the loss of his companion. He calls upon all who have known Enkidu to join his lament, and he makes lavish preparations for Enkidu’s funeral. Tablet IX describes how Gilgamesh’s painful loss leads him to wander off into the wilderness, continuing to weep for Enkidu and fearing his own mortality. He decides to seek out Utanapisthim – also rendered as Ut-napishtim (Dalley) and Ut-napishti (George). From this ‘Babylonian Noah’ who survived the great flood with his family and was granted eternal life Gilgamesh hopes to learn the secret of immortality. Along the way, he faces wild animals, a scorpion-man, severe trials, and gripping fear. Shamash the sun god warns him that he will never find eternal life, but Gilgamesh presses on, until he reaches Mount Mashu in the far east, where the sun rises. He comes to a jeweled garden by the seashore at the edge of the world, where a wise old goddess runs a tavern. Tablet X relates Gilgamesh’s discussion with this barmaid Siduri. Siduri/Shiduri is described in various translations as a “tavern-keeper” (George, Kovacs, Foster), an “ale-wife” (Speiser, Dalley), and a “barmaid” (Sandars, Mitchell). When Gilgamesh asks for help, she warns him of the futility of his quest and of the dangers of the Waters of Death. Finally, however, she tells him where to find Utanapishtim’s ferryman, Urshanabi. Tablet XI tells of Gilgamish’s final encounter, with Utanapishtim and his wife, although he fails the two tests for eternal life (to stay awake for a whole week, then to eat of the plant of rejuvination, which will make him young again). Gilgamesh obtains this sacred plant from underwater, but when he goes for a cooling swim in the sweltering heat, a snake eats the plant. So, Gilgamesh finally returns to Uruk, where he eventually overcomes his loss of Enkidu by focusing his attention on constructing great city walls.27 Actually, traces of these walls can still be seen today in Iraq, showing that they stretched over 6 miles long and contained 900 towers.28 So the tale ends where the Prologue begins, which speaks of Gilgamesh returning home to his throne in Uruk a weary but wiser man.

Tablet XII is a literal translation of part of a Sumerian poem sometimes called “Gilgamesh, Enkidu and the Netherworld.”29 Its story relates how Gilgamesh (Bilgamesh) helped Inanna (Ishtar) by ridding her favorite willow tree of “vile inhabitants.” Then he uses the wood to make her furniture, as well as to carve two “playthings” (a ball and a mallet) for himself from the wood that was left over. The young men of Uruk are worn out playing with these new toys, but then the toys fall through a hole in the ground into the Netherworld. Enkidu, here Gilgamesh’s servant, offers to go retrieve them, although Gilgamesh warns him to take due precautions and not to draw attention to himself in the realm of the dead. However, Enkidu disregards Gilgamesh’s advice, is taken captive below, and cannot escape. He is only able to see Gilgamesh one last time, briefly, when the sun god allows his spirit to return to the earth’s surface so the two friends are reunited and Gilgamesh “hugged <Enkidu> tight and kissed him.” But hugging a ghost is not the same as flesh, and so they turn quickly to discussing the afterlife. Enkidu points out that the more sons a man has the more his thirst in the afterlife will be quenched by the offerings of fresh water that family members bring regularly to his grave site.30

A closer look at some key passages – Now, we want to look more closely at certain passages in the story that may shed light on the David and Jonathan story. Introduction of Gilgamesh and Enkidu (Tablet I) – In the initial scene, the narrator describes how Gilgamesh was “most handsome.” He had a “build perfected by the divine Nudimmud <Foster: ‘Ninsun,’ p. 4>” and “his beauty was consummate” (George, I lines 62,50,61, p. 3). However, like a “savage wild bull” Gilgamesh “harries <torments>” the young men of Uruk, keeping them “on their feet with his contests.” Day or night, he “lets no son go free to his father” and “lets no [daughter go free to her] mother” and “lets no girl go free to [her bridegroom]” until Gilgamesh has lain with her (George, I 66-77,81, p. 3-4). One can see in the text here how some word translations are uncertain (given in italics) and how text from other sources is used to fill in gaps (given in square brackets). Text added by this author, usually for clarification purposes, is indicated by angle < > brackets. So, the citizens of Uruk complain to their gods about their young king’s harsh “tyranny.”31 In Foster, the citizens complain that Gilgamesh is like a “headstrong wild bull… / His teammates stand forth by <must face> his game stick…”32 Dalley reads, Gilgamesh “had no rival, and at his pukku / <whenever> His weapons would rise up, his comrades have to rise up” also, day or night.33 Dalley explains that pukku probably refers to a type of hockey stick that was used at games played at weddings and that also may have had fertility significance.34 Some interpreters have held that the king’s sexual energies were directed toward the young men as well as toward Uruk’s maidens (Thorkild Jacobsen, John Bailey);35 however, the text does not really state this. Most interpreters today hold instead that Gilgamesh was exhausting the young men of Uruk with his violent games. As Neal Walls suggests, he is just being “compulsively masculine” in his monumental building enterprises, aggressively competitive sports, and excessive heterosexual indulgences.36 Anyway, Anu father of the gods orders that a companion be created for Gilgamesh, someone who would “be a match for the storm of his heart” (George, I 97, p. 5), his “equal” (Foster).37 As it turned out, Enkidu the new creature was hairy all over and had “long tresses <locks> like those of a woman” (George, I 105-106, p. 5). As Kovacs describes him, he had “a full head of hair like a woman, / <and> his locks billowed in the wind like grain.”38 Yet, Enkidu was also “mighty as a rock from the sky” (George, I 152, p. 6), strong as “a meteorite(?)” (Kovacs).39 Actually, what was probably ‘feminine’ about Enkidu’s hair was not that it was long, but that throughout his life and all of the time he let it hang loose flowing over his shoulders and down his back.40

