wives strengthened husbands amid destroyed civilization of Roman Gaul

Early in the fifth century, Roman Gaul became a land of devastation and misery. Germanic Vandals invaded Gaul in 407 and besieged Toulouse. The city held, but in 413, Visigoths, after sacking Roman, took Toulouse and made it their capital. Burgundians and Alans subsequently entered Gaul and fought in shifting alliances. With Roman civilization disintegrating, a Roman Christian husband in early fifth-century Gaul turned to his beloved wife for spiritual strength. Men need women’s help in overcoming their tendency toward despair and self-blame.

Marble statue of Gallic husband committing suicide while holding his dying wife

Like many men, frail and dependent as they are, the husband in early fifth-century Gaul appealed in despair to his wife. He sought her spiritual strength in life dedicated to God:

Come, I now beseech you,
intimate companion of my deeds,
let us dedicate to the Lord God
this fearful and brief life.
You see, in swift rotation,
days rapidly pass.
Members of the fragile world
diminish, perish, collapse.
All that we held flows away —
nothing transitory is possessed again.
Vanities with empty appearances
draw greedy souls.
Where now is the semblance of deeds?
Where are powerful persons’ riches,
by which pleasure has been
occupying captured souls?

{ Age, iam precor, mearum
comes inremota rerum,
trepidam breuemque uitam
domino deo dicemus.
celeri uides rotatu
rapidos dies meare
fragilisque membra mundi
minui perire labi.
fluit omne quod tenemus
neque fluxa habent recursum,
cupidasque uana mentes
specie trahunt inani.
ubi nunc imago rerum est?
ubi sunt opes potentum,
quibus occupare captas
animas fuit uoluptas? }[1]

The destruction of Roman civilization prompted this husband to become disillusioned with hollow appearances. Those hollow appearance include results of many men’s arduous labor: the semblance of worthy deeds, and wealth and its associated pleasures. What diminishes, perishes, and collapses in this fragile world includes the very members of persons’ bodies. The husband perhaps had a sense of his penis’s diminishing sexual potency. He, however cherished his wife as “intimate companion of my deeds {comes inremota rerum}.” Men’s deeds in love are not limited to conveying the seminal blessing. As well as loving each other intimately through many, various deeds, wife and husband as Christians love God and neighbor through specific deeds. Those deeds incarnate Christ through the ages.

The husband now recognized the transitory nature of worldly things. He noted that the man who tilled the land with a thousand plows now has only a single team of oxen. The man who once rode through cities in a luxurious carriage now walks on foot in desolate farmland. The man who had ten large ships working the seas now has only a skiff that he alone sails. The husband lamented:

The condition of farms isn’t the same, nor that of any city.
All in the end are rushing to be overthrown.
With sword, famine, pestilence, chains, cold, heat —
in a thousand ways combined, death seizes wretched human beings.
War rages everywhere, frenzy rouses all, with countless weapons
kings assail kings.
Impious strife rages in a disordered world,
peace has departed from earth, and you perceive what is the final time.

{ non idem status est agris, non urbibus ullis
omniaque in finem praecipitata ruunt.
ferro peste fame uinclis algore calore,
mille modis miseros mors rapit una homines.
undique bella fremunt, omnes furor excitat, armis
incumbunt reges regibus innumeris.
impia confuso saeuit discordia mundo,
pax abiit terris; ultima quaeque uides. }[2]

Many throughout history have thought that the end of the world is near. The world didn’t end in fifth-century Gaul.

Despite the collapse of Roman civilization, other men in fifth-century Gaul continued in men’s accustomed vices. The young cleric Salmon observed there:

Not sword, not cruel famine, not even diseases
has affected us. What we were, now we still are. Always
remaining under the same vices, we make no limit to our faults.
He who once ate lunch into the night, now also in drinking
extends daylight with lamps making night like day.
Pedius was an adulterer. He continues the same as an adulterer.
Lampadius rages on. Pollio was envious. He’s still envious.
Does Albus, who was once captivated by all honors,
labor with less ambition amid the ruin of the world?
Nothing is sacred for us except advantage, and that is honorable
which has been useful. For vice we impart the word “virtue,”
and the miser takes for himself the epithet “frugal.”

{ Nil gladius, nil dira fames, nil denique morbi
egerunt: fuimus qui, nunc semper sumus isdem
sub vitiis nullo culparum fine manentes.
Qui prius in noctem prandebat, nunc quoque potans
continuat soles nullo discrimine lychnis.
Moechus erat Pedius: moechatur, durat in isdem
†Lampadius† furiis; livebat Pollio: livet;
Albus, cunctorum quondam captator honorum,
orbis in excidio minus ambitione laborat?
Nil sanctum nobis nisi quaestus et illud honestum est,
utile quod fuerit, vitiisque vocabula recti
indimus et parci cognomen sumit avarus. }[3]

Men always have been vain, deceitful, conceited, and deluded. Moreover, men always have been willing to declare men’s failings.

Men are prone to excusing women by blaming men. When the wise old monk Thesbon told Salmon that women are even more wicked than men, Salmon declared:

A damp night, Thesbon, would envelop the day in darkness
before I could survey the habits of that crowd.
When by God’s law, women live under men’s law,
women scarcely ever sin, for shame, without our fault.

{ Ante diem, Thesbon, tenebris nox umida condet,
quam possim mores huius percurrere turbae,
quae, cum lege Dei vivant sub lege virorum,
pro pudor haud umquam sine nostro crimine peccant. }

In this man’s understanding, wives’ desires for extensive wardrobes are their husbands’ fault:

If they now would strive to present themselves in varied outfits
and show off one and another before men’s faces,
isn’t the error ours? On a chaste body, what effect has
powder and rouge and poisons of a hundred colors?
The mind’s honor and proper behavior are the bonds of holy
marriage. If surface beauty pleases, with passing years
love will cease. Only probity doesn’t know being old.

{ Iam si mutatis studeant occurrere formis
atque viris alios aliosque opponere vultus,
nonne error noster? quid agunt in corpore casto
cerussa et minium centumque venena colorum?
Mentis honor morumque decus sunt vincula sancti
coniugii; si forma placet, venientibus annis
cedet amor: sola est senium quae nescit honestas. }

According to this fifth-century Christian man, Christian men should be blamed for Christian women behaving like elite pagan men:

Now, when they sanctify all matters with perpetual discussion,
when they feast, when they manage much, when they talk much,
isn’t the fault ours? Forsaking Paul and Solomon,
either a Phoenician Dido sings Virgil, or a Corinna sings Ovid.
Shouldn’t our inner chambers differ from vain theaters?
Horace’s lyrics and Marullus’s mimes receive applause.
We, yes, we are the cause of this. We shamefully
give fuel to these flames. One says, let the immoral wife
be blamed for plucking money from the “honest” husband,
yet like a mirror, wives with their tenacious nature reflect what’s received,
and in their behavior they follow their husbands’ examples.
Why is an unfortunate woman condemned to usual blame
when a sinful wife pleases a stupid husband?

{ Iam quod perpetuis discursibus omnia lustrant,
quod pascunt, quod multa gerunt, quod multa locuntur,
non vitium nostrum est? Paulo et Solomone relicto
aut Maro cantatur Phoenissa aut Naso Corinna.
Nonne cavis distent penetralia nostra theatris?
Accipiunt plausus lyra Flacci et scaena Marulli.
Nos horum, nos causa sumus, nos turpiter istis
nutrimenta damus flammis – culpetur honesti
inproba nupta viri nummo decerpere nummum! –
nam sicut speculo referunt accepta tenaci
ingenio similes morisque exempla secuntur.
Cur solita infelix damnatur femina culpa,
cum placeat stolido coniunx vitiosa marito? }[4]

For whatever wrongs have been done, men and patriarchy are to blame. Blame men especially for misogyny, and for criticizing women’s behavior. But not all men are like that, “and the church nourishes many pious persons {multosque pios ecclesia nutrit},” as Thesbon’s abbot noted. Salmon himself declared, “to Christian victory both sexes adduce crowns {ad victrices det sexus uterque coronas}.” The implications of the words “both sexes {sexus uterque}” deserve emphasis. Not only women are virtuous. Somehow some men manage to live virtuously like women.

Men manly enough to beseech their wives for help might be able to live virtuously. The Roman Christian husband in early fifth-century Gaul implored his wife:

Now you, faithful companion, wrap yourself about me for this battle,
you whom God has provided as help for a weak man.
With care restrain me in pride, comfort me in sorrow,
and let us both be examples of pious life.
Be guardian of your guardian, mutually giving back.
Raise my slipping, rise with the assistance of my lifting,
so we be not only one flesh, but likewise also our minds
be one, and one spirit nourish us both.

{ tu modo, fida comes, mecum isti accingere pugnae,
quam Deus infirmo praebuit auxilium.
sollicita elatum cohibe, solare dolentem;
exemplum vitae simus uterque piae.
custos esto tui custodis, mutua redde;
erige labentem, surge levantis ope,
ut caro non eadem tantum, sed mens quoque nobis
una sit atque duos spiritus unus alat. }[5]

Many men are weak and need help. Women who forsake women’s privilege and enter into deadly battles can help men enormously, just as Viking Princess Svanhvita did. Most importantly, men, with their tendency toward self-blame, naturally suffer from lack of self-esteem. Women by insisting on their own faults can help to prevent men from blaming themselves in despair.

Apart from strong, independent women, men and women benefited from each others’ help in early fifth-century Gaul. In today’s much different circumstances, women and men might still be able to help each other.

* * * * *

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[1] Prosper of Aquitaine (attributed), Verses to his spouse {Versus ad coniugem}, alternately titled, Song to his wife {Carmen ad uxorem} or Poem of a husband to his wife {Poema coniugis ad uxorem}, vv. 1-16 (of 122), Latin text from Hartel (1894) Appendix, Carmen 1, pp. 344-8 (with cupidas uagasque restored to cupidasque uana, following Santelia (2009)), my English translation, benefiting from that Kuhnmuench (1929) p. 294. On the “where are {ubi sunt}” motif in literary history, Bright (1893) and note 2 in my post on Guillaume de Palerne’s medieval dream.

The current best edition of Versus ad coniugem is Santelia (2009). That edition differs in only three substantive readings from the edition of Hartel (1894). For those differences, Chiappiniello (2010), note 2.

Typically appended to Prosper’s widely disseminated Book of Epigrams {Liber epigrammatum}, Versus ad coniugem survives in many manuscript, including Bibliothèque nationale de France, Latin 11326 (Sup. Lat. 699), written in the late sixth or early seventh century. Liber epigrammatum has survived in at least 180 manuscripts, and a large share of these have appended to them Versus ad coniugem. Schrunk Ericksen (2019) p. 98. Cf. Chiappiniello (2010). Additional surviving manuscripts are Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Reginensis Lat. 206, folios 57r-58v (written in the eleventh century); Reginensis Lat. 230, folios 114r-116r (written in the first quarter of the eleventh century), and the Monastery of Monte Cassino, Codex Casinensis 226.

The attribution of Versus ad coniugem to Prosper of Aquitaine has been a matter of scholarly debate. Some scholars have attributed Versus ad coniugem to Paulinus of Nola, but that attribution has been ruled out. Hwang (2009) p. 26. The poem, nonetheless seems to be related to Paulinus of Nola’s epithalamium (Carmen 25). Chiappiniello (2007). Versus ad coniugem is unusual among Prosper’s surviving work. “Such a deeply personal poem is completely uncharacteristic of Prosper.” Hwang (2009) p. 27. Nonetheless, the manuscript context strongly favors Prosper’s authorship. Santelia (2009) firmly attributes it to Prosper.

Versus ad coniugem was regarded as important enough to be included in significant florilegia. Excerpts from Versus ad coniugem were included in the early fourteenth century Compendium of Notable Morals {Compendium moralium notabilium} by Jeremiah of Montagnone {Geremia da Montagnone}, also known as Jeremiah of Padua {Hieremias Paduanus}, a judge of Padua. On those excerpts, Palermo (2018). Vincent de Beauvais included excerpts from Versus ad coniugem in his Historical Mirror {Speculum historiale} and his Doctrinal Mirror {Speculum doctrinale}. On those excerpts, Villarroel Fernández (2016).

Other contemporary writings concern the collapse of Roman civilization in fifth-century Gaul. Admonishments {Commonitorium}, which Orientius wrote about 430 GC, About the providence of God {De prouidentia Dei}, and Epigram of Paul {Epigramma Paulini} all apparently are Christian responses to the collapse of Roman civilization in fifth-century Gaul. For some comparative analysis, Cutino (2012) and Fielding (2014). Sidonius Apollinaris, both a Roman official and a Christian bishop in fifth-century Gaul, provides an elite witness to the situation. Jerome in his Letter 123 (written in 409 to Ageruchia, a widow in Gaul), section 16, describes the misery in Gaul. Jerome’s Letter 127 (written in 412 to Principia), sections 12-13, describes the effects of Goths, under the command of Alaric, sacking Rome in 410. Rutilius, On returning home {De reditu suo}, considers the collapse of Roman civilization in Gaul with the perspective of an adherent of more traditional Greco-Roman religion.

[2] Versus ad coniugem vv. 23-30, sourced as previously. In literary history, the corruption of interpersonal love has been regarded as both a cause and a sign of the end of the world.

[3] Epigram of Paul {Epigramma Paulini} vv. 30-41 (of 110), Latin text from Chiappiniello (2023), my English translation, benefiting from that of id. and Kuhnmuench (1929) p. 286. The Latin edition of Chiappiniello (2023) is a “lightly revised version” of Schenkl (1888). It has only a few significant differences from id. See Chiappiniello (2023), “List of Departures From Schenkl’s Edition (CSEL 16.1).”

Epigramma Paulini has survived in one manuscript, Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, lat. 7558 (Parisinus Latinus 7558), written in the first half of the ninth century and available online. In this manuscript the poem is entitled Epigram of Saint Paul {Sancti Paulini Epigramma}. The title is conventionally shortened to Epigramma Paulini. The attribution to Saint Paul is spurious. Scholars subsequently attributed Epigramma Paulini to Paulinus of Nola or Paulinus of Beziers, but those attributions are now regarded as unlikely. Fielding (2014) p. 570, note 2.

Epigramma Paulini consists of Latin hexameters. It draws upon on Virgil’s first Eclogue and probably also monastic literary dialogues. Chiappiniello (2023), Chapter 5. The satirical passages of Epigramma Paulini have the vigor of Jerome’s satire, but the ironic undercurrent of men’s sexed protest contrasts sharply with Jerome’s direct approach. Chiappiniello interpreted those passages through the modern misandristic ideology of misogyny. The “traditional misogynistic view” referenced in Chiappiniello (2007), p. 173, is a modern social construction.

The subsequent five quotes above are similarly sourced from Epigramma Paulini. They are Epigramma Paulini, vv. 55-8 (A damp night, Thesbon…), 67-73 (If they now would strive to present themselves in varied outfits…), 74-86 (Now, when they sanctify all matters with perpetual discussion…), 97 (and the church nourishes many pious persons), 100 (to Christian victory both sexes adduce crowns).

[4] In the Latin text for Epigramma Paulini, v. 74, I follow Schenkl’s manuscript correction of nam to iam, against Chiappiniello, who in his commentary references different scholarly judgments concerning this change. I think the context is temporal, with an ironic reference to expected behavioral reform following the calamity of the barbarian invasions. Moreover, the iam in Epigramma Paulini, v. 67, seems to me to work in the same way and provide a parallel.

[5] Versus ad coniugem, vv. 115-122, sourced as previously.

[image] Marble statue of Gallic husband committing suicide while holding his dying wife. Commonly called “The Ludovisi Gaul” or “The Galatian Suicide.” Second-century sculpture attributed to Epigonus of Pergamon, apparently copying a bronze Hellenistic sculpture. Originally commissioned and owned by Attalus I of Pergamon in present-day Turkey. Transferred to Italy without justifying documentation and now preserved as Inv. 8608 in the Boncompagni Ludovisi Collection of the Palazzo Altemps, Museo Nazionale Romano (Rome, Italy). Low-resolution, modified image used in accordance with fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law. Here’s an image on Wikimedia Commons.


Bright, James W. 1893. “The ‘Ubi Sunt’ Formula.” Modern Language Notes. 8 (3): 187-188.

Chiappiniello, Roberto, 2007. “The Carmen ad uxorem and the Genre of the Epithalamium.” Ch. 5 (pp. 115-38) in Otten, Willemien, and Karla Pollmann, eds. Poetry and Exegesis in Premodern Latin Christianity: the encounter between classical and Christian strategies of interpretation. Leiden: Brill.

Chiappiniello, Roberto. 2010. “Review: Stefania Santelia, Prospero d’Aquitania: Ad coniugem suam. In appendice: Liber epigrammatum. Studi latini 68.” Bryn Mawr Classical Review. 2010.12.71.

Chiappiniello, Roberto. 2023. The Epigramma Paulini: Critical Edition with an Introduction, Translation, and Commentary. Berlin: De Gruyter.

Cutino, Michele. 2012. “Réflexion éthique et historique des poètes chrétiens en Gaule au ve s. face aux invasions barbares.” Pp. 151-164 in Nathalie Catellani-Dufrêne and Perrin Michel, eds. La lyre et la pourpre: Poésie latine et politique de l’Antiquité Tardive à la Renaissance. Rennes: Presses universitaires de Rennes.

Fielding, Ian. 2014. “Physical Ruin and Spiritual Perfection in Fifth-Century Gaul: Orientius and His Contemporaries on the ‘Landscape of the Soul.’Journal of Early Christian Studies. 22(4): 569–85.

Hartel, Guilelmus de, ed. 1894. Sancti Pontii Meropii Paulini Nolani, Carmina. Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum (CSEL) 30. Vindobonae: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften. Alternate presentation. Alternate presentation.

Hwang, Alexander Y. 2009. Intrepid Lover of Perfect Grace: The Life and Thought of Prosper of Aquitaine. Washington, D.C: Catholic University of America Press.

Kuhnmuench, Otto J. 1929. Early Christian Latin Poets from the Fourth to the Sixth Century with an Introduction, Translation, Commentary, and Notes. Chicago: Loyola University Press.

Palermo, Sara. 2018. “Próspero de Aquitania en el Compendium Moralium Notabilium de Jeremı́as de Montagnone.” Estudios Clásicos. 154: 67-92.

Santelia, Stefania, ed. and trans. (Italian). 2009. Prosper of Aquitaine. Ad coniugem suam. In appendice: Liber epigrammatum. Studi latini 68. Napoli: Loffredo editore. Review by Roberto Chiappiniello (2010).

Schenkl, Karl, ed. 1888. “S. Paulini Epigramma.” Pp. 499-510 in Poetae Christiani Minores, Pars I (Corpus scriptorum ecclesiasticorum latinorum, Volume 16, Part 1). Vienna, Leipzig, Prague: Tempsky, Freytag. Alternate presentation; another alternate presentation.

Schrunk Ericksen, Janet. 2019. “A Textbook Stance on Marriage: The Versus ad coniugem in Anglo-Saxon England.” Ch. 5 (pp. 97-112) in Kozikowski, Christine E., and Helene Scheck, eds. New Readings on Women and Early Medieval English Literature and Culture: Cross-Disciplinary Studies in Honour of Helen Damico. Leeds: Arc Humanities Press. Introduction.

Villarroel Fernández, Irene. 2016. “De Opusculis Prosperi Excerpta Huic Operi Inserere Volui. Próspero de Aquitania en el Speculum Maius de Vicente de Beauvais.” Revue d’Histoire des Textes. 11: 215–53.

Walsh, P. G, ed. and trans. 1975. The Poems of St. Paulinus of Nola . New York: Newman Press.

intimate friendship, not Shamhat, civilized Enkidu and Gilgamesh

After his two, week-long sex sessions with the female prostitute Shamhat, Enkidu establishes an intimate friendship with King Gilgamesh. Enkidu and Gilgamesh in this ancient Mesopotamian epic interact closely, affectionately, and sexually. Moreover, Enkidu is described as being like a wife to Gilgamesh. Modern scholars starkly define a man’s penis penetrating another person, whether woman or man, as necessarily establishing a dominant-submissive (“active” / “passive”) power hierarchy for the two. That modern gender ideology, which brutalizes men’s penises, contradicts the ancient epic of Enkidu and Gilgamesh. It also defies common human experience right up to this day. Enkidu doesn’t subordinate the female prostitute Shamhat to himself by having sex with her. Neither Gilgamesh nor Enkidu is dominant over the other. Both Enkidu and Gilgamesh become “civilized,” meaning they live more personally expansive and culturally complex lives, through their intimate friendship.

