David & Jonathan
and the Epic of Gilgamesh, Part 2

By Bruce L. Gerig

Homoerotic elements in the Epic – The great Assyriologist Thorkild Jacobsen, in the late 1920s, was the first scholar to argue that the relationship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu should be understood as sexual in nature; and he based this view on two early scenes in the Gilgamesh epic, one describing the unhappy state in Uruk and the other detailing two dreams of Gilgamesh.1 In the second (axe) dream, in the Pennsylvania tablet (OBV), Gilgamesh tells his mother, “I loved it and cohabited / with it, as if it were a woman…” Earlier, in the first (meteor) dream, Gilgamesh’s mother tells him that this symbolism means that someone like him will come and “you will rejoice” and “embrace him…” (both translations by Jacobsen).2 Jacobsen concluded that this dream symbolism “cannot mean anything but that homosexual intercourse is going to take place between Gilgames[h] and the newcomer.” In fact, the new companion created for Gilgamesh has such “enormous sexual vigor” that after meeting the prostitute Shamhat, he has sex continuously with her for a whole week. What the gods want is for Enkidu to “neutralize” Gilgamesh after they fall in love, and thus restore tranquility to Uruk. Moving to the opening scene, then, where Gilgamesh is oppressing the youth of Uruk, Jacobsen believed that because of Gilgamesh’s superhuman strength and sexual vigor he had been seizing both the sons and daughters of Uruk to satisfy his sexual passion. In fact, sexual vigor was viewed as an integral part of being a man and a hero.3

However, few subsequent commentators adopted Jacobsen’s interpretation, at least in full and particularly his view of the king having sex with the sons. Even Jacobsen, in the mid-1980s, suggested that perhaps Gilgamesh “played much too rough in the game of hockey, popular with the youth of Uruk, bruising them sorely.”4 Yet, Jacobsen still maintained throughout his long career that Gilgamesh and Enkidu had a sexual relationship. In 1976, he described Gilgamesh’s interaction with Enkidu as ‘a rejection of marriage’ and quoting psychiatrist Harry Sullivan (1953), he suggested that this was a boyhood friendship with sexual union, one of those loving relationships that young adolescent males sometimes have, that is later followed by heterosexual marriage.5 However, as Susan Ackerman notes, over the past two decades there has appeared an increasingly renewed interest in Jacobsen’s view of the Gilgamesh/Enkidu relationship as being sexual in nature, as scholars have discovered more and more clues pointing to this in the language and imagery of both the Old Babylonian Version (OBV) and the final Standard Version (SV).6

Neal Walls makes the important point, as well, that especially influential among interpreters has been the presumption of heterosexism in historical interpretation, “which attributes to authors and literary characters a consistent and normative [expected] heterosexual experience” which most automatically apply “as they imaginatively reconstruct the worldview of ancient Near Eastern literature.” Yet, many gay men immediately recognize homoerotic desire in the story of Gilgamesh and Enkidu. Indeed, more and more readers today of diverse identities conclude that these two heroes were lovers and not simply platonic friends (with no sexual activity between them). Yet, Walls suggests that “same-sex love” is probably the best way to describe this intense friendship, which includes a strong emotional bond and encompasses a broad range of feelings and behaviors, besides genital contact.7

Admiration of male beauty – Early in the Epic both Gilgamesh and Enkidu are described as very handsome males. In the opening scene the narrator draws attention to the “alluring body of Gilgamesh” (Walls),8 saying that he was “beautiful, handsomest of men, / … perfect” (Kovacs, I 49-50, p. 4). Later Shamhat the prostitute tells Enkidu that he will find Gilgamesh “radiant with virility, manly vigor is his, / The whole of his body is seductively gorgeous <kuzbu>.” (Foster, I 236-237, p. 10). George translates kuzbu as “graced with charm,”9 but Irene Winter notes that kuzbu points to a “seductive allure … more than just a passive attribute; it is an energy that emanates from the possessor to arouse the observer…”10 Speiser renders this as “with ripeness gorgeous is the whole of his body” (italics added).11 Later, after bathing, when Gilgamesh shakes out his long, flowing locks of hair, this is so sensual that the voyeuristic Ishtar immediately wants his “fruit” (Dalley)12 – to enjoy “his sexual appeal” (Walls)13 and his “sexual prowess” (Gardner and Maier).14 Foster translates kuzbu as “beauty,” and Ferry as “your semen.”15 To get to the point, she couldn’t wait to have sex with him. Shamash the sun god reminds Enkidu of “the handsome Gilgamesh” (George) to whom the prostitute had introduced him.16 Of Enkidu’s beauty not so much ado is made in the text, although the prostitute Shamhat after a week of lovemaking cries out, “You are handsome, Enkidu, you are just like a god!” (George, I 207, p. 8). Also, the crowd exclaims when they first catch sight of Enkidu, “In build he is the image of Gilgamesh…” (George, II P 184, p. 15), which must have pointed to a muscular, Adonis-like form.