Shamhat’s training of Enkidu (Tablet I) – When Gilgamesh heard about Enkidu, he ordered that Shamhat the prostitute be sent to entice him and wean him from the animals. So, as George notes, “she bared her sex <kuzbu; Foster: ‘exposed her loins,’ p. 9) and he took her charms <Mitchell: ‘gazed at her body,’ p. 78>.” Then “his passion caressed and embraced her. / For six days and seven nights / Enkidu was erect <Kovacs: ‘stayed aroused,’ p. 9>, as he coupled with Shamhat.” (George, I 189,193-194, p. 8). She breathed, “You are handsome, Enkidu, you are just like a god!” (George, I 207, p. 8). Then she spoke to him of Uruk, of its harlots, “fairest of form, / Rich in beauty, full of delights,” and also of Gilgamesh, “radiant with virility, manly vigor is his, / The whole of his body is seductively gorgeous <kuzbu>.” But, “Mightier strength has he than you…” (Foster, I 230-238, p. 10-11). Somehow Enkidu knew “by instinct” that he should seek out Gilgamesh as his “friend” (George, I 214, p. 8). Mitchell describes the sex between Shamhat and Enkidu as: She “stripped off her robe and lay there naked, / with her legs apart, touching herself.” Then, she touched Enkidu “on the thigh, / touched his penis, and put him inside her. / … / For seven days / he stayed erect and made love with her, / until he had had enough.” When Shamhat told him about Gilgamesh, “Deep in his heart he felt something stir, / a longing he had never known before, / the longing for a true friend.” She fanned his imagination with talk of “‘the lovely priestesses standing before the temple of Ishtar … <ready> to serve men’s pleasure, in honor of the goddess…’” She also said, “‘<Y>ou will stand before him <Gilgamesh> and gaze with wonder, / you will see how handsome, how virile he is, / how his body pulses with erotic power <kuzbu>.’”41

Enkidu’s coupling with Shamhat presents Mesopotamian masculine gender, desire, and sexuality in its most (heterosexual) raw and natural form.42 Some interpreters doubt whether Shamhat was a temple prostitute. Still, as Wilfried Lambert notes, “[I]t is certain that [all] prostitution was regarded as a sacrament of Inanna/Ishtar.”43 Walls notes that the line Shamhat “bared her sex and he <Enkidu> took in her charms” contains sexual euphemisms that would be better understood as meaning, “she opened her vulva and he took her sexual vigor (kuzbu).”44 Enkidu is designed to be a “match” for Gilgamesh’s passions and appetites, as well as a wild man who hopefully will exhaust his energies and distract him from oppressing the young men of Uruk.45 Yet, as Neal Walls notes, “Enkidu’s physical lust for Shamhat’s body is merely his apprenticeship to desire before accepting his true vocation in loving Gilgamesh.”46