Gilgamesh is king of the ancient Mesopotamian city Uruk. Fundamental parts of Uruk are the city itself, its food supply, its source of building materials, and the temple of the goddess Ishtar:

One acre is the city,
one acre the date-grove,
one acre the clay-pit,
half an acre the temple of Ishtar:
three and half acres is the size of Uruk.

{ šār ālu šār kirâtu šār essû pitir bīt ištar
šalāšat šār u pitir uruk tamšīḫu }[1]

The palace of Uruk’s king isn’t mentioned in mapping the city. Ishtar’s temple, which elsewhere in this epic is described as Uruk’s sacred storehouse, is half the size of the city itself. The goddess Ishtar dominates Uruk. “Gilgamesh saw the deep, the foundation of the country {[gilgāmeš ša n]agba īmuru išdī mā[ti]}.” Unlike modern scholars, Gilgamesh surely understands that Uruk is woman-centric.

Gilgamesh is an extraordinary and unruly man. “Two-thirds god and one-third human {šittāšu ilum-ma šulultašu amēlūtu},” he is eighteen-feet tall and has a beard five-feet long. He is a powerful warrior, a courageous leader of soldiers, and a king who directs massive construction projects. Yet he is unsatisfied and disorderly: “day and night he behaves with fierce arrogance {[urr]a u [mū]ša ikaddir šēr[iš]}.” He keeps sons from their fathers and daughters from their mothers. That perhaps means that he doesn’t allow young persons to grow up according to normal role models. He sexually violates young brides, and perhaps young men as well. Gilgamesh, though living in the city of Uruk, isn’t civilized. The women of Uruk complain about him to goddesses and seek divine intervention. The Uruk men, as is typical for men, remain silent in their anguish.

ancient Mesopotamian hero like King Gilgamesh of Uruk

The women’s complaints lead to the creation of the man Enkidu. Both the goddess Ishtar and the god Anu listen to the women’s complaints. Anu had the idea of creating another man like Gilgamesh. Ishtar and Anu give the goddess Aruru the opportunity to realize Anu’s idea. They urge her in creating another man:

Let him be equal to the storm of Gilgamesh’s heart,
let them rival each other, and so let Uruk rest.

{ ana ūm libbīšu lū maḫ[ir]
lištannanū-ma uruk liš[tapšiḫ] }

Responding to this request, Aruru creates Enkidu:

In the wild she created Enkidu, the hero,
an offspring of silence, knit strong by the war god Ninurta.
All his body is matted with hair.
He is adorned with tresses like a woman,
and his hairlocks grow as thickly as those of the grain goddess Nissaba.
He knows not at all a people, nor even a country.

{ ina ṣēri enkīdu ibtani qurāda
ilitti qūlti‡ kiṣir ninurta
šuʾʾur šārta kalu zumrīšu
uppuš‡ pēreta kīma sinništi
itqī pērtīšu uḫtannabā kīma nissaba
lā īde nišī‡ u mātam-ma }

Enkidu is silent, strong, and has body-hair like a man. He also has long hair on his head like a woman. He wears rustic clothes, feeds on grass with gazelles, and drinks water with a herd of non-human animals. He doesn’t live in a community of humans.

Enkidu, who became intimate friend to Gilgamesh

Living in the wild doesn’t mean that Enkidu is non-human or “uncivilized.” Humans are a type of animal. Enkidu associates harmoniously in the wild with a herd of non-human animals. His appreciation for non-human animals is a higher level of human consciousness than that among humans who don’t even recognize that they are animals having common life with non-human animals.

Being civilized, in the sense of having a personally expansive and culturally complex life, isn’t equivalent to living in a city. Nomads of the ancient Eurasian steppe had sophisticated culture. In ancient Arabia, small oasis settlements were technologically advanced. Enkidu himself is sophisticated enough to foil the hunter’s technology for capturing non-human animals. The prostitute Shamhat asks Enkidu:

You are handsome, Enkidu, you are just like a god —
why like the non-human animals do you range through the wild?

{ [dam]qāta enkīdu kīma ili tabašši
ammīni itti nammaššê tarappud ṣēra }

Why does Gilgamesh, who is handsome and like a god, rage through the city of Uruk like a wild bull? Gilgamesh’s behavior, like that of Enkidu, isn’t determined by where he lives.

In significant ways, Enkidu lives a personally expansive and sophisticated life with non-human animals. Enkidu and a hunting man come face-to-face at a water-hole. The hunter is afraid of Enkidu, probably because Enkidu has a different appearance from that of other men. Enkidu isn’t afraid of the hunter. Enkidu thus has a more sophisticated understanding of human than does the hunter, who fears a conspecific different from himself. The hunter also complains to his father that Enkidu is impeding his hunting. Men hunting non-human animals in the wild surely was understood in ancient Mesopotamia as an aspect of the natural order. Enkidu challenges the human-assumed predator-prey order of the wild. That’s sophisticated behavior.

The human female prostitute Shamhat captures Enkidu through his human sexual desire. When the hunter complains to Gilgamesh that Enkidu is impeding his hunting in the wild, Gilgamesh advises the hunter to treat Enkidu sexually like a dog:

Go, O hunter, take with you Shamhat the prostitute.
When the herd comes down to the water-hole,
she should strip off her clothing to reveal her charms.
He will see her and will go up to her.
The herd will be estranged from him, though he grew up in its presence.

{ alik ṣayyādu ittīka ḫarimta šamḫat urū-ma
enūma būlu isa[nniq]u ana mašqî
šī lišḫuṭ lubūšīš[ā-ma lip]tâ kuzubša
immaršī-ma iṭ[e]ḫḫâ ana šâši
inakkiršu būlšu š[a i]rbû eli ṣērīšu }

The hunter and Shamhat set this crude trap for Enkidu. Through the eyes of Shamhat, Enkidu in this situation is a savage:

Then Shamhat saw him, the man-savage,
a murderous male from the midst of the wild.

{ īmuršū-ma šamḫat lullâ amēla
eṭla šaggāšâ ša qabalti ṣēri }

In the wild before he meets Shamhat, Enkidu isn’t a murderous man. Apparently a vegetarian, Enkidu eats grass and protects animals from the hunter. Shamhat, who also describes Enkidu as handsome and like a god, here assimilates the sexually aroused Enkidu to dangerous non-human male animals.

Even sophisticated, civilized men might sexually desire a naked, beautiful, warmly receptive woman. The hunter thus urges Shamhat to set her crude snare for Enkidu:

There he is, Shamhat! Show your breasts,
spread your legs so he may see your charms.
Do not be afraid — take in his scent.
He will see you and come to you.
Spread your clothing so that he may lie on top of you,
and treat the man to the work of a woman.
His lust will caress and embrace you.
Then the herd will be estranged from him, though he grew up in its presence.

{ annû šū šamḫat rummî kirimmīki
ūrki pitê-ma kuzubki lilqe
ē tašḫutī leqê napīssu
immarkī-ma iṭeḫḫâ ana kâši
lubūšīki muṣṣî-ma elīki liṣlal
epšīšū-ma lullâ šipir sinništi
inakkiršu būlšu ša irbû ina ṣērīšu
dādūšu‡ iḫabbubū‡ eli ṣērīki }

Dogs have a much more capable sense of smell than do humans. In treating Enkidu like a dog, Shamhat herself uses her sense of smell and thus associates herself with non-human animals.[2] For a week their lives narrow to having sex:

For six days and seven nights, Enkidu, erect, had sex with Shamhat.

{ šeššet urrī (u) sebe mušâti enkīdu tebī-ma šamḫat ireḫḫi }

Living organisms very different from humans have been sexually reproducing on earth for more than a billion years. Sex isn’t highly refined behavior, especially sex with a prostitute. Nonetheless, a highly civilized man might readily be lured into a week or two of sex with an attractive prostitute.

Sex with the prostitute Shamhat alienates Enkidu from non-humans animals. Enkidu in the hunter’s eyes is frightening and disruptive to the right order of the wild. After Enkidu’s week-long sex session with Shamhat, the non-human animals fear Enkidu as the hunter does:

After he was sated with her delights,
he turned his face toward the herd.
The gazelles saw Enkidu and started running,
the animals of the wild moved away from his person,
Enkidu had defiled his body that was so pure.
His legs stood still, though the herd was on the move.
Enkidu was diminished, his running was not as before,
but he was aware, made wide in understanding.

{ ultu išbû lalâša
pānīšu ištakan ana‡ ṣēr būlīšu
īmurāšū-ma enkīdu irappudā ṣabâtu
būl ṣēri ittesi ina zumrīšu
ultaḫḫi enkīdu ullula pagaršu
ittazizzā birkāšu ša illikā būlšu
umtaṭṭi enk[īdu u]l kī ša pāni lasānšu
u šū īši u[zna] rapaš ḫasīsa }

In ancient Mesopotamia, dogs and other non-human animals didn’t have week-long sex sessions with human prostitutes. By his sexual intercourse with Shamhat, Enkidu becomes marked as other in the eyes of the non-human animals. Moreover, he recognizes that they now regard him as other. He legs figuratively stand still because now he understands that he can no longer be with non-human animals as he was before. Enkidu’s new sense of otherness in relation to non-human animals doesn’t make him into a human. He was a human before having sex with Shamhat.[3] Enkidu’s new sense of otherness in relation to non-human animals diminishes him as a human animal.

Translators seem to have projected onto the epic of Enkidu and Gilgamesh ancient Greek philosophic understanding of human reason. Above I modified a key word in the eminent Assyriologist Andrew R. George’s translation. Here is George’s translation:

Enkidu was diminished, his running was not as before,
but he had reason, he [was] wide of understanding.

{ umtaṭṭi enk[īdu u]l kī ša pāni lasānšu
u šū īši u[zna] rapaš ḫasīsa }

The Akkadian term uzna, here in parallel with hasīsu, has a bodily referent “ear.” Its meaning encompasses “awareness, attention” and “wisdom.” In modern English, the ancient Greek thought of Plato, Aristotle, and others has shaped “reason” to be an abstract intellectual good distinctive to humans. That “reason” has no relevance to this ancient Mesopotamian text. Sophus Helle’s recent, much lauded poetic translation underscores the projection of “reason” onto the text. Helle rendered these two verses as:

Enkidu was weakened and could not keep up,
but now he could reason and think.[4]

This translation suggests that a week of sex with Shamhat made Enkidu physically weak and unable to “keep up.” That probably wasn’t the meaning of the ancient text. The ancient text probably also didn’t mean that a week of sex with Shamhat makes Enkidu able to “reason and think.” Western intellectual history best explains that peculiar interpretation.

Parallels and contrasts in half-verses help to clarify the meaning of uzna in the story of Enkidu and Gilgamesh. The immediately previous two verses have half-verses with contrasting ideas within each verse: defiled / pure, and stationary / moving. The subsequent two verses have a contraction and an expansion across their half-verses:

Enkidu was diminished, his running was not as before,
but he was aware, made wide of understanding.

{ umtaṭṭi enk[īdu u]l kī ša pāni lasānšu
u šū īši u[zna] rapaš ḫasīsa }

Moreover, across these two verses, the half-verses contrast chiasmically: diminished / made wide, and bodily action / bodily sensation. The relevant bodily sensation is Enkidu’s awareness of the herd’s fear of him. He is wide in understanding in now understanding himself as a human animal other than non-human animals.

The Genesis story of Eve and Adam apparently has mis-informed understanding of Enkidu. Eve and Adam ate fruit from the tree of knowledge. Eating that fruit didn’t give them knowledge understood as a product of reasoning and thinking. Eve and Adam eating the fruit, in Christian interpretation, made humans sinful and in need of redemption. Eve and Adam thus became sinful humans like all other humans after them. After having sex with Shamhat, Enkidu becomes more like other humans in Uruk in his food, drink, and clothing. Becoming superficially more like other humans in Uruk doesn’t significantly “humanize” Enkidu. The Christian sense of Eve and Adam’s significantly transforming sin shouldn’t be projected back, with reversed moral valence, onto Enkidu having sex with Shamhat.[5]

The Genesis story of Eve and Adam, read closely, suggests how persons in ancient Mesopotamia understood Enkidu’s story. The serpent, who isn’t a trustworthy reporter within the Genesis story, urged Eve to mistrust God about the tree’s fruit:

For God knows that on the day you eat of it, your eyes will be opened, and you will become like gods knowing good and evil.

[6]{ כִּי יֹדֵעַ אֱלֹהִים כִּי בְּיֹום אֲכָלְכֶם מִמֶּנּוּ וְנִפְקְחוּ
עֵינֵיכֶם וִהְיִיתֶם כֵּאלֹהִים יֹדְעֵי טֹוב וָרָע׃ }

“Your eyes will be opened” is a matter of awareness. Knowing good and evil indicates an ancient understanding of wisdom. Such wisdom is far from today’s understanding of “reason and think.” Eve and Adam ate the tree’s fruit:

And the eyes of the two were opened, and they knew that they were naked.

{ וַתִּפָּקַחְנָה עֵינֵי שְׁנֵיהֶם וַיֵּדְעוּ כִּי עֵירֻמִּם הֵם }

Prior to eating the fruit, they are naked, and their eyes are not literally closed. Coming to know that they are naked isn’t a matter of gaining ability to reason and think. Eating the fruit changes Eve and Adam’s self-perception. They see themselves in a new way. That’s similar to how Enkidu’s sexual activity with Shamhat changes his relation to non-human animals.

After being ensnared by her alluring female body, Enkidu listens attentively to Shamhat the prostitute as if she were a wise teacher. She had been sent by Gilgamesh to trap Enkidu. She urges Enkidu to go to Gilgamesh. That isn’t the advice of a friend. Enkidu’s heart seeks a friend:

She talked to him, and what she said found favor.
His wise heart was seeking a friend.

{ ītamâššum-ma magir qabâša
mūdû libbašu išeʾʾâ ibra }[7]

Sex with Shamhat doesn’t necessarily make Enkidu’s heart wise. Perhaps Enkidu’s alienation from non-human animals makes his heart wise about his need for intimate human friendship. Alternately, his heart may have always been wise. In any case, Enkidu doesn’t initially seek to be a friend to Gilgamesh:

Come, Shamhat, take me along
to the sacred temple, the holy dwelling of Anu and Ishtar,
where Gilgamesh is perfect in strength,
and lords it over the menfolk like a wild bull.
I will challenge him, for my strength is mighty,
I will vaunt myself in Uruk, saying “I am the mightiest!”
There I shall change the way things are ordered.
The one born in the wild is mighty, he has strength.

{ alkī‡ šamḫat qirênni yâši
ana bīti elli qudduši mūšab ānu ištar
ašar gilgāmeš gitmālu emūqī
u kī rīmi ugdaššaru eli eṭlūti
anāku lugrīšum-ma dan? …
[lultar]riḫ? ina libbi uruk anākū-mi dannu
[…] … šīmata? unakkar
[ša in]a ṣēri iʾʾaldu dān emūqī īšu }

Shamhat tells Enkidu to abandon his intention, for Gilgamesh is stronger than him and beloved of the sun god Shamash. Shamhat thus implicitly characterizes Enkidu as inferior to Gilgamesh. She says nothing about Enkidu and Gilgamesh becoming intimate friends.

Shamhat, however, tells Enkidu about Gilgamesh’s dreams and how Gilgamesh’s mother interpreted them. According to the interpretation of Gilgamesh’s mother, Gilgamesh dreamed that he would meet a companion. That companion would be Gilgamesh’s equal, and Gilgamesh would love that companion as a wife. Shamhat perhaps knows of Gilgamesh’s dreams and his mother’s interpretation of them through Ishtar, twin to the all-knowing god Shamash. She doesn’t tell Enkidu that he will be Gilgamesh’s companion. Perhaps she doesn’t know. In any case, Shamhat isn’t the friend that Enkidu’s heart seeks.

Enkidu realizes Gilgamesh’s dreams of a self-similar companion through experience with him. After coming to Uruk, Enkidu wrestles with King Gilgamesh to prevent him from having sex with another man’s bride. Gilgamesh unilaterally stops their fierce wrestling. Enkidu then praises him, and they kiss and become friends. Gilgamesh’s mother Ninsun initially opposes Gilgamesh’s friendship with Enkidu.[8] However, when Gilgamesh asks her to bless his plan to go with Enkidu to slay the wicked beast Humbaba in the Cedar Forest, she adopts Enkidu as a son. Working closely together, Gilgamesh and Enkidu kill Humbaba and cut down the Cedar Forest. Together they also kill the raging Bull of Heaven. They become friends bonded through triumphing as partners in arduous, dangerous ordeals.

Gilgamesh and Enkidu slay Humbaba, guardian of the Cedar Forest

After having sex with Shamhat, Enkidu is more violent toward non-humans. After sex with Shamhat and before going to Uruk to meet Gilgamesh, Enkidu with his new awareness takes up the job of watchman for herdsmen:

He put on a garment, becoming like a warrior.
He took up a weapon to do battle with lions.
When the shepherds lay down at night,
he massacred all the wolves, he chased off all the lions.
The senior herdsmen slept.
Enkidu was their watchman, a man wide-awake.

{ ilbaš libšam kīma muti(m) ibašši
ilqe kakkašu lābī ugerre
issakpū r[ēʾ]û mūšiātim
uttappiṣ ba[r]barī lābī uktaššid
ittīlū nāqi[d]ū rabbûtum
enkīdu maṣṣaršunu awīlum ērum }

Before having sex with Shamhat, Enkidu peacefully associated with a herd of wild animals. After having sex with Shamhat, Enkidu works for humans who keep non-human animals as resources for humans. He thus takes a controlling position relative to animals he once associated with communally. Moreover, Enkidu massacres wolves and lions not for a stated cause, but apparently because he views those animals as categorically human enemies. Such action is uncivilized for ecologically enlightened humans.

Enkidu vociferously rejects mercy for the defeated, supplicating Humbaba. Gilgamesh proposes slaying Humbaba, but vacillates about killing him when he’s defeated and supplicating. Mercy for a defeated, supplicating enemy has long been ethical practice. Enkidu, however, passionately urges killing Humbaba out of concern for solidarity with gods and for social status:

Enkidu opened his mouth to speak, saying to Gilgamesh:
“My friend, there is Humbaba, guardian of the Cedar Forest.
Finish him, slay him, do away with his power!
Humbaba, guardian of the Forest —
finish him, slay him, do away with his power
before Enlil, foremost of the gods, hears otherwise!
The great gods could be angry with us,
the gods Enlil in Nippur, Shamash in Larsa.
Establish for ever a fame that endures —
how Gilgamesh killed ferocious Humbaba!”

{ enkīdu pâšu īpuš-ma iqabbi izakkara ana gilgā[meš]
ibrī ḫumbāba maṣṣar qišti [erēni]
gummiršu nēršu ṭēnšu ḫulli[q]
ḫumbāba maṣṣar qišti gumm[iršu] nēršu ṭēnšu ḫul[liq]
lām išmû ašarēdu e[llil]
libbātīni imallû il[ū rabûtu]
ellil ina nippuri šamaš ina [larsa …]
šuziz-ma dārâ […]
kī gilgāmeš ḫumb[āba …] }[9]

In gynocentric society, women are the primary guardians of divine solidarity and the most influential judges of men’s social status. Before he encountered the prostitute Shamhat, the wild man Enkidu had no concern about the gods or social status. When Enkidu refuses mercy for him, Humbaba weeps and appeals to the god Shamash. Humbaba curses Enkidu and Gilgamesh:

May both of them not grow old together!

{ ay ulabbirū kilallān }

In Enkidu’s socialized mind, social concerns outweigh mercy’s imperative. That socialization imperils Enkidu’s intimate friendship with Gilgamesh.