As Neal Walls notes, in examining homoeroticism in the Epic of Gilgamesh, it must be remembered that this Epic originated among the privileged male elite of the scribal tradition, since reading and writing were male prerogatives throughout much of human history, including ancient Mesopotamia. Therefore the repeated attention drawn here to male beauty represents homoerotic imagery within this inherently masculine context and androcentric (male-centered) culture.17 In fact, Gilgamesh’s love for Enkidu might be likened to the gaze of Narcissus, that beautiful Greek youth who fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water. Gilgamesh responds to Enkidu as to someone who looks very much like himself physically, reflecting the king’s own strength and beauty; and as Jean-Pierre Vernant has noted, narcissistic love leads naturally to homoeroticism.18

Puns and other wordplays in the Epic – A pun in writing involves one word which sounds like and brings to mind a second word, revealing a hidden meaning and often adding a game-like or humorous element to the text.19 In 1982, Anne Draffkorn Kilmer drew attention to three puns in the Epic, one involving kisru (meteorite) = kezru (curly-haired prostitute) which appears in Gilgamesh’s first dream. Here, kisru (“ball” or “meteorite”) sounds like kezru, which means literally “a male with curled (dressed) hair” and refers to a male who wore his hair in this distinctive manner so as to advertise that he was a prostitute.20 Another pun involves hassinnu (axe) = assinnu (sacred prostitute or eunuch in Ishtar’s service) in the second dream.21 Here, the Akkadian word hassinnu (“axe”) recalls the similarly-sounding assinnu, the “potentially sexless, often passive homosexual” (Leick),22 who may have been a male prostitute in Ishtar’s service (Kilmer, Walls).23 However, other interpreters hold that the assinnu might only have been a castrated musician or dancer who was attached to the cult of Ishtar (Lambert, Dalley), but not a prostitute.24 The two wordplays suggest then, at least, that like a prostitute (kezru) Enkidu would entice Gilgamesh sexually25 and that like a eunuch (assinnu) he would take on a feminine or ‘emasculated’ role as the recipient of Gilgamesh’s male sexual aggression.26

A third pun involves zikru (“word/speech, double/equal”) = zikru/zikaru (man/male) = sekru (a eunuch in Ishtar’s service). In 1989, Stephanie Dalley pointed out that the use of zikru (meaning “word, speech,” etc.) in the episode where Enkidu is created strongly suggests wordplays with zikru/zikaru and sekru.27 Zikru (“speech”) is found (note italicization ahead) where Anu father of the gods says to Aruru the mother goddess, “Now, create what Anu commanded,” and so she “conceived within her what Anu commanded…” (Foster, I 96,100, p. 6). Yet, zikru is also found here in Anu’s instruction that Enkidu should be created as Gilgamesh’s “double” (Speiser, I ii 31, p. 74) or “equal” (Foster, I 97, p. 6), another meaning. Such repetition of zikru also recalls a third meaning of the word (“man”) as well as the similar-sounding sekru, which Dalley defined as a person “of uncertain sexual affinities [a eunuch-transvestite] who was found particularly in Uruk associated with Ishtar’s cult.”28 What is important here is that Aruru from the beginning was instructed to create a male counterpart for Gilgamesh and an emasculated (passive) partner for his erotic desire, as well.29

Another wordplay, in the opening scene, involves pukku and mekku (“ball and stick”) = the male genitals. Kilmer also pointed out that pukku and mekku, the large wooden ball and long hockey stick that were used in Sumerian games, especially at weddings, probably symbolizes “the insatiable energy and sexual appetite of Gilgamesh.” This symbolism is then carried over into Gilgamesh’s two dreams, which include a ball (a meteorite) and a stick (an axe), which Kilmer suggests point to the arrival of “Mr. Ball and Stick” himself, Enkidu.30 Jacobsen has described this wooden puck as “kidney-shaped,”31 which would be even more testicles-like. Such symbolism seems to point unmistakably to a future homoerotic and sexual relationship that will occur between Gilgamesh and Enkidu.32

Sexual allusions also appear in the scene where Enkidu and Gilgamesh meet for the first time, in the wordplays “in front” (= erection), “foot” (= penis) and also in the progression of emotion and action. The Pennsylvania tablet (OBV) says that when Enkidu enters Uruk seeking Gilgamesh, he “walks [in front] /, And the lass <Shamhat> behind him” (Speiser).33 Dalley notes how isaru (“front, upright”) can also mean “penis” and so there is probably a double entendre here (a word with more than one meaning, one of them risqué).34 Ackerman suggests that when Enkidu approaches Gilgamesh at the door of the bridal chamber, he may be viewed as “sporting a magnificent erection.”35 Also, when Enkidu blocks the door to the bridal chamber with his “foot,” this may be read as another phallic reference, since “foot, feet” was commonly used as a euphemism for “penis” in the Bible and other west Semitic languages.36 Gwendolyn Leick notes that references to the “foot,” then to a sudden weakness (“kneeling”) that gives way to tenderness (“kissing”) is “quite revealing” here and may be read as suggesting “a different sort of wrestling [making love].” Yet, this is presented in such an ambiguous way that it can still be read on the surface as “straight,”37 if one does not have the insight to look deeper. However, this sexual symbolism would explain why neither Gilgamesh nor Enkidu exhibit any further desire for women after their meeting. This initial wrestling was soon followed by another kind of intermingling of bodies (sexual). As Walls notes, “This suggests that their erotic drives are [henceforth] fulfilled in each other, as Gilgamesh’s dreams portend…” Gilgamesh wants only to continue his exclusive friendship with the loyal, loving Enkidu.38