Gilgamesh’s dreams of a companion (Tablet I) – Shamhat tells Enkidu about two dreams that Gilgamesh had. In the first dream, Gilgamesh saw something “like a rock <kisru> from the sky <that> fell down before me”; and later he told his mother, “like a wife [I loved it], caressed and embraced it.” His mother Ninsun then explained that this meant that “a mighty comrade will come to you, and be his friend’s saviour.” (George, I 245-272, p. 10). Kisru has been translated here as “ball” (Kilmer, p. 128; Kovacs, p. 8), “meteor” (Sandars, p. 66; Ackerman, p. 55), “meteorite” (Ferry, p. 10; Walls, p. 55), and “shooting star” (Gardner and Maier, p. 81). In Mitchell, the mother explains that the “bright star <that> shot across / the morning sky” and fell at Gilgamesh’s feet / “like a huge boulder” was his “double,” a “second self.” It stands for “a dear friend, a mighty hero. / You will take him in your arms, embrace and caress him / the way a man caresses his wife…” / He will be “the companion of your heart.”47 In the second dream, Gilgamesh saw “an axe <hassinnu> was lying” in the street; and he told his mother again, “like a wife [I loved] it, caressed and embraced it…” She explained that the meaning was essentially the same as in the first dream: “a friend” will come to you and “like a wife you’ll love him, caress him and embrace him, … / A mighty comrade will come to you, and be his friend’s saviour…” (George, I 273-297, p. 11). As Walls notes, Gilgamesh has the young men of Uruk to bully, but no one to be his real friend, partner, equal and buddy, until Enkidu arrives. The king yearns for someone who can understand his superhuman capacities – but instead of an Eve for Adam, a man Enkidu is created to be the soul-mate for Gilgamesh.48

Gilgamesh and Enkidu meet (Tablet II) – Shamhat “stripped and clothed him <Enkidu> in part of her garment,” and a “barber <came> and groomed his body so hairy” and anointed him with oil (George, II P 70,106-107, p. 13-14). Foster reads a little differently: Enkidu “treated his hairy body with water <i.e. washed himself, and> / he anointed himself with oil…”49 Later that night, while Enkidu was having sex again with Shamhat, he noticed a man hurrying by; and when he inquired where he was going, the fellow told him that he was headed for Uruk with food for a wedding banquet, where Gilgamesh “will couple with the wife-to-be, / he first of all, <then> the bridegroom after” – as divinely ordained. Enkidu was so angered by this (although we are not told why) that he rushed off to Uruk also, with Shamhat following (George, II P 159-166, p. 15). There the citizens of Uruk notice that “In build he <Enkidu> is the image of Gilgamesh, / but shorter in stature and bigger of bone.” (George, II P 184-185, p. 15). Enkidu had “the strength and beauty, the likeness of Gilgamesh” (Ferry),50 was “a handsome young man” (Kovacs),51 and was “an enormous man” (Mitchell).52

Then, as Gilgamesh was about to go in to the bride, Enkidu appeared and “with his foot blocked the door of the wedding house...” The two men “seized each other … / joined in combat… / The door-jambs shook, the wall did shudder…” (George, II 111-115, p. 16). Then, “Gilgamesh knelt, one foot on the ground, / his anger subsided, <and> he broke off from the fight.” (George, II P 229-230, p. 16). Text on the Yale tablet then adds, “They kissed each other and formed a friendship.” (George, II Y 18, p. 17,108). Enkidu said to Gilgamesh, “‘As one unique your mother bore you, … / High over warriors you are exalted…” (George, II P 235,237, p. 16). Dalley reads, “They grappled at the door of the father-in-law’s house, / Wrestled in the street, in the public square. / Doorframes shook, walls quaked.”53 Mitchell reads more dramatically (although blurring over certain sexual and other nuances in the original text): “When Gilgamesh reached the marriage house, / Enkidu was there. He stood like a boulder, / blocking the door. Gilgamesh raging, / stepped up and seized him, huge arms gripped / huge arms, foreheads crashed like wild bulls, / the two men staggered, they pitched against houses, / the doorposts trembled, the outer walls shook, / they careened through the streets, they grappled each other, / limbs intertwined, each huge body straining to break free from the other’s embrace. / Finally, Gilgamesh threw the wild man / and with his right knee pinned him to the ground. / His anger left him. He turned away. / The contest was over.”54 Actually, it is not clear in the original text who won the fight, or whether it was a draw.55 Dalley’s text at this point says about Enkidu that “He was born in the open country, and who can prevail over him?” No one.56