The leading god Enlil declares that Enkidu must die because Enkidu and Gilgamesh together killed Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven. Death thus will separate the intimate friends Enkidu and Gilgamesh. Falling delirious in mortal sickness, Enkidu rages against the massive door he built for Enlil’s temple in Nippur. Enkidu built that door from a huge, matchless cedar he and Gilgamesh cut down in the Cedar Forest. Enlil’s temple connects the earth to another world, the world above. Death will take Enkidu to another world, the world below. Enkidu disparages the door:

Enkidu raised his eyes,
talking with the door as if it were human,
“O door of the woods, not being perceptive,
you don’t have the awareness that I have.”

{ enkīdu […] ittaši [īnīšu]
itti dalti [ī]tammâ kī […]
dalat ḫalbi [in]a lā … […]
bašât uznī ša lā ibašš[û …] }

The door of Enlil’s temple doesn’t understand the importance of intimate friends being together. Enkidu condemns the door as disloyal to him. He wishes that he could tear it down. He cries in despair.

Gilgamesh cries in sympathy with Enkidu. Gilgamesh, however, cannot understand why Enkidu is speaking to the door:

You who had awareness and understanding —
do you now speak madness?
My friend, why did your heart talk profanities?

{ [ša u]znī ṭēma rašû šanâtī-ma […] … […]
[amm]īni ibrī idbub libbaka šanâti […] }

Here awareness is again linked to personal relation. As Enkidu’s friend, Gilgamesh offers to plead to the gods on behalf of Enkidu. Enkidu, however, explains that Enlil never changes his decrees.

Enkidu curses the hunter and Shamhat. The hunter and Shamhat together conspired to take Enkidu out of the wilderness. Enkidu doesn’t value being “civilized,” in the sense of residing in Uruk and eating, drinking, and wearing clothes like the inhabitants of that city. What matters to Enkidu is being with his intimate friend Gilgamesh. Death will take Gilgamesh from Enkidu. Their friendship will thus fail. Enkidu curses the hunter for that failed friendship:

As for him, that hunter, the trapper-man,
who did not let me be a match for my friend,
may the hunter not be a match for his friend!

{ [šū?] ṣayyādu ḫabbilu amēlu
ša lā ušamṣânni mala ibrīya
[ṣayy]ādu ay imṣâ mala ibrīšu }

Enkidu curses Shamhat to a lonely, harsh life as a prostitute:

May you not establish a household to your delight,
and never reside amid a family.
May you not sit in the young women’s room.
May the ground besmirch your fine-looking garment.
May the drunkard smear with dust your festive gown.
May you not acquire a house with loved ones and lovely things,
for your home shall be a potter’s clay pit.
You shall have neither bedroom, nor family shrine, nor hearth.
No bed or chair or table, such as people take pride in, shall be found in your room.
May the bed for your delight be a bench.
May the junction of the highway be where you sit.
May the ruined houses be where you sleep. May the lee of the city wall be where you stand.

{ [ē t]ēpušī bīt lalêki
[lā? t]arammî? […] ša taḫûtīki
[ē tu]šbī i[na maštaki?] ša ardāti
[ṣubātk]i damq[a qaq]qa[ru] lišaḫḫi
[lubār isinnātīki šakru] ina [turbuʾ]i liballil
[ē taršî bīt …] u banâti
[…] … ša paḫāri
[…] … mimma ē taršî
[eršu kuss]û paššūru šamuḫ nišī ay innadi ina bītīki
[dinnûtki ša l]alêm-ma lū dakkannu
[išpallurtu š]a ḫarrāni lū mūšabūki
[ḫurbātu lū m]aṣallūki ṣilli dūri lū manzāzūki }[10]

If Enkidu will not have his intimate friend Gilgamesh, neither will the hunter or Shamhat have an intimate friend.

The god Shamash pacifies Enkidu by prophesying Gilgamesh’s continuing friendship and care for him. After reminding Enkidu that Shamhat brought him to Gilgamesh, his lordly “companion {tappû},” Shamash declares:

Your friend and brother Gilgamesh now
will lay you on a great bed,
he will lay you on a bed of honor,
he will set you on a restful seat, the seat to his left.
The princes of the earth will kiss your feet.
He will make the people of Uruk weep for you, he will make them sob for you,
those people so prosperous he will fill full of grief for you.
After you are gone, he himself will bear matted locks of mourning.
He will put on the skin of a lion and go roaming the wild.

{ [en]innā-ma gilgāmeš ibri talīmīka
[ušn]ālka-ma ina mayyāli rabî
[in]a mayyāl taknî ušnālkā-ma
[uše]ššebka šubta nēḫta šubat šumēli
[malk]ū ša qaqqari unaššaqū šēpīka
[ušabk]âkka nišī ša uruk ušadmamakka
[šamḫāti] nišī umallâkka dulla
[u š]ū arkīka ušaššâ malâ pagaršu
[iltabbi]š maški labbim-ma irappud ṣ[ēra] }

Shamhat took Enkidu from the wild to Gilgamesh in the city of Uruk. In his grief for Enkidu’s death, Gilgamesh will go from the city into the wild. Dressed in lionskin, Gilgamesh will appear as a wild animal, as Enkidu appeared in the wild.[11]

Awareness that Gilgamesh will go to Enkidu’s origin placates the dying Enkidu. Enkidu then prophesies an auspicious life for the prostitute Shamhat. He prophesies that her life will conclude in intimate friendship:

May governors and noblemen love you.
May he one league distant from you slap his thigh.
May he two leagues distant from you shake out his locks.
May no soldier be slow to undo his belt for you.
May he give you obsidian, lapis lazuli, and gold,
and multiple earrings shall be gifts to you.
To a man whose household is well off, whose storage bins are heaped high,
may Ishtar, most able of the gods, send you.
For you may he leave his first wife, mother of seven!

{ [šakkanakk]ū u rubû lirʾamūk[i]
[ša ištēn bēr l]imḫaṣ šaparšu
š[a šinā bēr l]inassisa qimmassu
[ay iklâkk]i rēdû miserrašu lipṭurki
li[ddinki] ṣurra uqnâ u ḫurāṣa
in[ṣabt]ū tutturrû lū nidinki
ana eṭl[i ša kunnū] kunūnūšu išpikkūšu šapkū
i[štar lēʾâ]t ilī lušēribki kâši
[aššumīki li]nnezib ummi sebetti ḫīrtu }

After crudely ensnaring Enkidu for the hunter according to Gilgamesh’s counsel, Shamhat in taking Enkidu to Gilgamesh lead him to one who became an intimate friend. Reminded by Shamash that Gilgamesh will continue to sympathize with him after his death, Enkidu no longer curses Shamhat with the loneliness that he had felt.

Gilgamesh’s grief over losing Enkidu defies cultural boundaries. In Gilgamesh’s telling, grief for Enkidu’s death encompasses all of creation — hills and mountains to grasslands and rivers, both young and old persons, and herdsmen and plowmen and priestesses. Summoning up all that grief is Gilgamesh’s grief:

Hear me, O young men, hear me!
Hear me, O elders of populous Uruk, hear me!
I mourn Enkidu, my friend.
Like a professional mourning woman I lament bitterly.
The axe at my side, in which my arm trusted,
the sword at my belt, the shield in front of me;
who held …
my festive garment, the belt of my delight —
a wicked wind has risen up against me and robbed me.
O my friend Enkidu, mule on the run, donkey of the uplands, panther of the wild,
my Enkidu, mule on the run, donkey of the uplands, panther of the wild!
We joined forces and climbed the uplands,
we seized the Bull of Heaven and killed it,
we destroyed Humbaba, who dwelt in the Cedar Forest.
Now what sleep has seized you?
You have become unconscious and cannot hear me!

{ [š]imâʾinni eṭlūtu šimânni yâši
šimâʾinni šībūt āli rapši uruk šimâʾinni yâši
anāku ana enk[īdu ibrī]ya abakki
anāku ana ibrīya enkīdu abakki
kīma lallarīti [un]abba ṣarpiš
ḫaṣṣin(u) aḫī[ya tukl]at idīya
namṣār(u) šippīya [arīt]u ša pānīya
mukīl … […]
lubār isinnātīya nēbeḫ lalêya
[š]āru [l]emnu itbâm-ma ī[tekm]anni‡ yâši
ibrī kūdannu ṭardu akkannu ša šadî nimru ša ṣēri
enkīdu (ibrī) kūdannu ṭardu akkannu [ša šadî nimru ša ṣēri]
ša ninnemdū-ma‡ nīlû šadâ
niṣbatū-ma alâ [nināru]
nušalpitu ḫumbāba ša ina qišti [erēni ašbu]
nušalpitu ḫumbaba šar qišti erēni dannu […]
(eninna) mīnû šittu (ša) iṣbat(ū)ka kâši
taʾʾadram-ma ul taše[mmânni yâši] }

Gilgamesh, a king and a warrior, mourns as much as a professional mourning woman. Enkidu was to Gilgamesh like his weapons and his festive garment. The epithet series mule / donkey / panther plausibly characterizes Enkidu as having attributes from domesticated to wild. Gilgamesh mourns his all-encompassing intimate friendship with Enkidu. He cannot even speak to him.

Gilgamesh’s grief at Enkidu’s death emphasizes their intimate friendship. Enkidu had been like a wife to Gilgamesh. That’s recognized in one of Gilgamesh’s acts of mourning:

He covered his friend’s face, veiling it like a bride’s.

{ iktum-ma ibra kīma kallati pānuš }

Gilgamesh places Enkidu’s body on a great bed, a bed of honor, a place at Gilgamesh’s side. Gilgamesh makes many, luxurious offerings for Enkidu in the underworld. Gilgamesh also makes rich offerings to many underworld goddesses and gods. His intention in offering is insistently repeated:

May she welcome my friend and walk at his side!

{ ana pān ibrīya l[ū ḫadât-ma idāšu] lillik }

Enkidu will no longer have Gilgamesh at his side. But Gilgamesh makes offerings so that Enkidu might at least have at his side the most important figures of the underworld. That’s culturally complex, “civilized” behavior.

The story of Enkidu and Gilgamesh has long been misinterpreted as telling of Enkidu being “humanized” and “civilized” through intercourse with the prostitute Shamhat. In the Yale Oriental Series in 1920, scholars analyzing the Old Babylonian version explained:

The story then continues with the description of the coming of Enkidu, conducted by the woman to the outskirts of Erech {Uruk}, where food is given him. The main feature of the incident is the conversion of Enkidu to civilized life. Enkidu, who hitherto had gone about naked, is clothed by the woman. Instead of sucking milk and drinking from a trough like an animal, food and strong drink are placed before him, and he is taught how to eat and drink in human fashion.[12]

Specifics of how one eats and drinks make for a culture-specific, superficial understanding of being human and being civilized. Within this superficial interpretation, one finds a peculiar sense of women directing men, who of course naturally lack human dignity, into a normative, bourgeois “career and destiny”:

the story of Enkidu’s gradual transformation from savagery to civilized life is continued, with stress upon his introduction to domestic ways with the wife chosen or decreed for him, and with work as part of his fate. All this has no connection with Gilgamesh, and it is evident that the tale of Enkidu was originally an independent tale to illustrate the evolution of man’s career and destiny, how through intercourse with a woman he awakens to the sense of human dignity, how he becomes accustomed to the ways of civilization, how he passes through the pastoral stage to higher walks of life, how the family is instituted, and how men come, to be engaged in the labors associated with human activities.

A highly regarded scholarly work published in 1982, before Enkidu’s second week of sex with Shamhat was discovered, further explained how Shamhat humanized and civilized Enkidu:

In arguing that Enkidu was modeled not on the nomad but on primordial man, whose culture was that of the animal, we perceive the contrast as one between human culture and its absence. Enkidu is first civilized by the harlot Shamhat, who is, it is true, representative of Uruk, called elsewhere “city of courtesans, hierodules, and prostitutes” … and he is subsequently brought to the city. But his civilizing experience takes place before he arrives there, and it is summed up in the phrase “he became human” or “like a human” … Uruk appears in the epic as the locus of human culture — perhaps even the very best of human culture. What is stressed through the epic is the human-ness, rather than the urbanity, of that culture.[13]

In another ancient Mesopotamian myth, Nergal and Ereshkigal had sex for six days in their first meeting. That wasn’t necessary to humanize or civilize either of them.[14] How exactly does Shamhat and Enkidu’s six days of sex humanize Enkidu? That’s merely a matter for speculation:

What Enkidu apparently acquired from intercourse with the harlot was the intellectual potential to adopt human ways and the desire to seek human companionship. How this was brought about by intercourse we can only speculate. It is possible that a week of intimacy with a human made Enkidu realize where he belonged.

Men are struggling in the modern education system: in the U.S., nearly 50% more women than men currently receive post-secondary educational degrees.[15] To increase men’s intellectual potential, perhaps educational authorities should arrange for men students no-cost, week-long sex sessions with prostitutes. While such educational policy for college men hasn’t been seriously considered, the dominant interpretation of the Epic of Gilgamesh right up to 2018 starkly declared the relevant effect:

{Enkidu’s} transformation from animal to human is accomplished through a sexual initiation with a woman sent into the wilderness by Gilgamesh.[16]

According to this dominant interpretation, merely one week-long sex-session with the female prostitute Shamhat transformed Enkidu into a superior being.

After the discovery in 2018 of Enkidu’s second week-long sex-session with the female prostitute Shamhat, one might wonder how Shamhat could humanize and civilize Enkidu twice within a short period. Scholars, however, have rationalized both sex sessions into the dominant paradigm of culturally superior woman humanizing and civilizing naturally brutish man. Andrew George, the most eminent living scholar of the story of Enkidu and Gilgamesh, discovered the second sex session. He rationalized it in a scholarly way closely connnected to textual specifics:

Already transformed from unconscious semi-animal to self-conscious man, Enkidu needs no seduction second time around, so the second week of intercourse is more perfunctorily told. More important for the story is that it reinforces his desire to go to Uruk, in response this time to the prospect not of locking horns with Gilgameš but of finding there a role in men’s society. The idea introduced here is of Enkidu joining the urban social order that the gods established when they created kings to rule men.

It is a mark of the poem’s profundity that the two contrasting futures placed in Enkidu’s mind by the prostitute, each after a sexual marathon, are eventually reconciled in the narrative. In Uruk Gilgameš and Enkidu meet head on like bulls (OB II 219 // 224 kīma le’im), and fight each other to a standstill without an apparent winner; but then Enkidu acknowledges Gilgameš’s superiority as one predestined to be king by the god Enlil (OB II 238–240), and thereby implicitly accepts his own subordinate position. The moment is again informed by mythological thought: Babylonian folklore held that awīlum “human being” and šarrum “king” were distinct categories, created separately (e. g. VS 24, 92, ed. Mayer 1987). Enkidu’s acknowledgement that Gilgameš is the latter kind, and so he himself must be the former, completes the story of his transition from wild man to socialized human, and deftly and perceptively concludes this poet’s reflections on the ascent of man.[17]

Much textual evidence in the Standard Babylonian version indicates that Gilgamesh and Enkidu regarded each other as equals.[18] Moreover, believing that the king essentially differs from other men is autocratic socialization. Perhaps being humanized and civilized in ancient Mesopotamia meant coming to believe that the ruler has a divine right to rule. That’s now generally regarded as readily accepting, without independent reason and thought, elite propaganda. That doesn’t make for an appealing understanding of being “civilized.”

Elite propaganda can take culturally sophisticated forms. Sophus Helle’s popular presentation of Andrew George’s scholarly finding provides a more abstract rationalization of men’s natural inferiority to women and the need for two sex sessions with the prostitute Shamhat:

The first time Shamhat invites Enkidu to come to Uruk she describes Gilgamesh as superb in strength and horned like a bull. Enkidu readily accepts her invitation, saying that he will come to Uruk – but only to challenge Gilgamesh and usurp his power. “I shall change the order of things,” he declares. “The one born in the wild is mighty, he has strength.” Though Enkidu has learned to plan and speak like a human being, his way of thinking is still very much that of a wild animal: he immediately sees Gilgamesh as an alpha male, a rival bull to be defeated. The only thing that matters to him at this point is strength and domination.[19]

In this account, Enkidu’s first sex session with Shamhat gives him the ability to think and speak like a human, Enkidu, however, thinks in a way that intellectuals today disdain. Enkidu wants to change the order of things through his physical strength, rather than by writing learned treatises. He thus needs another sex session with Shamhat:

But the second time Shamhat invites him to Uruk, after they have had sex for yet another week, he sees things differently. Shamhat says that she will lead him to the temple {of the goddess Ishtar}, home of Anu, the god of heaven. Rather than change the order of things, Enkidu is to find a place for himself in society: “Where men are engaged in labours of skill, you, too, like a true man, will make a place for yourself.” Enkidu, now wiser after a second bout of civilizing sex, is ready to accept this invitation. “He heard her words, he consented to what she said: a woman’s counsel struck home in his heart.” He has understood the value of urban life, accepting the fact that human society is not all about domination and strength, but also about cooperation and skill. Each human being is part of a larger social fabric, where everyone must find their own place.

This interpretation thus concludes with a moralization comparable with the most bland and tendentious ones in the medieval story collection Deeds of the Romans {Gesta Romanorum}. Taking one’s place in the social fabric presumably includes honoring and respecting the dogmas of duly accredited and authoritatively certified human superiors, e.g. kings, professors, and authors of books published by prestigious university presses. This way of thinking apparently is necessary for urban life / human society / the social fabric.[20] It’s perhaps subsumed under the “cooperation and skill” needed to be regarded as respectable and orthodox.

Modern obfuscatory gender ideology grossly distorts understanding of Enkidu and Gilgamesh. Across cultures and history, men’s penises have commonly been brutalized. To this day, penal systems around the world vastly disproportionately punish persons with penises. In ancient Mesopotamia, a Middle Assyrian law specifies harsh punishment for a man who sexually penetrates another man with his penis, but no punishment for the man being sexually penetrated. The man using his penis sexually is punished through being sexual penetrated, as if that cannot be pleasurable, and then castrated, a typical act of sexual violence against men.[21] Despite authoritative promulgations to the contrary, such laws indicate women’s sexual privilege, not women’s social inferiority.

Like Tycho Brahe formulating an intricate theory of epicycles to rationalize the earth being at the center of the universe, scholars considering gender in the story of Enkidu and Gilgamesh have engaged in extraordinary intellectual contortions. Respectable scholars must uphold the brutalization of men’s penises and the myth of patriarchy. Scholars thus conceive of the penis as a tool of domination and make outlandish claims about what’s inconceivable:

in the Mesopotamian worldview, male-male sex was necessarily defined in terms of an active-passive dichotomy that is perceived as inappropriate between two comrades or equals. Indeed, it seems that in Mesopotamian thought, as in the Greco-Roman world, the idea of any sexual union, whether same-sex or opposite-sex, between equals or peers was “virtually inconceivable.”[22]

In ancient Rome, Propertius had sex with Cynthia, who dominated him. In ancient Baghdad, all-mighty caliphs were subservient to the slave girls with whom they had sex. Nonetheless, one should be able to conceive of a husband-wife couple in ancient Mesopotamia living a conjugal partnership between equals within their own conception of human status. Lacking such common-sense imagination leads to a literary problem:

how can a text that depicts the relationship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu in terms that all commentators admit are, at least to some degree, homoerotic, also be a text in which Gilgamesh and Enkidu are represented as equals, given that an egalitarian sexual relationship is not conceivable within the cultural context in which the Gilgamesh Epic was generated?

The obvious answer is that an egalitarian sexual relationship involving a man’s penis was conceivable within the cultural context that produced the epic of Enkidu and Gilgamesh. Men’s penises actually don’t typically function as an instrument of domination. Superficial, men-demonizing gender ideology has obscured that reality among modern, benighted scholars.