Preference for a same-sex over an opposite-sex relationship – Susan Ackerman has noted a concentrated use of the verb “love” (ramu) in three parts of the story.39 The first scene where ramu is clustered (5 times) is where Gilgamesh has his two dreams, of the rock and the axe (Tablet I), which speak of Gilgamesh loving the coming Enkidu.40 The second scene is Ishtar’s marriage proposal (Tablet VI), where the verb “love” appears repeatedly (6 times), but here in the negative context of Gilgamesh refusing the goddess’ heterosexual advances.41 In addition, in this section, the noun “lover[s]” occurs 2 times.42 The final section where ramu is clustered (12 times) is in Gilgamesh’s addresses (Tablet X) to the barmaid, the ferryman, and the flood-hero, where Gilgamesh relates how much he still loves and misses Enkidu.43 These scenes vividly contrast loving another male (Enikdu) with not loving the female (Ishtar). Interpreters also have pointed out the striking double use of “caress” (hababu) in Tablet I,44 which Jerold Cooper holds is “most certainly a euphemism for sexual intercourse.”45 In the first case, Enkidu took Shamhat the prostitute, and “his passion caressed <hababu> and embraced her” – as with a week-long erection he coupled with her (George, I 193-195, p. 8). Then only a few lines later we have Gilgamesh dreaming that, like a wife, he loved, caressed <hababu> and embraced” his soon-to-appear companion (George, I 256,267,284,289, p. 10-11), symbolized by the meteorite (ball) and strange axe (stick) and alluding more intimately to Enkidu’s male genitals46 and to him as a sexual partner. At the same time, David Greenberg points out how, in the past, meteorites have been viewed as feminine, e.g. the meteorite enshrined at Pessinus in Phrygia (now W. Turkey) that was worshipped in Greco-Roman times as an image of the mother goddess Cybele. He also suggests that the “axe … strange of shape,” mentioned in the Pennsylvania tablet (George, P 31, p. 102) could have been the double-headed kind that only goddesses or worshippers of goddesses carried in procession and that were probably used and carried by Ishtar’s eunuch priests.47 Piotr Michalowski also has suggested that the axe in Gilgamesh’s dream may be a castration (emasculation) symbol.48

As Neal Walls notes, after Gilgamesh meets Enkidu, he is sufficiently enchanted to forsake his sexual appointment with the new bride, as well as with all future brides in Uruk. In fact, the heroes’ complete disregard now for women as erotic objects contrasts starkly with their previous passion expressed toward women and their exploitation of female sexuality. Actually, the Epic gives the reader only negative images of heterosexual desire, e.g. in Enkidu’s animal-like response to the nude prostitute (doing her duty) and in Ishtar’s fickle passions (deadly and dehumanizing). This stands in contrast to the emotional love, commitment and fulfillment that Gilgamesh and Enkidu find in their attachment to each other.49 Enkidu’s intense rancor toward Ishtar casts him in the role of a jealous, rival lover; and when he hears that he must die,50 he seems much more concerned about being separated from Gilgamesh than his own death.51 Apart from a closeness to his mother, Gilgamesh’s only other intimate relationship (demonstrated by kissing, embracing, and holding hands) is with Enkidu (Jeffrey Tigay).52 Ackerman points out that the dream imagery, the wrestling match, and the death scene, all taken together, “suggest that Gilgamesh and Enkidu assume roles as spouselike companions for one another throughout the entire period of time that they spend together, from the moment they meet ‘until death do them part.’”53

Gender bending and cross-gender sharing – Thorkild Jacobson noted that throughout the Epic the loving, sexual relationship of Gilgamesh and Enkidu “competes with, and replaces, marriage.”54 In this, Enkidu assumes, in general, the feminine, secondary, supporting role. After meeting Shamhat, the prostitute clothes the naked Enkidu with part of her female garment (George, II 70, p. 13). Enkidu continues to leave his long locks hanging loose “like those of a woman” (George, I 106, p. 5), thick and luxurious55 and blowing in the wind like waving grain. Gilgamesh imagines making love to his dream symbols of Enkidu “like a wife” (George, I 256,267,284,289, p. 10-11). Later Enkidu interprets Gilgamesh’s five dreams on their way to find Humbaba (Tablet IV), which was typically women’s activity (remember the Queen Mother’s earlier interpreting of Gilgamesh’s dreams).56 After Enkidu’s death, Gilgamesh veils his face “like a bride” (George, VIII 59, p. 65). Finally, Gilgamesh rejects the barmaid’s suggestion of (heterosexual) marriage, implying that Enkidu was his wife (Speiser, X Meissner fragment III 13, p. 90); and Enkidu remains the only one for whom Gilgamesh has eyes of love, to the end of the Epic.57 All these clues suggest that Gilgamesh and Enkidu enjoyed a loving sexual relationship,58 of the deepest and fullest kind. Furthermore, what is noteworthy is that this relationship is not simply described as male to female, but as husband to wife.59

There are also (a few) occasions where Gilgamesh is described as displaying what might be labeled feminine characteristics, e.g. when he weeps like “a widow” or a wailing woman over Enkidu’s death60 – public lamentation typically being women’s activity in ancient Mesopotamia,61 as well as in Israel (cf. García-Treto, p. 63). Then, he paces back and forth, besides Enkidu’s corpse, like a “lioness” who has been deprived of her cubs (her family).62 Still, both heroes appear masculine by traditional standards. Repeatedly they exhibit courage, combativeness and honor.63 Overall, we have here an ‘unorthodox’ relationship of two manly warriors who love each other as male-identifying men, with the line blurred between platonic love and sexual love.64 Of course, Ishtar the love goddess had already expanded the sexual boundaries by her having made love to human, divine, animal, and bird partners (albeit all heterosexual) to whom she was attracted.65