Journey to the Cedar Forest (Tablet IV) – On their way to the Forest of Cedar, we are told how “Enkidu made for Gilgamesh a shelter for receiving dreams, / A gust was blowing, he fastened the door. / He made him <Gilgamesh> lie down in a circle of [flour], / And spreading out like a net, Enkidu lay down in the doorway. / Gilgamesh sat there, chin on his knee. / Sleep, which usually steals over people, <finally> fell on him.” (Foster, IV 11-16, p. 30; repeated 5 times in the trip account here). However, the passage is difficult to translate, as can be seen in Kovacs: “Enkidu prepared a sleeping place for him <Gilgamesh> for the night; / a violent wind passed through so he attached a covering. / He made him lie down, and … in a circle. They … like grain from the mountain … / While Gilgamesh rested his chin on his knees, / sleep … overtook him.”57 Mitchell refers to “a magic circle of flour” drawn around Gilgamesh.58 Now, this does not sound like two men lying together at night and having sex. Yet, Speiser reads, “They grasped each other to go for their nightly rest. / Sleep overcame [them].”59 This is based on a Middle Babylonian text which reads, “They embraced each other for their night’s rest; sleep overcame them…”60 Gardner and Maier also have Gilgamesh lying down before he “drew his legs up to his chin.”61 Ferry notes that “Enkidu / prepared a sleeping place, prepared a shelter / against the wind that blew along the mountain.”62 Some elements in the text suggest, at least, that Gilgamesh and Enkidu may have huddled together in each other arms to keep themselves warm in the cold wind (as well as for other reasons).

Ishtar’s proposal (Tablet VI) – After the two heroes returned from slaying Humbaba, Gilgamesh “washed his matted hair, he cleaned his equipment, / he shook his hair down over his back.” He put on clean garments and then his crown. Then, “On the beauty of Gilgamesh Lady Ishtar <goddess of love> looked with longing: / ‘Come Gilgamesh, be you my bridegroom! / Grant me your fruits…!’” (George, VI 1-8, p. 48). Gardner and Maier read, Gilgamesh “shook out his braid of hair against his back” and put on clean clothes, a cloak and sash, and his crown. Then, “To Gilgamesh’s beauty the great Ishtar lifted her eyes. / ‘Come, Gilgamesh, be my lover! / Give me a taste of your body. / Would that you were my husband and I was your wife!’”63 Foster translates “cleaned his equipment” (in George) as “cleaned his head strap,” referring to a band of cloth normally worn then by men which when undone would allow his long hair to fall free over his shoulders, considered a sign of undress in Mesopotamia.64 Ferry reads, “The goddess Ishtar saw him and fell in love / with the beauty of Gilgamesh and longed for his body. / ‘Be my lover, be my husband,’ she spoke and said, / ‘Give me the seed of your body, give me your semen…’”65

However, Gilgamesh reminds Ishtar how she abused her past lovers, including Dumuzi (the lover of her youth), the “speckled allallu-bird” (Kovacs: ‘colorful little shepherd bird, p. 52; or Foster: ‘brightly-colored roller bird,’ p. 47), the lion (perfect in strength), the horse (famed in battle), the shepherd, and Ishullanu (her father’s gardener; cf. George).66 In fact, as Mitchell describes it, Ishtar sent “that beautiful boy Tammuz” (Dumuzi) to the underworld, broke the wings of “the bright-speckled roller bird,” left the lion trapped in a pit to die, forced the hot-blooded stallion to gallop endlessly with a bit in its mouth, and turned the master shepherd into a wolf.67 Relating to her last lover, Ishtar said to the gardener, “O my Ishullanu, let us taste of your vigour. / Put out your ‘hand’ and touch my quim!” (George, VI 68-69, p. 50). Note that “hand” here is an euphemism for the penis and that “quim” is an old English slang word for the external female genitalia, or vulva.68 Foster reads, “My Ishullanu, let’s have a taste of your vigor! / Bring out your member, touch our sweet spot!”69 Mitchell is even more forthright: “‘Sweet Ishullanu, let me suck your rod, / touch my vagina, caress my jewel…’” But “he frowned and answered, ‘Why should I eat this rotten meal of yours?’” So Ishtar turned him into a toad.70 One should note the frequent use of euphemisms (indirect language) in the original text and more literal translations that are used to refer to intimate sexual acts and body parts, made more clear in the more modern renderings. The bathing scene is an erotically charged motif in ancient Near Eastern literature (cf. David and Bathsheba), although the usual gender roles (masculine/active and feminine/passive) are inverted here. Clean, luxuriant hair is a natural symbol for seductive appeal; thus, Gilgamesh’s shaking out his flowing locks has sensual and erotic connotations, to which Ishtar reacts accordingly.71