Gender mystification in support of dominant ideology has reached epic proportions in interpreting the story of Enkidu and Gilgamesh. In order to uphold today’s orthodox dogma about gender, scholars must profess that women, but not men, lack power and are silenced. What that actually means can be seen in practice:

The epic is a story that was told by men to men about men, with “women functioning as supporting and subsidiary characters in the cast,” in the words of the Assyriologist Rivkah Harris.[23]

This appeal to an authority (an eminent female Assyriologist) in characterizing the literary genre of epic fails independent reading and thinking. Human stories that endure typically are, explicitly or implicitly, about women and men. Women are the directors of epic. They encourage and judge epic violence against men. After his appeal to higher authority, the author then moves to contradiction and strangeness:

Women stand at the outer edges of the epic, but ironically, those edges can be a powerful place to be. Precisely because women are excluded from the male sphere of decisions, they hold a strange power over it. This is the logic of an anxious male privilege. To maintain an exclusive grasp on power, men restrict the speech of women and so come to imagine that if it were not restricted, women’s speech would hold great danger. That fear in turn becomes a reason to curtain their speech all the more.[24]

Women have a powerful place in epic, but it’s at the outer edges of epic. Whatever the outer edges of epic are exactly, they aren’t a powerful place, except ironically. That’s funny! Men are excluded by definition from the female sphere of decisions, yet they don’t have strange power over it. Men have an exclusive grasp on power, but women are in a powerful place and have a “strange power.” It’s like when at the commanding heights of British intellectual life, Mary Beard shouts about the silencing of women. Silenced women’s speech is so powerful that it presents great danger. It’s restricted, if your wife or girlfriend hasn’t yet told you, but the general-purpose demon “anxious male privilege” — there it is, standing right next to that coal miner! — wants to restrict women’s speech even more. The “precisely” inserted in this intellectual mush is precious. Such is the practice of today’s irrational, anxious, gender dogmatists.

cuneiform tablet containing the Epic of Gilgamesh, tablet 5

Hocus-pocus gender liturgy transforms the ancient stone tablets about Enkidu and Gilgamesh into the reigning spirit of our age. For example, the prostitute Shamhat, who on behalf of the hunter captured Enkidu in the wild, becomes another admirable woman who must be defended from those now harming her with words:

Shamhat is a wise and outspoken woman who makes conscious use of her sexual appeal. Labeling such a woman a prostitute is, to put it mildly, not ideal, unless the claim is backed up by solid philological evidence, which is not currently available.[25]

That’s tediously tendentious sophism posing as philological science. The text makes reasonably clear that Shamhat is a prostitute. The textual evidence that she’s a prostitute is far greater than the textual evidence that she’s a “wise and outspoken woman.” Enkidu listens attentively to the prostitute Shamhat and follows her advice. She tells Enkidu what Gilgamesh’s mother told him about his dream. Women’s speech shapes the story of Enkidu and Gilgamesh. But, in summary, hocus-pocus, mystery, and paradox:

In short, women in Gilgamesh stand at the edge of power. Silenced but still speaking, they are viewed with both awe and anxiety by the male protagonists of the epic, and time and time again it is women who decide the fate of the male heroes. This is the paradox of female power in Gilgamesh, and nobody represents that paradox better than Ishtar.[26]

The temple of the goddess Ishtar in Uruk is literally half the size of Uruk itself. That physical reality doesn’t matter relative to current imperative to charge men with violence against women:

Male spheres of power are created by the violent exclusion of women, but as a result, women become an eternal threat to those spheres. The epic indulges in the literary fantasy that every time a woman speaks, she decides the fate of men, perhaps to justify why women must be silenced.

That’s solemn liturgy intoned throughout elite culture today. That’s a literary fantasy justifying dominant dogma that women are silenced, even though Ishtar and Shamhat and Gilgamesh’s mother and Siduri and the scorpion-woman aren’t silenced. Today’s dominant ideology culturally constructs “male spheres of power” to exclude women by definition. It’s inane verbal work, especially with respect to Uruk and its temple of Ishtar. Nonetheless, today elites such as those running Yale University Press regard gender hocus-pocus, mystery, and paradox with utmost solemnity. Within such liturgy, the false claim that men violently exclude women from epic violence against men regrettably benefits from the brutalization of men’s penises throughout history.

In ancient Mesopotamia, those who heard and told the story of Enkidu and Gilgamesh probably could conceive of an egalitarian sexual relationship involving a penetrating penis. The figuration of the story, as well as the practice of life more than three thousand years ago in Mesopotamia, closely relates gods, humans, and non-human animals:

the boundary between gods and animals is indistinct, and hybrid creatures populate Mesopotamian imagery. … both Gilgameš and Enkidu are related to gods and animals, albeit differently.[27]

Among divine beings and non-human animals, the sexual activity of a penis doesn’t dominate a sexual counterpart. Although the anthropomorphic male god Dumuzid and the anthropomorphic female goddess Ishtar have vagina-penis sex, he doesn’t dominate her. Moreover, Ishtar, like many females, was probably sexually active with her vagina in sexual intercourse. Although male non-human animals penetrate with their penises female non-human animals, male non-human animals do not uniformly dominate female non-human animals either socially or physically. Persons merely familiar with the behavior of cats and dogs understand this. Gilgamesh with his penis apparently sexually penetrates Enkidu as he would a wife.[28] With such sexual action, a man neither dominates his wife nor dominates an intimate man friend. Other than through crude imagination, the sexual action of the penis hasn’t implied dominance historically.

Both Gilgamesh and his mother Ninsun understand that he could love a wife or a man as an equal. Interpreting Gilgamesh’s dream, Ninsun declares:

My son, the axe you saw is a man.
You will love him like a wife,
and you will caress and embrace him,
and I, I shall make him your equal.

{ mārī ḫaṣinnu ša tāmuru amēlu‡
tarâmšūma kīma aššati taḫabbub‡ elīšu
u anāku ultamaḫḫaršu‡ ittīka }

Gilgamesh is delighted that he will have such a “wife”:

O mother, by Counselor Enlil’s command may so befall me!
I will gain a friend, a counsellor,
a friend, a counsellor, I will gain!

{ [u]mmī ina pī ellil māliki (rabî) limqutam-ma
ibra mālika anāku lurši
[lur]šīma ibra mālika anāku }

That’s like the conjugal partnership that medieval European authorities prescribed for marriage. A poem in the Sumerian cycle of poems from more than four millennia ago describes in parallel the grief of a young man and young woman, neither of whom undressed a spouse.[29]

Mutual, intimate friendship can exist between a man and another man or a woman. That truth is evident in the ancient Mesopotamian epic of Enkidu and Gilgamesh and in the Genesis story of Eve and Adam. Belief that one person penetrating another with a penis (“active”) subordinates the other (“passive”), whether in ancient Mesopotamia or where you are right now, is merely an artifact of oppressive contemporary gender dogma. Ignore its authoritative acolytes solemnly intoning nonsense. Then you can better understand the intimate friendship of Enkidu and Gilgamesh, and how it humanized and civilized them. Then you can better hope to realize such intimate friendship yourself.

* * * * *

Read more:


[1] Epic of Gilgamesh, Standard Babylonian (literary Akkadian) version, 11.327-8 (tablet.verses), phonetic transcription of cuneiform text and English translation (modified) of George (2003), updated in George (2022), via the online electronic Babylonian Library (eBL), I.4 Poem of Gilgameš. The Epic of Gilgamesh is a conventional name for what I refer to above as the story of Enkidu and Gilgamesh.

Subsequently quotes from the Epic of Gilgamesh are similarly sourced from the Standard Babylonian version, unless otherwise noted. I modify George’s English translation slightly to be more fluently readable and note significant changes that I make. Some verse numbers in George (2022) differ slightly from those in George (2003). I consistently use the verse numbers of George (2022).

Stories about Enkidu and Gilgamesh exists in various versions and recensions. Such stories are first known in a Sumerian cycle of poems from the Third Dynasty of Ur (about 2112-2004 BGC). George (2003) pp. 7-17. Old Babylonian versions date about 1800 BGC. The Standard Babylonian version was compiled about 1100 BGC. On the history of versions and recensions of the story of Enkidu and Gilgamesh, Tigay (1982) and George (2003). On the modern reception of the Epic of Gilgamesh, Ziolkowski (2011).

Subsequent quotes above are from the Epic of Gilgamesh, Standard Babylonian version, unless otherwise stated. Those quotes are Epic of Gilgamesh 1.1 (Gilgamesh saw the deep…), 1.48 (Two-thirds god and one-third human), 1.67 (day and night he behaves with fierce arrogance), 1.95-6 (Let him be equal to the storm of Gilgamesh’s heart…), 1.101-6 (In the wild she created Enkidu…), 1.205-6 (You are handsome, Enkidu…), 1.160-4 (Go, O hunter, take with you Shamhat the prostitute…), 1.176-7 (Then Shamhat saw him…), 1.178-85 (There he is, Shamhat…), 1.192 (For six days and seven nights…), 1.193-200 (After he was sated with her delights…), 1.199-200 (Enkidu was diminished…), 1.211-2 (She talked to him…), 1.214-21 (Come, Shamhat, take me along…), Old Babylonian version 1.110-9 (He put on a garment…), 5.196-204 (Enkidu opened his mouth to speak…), 5.279 (May both of them not grow old together!), 7.37-40 (Enkidu raised his eyes…), 7.70-1 (You who had awareness…), 7.94-6 (As for him, that hunter…), 7.106-17 (May you not establish a household…), 7.138 (companion), 7.139-47 (Your friend and brother Gilgamesh…), 7.153-61 (May governors and noblemen love you…), 8.42-56 (Hear me, O young men…), 8.59 (He covered his friend’s face, veiling it like a bride’s), 8.138 (May she welcome my friend…), 1.286-8 (My son, the axe you saw…), 1.293-5 (O mother, by Counselor Enlil’s command…).

[2] Gender stereotypes have colored modern interpretation of Shamhat’s character:

Perceiving Shamhat as passive and benevolent, we have paid little attention to her unfeminine speech and associated grammatical irregularities. Shamhat orders Enkidu about with forceful imperatives: “Come! Get up! Eat! Drink! (Penn: 56, 59, 96, 98; MSS B, P: I 209), and her actions are described with less common Š and D-stem verbs that specify her personal agency (šūkulum, šaqûm, lubbušum, šuršûm “to feed, give drink, provide with clothing, cause to acquire”) rather than G-stem verbs that lack connotations of causality. Shamhat’s agency is further marked by irregular grammatical referencing, invisible in translation, that indicates that Shamhat has taken sexual advantage of Enkidu, leaving him weak, defiled, and humiliated.

McCaffrey (2021) p. 183.

[3] Enkidu is created as a human man in the pattern of the “first men.” George (2003) p. 450. He has sex with Shamhat as a man with a woman. With respect to movement between categories of beings as presented in the Epic of Gilgamesh, sex with Shamhat doesn’t “humanize” Enkidu. George nonetheless refers to Enkidu’s “transformation from animal to human state” and “Enkidu’s emergent humanity.” Id. p. 451. For those innocent of highly developed human ideology or knowledgeable about biological evolution, humans are a type of animal. George and others in referring to “animal” apparently mean “non-human animal.”

In interpreting Enkidu’s character, “humanized” seems to be misleadingly used as a synonym for “civilized.” In normal usage, “human” refers to a category of beings, and “humanized” means becoming included in the “human” category of beings. In contrast, “civilized” distinguishes between subcategories of human beings — “civilized” humans in contrast to “uncivilized” / “savage” humans, with “civilized” humans regarded as superior to “uncivilized” humans.

Claims about “humanizing” Enkidu have been astonishingly broad. In interpreting the Epic of Gilgamesh as an “ascent of knowledge,” Foster declared that “sex belongs to the lowest common level of human knowledge — what everyone must know and experience to become human.” Foster (1987) p. 22. To the contrary, humans who don’t experience sex surely still are humans. According to Foster, Enkidu in the wild originally was:

a man without humanity or society. Enkidu begins the ascent of human knowledge first through sexual awareness and second through use of his rational faculties.

Id. To the contrary, Enkidu in the wild was part of society, a society of animals, the herd. Moreover, he used his rational facilities to thwart the hunter’s efforts to capture non-human animals.

Enkidu’s relation to non-human animals unquestionably changes significantly. Ponchia stated:

Animals run free in the steppe without worrying about their life or death, they eat grass and drink water with which they are spontaneously presented by the cycle of nature. And their lives are also continuously cyclical: they wander in search of pasture and come back to the water pool when thirsty. The apparent lack of aim and of any individuality is the reason for their freedom. And such is the original life of Enkidu, who in himself has no mark of death, or awareness of death, and is closed in the eternal cycle of wildlife.

Ponchia (2019) p. 194. That lofty understanding shouldn’t color interpretation of a comic passage in the story:

The barber treated his body so hairy,
he anointed himself with oil, and he became a man.

{ ultappit gallābum šuʾʾuram pagaršu
šamnam iptašaš-ma awīliš īwe }

Epic of Gilgamesh, Old Babylonian version, 2.106-9. A man today, after a long, rough wilderness adventure, might shave his beard and declare, “Now I’m a human again.” Like such a man, Enkidu didn’t literally become a human through superficial changes in his body and behavior. Cf. Ponchia (2019) pp. 190, 206. Enkidu’s intimate friendship with Gilgamesh gave Enkidu a position in human society and led him to death. That’s the substantive “civilizing” of Enkidu.

[4] Helle (2021). Helle similarly has Enkidu say to the door of Enlil’s temple, “you lack the reason I have gained.” Epic of Gilgamesh 7.40. In Helle’s translation, Gilgamesh subsequently says to Enkidu, “You, who learned to think and reason, now speak nonsense!” Epic of Gilgamesh 7.70. I discuss these verses subsequently above.

The back cover of Helle (2021) includes blurbs from diverse, prestigious persons. The blurb for “Michael Durda / Washington Post” declares about Helle’s book: “Looks to be the last word on this Babylonian masterpiece.” In blurbing practice, authorities aren’t required to speak truthfully or even read the book. Rigorously following contemporary orthodoxy, Helle to the contrary states in his book:

Gilgamesh has been successful not because it appeals to some universal truth or because it gives us a resounding answer that is as valid now as it was in ancient Uruk. Rather, Gilgamesh has been successful because it interweaves an extraordinary number of threads and themes and topics, allowing new ages and new readers to use it to ask their most pressing questions. The epic survives because it can adapt — because it is a poetic kaleidoscope that can be shaken endlessly into new forms.

Helle (2021) p. 145. Robert Macfarlane’s review for the New York Review similarly adheres to the currently dominant intellectual program. His review has the subtitle “Ecocide, toxic masculinity, fear of death, and more: the Epic of Gilgamesh’s themes could be transcribed from yesterday’s newspaper.” Macfarlane’s review includes some evocative, disparaging stereotypes of men:

Gilgamesh is fascinatingly complex: variously a vulnerable aesthete and a knuckle-dragging silverback, a grieving lover and a swinging-dick bullyboy.

Macfarlane (2022). Apart from work seeking popular success, the Epic of Gilgamesh provides a stone-solid artifact from which to critique current intellectual practices. One must of course endure dire risks in questioning the universal truth of patriarchy and men’s oppression and silencing of women.

[5] Enkidu learning to eat bread and drink beer is a “comic” passage. George (2007) p. 36. It shouldn’t be given sacramental weight to transform Enkidu by “humanizing” or “civilizing” him.

Regarding Shamhat’s first sex session with Enkidu, George noted “widespread human belief that sexual knowledge brings the end of innocence.” George (2003) p. 451. That belief fits the Genesis account of Adam and Eve, but is much less relevant to Shamhat and Enkidu. On the relation of Eve and Adam in Genesis to Enkidu and Gilgamesh, Kynes (2023). Enkidu is a match for Gilgamesh like Eve is a match for Adam. Id.

[6] Genesis 3:5, Hebrew text (Westminster Leningrad Codex) via Blue Letter Bible, English translation (modified slightly) from the English Standard version translation. The subsequent quote above is similarly from Genesis 3:7.

[7] George’s translation inserts “now” parenthetically: “his heart (now) wise was seeking a friend.” Epic of Gilgamesh 1.212. That parenthetical “now” seems to me not textually warranted. It apparently assumes that sex with Shamhat made Enkidu’s heart wise. That’s a broader claim than the apparent narrative implication that sex with Shamhat prompted Enkidu to seek a human friend.

Bulls and other male animals typically fight for access to reproductive-age females. Human male animals in high-income societies today typically compete for access to the most desirable reproductive-age female through displays of material resources (e.g. an expensive car) and social status (e.g. affiliation with prestigious institutions).

[8] When Ninsun, Gilgamesh’s mother, initially rejects Enkidu as a friend for her son, Enkidu is disconsolate:

Enkidu being present, he heard what Gilgamesh’s mother said.
Thinking it over, he sat down weeping.
His eyes filled with tears,
and his arms fell limp, lacking strength.

{ izzaz enkīdu išm[e qabâša]
uštaddan-ma itta[šab ibakki]
īnāšu imlâ [dimāti]
aḫāšu irmâ emūqī […] }

Epic of Gilgamesh 2.178-81. Gilgamesh and Enkidu then embraced, and Gilgamesh spoke reassuring words to Enkidu. Mothers have always been powerful persons.

[9] George translated Enkidu urging Gilgamesh to slay Humbaba “before Enlil the foremost has learned (about it)!” Epic of Gilgamesh 5.200. In that translation, “it” makes sense only as Gilgamesh and Enkidu’s publicly established intent to slay Humbaba. George commented, “His crucial point seems to be the importance of destroying Humbaba before Enlil learns what is going on.” George (2003) p. 468. But given that Gilgamesh and Enkidu had long established publicly their intent to slay Humbaba, it’s improbable that the gods didn’t know what the city of Uruk knew.

I interpret Epic of Gilgamesh 5.200 to imply that Enkidu thought that Enlil wanted Humbaba slain as a enemy of the gods. In this interpretation, Enkidu warned Gilgamesh that dithering would anger Enlil. This interpretation is consistent with the repetition of the verse in Epic of Gilgamesh 5.269-70.

[10] Enkidu’s cursing of Shamhat uses the same language used in reference to a dog in an Old Babylonian incantation. George (2003) pp. 479-80. Enkidu thus turns back on Shamhat her treatment of him as sexually like a dog.

[11] In grief over Enkidu’s death, Gilgamesh doesn’t make himself into a non-human animal or an uncivilized human by going into the wilderness dressed in lionskin to seek immortality. His behavior is human and highly sophisticated:

Gilgameš himself has taken on the aspect of a wild animal by running into the wilderness and down distant roads, looking for the secret of a life that does not know death (as was Enkidu’s earlier way of life). Through loneliness and suffering he has perhaps recovered the purity of Enkidu’s life in the wilderness, which is conducive to the acquisition of knowledge.

Ponchia (2019) p. 201.

[12] Jastrow & Clay (1920) p. 19. The subsequent quote above is from id. p. 20. From this perspective, the story of Enkidu is “an attempt to trace the evolution of primitive man from low beginnings to the regular and orderly family life associated with advanced culture.” For an alternate perspective, consider the eminent Roman Empress Valeria Messalina within the advanced culture of classical Roman society.

[13] Tigay (1982) p. 209, internal references omitted. The subsequent quote above is from id. p. 207. Tigay summarized:

Enkidu was at first an uncivilized brute, roaming the steppe with wild animals, until he was seduced by a harlot who introduced him to human ways.

Id. p. 4.

[14] The Standard Bablylonia myth of Nergal and Ereshkigal / Ereškigal, manuscript C (eighth-century tablet from Sultantepe), iv.4-20. For an English translation, Foster (1996) p. 423 and Ponchia & Luukko (2013). The latter is a pioneering critical edition of Nergal and Ereškigal.

[15] See U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Table 318.10, “Degrees conferred by postsecondary institutions, by level of degree and sex of student,” 2019-20 (the most recent data).

[16] Maier (2018) p. 84. The Norton Critical Edition of Gilgamesh, which targets college students, includes Rivkah Harris’s article, “Images of Women in the Gilgamesh Epic.” That article declares:

The intermediary role of the prostitute in transforming Enkidu from one at home with nature and wild animals into a human being is crucial. … Shamhat serves, as do women in other places and times, as “one of culture’s crucial agencies for the conversion of nature into culture, especially with reference to the socialization of children.” Shamhat is the primary facilitator of Enkidu’s socialization. What she teaches Enkidu puts “her squarely in the category of culture,” and “on the basis of her socializing functions alone, she could not be more a representative of culture.”