Further analysis, especially relating this Epic to David and Jonathan – It has already been noted in our Jonathan and David study that the terms “sister” and “brother” are used in various Bible passages carrying an erotic sense and applied to one’s “beloved” or “spouse.”66 Eroticized uses of “brother” are also found especially in Old Babylonian texts describing the sacred marriage rite in ancient Mesopotamia, which sexually united the king of a Sumerian city-state (like Uruk), with the goddess Inanna (Akkadian: Ishtar), represented by one of her priestesses. In one hymn, the goddess says of her sexual partner (presumably a king), “The brother brought me to his house / Made me lie on its … honey bed, / … / My brother of fairest face made 50 times.”67 In the Gilgamesh epic, after Enkidu has a terrible dream revealing to him that he soon will die, he says to Gilgamesh, My brother <ahum>, this night what a dream [I dreamed!]…” Then “Enkidu lay down before Gilgamesh, 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, the threshold of the dead [I shall cross,] never again [shall I set] eyes on my dear brother.’” (George, Hittite fragment III? i, p. 55; italics added). Yet, the more frequent label used by both men in the SV is “friend” (ibru) or “my friend,” which is used to refer to Enkidu by Gilgamesh or the narrator some 41 times in the funeral sequence alone (Tablet VIII).68 In fact, the Epic uses “friend” incessantly, up to 150 times throughout, to describe Gilgamesh and Enkidu in relation to one another.69 While neither of these terms proves that the heroes’ relationship was a sexual one, in a homoerotic relationship such words surely take on some romantic connotation. Enkidu’s “‘O my brother <Gilgamesh>, dear to me…’” (George, VII III? col. i, p. 55) recalls David’s “my brother Jonathan, greatly beloved were you to me…” in his lament (2 Sam 1:26, NRSV). While no text in the Epic says that either Gilgamesh’s and Enkidu’s love “was wonderful, passing the love of women” (2 Sam 1:26), the way their same-sex love blocks out heterosexual love throughout the Epic certainly demonstrates this in deed, if not in word.

Of course, kissing in the ancient Near East could indicate different things: homage paid by an inferior to a superior, respect expressed between equals, or affection implying intimacy and often erotic intimacy.70 After Gilgamesh and Enkidu kiss (George, II Y 18, p. 17), they become fast friends and thereafter they focus entirely on each other. The prostitute with whom Enkidu was coupling is completely forgotten, as is Gilgamesh’s intended intercourse with Uruk’s latest bride. In fact, this shift is so immediate, Ackerman notes, it is practically impossible not to think that “the Epic means for us to see Enkidu as replacing the young bride as the object of Gilgamesh’s eroticized interest.”71 Also, Ackerman notes,72 because it “fits so well” it is hard not to read the mutual kiss of Gilgamesh and Enkidu at the end of their wrestling match73 as having erotic connotations, as well as the kiss when Gilgamesh is reunited with Enkidu’s spirit released for a short while from the Netherworld (Speiser, XII 86, p. 98).74 Holding hands is another physical expression of affection found between Gilgamesh and Enkidu,75 seen e.g. when they “take each other by the hand” to discuss Gilgamesh’s dangerous idea to go slay Humbaba (George, II 182-183, p. 18), as they visit the forge to get weapons fashioned (George, II Y 163-165, p. 20), as they go to the palace to seek the Queen Mother’s blessing (George, III 19-28, p. 23), and as they return to Uruk after successfully killing the Bull of Heaven (George, VI 168, p. 54). Yet, Enkidu is also brought into a covenant relationship with Gilgamesh – not exactly like the “marriage [lifelong] pact” that Jonathan and David make alone together (1 Sam 18:1-4) but in the form of an “adoption pact” in which the Queen Mother adopts Enkidu as her son and also as Gilgamesh’s ‘brother’ – in a legal sense, as well as in a loving sense. The men’s relationship is thereby formalized and cemented by using a conventional legal means that was available.76 Like the covenant between Jonathan and David, this not only serves as a subterfuge in the social setting but as a convenient literary device to camouflage their same-sex commitment and passion in the story which would not always face an accepting audience.77 Then, like Achilles and Patroclus (the famous Greek hero and his companion in Homer’s The Iliad), Gilgamesh and Enkidu flee the crowded city for the privacy of the wilderness (notes Walls) – on a type of “heroic honeymoon” – where they can sleep together undisturbed in their tent.78

The controversy over a homosexual reading – Despite the forceful claims that some interpreters have made for a sexual reading of the relationship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu, other interpreters still have argued that this was not the case. It is often noted that words like “brother,” “kiss,” and “embrace” can convey nonsexual as well sexual meanings.79 Also, since interpreters believe that in the ancient Near East it was considered disgraceful for a man to act like a woman or to assume her passive role in sex, it is hard to accept the idea that in the Epic Enkidu would submit himself to such a feminine position80 and that homoeroticism would play such a major role in a tale that was spread so far and wide. David Halpern (1990) argued that Gilgamesh and Enkidu, as well as Achilles and Patroclus and David and Jonathan, were simply examples of “a type of heroic friendship which is better captured by terms like comrade-in-arms, boon [close] companions, and the like,” but not sexual.81 Gwendolyn Leick (1994) argued that Enkidu’s destiny was to complement Gilgamesh in taking on adventure and winning fame, not in their finding sensual fulfillment in each other’s arms.82 Martti Nissinen (1998) wrote that the deep friendship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu is expressed in “loving tenderness” but that “the sexual passions seem to subside to the point that one can speak of a ‘spiritual’ love between the two men” – “a homosocial type of bonding, which is often strong in societies in which men’s and women’s worlds are segregated.”83 Yet, such authors still admit that the Gilgamesh/Enkidu relationship is described using a wealth of homoerotic imagery. Ackerman notes, in fact, that because there is so much more of it than one would expect in a nonsexual friendship, these homoerotic overtones seem indisputable.84 Halpern acknowledges that it “is not in doubt” that the double use of hababu (“to caress”), applied to Enkidu’s response to the prostitute and then to Gilgamesh’s response to the dream symbols of his future companion,85 along with Gilgamesh’s later mourning for the dead Enkidu “like a widow” and his veiling of his face “like a bride,” all point to Enkidu being an object of sexual desire.86 Leick notes in Gilgamesh’s dreams how kisru/kezru points to a curly-headed male prostitute and hassinnu/assinnu to the “potentially sexless [castrated], passive homosexual” and, more importantly, the “strong erotic feelings” that these rock and axe symbols of Enkidu arouse in Gilgamesh. She also notes the varied sexual symbolism embedded in the wrestling scene.87 Nissinen acknowledges that the text suggests “erotic associations,” particularly in Gilgamesh’s rejection of Ishtar’s proposal, in Gilgamesh loving Enkidu “like a wife,” and in his covering of Enkidu’s face “like a bride.”88 Indeed, Ackerman lists six clues in the Epic that now are widely recognized as strongly pointing to an erotic, sexual relationship: (1) Gilgamesh’s expressions of “caressing” (hababu) and “loving” (ramu) Enkidu “as a wife”; (2) the kisru/kezru wordplay; (3) the zikru,zikaru/sekru wordplay; (4) euphemistic references to sexual arousal and climax in the wrestling match; (5) Gilgamesh’s covering the face of the dead Enkidu “like a bride”; and (6) Gilgamesh’s rejection of Ishtar’s marriage proposal.89

Gilgamesh as a rites-of-passage and liminal character – Susan Ackerman sheds light on both the Gilgamesh/Enkidu and David/Jonathan stories by applying descriptions of rites-of-passage formulated by ethnographer Arnold van Gennep (1873-1957) and descriptions of the “liminal phase” expanded by anthropologist Victor Turner (1920-1983).90 Van Gennep described three phases as part of any rites of passage, which included: (1) separation from an earlier social structure; (2) liminality (from limen in Latin, meaning “threshold”), a state where the subject exists between the old and the new; and (3) reincorporation, when the subject eventually arrives at new stable state with new rights and obligations. Although folklorists subsequently tried to construct a universal “monomyth” applying this theory to hero stories around the world, they often sought to read modern ideas (like a search for self) into ancient settings where they hardly applied.91 Victor Turner and his followers were more successful in applying van Gennep’s liminal phase to certain religious narratives. He came to see the liminal stage as crucial in the process of regeneration or renewal; and this ritual involved not only social drama but communication of something of great importance to the larger community. A liminal character often experienced “a limitless freedom” beyond what he normally would have had in his social setting.92 Gilgamesh can be viewed as a liminal character in a number of ways: in that he is betwixt and between (moving from an out-of-control youthful stage to mature adulthood); in his existence on the margins of society (travels in the wilderness); in his having to submit to a leader’s demands (the gods send him tests and trials but also help him to overcome them); in the breaking down and blurring of borders (androgynous males take on female characteristics); and in the resulting revelation of important truths to him and the larger community (one should accept the limitations of human life and the responsibilities of adulthood, which does not mean at the same time that there are not pleasures of civilization that can still be enjoyed.93

David compared to Gilgamesh, as a liminal character – The rites-of-passage and liminal-phase analysis that sheds so much light on the Gilgamesh epic also may be applied to the David and Jonathan story, albeit with more mixed results. Gilgamesh appears on the scene like a “wild bull” oppressing his citizens and being completely “carefree” (George, I 30,234, p. 2,9). David also appears on the scene (not unruly as Gilgamesh but) as the youngest son and a shepherd lad who spends a lot of time in the wilderness with his sheep, playing the lyre (1 Sam 16:11,18). At the same time, however, it is foreseen that he will become a valiant fighter and eventually king of Israel.94 Although Gilgamesh is already king, he hardly knows what it means to act like a responsible ruler. Like Gilgamesh is described as “most handsome” and “fair in manhood” (George, I 62,236, p. 3,9), repeated attention is also drawn to David’s striking beauty (1 Sam 16:12, 17:42). Gilgamesh’s liminal (betwixt and between) phase begins when he forms a friendship with Enkidu, after which they leave the city to go into the wilderness in search of Humbaba (Tablets IV-V); and Gilgamesh’s liminal phase continues after Enkidu’s death, as he wanders despairingly in the wilderness (Tablets IX-X).95 In a similar way, David’s liminal phase begins when he forms a friendship with Jonathan (1 Sam 18:1-4), leaving behind his father’s house for good to live at court. Here one should not overlook the secret meetings of Jonathan and David in the “field,” where no doubt Jonathan spent many hours alone with David instructing him in the masterful use of the sword and the bow (1 Sam 18:4), as well as where they met on other occasions in private (1 Sam 19:3; 20:11,24,35; see Schroer and Staubli, p. 29). Later, of course, David will wander in the more-real wilderness regions in and around of Judah, being hunted by the haunted Saul (1 Sam 19:12 on, esp. chs. 23-26). The catalyst then for Gilgamesh entering his liminal phase is Enkidu, the companion upon whom Gilgamesh focuses his attention socially and sexually and who supports, comforts and helps him in countless ways. For David, Jonathan is the catalyst and companion, as they share their hearts, thoughts, fears and flesh; and Jonathan supports, comforts and helps David in every way that he can. There is an egalitarian leveling of status with both pairs, commonly seen in liminal states: Although Gilgamesh is king, he and his companion treat each other more or less as equal comrades in their heroic adventures. Also, although Jonathan is prince and David is subject, Jonathan keeps trying to equalize their relationship, although it does not become anything near to being mutual until their final meeting (1 Sam 23:18).96

Other interesting comparisons can be made between Gilgamesh and David. Enkidu right before his death calls Gilgamesh “my brother” and “my dear brother” repeatedly,97 and Gilgamesh often says after Enkidu’s death how much he still loves him.98 In David’s case, about Jonathan it is repeatedly said early on that he “loved” or “took great delight in” David (1 Sam 18:1,3; 19:1; 20:17); then after his death David publicly calls Jonathan “my brother” and “greatly beloved” (2 Sam 1:26). Both pairs kiss (George, II Y18, p. 17; 1 Sam 20:41); weep bitterly when parting is forced upon them (George, VII, III? i, p. 55; VIII 45, p. 64; 1 Sam 20:41, 2 Sam 1:12); and when one survives the tragic death of the other, he mourns unashamedly, leaving behind a public, soul-wrenching lament (George, VIII 65-188, p. 65-69; 2 Sam 1:17-27). The gods bring tests and trials upon Gilgamesh, yet at the same time Shamash the sun god helps him to overcome them. In a similar fashion, the Lord God inflicts Saul with an evil, murderous spirit which forces David to flee for his life; yet also the Lord delivered him “from every trouble,” at court and on the run (cf. Psalm 34:4-6, NRSV). Just as trial, fear, and pain mark the route that leads Gilgamesh to become a wise, sensitive and stable leader of his people, so the Lord set out the same kind of path for David to prepare him for the throne of Israel.99 Of course, there are notable differences between Gilgamesh and David, as well.100 For example, Gilgamesh remains the aggressive partner throughout his relationship with Enkidu, whereas Jonathan starts out as the aggressive partner but then at the end is presented as the submissive partner. Also, Gilgamesh is not able to end his grieving for Enkidu after his death but wanders off in depression and into the wilderness, living like an animal; in contrast, David is somehow able to (or feels that he must) move on from his grief to return to the burdens at hand, continuing the struggle which will eventually lead him to being anointed ruler over all of Israel.

Gendered and sexual language and imagery in the two stories – These two stories display interesting similarities in their use of gendered and sexual language and imagery. For example, feminine language is applied to the more passive partner, as seen in Enkidu depicted as “loved, caressed, and embraced like a wife” (said four times in Gilgamesh’s rock and axe dreams) and in Gilgamesh “covering the face of Enkidu like a bride.” Likewise, David refers to Jonathan in his eulogy as someone whose “love to me was more wonderful, passing the love of women” (italics added in all three cases above), placing Jonathan in a feminine light. The same-sex attraction and bonding is seen more clearly, however, as women in the main character’s life are pushed aside in preference for a male partner. After Enkidu comes, Gilgamesh has no further interest in the daughters of Uruk nor later to the advances of the divine Ishtar, goddess of love. Likewise, David’s relationship with and marriage to Michal is bracketed, set aside, and made totally irrelevant by his commitment and attachment to Jonathan; and neither of them show any real interest in having a wife or women (although David marries Michal most likely for political reasons) until after their time together has ended (1 Sam 20:42). Both stories contain homoerotic behavior, but only hinted at through the use of coded, ambiguous language, which must be deciphered by reading beneath the surface text. When Gilgamesh meets Enkidu, he blocks Gilgamesh from the door to the new bride’s bedchamber with his “foot” (erect penis), which leads to both a sportlike wrestling, then later to a lovemaking wrestling; and so the scene communicates on two levels, what happened (in the square) and what will happen later (in bed). In a similar fashion, there is surface meaning and hidden meaning in the scene where Saul curses Jonathan for not getting married and bearing an heir for the throne (1 Sam 20:30). Here the language is loaded with sexual innuendos: with references to a “perverse mother” (really pointing to Jonathan, the perverse son), a “rebellious woman” (that is, Jonathan who doing something that is rebellious), the mother’s “nakedness/genitals” (alluding to Jonathan’s and David’s nakedness in bed and their genital play), “choosing” David (Jonathan taking David as his bed companion), and finally a reference to Jonathan’s “shame” (pointing really to the shame that Saul feels this relationship has brought upon him). The sexual activity hinted at in this tongue-in-cheek language and tongue-lashing scene is past and present – not present and future as in the Epic wrestling scene – but the literary character of both scene descriptions is very similar. Also, as Gilgamesh’s beauty causes Ishtar to desire his “fruit” (Ferry: “semen”), like so David’s “exceeding,” in his parting scene with Jonathan (1 Sam 20:41), in a line that has been damaged (mutilated?), suggests that all of their kissing, hugging, longing and passion had led David to experience a hard-on, which then led to an ejaculation (probably mutual). When death occurs, there is great lamentation and expression of love offered by the partner left behind. When Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh wails bitterly, he holds Enkidu’s body until it begins to rot, and he calls upon everyone to join his woeful lament. After Jonathan’s death, David calls upon all of Israel to lament the “gazelle” (the beautiful Jonathan) and he declares to all how wonderful Jonathan’s love was for him, surpassing that of any woman (even though David had taken two more wives). Gilgamesh eventually will marry two wives and take a concubine (“The Death of Gilgamesh,” SGP, Foster, p. 142-154, esp. 66-67, p. 152). Likewise, Jonathan eventually will marry (once) and David will take more wives and concubines than one can count on both hands.

Yet, as the ‘feminine’ sexual partner, both Enkidu and Jonathan have important parts to play in the life, education and ascent of Gilgamesh and David, respectively. As Enkidu introduces Gilgamesh into his liminal phase, where he will gain experience, understanding and maturity so that eventually he will become a wise, productive and beloved king of Uruk, so also Jonathan initiates David into his liminal phase, where separated from his family, Jonathan shelters, nurtures, instructs, and cares for the young David as he begins his perilous, circuitous journey toward becoming Israel’s most beloved king. As Ackerman notes, often with liminal characters borders become blurred (including sexual ones) and characters do not conform to social norms (such as the usual active-passive gender dichotomy).101 More important, she suggests that the feminization of Jonathan may have served an important purpose for the narrator in the Books of Samuel, by bolstering David’s right to rule over all of Israel. Jonathan’s acting (or being presented) in a feminine role would be considered by many to be dishonorable, thus disqualifying him from ever ruling as king – just as Meribaal’s lameness will later disqualify him for any such consideration. Because of Jonathan’s woman-like position and wife-like role, he must surrender whatever claim he might have had to the throne.102 Of course, Jonathan has already willingly handed over his claim to the throne and allegiance to David, out of love for him and commitment to the Lord’s will. Yet, sadly enough, both Enkidu and Jonathan must die and their partners suffer the searing agony of their loss before they can go on to fulfill their divine mission in life and their destiny in history.

Conclusion – Sexual references do not occur in the David and Jonathan story with the kind of frequency, variety and intensity or game-like quality that are found in the Gilgamesh epic. Still, the inclusion of erotic content, reference to an unusual sexual coupling, and use of concealing but, at the same time, revealing language can be seen clearly in both the Epic and in the description of David’s early rise to the throne. Careful analysis of the Epic of Gilgamesh (and noting also its extended influence and widespread distribution) supports the view that homoerotic desire and sexual coupling did exist in ancient Mesopotamia and that moreover it made its appearance in a great literary text, especially related to royal life. Yet, physical homoerotic activity tended to be referred to only in roundabout, subtle, symbolic, and subterfuge ways, no doubt because of a certain official and widespread feeling against it, although the extent of the latter is impossible to ascertain. As Jean Botero notes, homosexual love could be enjoyed in ancient Mesopotamia (rather easily) by having intercourse with someone from one’s own circle, with a servant, or with one of the professional prostitutes.103 In the Bible, homoerotic desire and sexual coupling are found in the Jonathan and David story, included in the great Book of Samuel and recorded in its court history. One cannot maintain that any law (e.g. Lev 18:22, 20:13) was totally pervasive or enforced, and especially among the royal and upper classes liberties could easily be taken. Still, Jonathan’s and David’s physical expressions of love are only alluded to in the Biblical text, in camouflaged acts (the making of a ‘friendship’ covenant), in double talk (Saul’s cursing of Jonathan), and in profound expressions of same-sex emotions (their parting scene and David’s eulogy) that only skim the surface of what was really going on sexually. It is surely more accurate to read a little bit more into elusive sexual language in ancient historical writing about homoerotic activity than to claim that nothing ever happened unless the researcher can find some intimate written record. Finally, it should be noted that it was the Mesopotamian gods who created Enkidu for Gilgamesh. Likewise, it is the Lord God of Israel who planned, preordained and provided David with Jonathan, whose passion and devotion led him into a commitment with David, so that he could educate, nurture and protect him and begin him on his journey toward the throne – and so that the shepherd boy and giant-slayer would continue to recognize God’s gracious hand on his life, even under Saul’s shadow at court. One cannot help but recall Job’s words at the end of his great ordeal, when he recognized that God’s acts are “things too wonderful for me, which I did not know” (Job 42:3, NRSV) and of Isaiah’s insight, as well, that human “thoughts” and “ways” are very often not the thoughts and ways of the Lord, which are much “higher” than human understanding (Isa 55:8-9).


FOOTNOTES: 1. Ackerman, p. 47.     2. Jacbosen 1930, p. 67-70.     3. Ibid., p. 70-73.     4. Jacobsen 1990, p. 234.     5. Jacobsen 1976, p. 218, note at bottom of page.     6. Ackerman, p. 50-51.     7. Walls, p. 12,14.     8. Ibid., p. 17.     9. George, I 237, p. 9.     10. Winter, Irene, 1996; quoted in Walls, p. 17-18.     11. Speiser, I v 17, p. 75.     12. Dalley, VI SBV i, p. 77.     13. Walls, p. 35-36.     14. Gardner & Maier, p. 83, n. 11.     15. Foster, VI 6, p. 46; Ferry, VI i, p. 29.     16. George, VII 138, p. 58.     17. Walls, p. 16.     18. Walls, p. 58, also quoting Jean-Pierre Vernant, 1990.     19. Foster, p. xviii-xix.     20. Kilmer, p. 128; Foster, p. xix; cf. Assyrian Dictionary … University of Chicago, 8 (K), p. 316, kezru.     21. Kilmer, p. 128.     22. Leich, p. 266.     23. Kilmer, p. 128; Walls, p. 56.     24. Lambert, p. 152-53; Dalley, p. 126, n. 10.     25. Ackerman, p. 60.     26. Walls, p. 56; cf. Assyrian Dictionary … University of Chicago, I, Part II (A), p. 341-42, assinnu.     27. Dalley, p. 126, n. 9-10.     28. Ibid.     29. Ackerman, p. 66-67.     30. Kilmer, p. 129-130.     31. Jacobsen 1990, p. 234, n. 7.     32. Harris, p. 86.     33. Speiser, II v 7, p. 78.     34. Dalley, p. 152, n. 11.     35. Ackerman, p. 70.     36. Ackerman, p. 70; cf. Exod 4:25, Deut 28:57, Ruth 3:7, Isa 7:20, Ezek 16:25 (see KJV); also Bandstra, B.L., & A.D. Verhey, “Sex, Sexuality,” ISBE IV(1988), p. 432-33.     37. Leick, p. 266.     38. Walls, p. 49.     39. Ackerman, p. 72-73.     40. George, I 256,267,271,284,289, p. 10-11.     41. George, VI 48,51,53,58,64,79, p. 49-50.     42. Ibid., VI 44,46, p. 49.     43. Ibid., X 55,57,68,69,132,134,145,146,232,234,245,246, p. 77-85.     44. Ackerman, p. 53.     45. Cooper, Jerold, 1977; quoted in Ackerman, p. 254, n. 14.     46. Kilmer, p. 130.     47. Greenberg, p. 113.     48. Noted in Kilmer, p. 128.     49. Walls, p. 59-60.     50. George, VII Hittite fragment III? i, p. 55.     51. Walls, p. 60.     52. Tigay, Evolution, p. 9, n. 20; Harris, p. 86.     53. Ackerman, p. 71.     54. Jacobson 1976, p. 218.     55. Cf. Jacobsen 1990, p. 235.     56. Ackerman, p. 120.     57. Cf. Abusch, Meissner fragment (OBV) iii 13, p. 2.     58. Kilmer, p. 130; Ackerman, p. 73.     59. Harris, p. 86.     60. Kilmer, p. 130; Gardner & Maier, VIII ii 2, p. 187.     61. Kilmer, p. 121.     62. George, VIII 61, p. 65.     63. Walls, p. 56.     64. Walls, p. 56-57.     65. Ibid., p. 47.     66. Cf. Song of Songs 4:9,10,12; 5:1,2; 8:1; Tobit 5:21; 7:11,15; 8:4.     67. Kramer, p. 645; cf. Ackerman, p. 62.     68. George, VIII, p. 63-69.     69. Ackerman, p. 127.     70. Ibid., p. 67.     71. Ibid., p. 69.     72. Ibid., p. 67.     73. George, II Y 18, p. 17.     74. Speiser, XII 86, p. 98.     75. Walls, p. 61.     76. Ibid., p. 61.     77. Comstock, p. 87-90.     78. Walls, p. 61.     79. Cf. Ackerman, p. 73-74.     80. Ibid., p. 75-78.     81. Halpern, p. 77.     82. Leick, p. 268.     83. Nissinen, p. 24.     84. Ackerman, p. 81.     85. George, I 193, p. 8; I 256,267,284,289, p. 10-11.     86. Halpern, p. 81.     87. Leick, p. 265-266.     88. Nissinen, p. 23.     89. Ackerman, p. 83-84.     90. Ibid., chs. 4,5,8.     91. Ibid., p. 88-90.     92. Ibid., p. 90-95.     93. Ibid., p. 96-123.     94. Ibid., p. 200.     95. Ibid., p. 108-121.     96. Cf. Ackerman, p. 202-06.     97. George, Hittite fragment III? i, p. 55.     98. George, I 256,267,284,289, p. 10-11; X 68-69,145-146,232-234, p. 78,81,84, etc.     99. Ackerman, p. 206-07.     100. Ibid., p. 213-18.     101. Ibid., p. 103-05, 121-23.     102. Ibid., p. 222-23.     103. Botero, p. 101.

Abusch, Tzvi, “Gilgamesh’s Request and Siduri’s Denial. Part I: The Meaning of the Dialogue and Its Implications for the History of the Epic,” in Mark Cohen, et al., eds., The Tablet and the Scroll: Near Eastern Studies in Honor of William W. Hallo, 1993, p. 1-14.
Ackerman, Susan, When Heroes Love, 2005.
Assyrian Dictionary of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, ed. Ignace J. Gelb, et al., 1956 on.
Bottéro, Jean, Everyday Life in Ancient Mesopotamia, French 1992, English 2001.
Comstock, Gary, Gay Theology Without Apology, 1993.
Dalley, Stephanie, trans. with introduction, Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others, 2nd ed., 2000.
Ferry, David, Gilgamesh: A New Rendering in English Verse, 1992.
Foster, Benjamin, ed., trans. with introduction, The Epic of Gilgamesh, 2001.
García-Treto, Francisco, “A Mother’s Paean, A Warrior’s Dirge: Reflections on the Use of Poetic Inclusions in the Books of Samuel,” Shofar 11(2), 1993, p. 51-64.
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.
Greenberg, David, The Construction of Homosexuality, 1988.
Halpern, David, One Hundred Years of Homosexuality, 1990.
Harris, Rivkah, “Images of Women in the Gilgamesh Epic,” 1990, reprinted in John Maier, ed., Gilgamesh: A Reader, 1997, p. 79-94.
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vols. I-IV, 1979-88.
Jacobsen, Thorkild, “How Did Gilgames Oppress Uruk?” Acta Orientalia, 8 1930, p. 62-74.
Jacobsen, Thorkild, “The Galgamesh Epic: Tragic and Romantic Vision,” in Tzvi Abusch, et al., eds., Lingering over Words: Studies in Ancient Near Eastern Literature in Honor of William L. Moran, 1990, p. 231-249.
Jacobsen, Thorkild, The Treasures of Darkness: A History of Mesopotamian Religion, 1976.
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.
Kramer, S.N., trans., “Set Me Free, My Sister,” in James Pritchard, gen. ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts, Relating to the Old Testament, 3rd ed., 1969, p. 645.
Lambert, Wilfried, “Prostitution,” in Volkert Haas, ed., Aussenseiter und Randgruppen: Beiträge zu einer Sozialgeschichte des Alten Orients, 1992, p. 127-157.
Leick, Gwendolyn, Sex and Eroticism in Mesopotamian Literature, 1994.
Nissinen, Martti, Homoeroticism in the Biblical World, 1998.
Schroer, Silvia, and Thomas Staubli, “Saul, David and Jonathan – The Story of a Triangle? A Contribution to the Issue of Homosexuality in the First Testament,” in Athalya Brenner, ed., Samuel and Kings: A Feminine Companion to the Bible, Second Series, no. 7, 2000, p. 22-36.
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, The Evolution of the Gilgamesh Epic, 1982.
Walls, Neal, Desire, Discord and Death: Approaches to Ancient Near Eastern Myth, 2001.

TRANSLATIONS (BIBLE): King James Version, 1611.     New Revised Standard Version, 1989.


© 2006 Bruce L. Gerig

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