After killing the Bull of Heaven (Tablet VI) – Shocked by the slaughter of the Bull of Heaven by Gilgamesh (who thrust his blade into the beast’s neck behind the horns), the goddess Ishtar begins to wail, calling together “the hair-curled priestesses, the love-priestesses and temple whores…” (Gardner and Maier).72 Meanwhile, Enkidu hurled up a piece of the Bull at her. The Akkadian word here has been translated as “thigh” (Speiser, p. 85; Mitchell, p. 138), “haunch” (Ferry, p. 35; George, p. 52; Foster, p. 50), and “hindquarter” (Kovacs, p. 55). However, Doty notes how “thigh” is commonly used in ancient Near Eastern texts as an euphemism for the “genitals”;73 and so this could very well refer to or have noticeably included the Bull’s large organ.74 Since the “haunch” is that part of an animal that includes the hip, the buttocks, and thickest part of the thigh,75 this description is no less offensive; and in fact is translated by Gardner and Maier as the Bull’s “excrement.”76 Clearly, there is no love lost between Enkidu and Ishtar. Further, Enkidu shouts out that if he could have caught Ishtar, “I’d have draped your arms in <the Bull’s> guts.” (George, VI 156-157, p. 52). After all of this excitement, Gilgamesh and Enkidu washed their hands in the Euphrates River, and then they “took each other by the hand and in they came” entering Uruk, to “make merry” in the palace (George, VI 67-68,179, p. 54). “Gilgamesh spoke a word to the serving girls of [his palace:] / ‘Who is the finest among men? / Who is the most glorious of fellows?’ … <and they answered,> … ‘Gilgamesh…!’” (George, VI 166-179, p. 54). Speiser notes: “They embraced each other as they went on, / Riding through the market-street of Uruk.”77 Foster reads, “Clasping each other, they came away <from the Euphrates>, / <They> Paraded through the streets of Uruk. / The people of Uruk crowded to look upon them.” Gilgamesh then asked the palace servant-women, “‘Who is the handsomest of young men? / Who is the most glorious of males?”78 Then, Speiser notes, “Down lie the heroes on their beds at night” and Enkidu has a dream.”79 Foster describes how after enjoying their celebration in the palace, Gilgamesh and Enkidu “slept stretched out on the couch of night.”80 However, Ferry avoids the question of there being one or two beds with “when all had fallen asleep,”81 as does with Mitchell with “the warriors were stretched out asleep.”82

Enkidu’s dreams (Tablet VII) – Now, in the first of two dreams that Enkidu has, he is shown that the gods have decided that he must die in retribution for the killing of Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven. As Enkidu relates this dream to Gilgamesh, three times he calls Gilgamesh “my brother,” with two additional references to “my brother, dear” and “my dear brother.”83 “Enkidu began to speak to Gilgamesh: ‘My brother, this night what a dream [I dreamed!]’ … Enkidu lay down before Gilgamesh, <and> his tears [flowed] down like streams: ‘O my brother, dear to me is my brother! They <the gods> will [never] raise me up again for my brother. [Among] the dead I shall sit, … never again [shall I set] eyes on my dear brother.” (George, VII Hittite fragment col. i, p. 55). Mitchell renders the labels here as “Beloved brother,” “Dear friend, dear brother,” and “my dear brother.”84 As Gilgamesh listens to Enkidu, he begins to weep as well. Then Enkidu begins to curse Shamhat the prostitute; but Shamash the sun god reminds him that it was she who originally fed and clothed him and who “gave you as companion the handsome Gilgamesh…” (George, VII 138, p. 58). Kovacs reads, it was the prostitute “who allowed you <Enkidu> to make beautiful Gilgamesh your comrade… / Now Gilgamesh is your beloved brother-friend!”85 Yet, over the next twelve days Enkidu grows more and more ill. Not able to cope with this, Gilgamesh avoids Enkidu until the very end, when Enkidu cries out desperately for him.86 Enkidu feels that Gilgamesh, who so often had encouraged him in the past, now “hates me”87 and he is devastated.

Enkidu’s death and funeral (Tablet VIII) – Gilgamesh offers up a great mourning for Enkidu after he dies, calling upon everyone and everything who knew Enkidu to join him, including the city elders, the crowds who blessed them, various animals Enkidu had known, natural sites they had visited, the young men of Uruk, all of the city’s farmers and herders, and Shamhat the prostitute, as well.88 He exclaims, “I weep, / Moaning bitterly like a wailing woman.” (Speiser, VIII ii 3, p. 87). Foster reads, “I howl as bitterly as a professional keener <mourner>.”89 Kilmer refers to Gilgamesh mourning “like a widow.”90 Gilgamesh describes Enkidu: “‘You, an axe <my beloved companion> at my side, so trusty at my hand – / you, sword <protector> at my waist, shield in front of me, / you, my festal garment <Dalley: ‘festival clothes,’ p. 92>, a sash over my loins <George: ‘girdle of delights,’ p. 65> – an evil demon(?) … took him away from me!’” (Kovacs, VIII 34-37, p. 70). So how was Enkidu a “sash” over Gilgamesh’s loins, which may be a reference to the genital area? Could this whole statement not suggest that Enkidu was always at hand as Gilgamesh’s closest friend, fighting partner, and celebrating buddy and bed companion?