Foster (2001) pp. 211-2, from Harris (2000) p. 122. Harris’s article “Images of Women in the Gilgamesh Epic” is Chapter 7 in id. The text that Harris quotes in support of the gender stereotype that men naturally lack culture comes from Rosaldo & Lamphere (1974).

[17] George (2018) p. 20. Enkidu’s first sex-session with Shamhat is Epic of Gilgamesh 1.188-94. Enkidu’s second sex-session with Shamhat is Epic of Gilgamesh, Old Babylonian version, 2.45-50.

George interpreted the first sex session to be consistent with humanizing and civilizing (” taming”) Enkidu:

At first he {Enkidu} is a nervous wild animal, whom it takes all the prostitute’s expertise to tame and bring to bed. … Already transformed from unconscious semi-animal to self-conscious man, Enkidu needs no seduction second time around, so the second week of intercourse is more perfunctorily told.

Id. pp. 19-20. This seems to me an over-interpretation. In particular, the prostitute Shamhat didn’t show any specialized sexual expertise in her first sexual encounter with Enkidu. Empress Theodora, in contrast, provides a highly distinguished example of sexual expertise.

[18] For a brief review of the textual evidence that Enkidu and Gilgamesh were regarded as equals in the Standard Babylonian version, Ackerman (2005) pp. 78-80. Enkidu and Gilgamesh are “virtually equal.” Maier (2018) p. 51. In the early Sumerian poems about Enkidu and Gilgamesh, Enkidu is a servant to Gilgamesh. The character of Enkidu thus changed across centuries.

[19] Helle (2018), which explicitly refers to George (2018). Helle’s article refers to Enkidu’s sex-sessions with the prostitute Shamhat as “making love,” “love-making,” and “this marathon of love.” Sex at first sight with a prostitute typically isn’t understood as the more complex relation “love.” Moreover, Enkidu didn’t regard Shamhat as an intimate friend. Helle set forth a sophisticated stage theory of humanizing a (non-human?) animal through sex with a human prostitute:

In a nutshell, the differences between the two episodes reflect different stages of Enkidu’s transition from an animal to a human being.

Helle (2018). The subsequent quote above is similarly from id.

[20] Helle’s interpretation of “humanizing” Enkidu is grossly dehumanizing, at least within the modern liberal tradition of human individuals:

{Enkidu} no longer wishes for power and raw animal {sic} strength; now he wants to find a suitable role in a city of workers and dutiful citizens. … The epic shows that to become fully human, Enkidu must … abandon his alpha-male instincts and surrender to the city, becoming one cog in the collective, one person in the acre.

Helle (2018) p. 203. Helle seems here to be expressing his self-conception within gynocentric academia functioning as a propaganda arm for the gynocentric state.

[21] Middle Assyrian Laws A.20. The law:

If a man has sexual intercourse with his male comrade
and they prove the charges against him
and find him guilty,
they shall have sexual intercourse with him
and they shall turn him into a eunuch.

{ šum-ma LU₂ tap-pa-a-šu i-ni-ik
a-na ša-re-še-en u₂-tar-ru-uš }

Midde Assyrian text o.ii.93-7, from the Text Corpus of Middle Assyrian, English translation of Roth (1995) p. 160, with minor changes. In accordance with dominant ideology, Ackerman interprets this law to imply that a woman’s position is degrading for a man:

Mesopotamian tradition believes it to be wrong to place any man in the receptive position in male-male sexual intercourse because it improperly feminizes him. Mesopotamian law, I would then suggest, avenges this improper feminization by requiring that the perpetrator be feminized himself, initially by being placed in the feminized or receptive position in sexual intercourse and then by being made womanlike through castration.

Ackerman (2005) p. 77. This claim assumes that the feminine sexual position has low value in Mesopotamian tradition. In fact, vaginas apparently were valued more highly than penises. Moreover, castrating a man doesn’t in itself give that man a vagina or make him womanlike.

[22] Ackerman (2005) pp. 77-8, quoting (“virtually inconceivable”) Halperin (1990) p. 31. Halperin includes a long footnote that seems to indicate that the claim “penetrating penis dominates receptive person” is merely a language game based upon reification of abstract status classifications. Id. p. 32. The subsequent quote above is from Ackerman (2005) p. 87.

[23] Helle (2021) p. 209, quoting Harris (2000) p. 120, via Foster (2001). Harris further declared:

The Gilgamesh Epic is like the medieval chanson de geste, which was “written for a male audience, to male taste [Harris’s emphasis].” Therefore, what we find in the epic are essentially male attitudes toward women, both human and divine.

Harris (2000) p. 120, quoting Gold (1985) p. 2. Women are better characterized as the directors of the medieval chanson de geste. As Helen of Troy exemplifies, women drive epic violence against men.

[24] Helle (2021) p. 209. Such analysis is squarely within the misandristic tradition.

[25] Helle (2011) p. 211. Helle’s arch phrase “not ideal” obscures a vicious, ridiculous scholarly controversy over prostitutes in ancient Mesopotamian literature and life. Reviewing Helle’s book, the eminent Assyriologist Benjamin R. Foster courageously observed:

His reluctance to consider Shamhat a harlot (p. 210), to choose another current topic of discussion, runs up against Enkidu’s curse and ironic blessing of her (pp. 64, 66), while only the most desperate over-reading can result in anything but understanding her as a “sex worker”, or something more elegant, like courtesan or cocotte if one prefers; there is nothing in those two passages about a sacerdotal role, but a lot about abasement and ardent and generous clients. One can, if one wishes, dismiss all the old literature on Mesopotamian prostitution as overheated male imagination, but these two passages speak for themselves and cannot easily be explained away except by ignoring what they actually say. It would indeed be hard to imagine a non-professional or non-promiscuous social role for a woman who is prepared to have intercourse on demand at a waterhole with a naked, hairy wild man she has never seen before.

Foster (2022) pp. 115-6. The name Shamhat comes from a verb denoting “superlative beauty of the flesh combined with lush growth and physical wellbeing.” George (2003) p. 148. Moreover, the name Shamhat includes “an obvious allusion to the common noun šamḫatu, which is a synonym of ḫarimtu and so marks Šamḫat {Shamhat} out as the prostitute par excellence.” Id.

Helle translated Shamhat’s specific situational “advice {milkum}” to Enkidu into more general “wisdom”:

the woman’s wisdom landed in his heart

{ mil[k]um ša šinništim imta[q]ut ana libbīšu }

Epic of Gilgamesh, Old Babylonian version 2.67-9. George translated this verse as “a woman’s counsel struck home in his heart.”

[26] Helle (2021) p. 212. The subsequent quote above is from id. p. 213. Underscoring gender hocus-pocus, mystery, and paradox, Helle declared:

Like priestesses, Ishtar was both central and marginal. She is the most important Akkadian goddess, but also constantly associated with all that is unusual, disruptive, and immoral.

Id. p. 212. In addition to being incoherent, the claim that Ishtar was “constantly associated with all that is unusual, disruptive, and immoral” seems to me fashionable academic cant projected back onto Ishtar in Uruk. There she was a well-known, revered goddess associated with a massive temple. Nonetheless, Helle cites an academic authority in asserting the hackneyed and, in its specific contex here, absurd claim that Ishtar is “a divine embodiment of cultural exclusion.” Id.

[27] Ponchia (2019) pp. 187, 188.

[28] On homoerotic elements in the relationship of Enkidu and Gilgamesh, Walls (2001) Chapter 1, and Ackerman (2005) Chapter 3. In Tablet 12, Enkidu returns from the underworld and despairingly tells Gilgamesh:

My friend, the penis that you handled so your heart rejoiced,
now grubs devour it like an old beam.
My friend, the vagina that you felt so your heart rejoiced,
it is filled with dust like a crack in the ground.

{ [ibrī? iš]ara ša talputū-ma libbaka iḫdû
[… kī guš]ūri labīri kalmatu ikkal
[ibrī? ūra ša ta]lputū-ma libbaka iḫdû
[kī nigiṣ erṣet]i epera mali }

Epic of Gilgamesh 12.96-9. The sexual context of these verses is obvious, yet the specific sexual referents, whether literal or figurative, aren’t clear. Helle’s translation uses “crotch” for “vagina {ūru}” in Epic of Gilgamesh 12.98. On difficulties in interpreting gender in ancient Mesopotamian literature, McCaffrey (2021). Apart from such textual difficulties, scholars should at least be able to agree that a penis penetrating in sexual intercourse is not a universal sign of dominance.

[29] Having returned from the underworld, Enkidu responds to Gilgamesh’s questions:

“Did you see the young man who never undressed his wife?” “I saw him.” “How does he fare?”
“You finish a rope, and he weeps over the rope.”
“Did you see the young woman who never undressed her husband?” “I saw her.” “How does she fare?”
“You finish a reed mat, and she weeps over the reed mat.”

{ juruc tur ur2 dam-na-ka tug2 /nu-ub-sig9-ge igi bi2-du8-am3 igi bi2-du8-am3 a-na-gin7 an-ak
ec2-cu-/ak\ cu im-mi-du7-un ec2-cu-/ak-ba [er2 im-mi]-/in-ce8-ce8
ki-sikil /ur2\ dam-na-ka tug2 nu-ub-sig9-ge igi bi2-du8-am3 [igi bi2]-/du8-am3 a-na-gin7 an-/ak\
gi-cu-ak cu im-/mi-du7-un gi-cu-ak er2 mi-in-ce8-ce8 }

Gilgamesh, Enkidu and the nether world, (ETCSL c. Version A, from Nibru, Urim, and elsewhere, vv. 272-5, Sumerian transliteration and English translation from the Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature (ETCSL). This text became part of the Epic of Gilgamesh, Tablet 12.

[images] (1) Hero like Gilgamesh mastering a lion. Relief from the façade of the throne room, Palace of Sargon II at Khorsabad (Dur Sharrukin), 713–706 BGC. Preserved as accession # AO 19862 in the Department of Oriental Antiquities, Richelieu, ground floor, room 4, Louvre Museum (Paris). Source photo thanks to Jastrow (2006) and Wikimedia Commons. (2) Terracotta wall panel depicting Enkidu, Gilgamesh’s friend. Enkidu holds the door post he made for the Enlil’s temple in Nippur. From Ur, Iraq. 2027-1763 BGC. Preserved in the Iraq Museum in Baghdad. Source image thanks to Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg) and Wikimedia Commons. (3) Gilgamesh and Enkidu slaying Humbaba at the Cedar Forest. Made c. 1900-1600 BGC in Iraq. Preserved in Vorderasiatisches Museum, Berlin, Germany. Image thanks to Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg) and Wikimedia Commons. (4) Cuneiform tablet containing the Epic of Gilgamesh, Tablet 5. From Iraq. Preserved in the Sulaymaniyah Museum, Iraq. Source image thanks to Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg) and Wikimedia Commons.


Ackerman, Susan. 2005. When Heroes Love: The Ambiguity of Eros in the Stories of Gilgamesh and David. New York, NY: Columbia University Press. Review by Anthony Heacock and by Jean-Fabrice Nardelli.

Foster, Benjamin R. 1987. “Gilgamesh: sex, love, and the ascent of knowledge.” Pp. 21–42 in John H Marks and Robert McClive Good. 1987. Love & Death in the Ancient near East: Essays in Honor of Marvin H. Pope. Guilford, CT: Four Quarters.

Foster, Benjamin R. 1996. Before the Muses: An Anthology of Akkadian Literature. 2nd ed. Potomac, MD: CDL Press.

Foster, Benjamin R., trans. 2001. The Epic of Gilgamesh: A New Translation, Analogues, Criticism. New York London: Norton & Company.

Foster, Benjamin R. 2022. Review. “Sophus Helle: Gilgamesh: A New Translation of the Ancient Epic. Yale University Press, 2021.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies. 85(1): 115–16.

George, Andrew R. 2003. The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic: Introduction, Critical Edition, and Cuneiform Texts. 2 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Alternate vol. 2.

George, Andrew R. 2007. “The Civilizing of Ea-Enkidu : An Unusual Tablet of the Babylonian Gilgameš Epic.” Revue d’Assyriologie et d’Archéologie Orientale. 101(1): 59–80.

George, Andrew R. 2018. “Enkidu and the Harlot: Another Fragment of Old Babylonian Gilgameš.” Zeitschrift Fur Assyriologie Und Vorderasiastische Archaeologie. 108(1): 10-21.

George, Andrew R. 2022. Poem of Gilgameš. With contributions by E. Jiménez and G. Rozzi. Translated by Andrew R. George. electronic Babylonian Library.

Gold, Penny S. 1985. The Lady and the Virgin: Image, Attitude, and Experience in 12th-Century France. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Halperin, David M. 1990. One Hundred Years of Homosexuality and Other Essays on Greek Love. New York: Routledge.

Harris, Rivkah. 2000. Gender and Aging in Mesopotamia: The Gilgamesh Epic and Other Ancient Literature. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.

Helle, Sophus. 2018. “New Gilgamesh Fragment: Enkidu’s Sexual Exploits Doubled.” World History Encyclopedia. Published online November 28. 2018.

Helle, Sophus. 2021. Gilgamesh: A New Translation of the Ancient Epic with Essays on the Poem, its Past, and its Passion. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. For a review, Macfarlane (2022).

Jastrow, Morris Jr. and Albert T. Clay. 1920. An Old Babylonian Version of the Gilgamesh Epic. Yale Oriental Series, Researches, Vol. IV, Part III. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Kynes, Will. 2023. “A Suitable Match: Eve, Enkidu, and the Boundaries of Humanity in the Eden Narrative and the Epic of Gilgamesh.” Harvard Theological Review. Firstview: 1-23.

Macfarlane, Robert. 2022. “A Fireball from the Sands.” The New York Review. October 20, 2022 issue.

Maier, John R. 2018. Gilgamesh and the Great Goddess of Uruk. Brockport, NY: SUNY Brockport eBooks.

McCaffrey, Kathleen. 2021. “(Mis)Translating Gender: The Scribes Couldn’t Have Been Competent, They Didn’t Go to Yale.” Chapter 15 (pp. 177-198) in Katrien de Graef and Anne Goddeeris, eds. Law and (Dis)Order in the Ancient near East: Proceedings of the 59th Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale held at Ghent Belgium 15-19 July 2013. University Park, PA: Eisenbrauns.

Ponchia, Simonetta. 2019. “Gilgameš and Enkidu. The Two-thirds-god and the Two-thirds-animal?” Pp. 187-210 in Raija Mattila, Sanae Ito, and Sebastian Fink, eds. Animals and their Relation to Gods: Humans and Things in the Ancient World. Wiesbaden: Springer Fachmedien Wiesbaden.

Ponchia, Simonetta and Mikko Luukko, eds. and trans. 2013. The Standard Babylonian Myth of Nergal and Ereškigal: Introduction, Cuneiform Text, and Transliteration with a Translation, Glossary, and Commentary. Helsinki: Neo-Assyrian Text Corpus Project.

Rosaldo, Michelle Zimbalist, and Louise Lamphere, eds. 1974. Woman, Culture, and Society. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Roth, Martha T. 1995. Law Collections from Mesopotamia and Asia Minor. Writings from the Ancient World, 6. Altanta, GA: Scholars Press.

Tigay, Jeffrey H. 1982. The Evolution of the Gilgamesh Epic. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Walls, Neal H. 2001. Desire, Discord and Death: Approaches to Ancient Near Eastern Myth. Boston, MA: American Schools of Oriental Research.

Ziolkowski. Theodore. 2011. “Gilgamesh: An Epic Obsession.” berfrois: literature, ideas, tea. Online, dated November 1, 2011.

Guy of Warwick falsely threatened with false accusation of rape

A guy’s life is filled with punishing threats. Consider, for example, the medieval case of Guy of Warwick. He was serving the Roman emperor as an eminent mercenary. The emperor’s seneschal, the wicked and duplicitous Morgadur, pretended to seek Guy’s friendship. In truth, Morgadur was setting Guy up to falsely threaten him with a false accusation of rape.

The seneschal Morgadur invited Guy to play backgammon and chess in the chamber of the emperor’s lovely young daughter Laurette. She and Guy interacted in a way that was normal before affirmative-consent regulations:

“Sir Guy,” she said, “welcome!
Come sit, and you can amuse yourself.”
Guy took her and kissed her.
With great fondness he talked with her.

{ “Sire Gui,” fait ele, “ben viengez!
Venez seer, si vus enveisez.”
Gui la prist, si la beisa,
Par grant amur a lui parla. }

Morgadur and Guy then played chess. Guy quickly defeated Morgadur in three successive games. Morgadur was peeved at his losses.

Morgadur declared that he must go into the city and would be back soon. He advised Guy to amuse himself with Laurette. After Morgadur left, Laurette and Guy amused themselves. Guy of course didn’t rape Laurette. Male primates, including men, typically aren’t interested in raping females.

Morgadur contrived against Guy a false accusation of rape. He went to the emperor and accused Guy:

“Sir,” he said, “I will tell you the news
without concealing your shame.
You have retained a mercenary.
He wishes to humiliate and deceive you.
Your daughter, my young lady-lord,
he makes into a concubine for himself.
He entered into your chamber by force
to corrupt sexually your Laurette.
And if you don’t want to believe me about this,
hasten to return there.
In your chamber you will find him
embracing and kissing your daughter.
Thus I have come to report it to you —
that your shame wouldn’t be hidden from you.
If you order him to be seized
and sent to your dungeon,
and then order him to be judged in your court
to be taken to be hanged or drowned in the sea,
you will be more than enough feared
by all such persons of your realm.
Thus do not ever allow such behavior,
not for him, not for his service.”

{ “Sire,” fait il, “jo vus dirrai,
Vostre hunte pas ne celerai:
Retenuz avez un soldeier,
Honir vus volt e enginner;
De vostre fille, ma damaisele,
Fait en ad de lui ancele,
En voz chambre par force entrat,
Vostre Laurette purjue ad.
E si de ço creire ne me volez,
De repeirer vus hastez;
En vostre chambre le purrez trover
Vostre fille acoler e baiser.
Pur ço le vinc a vus mustrer
Que vostre hunte ne voil celer.
Se vus prendre le feissez
E en vostre chartre me meissez,
En vostre curt le feissez juger,
En halt pendre u en mer neier,
Assez serreies le plus dotez
De tuz icels de voz regnez;
Ne pur ço ne leissez vus mie,
Ne pur lui, ne pur sa aie.” }

Wicked and duplicitous men like Morgadur foster mendacious rape-culture culture. The wise emperor knew better:

“You shouldn’t talk of that,” he said.
“Seneschal, from now on, let it be!
Guy wouldn’t do me wrong,
not as you have said would he do,
even were he to be dismembered.
I know him to be such a loyal knight.”

{ “Ne devez,” fait il, “de ço parler.
Senescal, desore, leissez ester!
Gui vers mei ne mesprendreit,
Ne ço que dit as pas ne freit
Pur les menbres derencher,
Tant le sia leal chevaler” }

The emperor rightly regarded Guy as a good man. He had urged Guy to marry Laurette. Absent evidence showing otherwise beyond a reasonable doubt, you should listen and believe men who say that a good man hasn’t raped a woman. Guy in fact didn’t rape Laurette.

Morgadur then returned to the chamber where Laurette and Guy were amusing themselves together. The wicked and duplicitous seneschal called Guy aside:

“Guy,” he said, “I have the capacity to cherish you much,
so I want now to report to you:
the emperor has been informed
that you have shamed and disgraced him
in that you have corrupted his daughter
and entered her chambers by force.
If he can catch you or seize you,
he will have you burned or hung from high.
Go away, I command you.
Don’t delay by any amount of time.
If in this city you would be found,
you will be delivered to a painful death.”

{ “Gui,” fait il, “mult vus puis amer,
Pur ço le vus voil ore mustrer:
A l’empereur est acointé
Qui hunte li as fait e vilté
Que sa fille purjue avez
En ses chambres a force entrez:
S’il te put ateindre u prendre,
Arder te frat u en halt pendre
Alez vus ent, jol vus comant.
Ne demorez tant ne quant.
Si en ceste cité seiez trové,
A dolerose mort serrez livré.” }

Morgadur thus falsely threatened Guy with a false accusation of rape. False accusations of rape are bad enough. When such false accusations are rightly disregarded, truly evil persons take lying to another level. They falsely threaten a man with a false accusation of rape.

Guy was innocent of the rape charge he allegedly faced. He despaired that the emperor believed the despicable rape charge:

“God,” said Guy, “Indeed this is wrong.
if here I should receive death
for that for which I have no fault at all,
nor have I even thought of doing such.
This morning, when the emperor went away,
by what he said, he loved me very much.
Who can ever put trust
in fine promises and fine words?
So the emperor has said to me
and by the truth promised me,
that he would do me great good and honor.
Now he wants to kill me painfully
because of the words of a scoundrel,
an envious person, a slanderer.”

{ “Dieu,” fait Gui, “ja est ço tort.
Se jo i dei receivre la mort
De ço dunt jo culpes nen ai,
No jo unques ne m’en pensai.
Hui matin, quant il s’en ala,
Par sun dit mult me ama.
Qui se put mes afier
En bel pramettre e bel parler;
Car li empereres dit me aveit
E pur veir me prametteit
Que grant ben me freit e honur,
Ore m’en velt ocire a dolur
Pur le dit d’un paltoner,
D’un envius, d’un losenger.” }

Guy never even thought of raping Laurette. Perhaps he thought of having consensual and mutually enjoyable sex with her after they married. Is such imagination a crime?

Guy was miserable and furious at being falsely accused of raping Laurette. He went to his lodgings and summoned his fellow knights. They armed themselves and left Rome to go to serve the Persian sultan. The sultan was an enemy of the Roman emperor. If you want men to be loyal to you, protect men against false accusations. A good start would be to commemorate and honor prominently the lives of Saint Eugenia and Saint Marina.

The emperor saw Guy and his men leaving. He spurred his horse and quickly went to Guy:

“Guy,” he said, “don’t go forward!”
“Friend,” he said, “let it be!
For what do you want to depart from me?
If I have wronged you in anything,
I beg you, tell me,
whether that wrong be in word, or that be in deed.
If anyone has reproached you for doing wrong,
I want to stand with you forever.
Above all the world I want to love you.”

{ “Gui,” fait il, “n’alez avant!”
“Ami,” fait il, “laisser ester!
Pur quel vols tu de mei aler?
Se jo ai riens mesfait a tei
Jo vus requer, dites le mei,
Seit ço en dit, seit ço en fait.
Se nul vus ad par mal retrait,
A vus me voil redrescer,
Sur tuz del mund vus voil amer.” }

That’s how all authorities should treat falsely accused men. Too often authorities merely kill men, imprison them, or eliminate them in other ways.

Guy of Warwick saving a lion from a dragon

Even after the Romans feted Guy as a hero for leading them to victory over the sultan, Morgadur continued his wickedness toward Guy. Guy had a pet lion that he had rescued from being killed by a dragon. One day, Morgadur killed that lion while it was sleeping. Guy was furious at the slaying of his beloved lion. He swore to kill whomever had killed the lion. Informed that the lion-killer was the seneschal, Guy drew his sword and cleaved Morgadur’s head down to his teeth. Morgadur deserved that fate merely for the false words of his false accusation against Guy.

While Guy never raped anyone, neither woman nor man, he was not morally perfect. He had been acutely lovesick for Felice, the daughter of Count Rualt. He told her that his heart could love only her, and that he loved her above all else. She harshly rejected his love. Nonetheless, he continued to declare his love for her. Years later, in gratitude for Guy’s service, the Roman emperor’s lovely daughter Laurette sought to marry Guy. He initially accepted that attractive marriage proposal, despite his love for the hard-hearted Felice. He thus might be charged with being fickle or disloyal in love.

The archbishop stood ready to solemnize the marriage of Laurette and Guy. The marriage rings were brought forth. Only then did Guy remember Felice. He lamented to himself:

Ah! Felice, beautiful beloved,
How is love for you now parted!
Now I know well that I have done wrong,
when for riches I have loved another.
Now I repent of that, I regret that.
Any other than you I don’t want to love.
It’s better than I love your body only,
and without gold and without silver,
than love another woman for all the world,
for all the riches that are within it.

{ Ahi! Felice, bele amie,
Cum ore est l’amur departie!
Ore sai ben que mesfiat ai,
Quant pur richesce altre amai;
Ore m’en repent, si m’en doil,
Altre de vus amer ne voil,
Mielz amereie tun cors solement,
E senz or e senz argent,
Que une altre od tut le mund,
Od les richesces qui dedenz sunt. }

A wife’s wealth helps men to avoid men’s traditional gender burden of arduous labor to support a wife and children. Guy, however, wasn’t marring the emperor’s lovely daughter Laurette just for her wealth. He had pleasurably amused himself with her. Nonetheless, for love of Felice, who had harshly rejected him, Guy broke off his marriage to Laurette. That was foolish and cruel. He should have totally forgotten about frigid Felice and gone forward to marry the lovely Laurette.

As Guy did, men occasionally make mistakes in love. Such mistakes don’t justify false accusations of rape. Men’s love mistakes also aren’t grounds for falsely threatening them with false accusations of rape. Misdirected penal madness must end for romance to begin.

* * * * *

Read more:


The seneschal Morgadur falsely threatens Guy of Warwick with a false accusation of rape in the medieval Anglo-Norman verse romance Guy of Warwick {Gui de Warewic}. This Anglo-Norman Guy of Warwick is dated to (shortly) “before 1204.” Weiss (2008) p. 14. For a modern English translation of a fifteenth-century Middle English Guy of Warwick, Scott-Robinson (2019).

Weiss translated Morgadur’s false accusation using the term “rape.” For example, “He entered your chambers by force and has raped your Laurette.” Guy of Warwick, vv. 3281-2, trans. Weiss (2008) p. 132. Above I have translated the text more literally. Morgadur didn’t literally accuse Guy of forcing Laurette to have sex with him. Morgadur’s accusation could be interpreted as accusing Guy of having illicit, consensual sex with Laurette. Punishment for illicit sex, like laws criminalizing seduction, has historically been gender-biased toward punishing men. Today’s literary scholarship typically charges fictional men with rape even without clear textual warrant. I have followed that practice above in interpreting the story.

The quotes above are from the medieval Anglo-Norman Gui de Warewic, with the Old French (Anglo-Norman) edition of Ewert (1933) and my English translation, benefiting from that of Weiss (2008). Those quotes are vv. 3245-7 (“Sir Guy,” she said…), 3275-96 (“Sir,” he said…), 3305-10 (“You shouldn’t talk of that”…), 3321-32 (“Guy,” he said, “I have the capacity…”), 3333-46 (“God,” said Guy…), 3384-92 (“Guy,” he said, “don’t go forward!”…), 4231-40 (Ah! Felice, beautiful beloved…).

[image] Guy of Warwick saving a lion from a dragon. Woodcut illustration on page 7 of Rowland (1701). Via Compositor. Also available on Wikimedia Commons. Another illustration in this book shows Guy returning with the dragon’s head and the grateful lion walking at his side. These illustrations also exist in the 1690 edition of Rowland (1701).


Ewert, Alfred, ed. 1933. Gui de Warewic, Roman du XIIIe Siècle. 2 vols. Les classiques français du Moyen Âge, 74-75. Paris: Champion.

Rowland, Samuel. 1701. The Famous History of Guy of Warwick. London: printed for G. Conyers, at the Golden-Ring in Little-Britain. Originally published in 1690.

Scott-Robinson, Richard. 2019. Guy of Warwick translated and retold in modern English prose. Story from Cambridge University Library MS Ff. 2.38, the fifteenth century version (retold from the Middle English of Zupitza, J., 1875 and 1876, reprinted as one volume 1966, Early English Text Society). Eleusinianm.

Weiss, Judith, trans. 2008. Boeve de Haumtone and Gui de Warewic: Two Anglo-Norman Romances. Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 332; The French of England Translation Series, 3. Tempe, AZ: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies.

Guy of Warwick feared punishment for loving Felice in medieval romance

Not only have men been disproportionately gender-burdened with soliciting amorous relationships and enduring rejection, punishment for adultery historically has been gender-biased against men. In the medieval romance Guy of Warwick {Gui de Warewic}, composed about 1200, Guy of Warwick feared mortal punishment merely for loving the noble Felice. She herself threatened to have him drawn and quartered just because he told her of his ardent love for her. Women must show more compassion for men’s oppressive gender position.

Guy of Warwick actually had been authorized to serve Felice. She was the daughter of Rualt, the wealthy and powerful count of Warwick. At a feast to celebrate Pentecost, Count Rualt saw Guy, the son of his seneschal Sequart:

So he called Guy to himself,
and said and commanded him
that he go to the room
of his daughter Felice to greet her,
and that he should properly serve her
so as to bring her well to pleasure.

{ A sei l’ad donques apelé,
Si lui ad dit e comandé
Qu’il en la chambre alast,
Sa fille Felice saluast,
E qu’il la deust le jur servir
Ke ben lui vienge a pleisir. }

Courtly love constructs men as feudal servants to women. The handsome, well-dressed Guy went to Felice in her room. He knelt before her and declared that her father ordered him to serve her according to her wishes. He thus was in the servant position of a man as a courtly lover.

face within heart: marginalia in fifteenth-century prose manuscript of Guy of Warwick

Guy sought to serve Felice even beyond her wishes. He did all that she desired:

Guy exerted himself to serve her well.
The young woman had much pleasure
in the good service to which he put himself.

{ Gui se pena de bel servir
La pucele ben a pleisir,
en bel servir mist s’entente. }

Many men will do anything to serve beautiful, young women. Guy yearned to serve Felice, a name derived from “bliss {felicité},” in sexual love:

Felice the beautiful with her radiant face
had so seized Guy in love
that he didn’t know what to do at any time,
so much by love was he ravished.
From then on he often sighed and thought.

{ Felice la bele od le cler vis,
En s’amur est Gui si suspris
Que il ne set que faire a nul jur,
Tant par est suppris d’amur,
Desore suspire e pense sovent }

Men are romantically simple. What Guy was thinking cannot be doubted. He didn’t dare show his loving arousal. He asked for leave and, distressed and sorrowful, left Felice’s room.

face with disturbed heart: marginalia in fifteenth-century prose manuscript of Guy of Warwick

Guy languished in love for Felice. He would speak to himself in sorrow:

What shall I do, alas, such a wretch am I!
Such evil fate that I saw Felice with the radiant face!
And to her I don’t dare show my pain
that I have both night and day because of her.
I will never show it to her,
since this I wouldn’t dare to do.
Isn’t she the daughter of my lord,
to whom I should bear great reverence?
If I were to love her and he knew of it,
then he would be able to punish me.
He would have me burned or beheaded,
hung on high or drowned in the sea.
And I, alas, what then shall I do?
I love one whom I will never have.

{ Que frai jo, las, tant sui chaitifs!
Tant mar vi Felice od le cler vis!
A lui n’os mustrer ma dolur,
Que pur lui ai e nuit e jur,
Ne jamés ne li musterai;
Iço coment faire ne l’oserai.
Dune est ele fille mun seignur,
A qui dei porter grant honur?
Si jo l’amasse e il le seust,
Et il puis ateindre me peust,
Arder me freit u decoler,
Pendre en halt u en mer noier;
E jo, las, dunc que frai?
Cele aim que jamés n’averai. }

Men shouldn’t be punished for loving women. Men’s lives should matter. The goodness of men’s love for women must be vigorously affirmed. These are planks in a grass-roots platform for a progressive future. Guy suffered alone in medieval Warwick. Like many men, he refrained from voicing his anguish.

Guy ultimately resolved to throw himself at the mercy of his beloved woman Felice. He accepted the social reality of grotesque devaluation of men’s lives amid public celebration of divine and demonic women:

My pain is nothing to her.
Little she cares now for my life.
Not for anything shall I allow myself,
whether it brings evil or good,
now indeed not to go to her.
I will put myself entirely at her mercy.
She will be able to kill me well,
if she would be pleased to do that to me.
Indeed it’s much better if she kills me
than that I long endure this life.

{ De ma dolur ne li est mie,
Poi li chaud ore de ma vie;
Ne larrai mes pur nule rien,
Avenge n’en u mal u ben,
Que ne voise ore certes a li;
Del tut me mettrai en sa merci,
Oscire ben me purra,
Ço que li pleist de mei fera;
Mielz voil certes qu’ele me oscie
Ke lunges me dure ceste vie. }

Elite men’s life expectancy in medieval England was about nine years less than elite women’s. Under historically entrenched gynocentrism and gyno-idolatry, men’s lives have been terribly devalued. Guy of Warwick narrates that social injustice.

Guy of Warwick declares his love to Countess Felice

Wretched and distressed, Guy went to Felice and declared his ardent love for her. The extent of medieval men’s passionate love for women is scarcely conceivable today:

There is nothing that I desire more than you —
my heart from you cannot leave.
Above all else I have love for you.
For fear of death I will not allow
that I not love you every day,
as long as I am a living man.
Under Heaven there is nothing,
whether that be bad or good,
which for your love I wouldn’t do,
and for fear of death nothing would I refuse.
You are my life and my death —
without you I have no solace,
and I love you much more than I love myself.
I will die in extreme distress for you.
If you won’t take pity on me,
my life will be in extreme peril.
If you knew the extreme despair
that I have for your love,
and the complete grief and the pain
that for you I suffer both night and day,
I know well in faith
that you would have mercy on me.

{ La rien estes que plus desir,
De vus ne pot mis quer partir;
Sur tote rien amé vus ai.
Pur la mort pas ne larrai
Que ne vus aim a tut dis,
Tant cum serrai home vifs.
Suz ciel n’est icele rien,
Fust ço mal u fust ço bien,
Que pur vostre amur ne feisse,
Pur la mort nel desdeisse.
Vus estes ma vie e ma mort,
Sanz vus n’avrai jo confort;
Asez vus aim plus de mei,
Murrai pur vus a grant desrei;
Se vus ne prenge de mei pité,
A grant peril serrai livré.
Se saviez la grant tristur
Que ai pur la vostre amur,
E la grief peine e la dolur
Que pur vus soffre e nuit e jur,
Tresbien savereie de fi
Que vus avriez de mei merci. }

To Guy’s passionate, desperate proclamation of love, Felice responded matter-of-factly and dismissively:

Are you not that Guy,
the son of the seneschal Sequart?
Much now you take me for a fool,
when you have asked me for love.
You are indeed too bold.

{ Dune estes vus iço Gui?
Fiz estes al senescal Sequart;
Mult vus tienc ore a musart,
Quant d’amur m’avez requis;
Trop estes certes hardis. }

She could have begun by praising Guy’s passionate and lively heart. Why was Felice instead so hard-hearted and cruel? Guy’s father the seneschal was the steward for Felice’s father. That doesn’t rank Guy with a duke, a marquis, or a count, but he had social status far above a mere peasant. Men today aren’t permitted to reject a woman because she’s slutty, fat, or domineering. Felice rejected Guy because he was merely a seneschal’s son.

Guy of Warwick, hat in hand, before Felice

Loving women can easily condemn men to the penal system. In this medieval romance, Felice went so far as to threaten Guy with penal punishment merely for verbally expressing his love for her:

Too extreme a folly, Guy, you imagined
when you spoke to me about love,
because by the faith that I owe my mother,
if I go to speak to my father,
he will cut off your members
and have you pulled apart by horses,
by which would be warning
enough to many of the folly
of doing such a dishonor
to the daughter of their lord.
Get up quickly and get out of here.
Take care that you never return!

{ Trop grant folie, Gui, pensastes,
Quant vus de amur a mei parlastes;
Car par la fei que dei ma mere,
Se jol vois dire a mun pere,
Des menbres te freit desfaire,
E a chevals trestuit detraire,
Par quei serreient chastiez
De la folie plusurs assez,
De faire itel deshonur
A la fille lur seignur;
Alez d’ici, tost levez,
Gardez que mes n’i repairez! }

This daughter owes faith to her mother and apparently gives orders to her father. Cutting off a man’s members includes his penis. Guy risked being castrated and killed merely for expressing his love to Felice. Literary scholars have largely ignored or rationalize this outrage. Such a grotesque system of penal punishment regrettably remains with us to this day.

The medieval romance Guy of Warwick indicates the harsh regulation of men’s sexuality throughout history. The past need not define the future. Contempt for men dying of lovesickness need not continue. Progress toward a more humane future could start with women appreciating men’s distinctive lived experiences.

faces in manuscript marginalia

* * * * *

Read more:


The incidents above are from the medieval Anglo-Norman verse romance Guy of Warwick {Gui de Warewic}. Weiss dates this anonymous romance to (shortly) “before 1204.” Weiss (2008) p. 14. The Anglo-Norman version is commonly called Gui of Warwick. For simplicity I’ve used above the English name “Guy.” Warwick is a city in England. This romance thus became part of the “matter of England.” Guy of Warwick became a hero in England second only to King Arthur.

Across both French and English versions, Gui de Warewic survives in sixteen medieval manuscripts. That’s more than any other romance with an English hero or heroine. In addition to the c. 1200 Anglo-Norman version, Gui de Warewic also exists in a fifteenth-century French prose version and various adaptations into German and English. An English adaptation is attested to have been composed no later than the early fourteenth century through its presence in the Auchinleck manuscript (Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland, Advocates, 19.2.1). Stories of Guy of Warwick circulated widely in England through to the nineteenth century.

Felice’s hard-hearted and mortally threatening response to Guy’s proclamation of his love for her was eventually tempered in an English version, but also made more gynocentric. Consider, for example, Felice and Guy’s interaction in G.L. (1706). Guy declares his love to Felice (Phaelice):

Fairest of all the curious works of nature, whose equal never breathed in common air, more wonderful than any earth can yield, the bright idea of celestial beauty. Eternal honor wait upon thy name. The suit I have to thee is much like that which once Leander came to Hero with, hoping thereby to reap more lovely fruit than ever Mars gained from the queen of Love, when he outwitted Vulcan. The present which I bring, is a heart filled with love, and love can only satisfy my soul. Incline then, madam, to my humble motion: compassionate the griefs that I endure, and let that life that rests at your devotion be regarded. With pity take my dying heart in cure, and let it not expire in groaning torments, nor burst with griefs, because too well it loves thee. I know, dear Phaelice, that great princes love thee and deeds of honour for thy sake have done. But neither king nor prince can love thee more, no, nor so much as I, though but the son of thy great father’s steward, for so inestimable is my love, that whatsoever all others shall pretend, can never countervail it.

Phaelice responds with similar, lofty tone:

O gentle youth, speak not of love, I pray thee, for that is a thing I have no mind to hear of: virginity with me shall live and die. Love is composed of play and idleness, and leadeth only unto vain delight. Besides, it is in thee too great a boldness, for thou art far inferior to my degree: and should thy love be to my father told, I know it would procure thee a reproof. And therefore learn instruction from the proverb, ‘That princely eagles scorn to catch at flies.’ Then, if thou in thy suit wouldst have success, let thy desires be equal to thy fortune, and aim not at those things that are above it. Thou ownest, thyself, princes have courted me; then why should I, that have refused their courtship, stoop down so low as to my father’s steward; nay, lower yet unto his steward’s son? My youth and beauty is but in its bloom, and I have no mind to throw it away on one that is so much inferior to me.

G.L. (1706) pp. 14-5.

The quotes in the main section above are from the medieval Anglo-Norman Gui de Warewic, with the Old French (Anglo-Norman) edition of Ewert (1933) and my English translation, benefiting from that of Weiss (2008). Those quotes are vv. 179-84 (So he called Guy to himself…), 209-11 (Guy exerted himself to serve her well…), 217-21 (Felice the beautiful with her radiant face…), 251-64 (What shall I do, alas, such a wretch am I…), 289-98 (My pain is nothing to her…), 311-32 (There is nothing that I desire more than you…), 334-8 (Are you not that Guy…), 361-74 (Too extreme a folly, Guy, you imagined…).