Then Gilgamesh “covered, like a bride, the face of his friend <Enkidu>, / like an eagle he circled around him. / Like a lioness deprived of her cubs, / he paced to and fro, this way and that. / His curly [hair] he tore out in clumps, / he riped off his finery…” (George, VIII 59-64, p. 65). Dalley strangely translates “like a bride” as “like a daughter-in-law.”91 Gilgamesh offered animal sacrifices to the gods, ordered a splendid statue be made of Enkidu, and selected precious gifts for his spirit to take to win the goodwill of the deities in the Netherworld.92 Foster reads that “Like a lioness whose cubs are in a pitfall, / He <Gilgamesh> paced to and fro, back and forth, / Tearing out and hurling away the locks of hair, ripping off and throwing away his fine clothes…”93 Later on in the story, recorded on a tablet reportedly found in Sippar (in Iraq), Gilgamesh tells the tavern-keeper, “Weeping over him day and night, / I did not surrender his body for burial – <thinking> ‘Maybe my friend will rise at my cry!’ – / <This continued> for seven days and seven nights, until a maggot dropped from his nostril.” (George, Si ii 5’-9,’ p. 124; X 57-60, p. 78). Gilgamesh held onto the beautiful body of his beloved until decomposition began to turn it into something monstrous. Then he turns to render Enkidu’s ideal form immortal through the creation of a statue, which included gold, precious gems, and lapis lazuli (a sky-blue semi-precious stone).94 Gilgamesh will not express desire for any other person throughout the rest of the Epic, but rather loses himself in an abyss of despair as he wanders off into the wasteland.95

Gilgamesh’s later wandering (Tablets IX,X) – Gilgamesh is totally traumatized by the death of Enkidu, as well as by the idea of death itself. “For his friend Enkidu Gilgamesh / did bitterly weep as he wandered the wild: / ‘I shall die, and shall I not then be as Enkidu?’” (George, IX 1-2, p. 70). Speiser reads, “For Enkidu, his friend, Gilgamesh / Weeps bitterly, as he ranges over the steppe <great plain>…”96 Then, at the end of the world, Gilgamesh meets Siduri, the tavern-keeper, and Urshanabi, the ferryman, both of whom ask Gilgamesh similarly: “‘<W>hy are your cheeks so hollow, your face so sunken, / your mood so wretched, your visage so wasted? / Why in your heart does sorrow reside…?’” (George, X 40-43, p. 77; X 113-114, p. 80; parentheses in this translation have been deleted for smoother reading). Gilgamesh explains, “‘<M>y friend, whom I loved so dear, / who went with me through every danger, / <these lines repeated> / six days I wept for him and seven nights… / Then I was afraid…’” (George, X 55-58,61, p. 77-78; X 132-136, p. 81). Kovacs reads, “‘<W>hy are your cheeks emaciated, your expression desolate? / Why is your heart so wretched, your features so haggard? / Why is there such sadness deep within you?’”97 Gilgamesh replies, “‘My friend, whom I love deeply, who went through every hardship with me, / <line repeated> / the fate of mankind has overtaken him. / Six days and seven nights I mourned over him and would not allow him to be buried until a maggot fell out of his nose. / I was terrified…’”98

Final meeting of Gilgamesh and Enkidu (Tablet XII) – The Old Babylonian story, sometimes called “Gilgamesh, Enkidu and the Netherworld,”99 relates a final reunion that is allowed between Gilgamesh and Enkidu. Utu (Shamash the sun god) “opened a hole in the netherworld, <and> / The spirit of Enkidu, like a phantom, he brought up out of the netherworld. / They embraced and kissed each other…” (Frayne, GEN 255-257, p. 138). When Gilgamesh questioned Enkidu about the afterlife, he replied, “‘My body you once touched, in which you rejoiced, / It will [never] come [back]. / It is infested with lice, like an old garment, / It is filled with dust, like a crack (in parched ground).’” Then, “‘Woe is me!’ cried the lord <Gilgamesh>, and <he> sat down in the dust.” (Frayne, GEN 263-267, p. 138). Speiser reads, “When the spirit of Enkidu, like a wind-puff, / Issued forth from the nether world: / They embraced and kissed each other. / They exchanged counsel, sighing at each other…” Speiser then has both Gilgamesh and Enkidu crying “Woe!” and throwing themselves into the dust.100

So, what is the message of the Gilgamesh epic? Is it that true happiness is not to be found in mere sensual pleasure but in acquiring virtue and wisdom (George Held)?101 Or is it that family and kin are most important in life (Rivkah Harris)?102 Or does it speak to the human fear of death and the longing for life eternal, suggesting that immortality is available to humans only in an enduring name and some lasting achievement left behind (Arthur Ungnad)?103 The story is rich enough to suggest numerous ideas. I believe the story is primarily about experiencing loss (of losing someone very dear, of finding out that some dreams are never attainable, and of accepting the reality of growing up) and yet continuing living on and finding it worthwhile. Gilgamesh had known the joy of an almost perfect friendship, but then suddenly his partner was gone and somehow (in the face of grief, fear and desolation) he must learn to live without him, which seems more than he can bear (N.K. Sandars).104 Yet life goes on, and even in the face of great loss, it is still possible to find happiness, fulfillment and purpose in other ways.

David & Jonathan and the Epic of Gilgamesh (Part 2)

FOOTNOTES: 1. Foster, p. xi.    2. Columbia Encyclopedia, “epic.”    3. Moran, p. 171.    4. Van De Mieroop, p. 59.    5. Moran, p. 171; for poems, see Foster, p. 99-155.    6. Foster, p. xii.    7. Van De Mieroop, p. 80.    8. Foster, p. xiii.    9. Tigay “Summary,” p. 43-44.    10. Moran, p. 172.    11. Ibid., p. 172-73.    12. Foster, p. xiii.    13. Sandars, p. 12; George, p. xxvi; cf. map, Kovacs, p. [xxxvi].    14. Moran, p. 174-75.    15. Tiguy, “Summary,” p. 46.    16. Kovacs, p. xxxv.    17. Moran, p. 175.    18. Foster, p. xv.    19. See quote from Rilke’s letter in Moran, p. 171.    20. Quoted in Ackerman, p. 246, n. 2.    21. Nissinen, p. 20.    22. Horner, p. 18.    23. Foster, p. xiv.    24. Cf. Walls, p. 11.    25. Maier, p. 5.    26. Foster, p. xv.    27. Doty, p. 74-75.    28. Foster, p. xi.    29. Moran, p. 182; Foster, p. 129-143.    30. Frayne, p. 129-143, esp. 138; George, p. 175-195, esp. 187.    31. George, I 79-80,86, p. 4.    32. Foster, I 78,80-81, p. 5-6.    33. Dalley, I ii, p. 52.    34. Ibid., p. 126, n. 8.    35. Jacobsen 1930, p. 72; John Bailey, 1976, noted in Walls, p. 50.    36. Walls, p. 51.    37. Foster, I 97, p. 6.    38. Kovacs, I 87-88, p. 6.    39. Kovacs, I 134, p. 8.    40. Cf. Dalley, II iv, p. 61.    41. Mitchell, I, p. 78-82.    42. Walls, p. 18.    43. Lambert, p. 135.    44. Walls, p. 24.    45. Ibid., p. 52.    46. Ibid., p. 50.    47. Mitchell, I, p. 82-84.    48. Walls, p. 52.    49. Foster, II 42-43, p. 14.    50. Ferry, II-III iii, p. 14.    51. Kovacs, II 95, p. 17.    52. Mitchell, II, p. 88.    53. Dalley, II ii, p. 60.    54. Mitchell, II, p. 89.    55. Ackerman, p. 69.    56. Dalley, II iv, p. 61.    57. Kovacs, IV 11-16, p. 31.    58. Mitchell, IV, p. 105.    59. Speiser, V i 5-6, p. 82.    60. Gardner & Maier, V iii, p. 139.    61. Ibid., V iv 3-6, p. 140.    62. Ferry, IV-V i, p. 21.    63. Gardner & Maier, VI i 1-9, p. 148.    64. Foster, VI 1 and n. 1, p. 46.    65. Ferry, VI i, p. 29.    66. George, VI, 44-78, p. 49-50.    67. Mitchell, VI, p. 133-134.    68. www.allwords.com/word-quim.html    69. Foster, VI 68-69, p. 47-48.    70. Mitchell, VI, p. 134-135.    71. Walls, p. 35.    72. Gardner & Maier, VI v 152,165-167, p. 161.    73. Doty, p. 74; cf. Gen 24:2,9; 47:29; 1 Kings 12:10; and also Bandstra, B.L. & A.D. Verhey, “Sex; Sexuality,” ISBE IV(1988), p. 432.    74. Cf. Walls, p. 48.    75. Webster’s New World Dictionary, “haunch.”    76. Gardner & Maier, p. 159.    77. Speiser, VI 175-176, p. 85.    78. Foster, VI 165-172, p. 51.    79. Speiser, VI 188-189, p. 85.    80. Foster, VI 178-179, p. 52.    81. Ferry, VI iv, p. 36.    82. Mitchell, VI, p. 140.    83. George, VII Hittite fragment col. i, p. 55.    84. Mitchell, VII, p. 141-142.    85. Kovacs, VII 128-129, p. 63.    86. George, VII 254-267, p. 62.    87. Kovacs, VII 261, p. 66.    88. George, VIII 1-34, p. 63-64.    89. Foster, VIII 44, p. 61.    90. Kilmer, p. 130.    91. Dalley, VIII ii, p. 93.    92. George, VIII 92-118, p. 66-69; cf. Mitchell, VIII, p. 154-158.    93. Foster, VIII 60-63, p. 61.    94. Walls, p. 65-66.    95. Ibid., p. 68.    96. Speiser, IX i 1-2, p. 88.    97. Kovacs, X 39-41, p. 84; 112-114, p. 87.    98. Kovacs, X 58-64, p. 85; X 131-137, p. 88.    99. Frayne, p. 129-143.    100. Speiser, XII 84-86,97-98, p. 98-99.    101. Held, p. 133.    102. Harris, p. 86.    103. Ungnad, Arthur, in George, p. xiii.    104. Sandars, p. 36,43.

Ackerman, Susan, When Heroes Love, 2005.
Columbia Encyclopedia, 5th ed., 1993.
Dalley, Stephanie, trans. with introduction, Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others, 2nd ed., 2000.
Doty, William, Myths of Masculinity, 1993.
Ferry, David, Gilgamesh: A New Rendering in English Verse, 1992.
Foster, Benjamin, ed., trans. with introduction, The Epic of Gilgamesh, 2001.
Frayne, Douglas, trans., “The Sumerian Poems,” in Benjamin Foster, ed., The Epic of Gilgamesh, 2001, p. 99-155.
Gardner, John, and John Maier, with the assistance of Richard Henshaw, Gilgamesh: Translated from the Sin-leqi-unninni Version, 1984.
George, Andrew, trans. with introduction, The Epic of Gilgamesh, 1999.
Harris, Rivkah, “Images of Women in the Gilgamesh Epic,” 1990, reprinted in John Maier, ed., Gilgamesh: A Reader, 1997, p. 79-94.
Held, George, “Parallels between The Gilgamesh Epic and Plato’s Symposium,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 42(2), 1983, p. 133-141.
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Jacobsen, Thorkild, “How Did Gilgames Oppress Uruk?” Acta Orientalia, 8 1930, p. 62-74.
Kilmer, Anne Draffkorn, “A Note on an Overlooked Word-Play in the Akkadian Gilgamesh,” in G. van Driel, et al., eds., ZIKIR SUMIM: Assyriological Studies Presented to F.R. Kraus on the Occasion of His Seventieth Birthday, 1982, p. 128-132.
Kovacs, Maureen Gallery, trans. with introduction, The Epic of Gilgamesh, 2nd ed., 1989.
Lambert, Wilfried, “Prostitution,” in Volkert Haas, ed., Aussenseiter und Randgruppen: Beiträge zu einer Sozialgeschichte des Alten Orients, 1992, p. 127-157.
Maier, John, “Introduction,” 1984; reprinted in John Maier, ed., Gilgamesh: A Reader, 1997.
Mitchell, Stephen, Gilgamesh: A New English Version, 2004.
Moran, William, “The Gilgamesh Epic: A Masterpiece from Ancient Mesopotamia,” 2000, reprinted in Benjamin Foster, ed., The Epic of Gilgamesh, 2001, p. 171-183.
Nissinen, Martti, Homoeroticism in the Biblical World, 1998.
Sandars, N.K., trans. with introduction, The Epic of Gilgamesh, 3rd ed., 1972.
Speiser, E.A., trans. with notes, “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” in James Pritchard, gen. ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts, Relating to the Old Testament, 3rd ed., 1969, p. 72-99.
Tigay, Jeffrey, “Summary: The Evolution of The Gilgamesh Epic,” 1982; reprinted in John Maier, ed., Gilgamesh: A Reader, 1997, p. 40-49.
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Walls, Neal, Desire, Discord and Death: Approaches to Ancient Near Eastern Myth, 2001.
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© 2006 Bruce L. Gerig

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David & Jonathan and the Epic of Gilgamesh (Part 2)