[images] (1) Face within a heart. Marginialia (top margin) in fifteenth-century manuscript of a Middle English prose instance of Guy of Warwick. On folio 257v of British Library, Royal MS 15 E VI (Talbot Shrewsbury Book). This manuscript, containing poems and romances, was written in 1444-1445. (2) Face within disturbed heart. Marginialia (top margin) on folio 257r of British Library, Royal MS 15 E VI. Many heart-shaped top marginalia exist in this instance of Guy of Warwick. (3) Guy of Warwick entreats Countess Felice. Cover-page woodblock print (color-enhanced) from instance of L’hystoire de Guy de Waruich chevalier d’Angleterre {The History of Guy of Warwick, Knight of England}, published in Paris for Jean Bonfons in 1550. From instance offered for sale. (4) Guy of Warwick, hat in hand, before Felice. Illustration on page 12 of the sixteenth edition (dated 1800) of G.L (1706). (5) Faces in marginalia at the end of Guy of Warwick. From folio 266r of British Library, Royal MS 15 E VI


Ewert, Alfred,ed. 1933. Gui de Warewic, Roman du XIIIe Siècle. 2 vols. Les classiques français du Moyen Âge, 74-75. Paris: Champion.

G.L. (1706). The noble and renowned history of Guy, Earl of Warwick : containing a full and true account of his many famous and valiant actions … Extracted from authentick records; and the whole illustrated with cuts suitable to the history. Printed by W.O. for E.B. and sold by A. Bettesworth, London. Here’s an 1829 edition.

Weiss, Judith, trans. 2008. Boeve de Haumtone and Gui de Warewic: Two Anglo-Norman Romances. Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 332; The French of England Translation Series, 3. Tempe, AZ: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies.

Piers Plowman: sober, common labor over symposia of Plato & Xenophon

In Athens nearly 2500 years ago, the philosopher Plato represented a Socratic symposium. In Plato’s Symposium, elite men drink wine and compete in giving speeches in praise of erotic love. Writing about two decades after Plato, the eminent Greek military leader Xenophon also represented a Socratic symposium. Xenophon’s Symposium includes music, dancing, and physical acrobatics, as well as elite men drinking wine and discussing love, pride, wisdom, and other abstractions. Piers Plowman in fourteenth-century England dreamed the symposia of Plato and Xenophon into a new, expansive symposium of a whole society interacting with personified concepts such as truth, do-well, and wit. In this new symposium, sober, common labor, rather than pleasing speech or reasoned discussion, best serves love and truth.

Plato’s Symposium consists primarily of speeches in praise of erotic love. The seven elite men participants laud a male’s sexual desire for another male. In classical Athens, such sexual desire was typically directed toward a male shortly before his first beard began to grow. But in the final speech, a drunk Alcibiades, who was an eminent Athenian statesman and general, speaks of his love for Socrates, an eminent Athenian philosopher. Both are well beyond the ages of their first beards. Participants in Plato’s Symposium speak abstractly about different aspects of love and its consequences. Their speeches aren’t narrowly focused on sex.

ancient Geek symposium

Unlike Plato’s Symposium, Xenophon’s Symposium moves discursively from topic to topic. Xenophon, however, begins with a central concern of Plato’s Symposium. Xenophon begins with silent appreciation for the beauty of the young man Autolycus:

A person who took note of what happened would have come at once to the conclusion that beauty is something naturally regal, especially when, as in the present case of Autolycus, its possessor joins with it modesty and self-control. For in the first place, just as the sudden glow of a light at night draws all eyes to itself, so now the beauty of Autolycus compelled everyone to look at him. And second, there was not one of the onlookers who did not feel his soul stirred by the boy. Some of them grew quieter than before, others even assumed some kind of a pose.

{ Εὐθὺς μὲν οὖν ἐννοήσας τις τὰ γιγνόμενα ἡγήσατ᾿ ἂν φύσει βασιλικόν τι τὸ κάλλος εἶναι, ἄλλως τε καὶ ἢν μετ᾿ αἰδοῦς καὶ σωφροσύνης καθάπερ Αὐτόλυκος τότε κεκτῆταί τις αὐτό. πρῶτον μὲν γὰρ ὥσπερ ὅταν φέγγος τι ἐν νυκτὶ φανῇ, πάντων προσάγεται τὰ ὄμματα, οὕτω καὶ τότε τοῦ Αὐτολύκου τὸ κάλλος πάντων εἷλκε τὰς ὄψεις πρὸς αὐτόν. ἔπειτα τῶν ὁρώντων οὐδεὶς οὐκ ἔπασχέ τι τὴν ψυχὴν ὑπ᾿ ἐκείνου· οἱ μέν γε σιωπηρότεροι ἐγίγνοντο, οἱ δὲ καὶ ἐσχηματίζοντό πως. }[1]

Xenophon indicates that some of the men felt erotic desire for Autolycus. Interrupting the general awe, the childish jester Philip enters. He seeks food as an uninvited guest. To earn his meal he attempts to provoke laughter. He fails, and then he weeps for his failure. The elite men in relation to Autolycus presaged the jester Philip. Without any coquettish invitation from Autolycus, they ridiculously feasted on him.

Like Socrates, Piers Plowman identifies love, which it closely associates with truth, as the most important human concern. Characters in Piers Plowman critically discuss erotic love, with explicit reference to Plato, and perhaps implicit reference to Xenophon. The narrator Will recounted:

A most marvelous dream came to me then
that I was fetched away forcibly — Fortune seized me
and into the land of longing and love she brought me,
and made me look into a mirror called Middle Earth.
Afterwards she said to me, “In this you might see wonders,
and recognize what you really want and reach it, perhaps.”
Then Fortune had following her two fair damsels.
Concupiscentia-Carnis men called the elder maid,
and Covetousness-of-Eyes the other was called.
Pride-of-Perfect-Living pursued them both
and said that for appearance’s sake I should pay small heed to Clergy.
Concupiscentia-Carnis clasped me about the neck
and said, “You are young and yeasty and have years enough ahead
to live a long life and make love to ladies,
and in this mirror you might see mirths by the score
that will lead you to delight all your lifetime.”
The second said the same: “I shall serve your pleasure;
till you’re a lord and have land, I’ll not leave you ever,
but will follow in your fellowship if Fortune pleases.”
“He shall find me his friend,” said Fortune then.
“The fellow that followed my will never failed to have bliss.”

{ A merveillous metels mette me thanne.
For I was ravysshed right there — for Fortune me fette
And into the lond of longynge and love she me broughte,
And in a mirour that highte Middelerthe she made me to biholde.
Sithen she seide to me, “Here myghtow se wondres,
And knowe that thow coveitest, and come therto, peraunter.”
Thanne hadde Fortune folwynge hire two faire damyseles:
Concupiscencia Carnis men called the elder mayde,
And Coveitise of Eighes ycalled was that oother.
Pride of Parfit Lyvynge pursued hem bothe,
And bad me for my contenaunce acounten Clergie lighte.
Concupiscencia Carnis colled me aboute the nekke
And seide, “Thow art yong and yeep and hast yeres ynowe
For to lyve longe and ladies to lovye;
And in this mirour thow might se myrthes ful manye
That leden thee wole to likynge al thi lif tyme.”
The secounde seide the same: “I shal sewe thi wille;
Til thow be a lord and have lond, leten thee I nelle
That I ne shal folwe thi felawship, if Fortune it like.”
“He shal fynde me his frend,” quod Fortune therafter;
“The freke that folwede my wille failled nevere blisse.” }[2]

Providing a vision of what one truly wants is Socratic. Yet Fortune “fetched away forcibly {ravysshed}” Will. That medieval term for rape hints at Fortune’s duplicity. Old Age countered Fortune:

Then was there one called Old Age that was unhappy of countenance.
“Man,” said he, “if I meet you, by Mary of Heaven,
you’ll find Fortune failing you at your greatest need,
and Concupiscentia-Carnis will clean forsake you.
Your curses will be bitter, both day and night,
for Covetousness-of-Eyes, that ever you knew her.
And Pride-of-Perfect-Living will put you in great danger.”

{ Thanne was ther oon that highte Elde, that hevy was of chere,
“Man,” quod he, “if I mete with thee, by Marie of hevene
Thow shalt fynde Fortune thee faille at thi mooste nede,
And Concupiscencia Carnis clene thee forsake.
Bittrely shaltow banne thanne, bothe dayes and nyghtes,
Coveitise of Eighe, that evere thow hir knewe;
And Pride of Parfit Lyvynge to muche peril thee brynge.” }

Recklessness and Childishness, however, urged Will to entertain the lovely maidens:

“Really? Don’t take him seriously,” said Recklessness, standing forth in ragged clothes.
“Follow whatever Fortune wills. You’ve far to go till Age.
It’s time enough for a man to stoop when he starts going bald.
‘Man proposes,’ said a poet then, and Plato was his name,
and ‘the Deity disposes,’ said he. Let God do his will.
If Truth will witness, it’s well done to follow Fortune.
Concupiscentia-Carnis and Covetousness-of-Eyes
will not grieve you greatly, nor unless you wish, beguile you.”
“Yes, farewell, Phippe,” said Childishness, and drew me forth with him
till Concupiscentia-Carnis accorded to all my deeds.

{ “Ye? Recche thee nevere!” quod Rechelesnesse, stood forth in raggede clothes
“Folwe forth that Fortune wole — thow has wel fer til Elde.
A man may stoupe tyme ynogh whan he shal tyne the crowne.
‘Homo proponit,’ quod a poete, and Plato he highte,
And ‘Deus disponit’ quod he, lat God doon his wille.
If Truthe wol witnesse it be wel do, Fortune to folwe,
Concupiscencia Carnis ne Coveitise of Eighes
Ne shal noght greve thee graithly, ne biglie thee but thow wolt.”
“Ye, farewel Phippe!” quod Faunteltee, and forth gan me drawe,
Til Concupiscencia Carnis acorded til alle my werkes. }

Childishness sarcastically called Old Age “Phippe,” a childish form of Philip. That would have been an appropriate nickname for the jester Philip in Xenophon’s Symposium. Plato never wrote, “Man proposes, the deity disposes {homo proponit, deus disponit},” particularly not in Latin. But the god of erotic love led Will to life in the flesh:

Covetousness-of-Eyes comforted me straightway
and followed me forty winters and a fifth more,
so that I didn’t give a damn for Do-Well and Do-Better.
I had no liking, believe me, to learn the least thing about them.
Covetousness-of-Eyes came more often to my mind
than Do-Well or Do-Better did among all my doings.
Covetousness-of-Eyes often comforted me.

So sweet were this wench’s words I did what she said
till my young days were done and I’d drifted into age.
And then Fortune was my foe for all her fair promises,
and poverty pursued me and put me low.

{ Coveitise of Eighes conforted me anoon after
And folwed me fourty wynter and a fifte moore,
That of Dowel ne Dobet no deyntee me thoughte.
I hadde no likyng, leve me, [o]f the leste of hem ought to knowe.
Coveitise of Eighes com ofter in mynde
Than Dowel or Dobet among my dedes alle.
Coveitise of Eighes conforted me ofte.

By wissynge of this wenche I dide, hir wordes were so swete,
Til I foryat youthe and yarn into elde.
And thanne was Fortune my foo, for al hir faire biheste,
And poverte pursued me and putte me lowe. }

Concern to live rightly (“Do-Well”) animates Socratic discussion. Will wasn’t interested in such learning. Xenophon’s exemplary men — “the morally autonomous elite / the beautiful and good {καλοκάγαθος}” — don’t age and fall into poverty. In ordinary life, men and women do.

figure of Reason in Piers Plowman

Love in Piers Plowman is far from the drinking and high-status intellectual practices of symposia. Dame Study claims to have taught Plato and Aristotle their learning, as well as ordinary folk all the practical arts classcially attributed to Prometheus. She directs Will to Clergy to learn about living rightly (“Do-Well”):

I shall acquaint you with my cousin — Clergy is his name.
He has wedded a wife within these six weeks
who is sib to the seven arts. She is called Scripture.
These two, as I hope, after my request
will direct you to Do-Well. I dare so warrant it.

{ I shal kenne thee to my cosyn that Clergie is hoten.
He hath wedded a wif withinne thise sixe monthes,
Is sib to the sevene arts–Scripture is hir name.
They two, as I hope, after my techyng,
Shullen wissen thee to Dowel, I dar wel undertake. }

According to Dame Study, the way to Clergy and Scripture isn’t sympotic. It’s a high way of sober, modest living:

“Ask for the highway,” said she, “from here to Suffer-
Both-Welfare-And-Woe, if you wish to learn.
And ride on past Riches — don’t rest there,
for if you keep company with him, you’ll never come to Clergy.
And also the long pastureland, Lechery by name,
leave it on your left hand a long mile or more
till you come to a castle, Keep-Well-Your-Tongue-
Then you shall see Sobriety and Sincerity-Of-Speech,
so that every one will be willing to share his wits with you.
Then you will come to Clergy, who knows many kinds of things.

{ “Aske the heighe wey,” quod she, “hennes to Suffre-
Bothe-wele-and-wo, if that thow wolt lerne;
And ryd forth by richesse, ac rest thow noght therinne,
For if thow couplest thee therwith to Clergie comestow nevere.
“And also the likerouse launde that Lecherie hatte–
Leve hym on thi left half a large myle or moore,
Til thow come to a court, Kepe-wel-thi-tunge-
Thanne shaltow se Sobretee and Sympletee-of-speche,
That ech wight be in wille his wit thee to shewe;
And thus shaltow come to Clergie, that kan manye thynges.” }

What Will must learn from Clergy and Scripture, one cannot learn through study. It’s a matter of theology beyond Dame Study, as she herself confessed:

But Theology has troubled me ten score times.
The more I muse on it, the mistier it seems,
and the deeper I divined, the darker I thought it.
It’s surely no science to argue subtly in.
If it weren’t for the love that lies in it, it would be a lame study.
But since it allows so much to Love, I love it the better,
for wherever Love is leader, there’s no lack of grace.
Be sure to love loyally if you’d like to Do-Well,
for Do-Better and Do-Best are drawn from Love’s school.

{ Ac Theologie hath tened me ten score tymes:
The moore I muse therinne, the myst[lok]er it semeth,
And the depper I devyne, the derker me it thynketh.
lt is no science, forsothe, for to sotile inne.
[If that love nere, that lith therinne, a ful lethi thyng it were];
Ac for it let best by love, I love it the bettre,
For there that love is ledere, ne lakked nevere grace.
Loke thow love lelly, if thee liketh Dowel,
For Dobet and Dobest ben of loves k[e]nn[yng]. }[3]

In Piers Plowman, Light, a figure of Jesus, declares:

For I who am Lord of Life, love is my drink,
and for that drink today I died upon earth.
I struggled so I’m thirsty still for man’s soul’s sake.

{ For I that am lord of lif, love is my drynke,
And for that drynke today, I deide upon erthe.
I faught so, me thursteth yet, for mannes soule sake. }

Plato’s Symposium involves drinking and talk of erotic love. In Piers Plowman, desire for drink links to love through a figure of Jesus. Socrates taught the immortality of the human soul. Piers Plowman has Jesus make souls immortal through his life and death. Piers Plowman completely reconfigures Socratic discourse.[4]

friar in Piers Plowman

Ancient Greek symposia often included entertainers. In Xenophon’s Symposium, a Syracusan impresario brings in a flute girl, a dancing girl skilled in acrobatic tricks, and a boy who plays the kithara and dances. After the girl danced while juggling twelve hoops, Socrates marveled at women’s ability to learn. When she turned somersaults about a hoop set with upright swords, Socrates praised her “courage / manliness {ἀνδρεία}.” Antisthenes then proposed that the girl’s stunt could promote the city’s use of men in violence against men:

“Well then,” asked Antisthenes, “wouldn’t it be best for this Syracusan to exhibit his dancer to the city and announce that if the Athenians pay him money, he’ll give all the men of Athens the courage to charge the spear points?”

{ Καὶ ὁ Ἀντισθένης εἶπεν· Ἆρ᾿ οὖν καὶ τῷδε τῷ Συρακοσίῳ κράτιστον ἐπιδείξαντι τῇ πόλει τὴν ὀρχηστρίδα εἰπεῖν, ἐὰν διδῶσιν αὐτῷ Ἀθηναῖοι χρήματα, ποιήσειν πάντας Ἀθηναίους τολμᾶν ὁμόσε ταῖς λόγχαις ἰέναι }

The jester Philip, like many journalists today, favored such a scheme for promoting violence against men:

“Well said!” interjected Philip, “I’d certainly like to watch Peisander the popular leader learning to turn somersaults into the knives. As it is, his inability to look spears in the face makes him shrink even from going on campaign!”

{ Καὶ ὁ Φίλιππος, Νὴ Δί᾿, ἔφη, καὶ μὴν ἔγωγε ἡδέως ἂν θεῴμην Πείσανδρον τὸν δημηγόρον μανθάνοντα κυβιστᾶν εἰς τὰς μαχαίρας, ὃς νῦν διὰ τὸ μὴ δύνασθαι λόγχαις ἀντιβλέπειν οὐδὲ συστρατεύεσθαι ἐθέλει. }

That’s conventional, gender-obtuse elite political banter. It favors praising women and devaluing men’s lives.

figure of Pride in Piers Plowman

Elite discourse, whether or not it includes women participants, typically fails men as a gender in fundamental ways. In Xenophon’s Symposium, a low-status entertainer provides implicitly the only critical perspective on violence against men:

At this point the boy performed a dance. He elicited from Socrates the remark, “Did you notice that, as beautiful as the boy is, he looks even more beautiful in the poses of the dance than when he’s at rest?”

{ Ἐκ τούτου ὁ παῖς ὠρχήσατο. καὶ ὁ Σωκράτης εἶπεν, Εἴδετ᾿, ἔφη, ὡς καλὸς ὁ παῖς ὢν ὅμως σὺν τοῖς σχήμασιν ἔτι καλλίων φαίνεται ἢ ὅταν ἡσυχίαν ἔχῃ }

Socrates jokingly declares that he would like to learn to dance to develop his body’s suppleness. He gives good reasons why dance is good exercise. Charmides, underscoring lack of concern about violence against men, says that he doesn’t know how to dance, but he shadowboxes. Shadowboxing is formally similar to dancing, but it’s completely opposite in instrumentalizing a man’s body. Philip the jester then estimates the weight of Socrates’s body parts as one would estimate the weight of meat. Philip accentuates with dance the triviality of their sympotic talk:

He got up and mimicked in detail the dancing of both the boy and the girl. To begin with, since the company had applauded the way the boy’s natural beauty was increased by the grace of the dancing postures, Philip made a burlesque out of the performance by rendering every part of his body that was in motion more grotesque than it naturally was. Whereas the girl had bent backward until she resembled a hoop, he tried to do the same by bending forward. Finally, since they had given the boy applause for putting every part of his body into play in the dance, he told the flute girl to quicken the tempo and he danced away, flinging out legs, hands, and head all at the same time. When he was quite exhausted, he exclaimed as he took to his couch, “Here’s proof, gentlemen, that my style of dancing also affords excellent exercise. It has certainly made me thirsty. Let the slave fill up for me the big drinking vessel!”

{ Ἐπειδὴ δ᾿ ἀνέστη, διῆλθε μιμούμενος τήν τε τοῦ παιδὸς καὶ τὴν τῆς παιδὸς ὄρχησιν. καὶ πρῶτον μὲν ὅτι ἐπῄνεσαν ὡς ὁ παῖς σὺν τοῖς σχήμασιν ἔτι καλλίων ἐφαίνετο, ἀνταπέδειξεν ὅ τι κινοίη τοῦ σώματος ἅπαν τῆς φύσεως γελοιότερον· ὅτι δ᾿ ἡ παῖς εἰς τοὔπισθεν καμπτομένη τροχοὺς ἐμιμεῖτο, ἐκεῖνος ταῦτα εἰς τὸ ἔμπροσθεν ἐπικύπτων μιμεῖσθαι τροχοὺς ἐπειρᾶτο. τέλος δ᾿ ὅτι τὸν παῖδ᾿ ἐπῄνουν ὡς ἐν τῇ ὀρχήσει ἅπαν τὸ σῶμα γυμνάζοι, κελεύσας τὴν αὐλητρίδα θάττονα ῥυθμὸν ἐπάγειν ἵει ἅμα πάντα καὶ σκέλη καὶ χεῖρας καὶ κεφαλήν. ἐπειδὴ δὲ ἀπειρήκει, κατακλινόμενος εἶπε· Τεκμήριον, ὦ ἄνδρες, ὅτι καλῶς γυμνάζει καὶ τὰ ἐμὰ ὀρχήματα. ἐγὼ γοῦν διψῶ· καὶ ὁ παῖς ἐγχεάτω μοι τὴν μεγάλην φιάλην. }

Socrates, in what could be taken as a parody of profundity, suggested in response that they all don’t drink too much. In Plato’s Symposium, Socrates sets the stage for the men’s speeches by dismissing the flute girl, the only entertainer at that symposium. That doesn’t mean that the men’s speeches are worth more than entertainment.[5]

In Piers Plowman, Dame Study condemns speaking as entertainment. She favors sober, common labor:

He does best who desists, day and night,
from squandering any speech or any space of time.
“Who offends in one point is guilty of all.”
And Truth knows what’s true: time that is wasted
on earth is most hated by those who are in Heaven,
and then the squandering of speech, which is the sprout of grace
and God’s music-maker, and a merriment of Heaven.
The faithful father would never wish that his fiddle were untuned,
nor his gleeman a gadabout, a goer to taverns.
All sincere and steady men who desire to work,
our Lord loves them and allows, great or small,
grace to go with them and let them gain their livelihoods.

{ He dooth best that withdraweth hym by daye and by nyghte
To spille any speche or any space of tyme:
Qui offendit in uno, in omnibus est reus.
[Tyn]ynge of tyme, Truthe woot the sothe,
Is moost yhated upon erthe of hem that ben in hevene;
And siththe to spille speche, that spire is of grace,
And Goddes gleman and a game of hevene.
Wolde nevere the feithful fader his fithele were untempred,
Ne his gleman a gedelyng, a goere to tavernes.
To alle trewe tidy men that travaille desiren,
Oure Lord loveth hem and lent, loude outher stille,
Grace to go to hem and of gon hir liflode }[6]

After dismissing “ribalds for their ribaldry {harlotes for hir harlotrie}” and “jesters and jugglers and jabberers of tales {japeris and jogelours and jangleris of gestes},” Dame Study describes clerics as acting no better than minstrels:

But minstrelsy and mirth among men nowadays
are filthiness, flatteries, and foolish tales.
Gluttony and great oaths — these are games nowadays,
but if they discourse of Christ, these clerks and laymen,
at meals in their mirth when minstrels are still,
then they tell of the Trinity how two slew the third,
and bring a threadbare argument to bear, take Bernard to witness,
and proffer an assumed probability as proof of a truth.
Thus they drivel on the dais a definition of Godhead,
and set their teeth in God’s gorge when their guts are full.

{ Ac murthe and mynstralcie amonges men is nouthe
Lecherie, losengerye and losels tales–
Glotonye and grete othes, this [game] they lovyeth.
“Ac if thei carpen of Crist, thise clerkes and thise lewed,
At mete in hir murthe whan mynstrals beth stille,
Thanne telleth thei of the Trinite [how two slowe the thridde],
And bryngen forth a balled reson, and taken Bernard to witnesse,
And puten forth a presumpcion to preve the sothe.
Thus thei dryvele at hir deys the deitee to knowe,
And gnawen God with the gorge whanne hir guttes fullen. }

Piers Plowman is vernacular verse in a lively alliterative scheme. It’s probably similar to the work of sophisticated minstrels.[7] Just as Piers Plowman relates to common entertainers, it also relates to clerics. It’s a symposium against symposia.

lawyer in Piers Plowman

Piers Plowman includes Socratic irony. “Mental Vision {Ymaginatif}” tells the clerical Will to change his ways from writing books like Piers Plowman:

And you meddle with making verse and might go say your Psalter,
and pray for them that provide your bread, for there are plenty of books
to tell men what Do-Well is, Do-Better and Do-Best both,
and preachers to explain it all, with many a pair of friars.

{ And thow medlest thee with makynges–and myghtest go seye thi Sauter,
And bidde for hem that yyveth thee breed; for ther are bokes ynowe
To telle men what Dowel is, Dobet and Dobest bothe,
And prechours to preve what it is, of many a peire freres. }

Will, however, rationalizes his mental activity:

I saw well he spoke the truth, and somewhat to excuse myself
said, “Cato comforted his son, clerk though he was,
to solace himself sometimes. So I do when I write.
‘Interpose some pleasures at times among your cares.’
And I’ve heard it said of holy men, how they now and then
played to be more perfect in their prayers afterward.
But if there were anyone who would tell me
what Do-Well and Do-Better were, and Do-Best at the last,
I would never do any work but wend to Holy Church
and stay there saying prayers, save when I ate or slept.”

{ I seigh wel he seide me sooth and, somwhat me to excuse,
Seide, “Caton conforted his sone that, clerk though he were,
To solacen hym som tyme — a[lso] I do whan I make:
Interpone tuis interdum gaudia curis.
“And of holy men I herde,” quod I, “how thei outherwhile
Pleyden, the parfiter to ben, in [places manye].
Ac if ther were any wight that wolde me telle
What were Dowel and Dobet and Dobest at the laste,
Wolde I nevere do werk, but wende to holi chirche
And there bidde my bedes but whan ich ete or slepe.” }

We humans are rationalizing animals. We should feel free to play without reason.

Plato’s Symposium and Xenophon’s Symposium for millennia have been influential exemplars of elite drinking and talking. A feast of words about doing good isn’t the same as doing good. What you know is sufficient for you to do good. Life cannot be lived in examining it. The many artful words of Piers Plowman indicate that sober, common labor, like bringing together good earth and a well-functioning plow, does more good than symposia.

* * * * *

Read more:


[1] Xenophon of Athens, Symposium 1.8-10, ancient Greek text and English translation (modified insubstantially) from Marchant, Todd & Henderson (2013). Subsequent quotes from Xenophon’s Symposium are similarly sourced, unless otherwise noted.

Xenophon’s Symposium explicitly presents as examples the relatively insignificant acts of “the morally autonomous elite / the beautiful and good {καλοκάγαθος}”:

To my mind it is worthwhile to relate not only the serious acts of the morally autonomous elite, but also what they do in their playful moments.

{ Ἀλλ᾿ ἐμοὶ δοκεῖ τῶν καλῶν κἀγαθῶν ἀνδρῶν ἔργα οὐ μόνον τὰ μετὰ σπουδῆς πραττόμενα ἀξιομνημόνευτα εἶναι ἀλλὰ καὶ τὰ ἐν ταῖς παιδιαῖς }

Xenophon, Symposium 1.1, with my changes to the translation of the key terms καλοκάγαθος and παιδία. Neither “gentleman” nor “philosopher” seems to me an adequate translation of καλοκάγαθος. Cf. Reid (2022).

The symposia of Plato and Xenophon are the only surviving ancient Socratic symposia. Compared to Plato’s Symposium, Xenophon’s Symposium is closer to symposia depicted in other sources. Hobden (2004) p. 122. The entertainers in Xenophon’s Symposium significantly shape the conversation. Id.

A considerable corpus of ancient literature concerns symposia. Lengthy ancient representations of symposia include Athenaeus of Naucratis, The Learned Banqueters {Deipnosophistae / Δειπνοσοφισταί}; Macrobius, Seven Books of the Saturnalia {Saturnaliorum Libri Septem}; Plutarch, Banquet of the Seven Sages {Septem Sapientium Convivium / Ἑπτά σοφῶν συμπόσιον}; and Methodius of Olympus, Symposium or Banquet {Συμπόσιον ἢ περὶ ἁγνείας} / Banquet of Ten Virgins {Convivium decem virginum}. The classical Arabic literature of al-Jahiz is similar to sympotic literature. On symposia in ancient Greek poetry, Cazzato, Obbink & Proi (2016). On ancient symposia more generally, König (2012).

Subsequent quotes above are from Xenophon’s Symposium 2.13 (“Well then,” asked Antisthenes…), 2.14 (Well said!” interjected Philip…), 2.15 (At this point the boy performed a dance…), 2.21-2 (He got up and mimicked in detail the dancing…).

[2] William Langland (attributed), Piers Plowman / William’s Vision of Piers Plowman {Visio Willelmi de Petro Ploughman} 11.6-26, Middle English text (B version) from Schmidt (1978) via Corpus of Middle English Prose and Verse, English modernization (modified slightly) from Donaldson, Kirk & Anderson (1990). Subsequent quotes from Piers Plowman are similarly sourced and cited by (passus.verses) in Schmidt’s edition. The leading scholarly edition (Bx) is online at the Piers Plowman Electronic Archive. I’ve used Schmidt’s edition because it’s easier for non-specialists to read.

Subsequent quotes above from Piers Plowman are vv. 11.27-33 (Then was there one called Old Age…), 11.34-43 (“Really? Don’t take him seriously,”…), 11.46-52, 59-62 (Covetousness-of-Eyes comforted me straightway…), 10.150-4 (I shall acquaint you with my cousin…), 10.159-69 (“Ask for the highway,” said she…), 10.182-90 (But Theology has troubled me ten score times…), 18.365-7 (For I who am Lord of Life…), 9.97-106 (He does best who desists…), 10.30 (ribalds for their ribaldry), 10.31 (jesters and jugglers and jabberers of tales), 10.48-57 (But minstrelsy and mirth among men nowadays…), 12.16-9 (And you meddle with making verse…), 12.20-8 (I saw well he spoke the truth…).

[3] Consider an academic-sympotic display of Study:

Langland’s poem negotiates the discourses of reading, recognizing the competition between the accepted female discursive mode and the call to social activism: Piers Plowman embodies that competition in the figure of Study.

Bishop (1998) p. 112.

[4] Plato’s Symposium is known to have been translated into Latin no earlier than the fifteenth century in Italy. Clay (2007), Hankins (2009) pp. 337-8. On the reception of Plato’s Symposium more generally, Lesher (2004). Xenophon’s Symposium is known in Latin only beginning with the translation of the Frankfurt Humanist Johann Haynpul {Janus Cornarius} in 1546. Hankins (2009) p. 338. Nonetheless, “Latin readers in the medieval West had a reasonably good sense of who Socrates was” through classical Latin authors discussing him. Id. p. 337.

The twelfth-century School of Chartres was a leading center of Platonism. John of Salisbury served as Secretary to the Archbishop of Canterbury and then became Bishop of Chartres in 1176. John’s work shows significant Platonic influence. So too does the twelfth-century Cosmographia of Bernardus Silvestris. Piers Plowman explicitly mentions Plato three times, and Aristotle, four times.

Writing in England late in the fourteenth century, the author of Piers Plowman / William Langland had no known access to either Plato’s Symposium or Xenophon’s Symposium. How William Langland managed to write such an interesting intertext to those symposia matters much less than that he did. Scholars have not recognized even the latter, despite the evidence readily available today.

[5] Socrates dismisses the flute girl in Plato, Symposium 176e. In Plato’s Protagoras, Socrates condemns elite men enjoying low, hired entertainment. Protagoras 347c5-e1.

While Xenophon is generally regarded as an earnest writer, careful reading suggests that he appreciated silliness and irony. In his Symposium, Xenophon mixes “playfulness {παιδία}” and “seriousness {σπουδή}.” For example, Xenophon evidently was joking about Socrates dancing. Readers from the ancient world to the present have failed to recognizes this humor. Huss (1999). Recent scholarship also suggests that Xenophon in his Symposium encoded doubts about Socrates limiting love between men and boys to spiritual love. Konstan (2023). As a military leader, Xenophon used men as tools in violence against men. But he may also have had a sense of men’s beauty. Men’s beauty emphasizes the folly of measuring men only through violence against men.

Socrates in Xenophon explicitly compares the symposium participants to entertainers in providing pleasure:

Then Socrates resumed the conversation. “Gentlemen,” he said, “these people show their competence to give us pleasure, and yet I’m sure we consider ourselves far superior to them. Won’t it be shameful, then, if we don’t even try, while we’re here together, to give one another some benefit or pleasure?”

{Ἐκ τούτου δὲ πάλιν εἶπεν ὁ Σωκράτης· Οὗτοι μὲν δή, ὦ ἄνδρες, ἱκανοὶ τέρπειν ἡμᾶς φαίνονται· ἡμεῖς δὲ τούτων οἶδ᾿ ὅτι πολὺ βελτίονες οἰόμεθα εἶναι· οὐκ αἰσχρὸν οὖν εἰ μηδ᾿ ἐπιχειρήσομεν συνόντες ὠφελεῖν τι ἢ εὐφραίνειν ἀλλήλους }

Xenophon, Symposium 3.2. Socrates states that Hermogenes’s discourse would be more agreeable accompanied by pipe music and physical posing. Id. 6.4. Socrates also sings to overcome the symposiasts’ clamor. Id. 7.1.

[6] Dame Study, who dominates her husband like Xanthippe did Socrates, paraphrases James 2:10 in Latin in Piers Plowman 9.99. She appears in a “disarmingly comic” interlude. She, however, is a complex, significant character:

The tirade that the gaunt, earthy wife vents upon her husband Wit may divert us from several evident inconsistencies about her. … If Study communicates with her students orally, she is nevertheless reading as she does so, and reading from the same trivial and quadrivial texts that had re-established literate science in the late eleventh and the twelfth centuries. The immediacy of preliterate communication is recovered as the integrity of reader and text within the idea that the tropological level of Scripture becomes fully realized only when the reader internalizes it as a change of life. The orality to which the “lewed” are condemned becomes, in the Study episode, not a cause for anxiety, but the oral reading of a text, the first stage of lectio divina, and a necessary condition for textual understanding.

Harwood (1990) pp. 7, 13. Dame Study is also significant in relation to pathologies of orality in symposia.

“Hawkin the Active Man {Haukyn the Actif Man},” who’s called a minstrel, leads an active life of lechery. It leads merely to merry tales in old age:

For every maid that he met he made her a gesture
suggesting sin
, and some he would savor
about the mouth, or beneath begin to grope,
till their wills grow keen together and they get to work,
as well on fasting days as Fridays and forbidden nights
and as lief in Lent as out of Lent, all times alike.
Such works with them were never out of season
till they might do no more, and then told merry tales
and of how lechers make love laugh and joke,
and in their old age told of their whoring and wenching.

{ For ech a maide that he mette, he made hire a signe
Semynge to synneward, and somtyme he gan taste
Aboute the mouth or bynethe bigynneth to grope,
Til eitheres wille wexeth kene, and to the werke yeden,
As wel fastyng dayes as Fridaies and forboden nyghtes,
And as lef in Lente as out of Lente, alle tymes yliche:
Swiche werkes with hem were nevere out of seson,
Til thei myghte na moore–and thanne hadde murye tales,
And how that lecchours lovye laughen and japen,
And of hir harlotrye and horedom in hir elde tellen. }

Piers Plowman, 13.344-53. Will regarded such work not only as sinful, but also as fruitless. Marital sex was a different activity. Wit declared, “Do-Well in this world is wedded people who live truly {in this world is Dowel trewe wedded libbynge folk}.” Piers Plowman 9.108.

[7] Pettitt insightfully stated:

Piers Plowman is not in Latin prose, nor designed exclusively for an audience of learned clerks. It is a skilled exercise in English word-craft which is in various ways (in varying degrees) vernacular, some of which ways may take it disturbingly close to the verbal production of those men of words from whom Langland seems anxious to distance himself. Or in a formulation he would have found more vexing: how clearly and how confidently, as belonging to different orders of cultural production, can we distinguish between Piers Plowman and “a dido … a dysoures tale {a Dido … a minstrel’s tale}”, or even “rhymes of Robyn hood”?

Pettitt (2021) pp. 18-9, quoting Piers Plowman 13.172, with my added gloss in brackets. Other scholars have similarly perceived Langland’s association with minstrelsy:

It is possible that Langland was, at least in his youth, a minstrel of sorts. Our knowledge of fourteenth-century minstrelsy is far from complete and our ideas of the profession are, I believe, unduly influenced by a romantic, Sir-Walter-Scott picture which probably makes the suggestion in the last sentence offensive to certain readers. But we have it on Cobham’s and Langland’s word that there were a few pious minstrels who wrote and spoke on religious subjects and we certainly have sufficient examples of the works they might have read aloud or recited. … It is interesting that when one works through the poem in an attempt to discover what sort of minstrel the poet could have been, one encounters a number of things reminiscent of the goliardic tradition — and this, despite the fact that the tradition itself and Piers Plowman are worlds apart.

Donaldson (1949) p. 153. On Langland’s sense of himself as a vernacular verse-maker in relation to minstrels, Schmidt (1987) Chapter 1.

[images] (1) Fresco of ancient Greek symposium in the Tomb of the diver in Paestum, Italy. Painted 480-470 BGC. Source image thanks to Velvet and Wikimedia Commons. (2) Figure of Reason in manuscript instance of Piers Plowman. Illustration on the margin of folio 19r of Bodleian Library, Oxford, MS Douce 104. This manuscript was made 1427-8. (3) Friar in Piers Plowman. Illustration similarly from folio 67r of MS Douce 104. (4) Figure of Pride in Piers Plowman. Illustration similarly from folio 24r of MS Douce 104. (5) Lawyer in Piers Plowman. Illustration similarly from folio 41r of MS Douce 104. On the illustrations in MS Douce 104, Scott (1990).


Bishop, Louise. 1998. “Dame Study and Women’s Literacy.” Yearbook of Langland Studies. 12: 97-115.

Cazzato, Vanessa, Dirk Obbink, and Enrico Emanuele Prodi, eds. 2016. Cup of Song: Studies on Poetry and the Symposion. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Review by Max Leventhal.

Clay, Diskin. 2007 “The Hangover of Plato’s Symposium in the Italian Renaissance from Bruni (1435) to Castiglione (1528).” Chapter 15 in Lesher, James, Debra Nails, and Frisbee Sheffield, eds. Plato’s Symposium: Issues in Interpretation and Reception. Hellenic Studies Series 22. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

Donaldson E. Talbot. 1949. Piers Plowman: The C-Text and Its Poet. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Donaldson, E. Talbot, trans., Elisabeth D. Kirk, and Judith H. Anderson, eds. 1990. William Langland. Will’s vision of Piers Plowman. New York: W.W. Norton.

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Harwood, Britton J. 1990. “Dame Study and the Place of Orality in Piers Plowman.” ELH. 57(1): 1–17.

Hobden, Fiona. 2004. “How to Be a Good Symposiast and Other Lessons from Xenophon’s Symposium.” Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society. 50: 121–40.

Huss, Bernhard. 1999. “The Dancing Sokrates and the Laughing Xenophon, or the Other Symposium.” The American Journal of Philology. 120(3): 381–409.

König, Jason. 2012. Saints and Symposiasts: The Literature of Food and the Symposium in Greco-Roman and Early Christian Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Konstan, David. 2023. “Sexual Transition in Xenophon’s Symposium.” Draft presented to Italian-US Online Study Group on Scholarly Entertainment.

Lesher, James. 2004. “The Afterlife of PLato’s Symposium.” Ordia Prima. 3: 89-105.

Marchant, E. C., and O. J. Todd, ed. and trans. Revised by Jeffrey Henderson. 2013. Xenophon. Memorabilia. Oeconomicus. Symposium. Apology. Loeb Classical Library 168. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Original 1923 edition online.

Pettitt, Tom. 2021. “The Man of Letters and the Men of Words: Langland, Piers Plowman, and Vernacular Culture.” Internet Paper.

Reid, L. Heather. 2022. “A Gentleman or a Philosopher? Xenophon vs. Aristotle on Kalokagathia.” Pp. 121-134 in David Konstan and David Sider, eds. Philodorema: Essays in Greek and Roman Philosophy in Honor of Phillip Mitsis. Siracusa: Parnassos Press.

Scott, Kathleen L. 1990. “The Illustrations of Piers Plowman in Bodleian Library Ms. Douce 104.” The Yearbook of Langland Studies. 4: 1–86.

Schmidt, A. V. C., ed. 1978. William Langland. The Vision of Piers Plowman: A Complete Edition of the B-Text. London: J.M. Dent.

Schmidt, A. V. C. 1987. The Clerkly Maker: Langland’s Poetic Art. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer.