women in ancient Mesopotamia strove to overcome men’s impotence

Women in ancient Mesopotamia delighted in love with men. In an Akkadian poem from the Old Babylonian period about 3800 years ago, a woman proclaims:

The beating of your heart is joyful music.
Rise and let me make love with you.
In your soft lap
in waking-time,
how sweet is your lovemaking.
Your fruits are profuse!

Stretch your left hand and touch my vagina.
Play with my breasts.
Enter, I have opened my thighs!

{ [tu-ru-uk] ⌈li⌉-bi-ka ni-gu-[tu/ta/ti…]
ti-bé-ma lu-⌈ur⌉-ta-ma-[ka-ma]
i-nu-ut-li-ka ra?-ab-bi?
ši mu-na-ma-ti
mu-úḫ!-ta-an-bu in-bu-ka

bi-la-ma šu-me-le-ek lu-pí-it-ma ḫu-ur-da-at-ni
me-li-il tu-li-i-ni
[er-ba ḫa-al]-la ap-ti }[1]

In another Akkadian poem from about 3300 years ago, a woman declares to her beloved:

Become erect! Feed yourself! Become erect!
Feed yourself with my lovemaking! My lap is like the best of oils!

{ [ti?-i?]-⌈bi⌉ et-pe-er ti-⌈i-bi⌉ et-pe-er ṣi-ḫa-ti-ia sú-ú-ni ki-i-ma ul-⌈ša?⌉-[ni-i]m }[2]

Men throughout history seldom have been paid for their sexual labor for women. Money isn’t, however, the ultimate measure of worth. Many men value seeing joy on a beloved woman’s face more than any money wage.[3]

In ancient Mesopotamia, women didn’t passively allow men to become impotent. Women in ancient Mesopotamia actively participated in progressive efforts to empower men. To overcome a man’s impotence, a woman in ancient Mesopotamia spoke an incantation that included these imploring lines:

May the wind blow! May the mountains quake!
May the cloud be gathered! May the moisture fall!
May the ass mate and mount the jenny!
May the buck arise and repeatedly mount the goat!
At the head of my bed I have tied a buck.
At the foot of my bed I have tied a ram.
The one at the head of my bed, rear up, make love to me!
The one at the foot of my bed, rear up, bleat for me!
My vagina is the vagina of a female dog. His penis is the penis of a male dog.
As the vagina of a female dog takes the penis of a male dog, so may I do!
May your penis become as long as a fighting stick!

{ lillik šāru Sadü linü[sü]
liktassir urpatum-ma tīku littuk
limgug imēru-ma atāna lirkab
litbi daššu lirtakkaba unīgēti
ina rēš eršīya lū urakkis daššu
ina šēpīt eršīya lü urakkis puhalu
ša res ersiya tibá ramanni
ša šēpīt erSiya tibá hubbibanni
ūrūya ūrū kalbati ušaršu usar kalbi
kīma ūrū kalbati isbatū ušar kalbi
ušarka līrika mala mašgaši
ašbāku ina bunzerri ša sīhāte
bu”ura ay ahti tē šipti }[4]

Men have long been disparaged as being sexually like dogs. In addition, men’s penises historically have been brutalized through figuring them as weapons. This incantation redeems those hurtful metaphors through the woman’s vigorous effort to empower her beloved man. She would recite this incantation seven times. Then the woman and man would prepare a mixture of powdered iron and magnetic ore in oil. She would anoint her vagina with it, and he, his penis. Then the man would be empowered to have sex repeatedly with the woman.

ancient Roman phallic pendant

Classic literature recognized the epic disaster of men’s impotence. Lacking sufficient appreciation for classics, many person now promote and revel in men’s impotence. Those who have recognized negative welfare effects have only interpreted men’s impotence in various ways. The point is to change it.[5] In ancient Mesopotamia, women took extraordinary action to empower men. So too should caring, public-spirited women today.

* * * * *

Read more:


[1] The Beating of Your Heart – A Pleasant Tune (PRAK 1 B 472) / Your Heartbeat is My Reveille, tablet siglum Ki. 1063, from Arkeoloji Müzerleri, Istanbul, found in Kiš (now called Tell el-Uhaymir), ll. i2-i7, i13-15, Akkadian transliteration and English translation (modified) from Wasserman (2016) pp. 150-2 (No. 13). In texts from Wasserman, I’ve simplified the editorial presentation and made minor changes in the diction of the English translation. Wasserman’s translation is available online in Sources of Early Akkadian Literature. For an alternate translation, Foster (2005) p. 169.

[2] My Heart Is Awake Though I am Sleeping (The Moussaieff Love Song) (LAOS 4), l. 11, Akkadian transliteration and English translation from Wasserman (2016) pp. 133, 135.

In another Akkadian love song, a woman implores:

Where is my loved one? He is so dear!

{ [e?]-⌈eš?⌉ra-a-mi-i° šu°-qú-úr }

Fs. Renger 192–193, tablet siglum MAH 16056, held Musée d’Art et d’Histoire, Geneva. l. 1, Akkadian transliteration and English translation from Wasserman (2016) pp. 104, 106. She subsequently finds him and enjoys his “bird”:

I have thrown my coop on the young man,
so that I may catch the dove.

{ qú-pí ad-di eṭ-la-am-ma°
ù sú-ka-an-ni-na
⌈lu°⌉-uṣ-ba-at-ma }

Id. ll. 16-8. For an alternate translation of this poem, Foster (2005) pp. 165-6. At least twenty-four love poems in early Akkadian have survived. For an overview, Nissinen (2016).

[3] As literary scholars repeatedly remind readers, women should not abuse men who love them, or any other men. In one ancient Mesopotamian poem, a woman physically assaults a man in order to make him love her. She herself declares:

I have hit your head. I have changed your mood.
Place your mind with my mind!
Place your decision with my decision!

{ am-ta-ḫa-aṣ mu-úḫ-ḫa-ka uš-ta-an-ni ṭe-e-em-ka
šu-uk-nam ṭe-e-em-ka a-na ṭe-e-mi-ia
šu-uk-nam mi-li-ik-ka a-na mi-il-ki-ia }

Place Your Mind with My Mind! (ZA 75, 198–204a), tablet siglum IB 1554, from Isin, preserved in Iraq Museum, Baghdad, ll. 11-3, Akkadian transliteration and English translation from Wasserman (2016) pp. 257-8. A woman in another Old Babylonian poem exalts:

I have hit your head. You keep crawling on the ground towards me like ….
You, like a boar, lay on the ground,
until I gain my victory like a child!

{ am-ta-ḫa-aṣ mu-úḫ-ḫa-ka ki-ma x (x)]-KI-[x x] ta-ap-ta-na-aš-ši-lam qá-aq-qá-[ra-am]
at-ta ki-ma ša-ḫi-i-im qá-aq-qá-ra-am [x x x]
a-di ki-ma ṣé-eḫ-ri-im e-le-eq-qú-ú er-ni-[it-ti] }

I Have Opened for You My Seven Gates! (ZA 75, 198–204i), tablet siglum IB 1554, from Isin, preserved in the Iraq Museum, Baghdad, ll. 109-111, Akkadian transliteration and English translation from Wasserman (2016) pp. 273-4. A woman having power and control over a man is far inferior to her having his true love.

[4] Incantation No. E.1 (KAR 236, KAR 70, KAR 243), ll. 1-11, Akkadian transcription and English translation (modified) from Zisa (2021) pp. 314-5. For an earlier edition, Biggs (1967) pp. 32-3. This incantation is found in tablets dating from the eighth to seventh centuries BGC.

Zisa translated mašgaši as “mašgašu-weapon”: “it is to be understood as a weapon, perhaps a club, and not a pestle.” Zisa (2021) p. 329, n. 557. For ease of reading, above I have used “fighting stick.” While using this conventional violent metaphor, the woman surely regards the man’s penis as delightful, not hurtful.

The term šà.zi.ga (Sumerian) / nīš libbi (Akkadian) literally means “rising of the heart.” It has been understood as meaning “sexual potency.” Biggs (1967) p. 2. It’s better understood as “sexual desire.” Zisa (2021) pp. 37-52. Willed sexual desire isn’t necessary for a man’s sexual potency. Put differently, men sometimes get erections when they don’t want to have an erection. Moreover, men can get raped.

All surviving “sexual desire {nīš libbi}” incantations treat men. Men’s failure in sexual performance is physiologically much more obvious than women’s failure, particularly in instances where the woman and man use common modern contraceptives, e.g. a lubricated condom. Women were actively involved in helping to overcome men’s impotence:

The absence of sexual desire manifests itself in the man, but he is not the only recipient of therapy: the woman is fully involved. The ritual practice has to incorporate all members of the community directly involved, for this reason the woman is an important ritual actor.

Zisa (2021) p. 211. Here’s a collection of Old Babylonian love incantations. For more scholarly work on the important issue of men’s impotence, Hoppe (2016).

Another incantation underscores the woman’s appreciation for the man’s past sexual performance and her current disappointment:

Incantation: Wild ass who is reared-up for mating, who has dampened your desire?
Impetuous horse, whose sexual excitement is a devastating flood, who has bound your limbs?

{ Siptu: akkannu ša ana rakābi tebū [man]nu unihlka]
sisū ezzu ša tībūšu našpan(du m]annu mešrētīka ukassi }

A rev. 12-19 (A.2 / LKA 95 r. 12-19), transliteration and translation (modified) from Zisa (2021) pp. 238-7, with the translation incorporating some more descriptive understanding from Biggs (1967) p. 17.

In another incantation, the woman both implores the man and seeks to allay his anxiety:

Incantation: Copulate! . .. Do not be afraid!
Get an erection! Do not worry!

{ ÉN gu-ru-uš ka-na-a sar e ta-a’-dir
ti-ba-a e ta-šu-uš }

LKA 97 (D ii 18-26 / No. D.4), transliteration and English translation from Biggs (1967) p. 38. Zisa (2001), p. 291, provides a more literal translation. Much more so than in ancient Mesopotamia, men now have reason to worry about having sex with women.

[5] Recognizing objective truth helps to guide progress toward social justice. Zisa claimed:

Any consideration of the “truth” of Mesopotamian medical practices from a biomedical perspective is inappropriate. It is not possible to establish the effectiveness of other medical practices on the basis of (scientific) “truth.”

Zisa (2021) p. 212. Scholars nonetheless commonly claim that “patriarchy” is a true description of gender relations in ancient Mesopotamia. If initiatives purporting to serve public health and social justice don’t recognize the truth of men’s impotence, those initiatives can easily be delusional, unjust, and regressive.

[image] Ancient Roman phallic pendant (fascinus). Cast copper-alloy object made between 43 and 410 GC. Found in Suffolk. Source image via the British Museum’s Portable Antiquities Scheme and Wikimedia Commons.


Biggs, Robert D., ed. and trans. 1967. ŠÀ.ZI.GA: Ancient Mesopotamian Potency Incantations. Locust Valley, N.Y: J.J. Augustin.

Foster, Benjamin R. 2005. Before the Muses: An Anthology of Akkadian Literature. Third Edition. Potomac, MD: CDL Press.

Nissinen, Martti. 2016. “Akkadian Love Poetry and the Song of Songs: A Case of Cultural Interaction.” Pp. 145-170 in L. Hiepel and M-T Wacker , eds. Zwischen Zion und Zaphon: Studien im Gedenken an den Theologen Oswald Loretz. Alter Orient und Altes Testament, vol. 438. Münster: Ugarit-Verlag.

Hoppe, Marius. 2016. Texte zur Behandlung von Impotenz. Doctoral Disseration. Freien Universität Berlin.

Wasserman, Nathan. 2016. Akkadian Love Literature of the Third and Second Millennium BCE. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.

Zisa, Gioele. 2021. The Loss of Male Sexual Desire in Ancient Mesopotamia: Nīš Libbi Therapies. Berlin: De Gruyter.

horrific violence against men: context for Hera’s deception of Zeus

The goddesses and gods in the ancient Homeric Iliad are as deceitful and violent as humans. Hera, the powerful and demonically raging queen-goddess, supported Greek men besieging Troy. Her spouse Zeus, in contrast, aided Trojan men attacking Greek men. Zeus could scarcely control with words Hera’s anger, and he was inferior to her in guile. She deceived and seduced him in order to help Greek men kill Trojan men. Passionate entanglements of ancient Greek divinities, both female and male, push forward the Iliad’s horrific violence against men. Even now, under a much different polytheistic, intersectional religion, many still believe that men don’t deserve mercy.

The god Poseidon, Hera’s brother, intervened directly in the fighting to help Greek men attack Trojan men. He rallied Greek men and led them into battle against Trojan men:

So urging, across the plain Poseidon swept, shouting mightily,
as loud as the cry of nine-thousand men, or ten-thousand men,
in battle as they join in the war god’s strife.
So mighty did Lord Poseidon, Shaker of Earth, shout
from his lungs that in the heart of every Greek man he roused
great strength to war and to fight without ceasing.

{ ὣς εἰπὼν μέγ᾽ ἄϋσεν ἐπεσσύμενος πεδίοιο.
ὅσσόν τ᾽ ἐννεάχιλοι ἐπίαχον ἢ δεκάχιλοι
ἀνέρες ἐν πολέμῳ ἔριδα ξυνάγοντες Ἄρηος,
τόσσην ἐκ στήθεσφιν ὄπα κρείων ἐνοσίχθων
ἧκεν: Ἀχαιοῖσιν δὲ μέγα σθένος ἔμβαλ᾽ ἑκάστῳ
καρδίῃ, ἄληκτον πολεμίζειν ἠδὲ μάχεσθαι. }[1]

From the high peak of Olympus, Hera on her golden throne looked down with joy at her brother Poseidon leading Greek men in killing Trojan men. That’s grotesque.[2] Men’s deaths should be cause for sadness and regret, not joy.

Zeus and Hera seated as co-rulers of the cosmos

From her position of divine privilege, Hera thought only of her side winning. She would do whatever she could to continue the killing of Trojan men:

Zeus was then seated at the topmost peak of Ida with its many springs.
Hera saw him, and he was hateful to her in her heart.

{ Ζῆνα δ᾽ ἐπ᾽ ἀκροτάτης κορυφῆς πολυπίδακος Ἴδης
ἥμενον εἰσεῖδε, στυγερὸς δέ οἱ ἔπλετο θυμῷ. }

Hera felt hate toward her husband Zeus because he would help fleeing Trojan men. Preparing to attack him in his vulnerability, she went to her luxurious bedroom and anointed her lovely body with the soft, rich fragrance of ambrosial oil. Then she armed herself further:

When she had thus anointed her beautiful body,
she combed her hair. With her hands she arranged the shining,
beautiful, ambrosial curls streaming from her immortal head.
Then she clothed herself in an ambrosial robe that Athena
had crafted and smoothed for her, a robe with many embroideries.
At her breast she pinned the robe with brooches of gold.
She circled her waist with a belt of a hundred tassels
and in her pierced ears she put earrings
having triple drops of fine clusters, shining full of grace.
With a covering veil, the beautiful goddess veiled herself,
with a bright, beautiful veil, glistening as white as the sun.
Beneath her shining feet she bound beautiful sandals.

{ τῷ ῥ᾽ ἥ γε χρόα καλὸν ἀλειψαμένη ἰδὲ χαίτας
πεξαμένη χερσὶ πλοκάμους ἔπλεξε φαεινοὺς
καλοὺς ἀμβροσίους ἐκ κράατος ἀθανάτοιο.
ἀμφὶ δ᾽ ἄρ᾽ ἀμβρόσιον ἑανὸν ἕσαθ᾽, ὅν οἱ Ἀθήνη
ἔξυσ᾽ ἀσκήσασα, τίθει δ᾽ ἐνὶ δαίδαλα πολλά:
χρυσείῃς δ᾽ ἐνετῇσι κατὰ στῆθος περονᾶτο.
ζώσατο δὲ ζώνῃ ἑκατὸν θυσάνοις ἀραρυίῃ,
ἐν δ᾽ ἄρα ἕρματα ἧκεν ἐϋτρήτοισι λοβοῖσι
τρίγληνα μορόεντα: χάρις δ᾽ ἀπελάμπετο πολλή.
κρηδέμνῳ δ᾽ ἐφύπερθε καλύψατο δῖα θεάων
καλῷ νηγατέῳ: λευκὸν δ᾽ ἦν ἠέλιος ὥς:
ποσσὶ δ᾽ ὑπὸ λιπαροῖσιν ἐδήσατο καλὰ πέδιλα. }

As beautiful, young immortals, Hera and Zeus had embraced in bed “without their parents knowing {φίλους λήθοντε τοκῆας}.” To recreate that passion, Hera now was dressed to kill. Many men yearn to die with a smile on their face. Men lives should matter more.

Hera knew what she wanted and how to get it. She went to the goddess Aphrodite and said:

Give now to me love and yearning, by which you subdue
all mortal and immortal men.

{ δὸς νῦν μοι φιλότητα καὶ ἵμερον, ᾧ τε σὺ πάντας
δαμνᾷ ἀθανάτους ἠδὲ θνητοὺς ἀνθρώπους. }

Hera mendaciously claimed that she sought to promote peacemaking between her foster father Oceanus and her foster mother Tethys. Mired in endless strife, that couple had sunk into a sexless marriage. Aphrodite readily agreed to help Hera, “for you sleep in the arms of Zeus, the mightiest {Ζηνὸς γὰρ τοῦ ἀρίστου ἐν ἀγκοίνῃσιν ἰαύεις}”:

So Aphrodite spoke and unbound from her breasts an embroidered lappet,
inlaid, fashioned with all manners of allurements.
It held love and desire and seductive talk,
such as steals the senses of even wise men.

{ ἦ, καὶ ἀπὸ στήθεσφιν ἐλύσατο κεστὸν ἱμάντα
ποικίλον, ἔνθα δέ οἱ θελκτήρια πάντα τέτυκτο:
ἔνθ᾽ ἔνι μὲν φιλότης, ἐν δ᾽ ἵμερος, ἐν δ᾽ ὀαριστὺς
πάρφασις, ἥ τ᾽ ἔκλεψε νόον πύκα περ φρονεόντων. }

Hera, truly the mightiest, tucked this lappet between her own breasts. She thus was fully armed to overwhelm Zeus.

Hera and Zeus embracing

Hera went to the god Sleep, the brother of Death. She needed his help to carry out her conspiracy against her husband:

Lull to sleep for me Zeus’s gleaming eyes beneath his brows
as soon as I have laid beside him in love.
I will in turn give you a beautiful throne, forever enduring,
one of gold. Hephaestus, my own son, he with both legs crippled,
will skillfully make it and set beneath a stool for feet.
You may rest your shining feet on that when you drink your wine.

{ κοίμησόν μοι Ζηνὸς ὑπ᾽ ὀφρύσιν ὄσσε φαεινὼ
αὐτίκ᾽ ἐπεί κεν ἐγὼ παραλέξομαι ἐν φιλότητι.
δῶρα δέ τοι δώσω καλὸν θρόνον ἄφθιτον αἰεὶ
χρύσεον: Ἥφαιστος δέ κ᾽ ἐμὸς πάϊς ἀμφιγυήεις
τεύξει᾽ ἀσκήσας, ὑπὸ δὲ θρῆνυν ποσὶν ἥσει,
τῷ κεν ἐπισχοίης λιπαροὺς πόδας εἰλαπινάζων. }[3]

Sleep hesitated. In the past, he put Zeus asleep to help Hera assail her step-son Heracles. But Zeus awoke and furiously attacked both Sleep and Hera. She nonetheless was undaunted. A woman who trafficked in women, Hera sweetened her offer to Sleep:

Come now, do it, and I’ll give you one of the youthful Graces
to marry and be called your wife —
Pasithea, for whom you have been longing all your days.

{ ἀλλ᾽ ἴθ᾽, ἐγὼ δέ κέ τοι Χαρίτων μίαν ὁπλοτεράων
δώσω ὀπυιέμεναι καὶ σὴν κεκλῆσθαι ἄκοιτιν.
Πασιθέην, ἧς αἰὲν ἱμείρεαι ἤματα πάντα. }

Women themselves abuse women. Thrilled with the thought of embracing Pasithea, Sleep immediately agreed. He thus went with Hera to waylay Zeus on Mount Ida.

As soon as Zeus saw Hera, lust for her enveloped his heart. Hera mendaciously claimed that she was going to her foster parents to urge them to put aside their strife and come them together in conjugal embrace. Zeus begged her not to hurry. As if seeking to enact the pattern of Hera’s story about her foster parents, Zeus suggested that they bed down and lose themselves in love. Zeus was so lacking in guile that he described his desire for Hera as now exceeding what he felt in his numerous extra-marital affairs that produced numerous extra-marital children:

Never before has such desire for a goddess or mortal woman
poured around and overpowered the heart within my breast,
not even when I was seized with love for Ixion’s wife,
who gave birth to Peirithous, peer of gods in counsel,
nor when I loved lovely ankled Danaë, Akrisios’s daughter,
who gave birth to Perseus, preeminent above all warriors,
nor when I loved far-famed Phoenix’s daughter,
who gave birth to Minos and godlike Rhadamanthys,
nor when I loved Semele, nor when I loved Alcmene in Thebes,
who gave birth to my son Heracles the stout-hearted,
and Semele gave birth to Dionysus, the joy of mortals,
nor when I loved Demeter, the fair-haired queen,
nor when I loved the glorious Leto, nor yet so much you
as now I love you, for so has sweet desire seized me.

{ οὐ γάρ πώ ποτέ μ᾽ ὧδε θεᾶς ἔρος οὐδὲ γυναικὸς
θυμὸν ἐνὶ στήθεσσι περιπροχυθεὶς ἐδάμασσεν,
οὐδ᾽ ὁπότ᾽ ἠρασάμην Ἰξιονίης ἀλόχοιο,
ἣ τέκε Πειρίθοον θεόφιν μήστωρ᾽ ἀτάλαντον:
οὐδ᾽ ὅτε περ Δανάης καλλισφύρου Ἀκρισιώνης,
ἣ τέκε Περσῆα πάντων ἀριδείκετον ἀνδρῶν:
οὐδ᾽ ὅτε Φοίνικος κούρης τηλεκλειτοῖο,
ἣ τέκε μοι Μίνων τε καὶ ἀντίθεον Ῥαδάμανθυν:
οὐδ᾽ ὅτε περ Σεμέλης οὐδ᾽ Ἀλκμήνης ἐνὶ Θήβῃ,
ἥ ῥ᾽ Ἡρακλῆα κρατερόφρονα γείνατο παῖδα:
ἣ δὲ Διώνυσον Σεμέλη τέκε χάρμα βροτοῖσιν:
οὐδ᾽ ὅτε Δήμητρος καλλιπλοκάμοιο ἀνάσσης,
οὐδ᾽ ὁπότε Λητοῦς ἐρικυδέος, οὐδὲ σεῦ αὐτῆς,
ὡς σέο νῦν ἔραμαι καί με γλυκὺς ἵμερος αἱρεῖ. }

That’s an obtuse way for Zeus to flatter his wife Hera. She hated his strong, independent sexuality. She persecuted the illustrious children he had with other women. Although he was nominal head god in charge of the cosmos, Zeus lacked Hera’s relational sophistication.

In order to advance her conspiracy, Hera pretended not to be insulted by Zeus’s extra-marital affairs. She told him that she was too modest to have sex on Ida’s heights, where others might observe their intercourse. Of course, there’s nothing shameful about a wife having sex with her husband. Zeus promised to envelop their conjugal intercourse with a golden cloud. That happened with the now nearly unimaginable erotica of archaic Greece:

With those words Cronos’s son Zeus clasped his wife in his arms.
Beneath them the bright earth made fresh-sprung grass
and dewy lotus and crocus and hyacinth,
thick and soft, that bedded them on the ground.
There they lay, clothed about with a beautiful
golden cloud. Glistening dew drops fell from it.

{ ἦ ῥα καὶ ἀγκὰς ἔμαρπτε Κρόνου παῖς ἣν παράκοιτιν:
τοῖσι δ᾽ ὑπὸ χθὼν δῖα φύεν νεοθηλέα ποίην,
λωτόν θ᾽ ἑρσήεντα ἰδὲ κρόκον ἠδ᾽ ὑάκινθον
πυκνὸν καὶ μαλακόν, ὃς ἀπὸ χθονὸς ὑψόσ᾽ ἔεργε.
τῷ ἔνι λεξάσθην, ἐπὶ δὲ νεφέλην ἕσσαντο
καλὴν χρυσείην: στιλπναὶ δ᾽ ἀπέπιπτον ἔερσαι. }[4]

Zeus slept with Hera in his arms. Men so dream in love.

Zeus and Hera having sex on Mount Ida

Hera’s conspiracy against Zeus prompted horrific violence against men. The god Sleep immediately rushed to the Greek warships. He urged Poseidon:

Now, Poseidon, earnestly help Greek men
and give them glory, though for a little time while still sleeps
Zeus, since over him I have blanketed soft slumber.
Hera has tricked him to sleep with her in love.

{ πρόφρων νῦν Δαναοῖσι Ποσείδαον ἐπάμυνε,
καί σφιν κῦδος ὄπαζε μίνυνθά περ, ὄφρ᾽ ἔτι εὕδει
Ζεύς, ἐπεὶ αὐτῷ ἐγὼ μαλακὸν περὶ κῶμ᾽ ἐκάλυψα:
Ἥρη δ᾽ ἐν φιλότητι παρήπαφεν εὐνηθῆναι. }[5]

Poseidon went to the front line and ordered Greek men to attack Trojan men. They obeyed that bloodthirsty god:

Not so loudly roars the sea’s surf on the shore,
driven up from the deep by the dread blast of the North Wind,
nor so loud is the roar of blazing fire
when it leaps to burn the forest in mountain glades,
nor so loudly does the wind shriek among the high crests
of the oaks, when the wind roars the loudest in its rage —
as was the sound of Trojan men and Greek men
screaming in attacking each other.

{ οὔτε θαλάσσης κῦμα τόσον βοάᾳ ποτὶ χέρσον
ποντόθεν ὀρνύμενον πνοιῇ Βορέω ἀλεγεινῇ:
οὔτε πυρὸς τόσσός γε ποτὶ βρόμος αἰθομένοιο
οὔρεος ἐν βήσσῃς, ὅτε τ᾽ ὤρετο καιέμεν ὕλην:
οὔτ᾽ ἄνεμος τόσσόν γε περὶ δρυσὶν ὑψικόμοισι
ἠπύει, ὅς τε μάλιστα μέγα βρέμεται χαλεπαίνων,
ὅσση ἄρα Τρώων καὶ Ἀχαιῶν ἔπλετο φωνὴ
δεινὸν ἀϋσάντων, ὅτ᾽ ἐπ᾽ ἀλλήλοισιν ὄρουσαν. }[6]

Greek and Trojan men at battle of Troy fight over dead body of Patroclus

The Greek Telamonian Ajax speared the Trojan Archelochus in the neck. Archelochus fell dead. Archelochus’s brother Acamas then killed the Greek ally Promachus, son of Alegenor. The Greek Peneleos in turn charged Acamas, who ran away. Peneleos then speared the Trojan Ilioneus:

He struck this man beneath the brow at the root of the eye
and drove out the eyeball. The spear went completely through the eye-socket
and the neck’s nape. Ilioneus sank down backward, stretching out both
hands. Peneleos, drawing his sharp sword,
struck mid-neck and cut to the ground the man’s
head with its helmet on. The mighty spear nonetheless remained
in his eye. Lifting the spear high, like the head of a poppy,
Ilioneus’s head he displayed to the Trojans and vaunted over it:
“Trojans, do me a favor and tell Ilioneus’s
dear father and mother to weep for him in their halls,
since the wife of Promachus, son of Alegenor, also will not
rejoice at the arrival of her dear husband when we
Greek sons return in ships from the land of Troy.”

{ τὸν τόθ᾽ ὑπ᾽ ὀφρύος οὖτα κατ᾽ ὀφθαλμοῖο θέμεθλα,
ἐκ δ᾽ ὦσε γλήνην: δόρυ δ᾽ ὀφθαλμοῖο διὰ πρὸ
καὶ διὰ ἰνίου ἦλθεν, ὃ δ᾽ ἕζετο χεῖρε πετάσσας
ἄμφω: Πηνέλεως δὲ ἐρυσσάμενος ξίφος ὀξὺ
αὐχένα μέσσον ἔλασσεν, ἀπήραξεν δὲ χαμᾶζε
αὐτῇ σὺν πήληκι κάρη: ἔτι δ᾽ ὄβριμον ἔγχος
ἦεν ἐν ὀφθαλμῷ: ὃ δὲ φὴ κώδειαν ἀνασχὼν
πέφραδέ τε Τρώεσσι καὶ εὐχόμενος ἔπος ηὔδα:
εἰπέμεναί μοι Τρῶες ἀγαυοῦ Ἰλιονῆος
πατρὶ φίλῳ καὶ μητρὶ γοήμεναι ἐν μεγάροισιν
οὐδὲ γὰρ ἣ Προμάχοιο δάμαρ Ἀλεγηνορίδαο
ἀνδρὶ φίλῳ ἐλθόντι γανύσσεται, ὁππότε κεν δὴ
ἐκ Τροίης σὺν νηυσὶ νεώμεθα κοῦροι Ἀχαιῶν. }[7]

Sex need not be associated with violence. Hera’s sexual deception of Zeus, however, is deeply enmeshed in horrific violence against men. Mothers and fathers, wives and sisters and brothers, all should notice and care about violence against men.[8]

War has long been gender-instituted as violence against men. In the ancient Greek Iliad, both female and male gods show little concern for men’s lives as they push forward horrific violence against men. Even in our time of intense concern about gender equality, men’s deaths in war typically generate no thought about gender injustice. That terrible failure of reason indicates fertile soil for war.

Achilles in battle at Troy tramples Hector's dead body

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[1] Homer, Iliad 14.147-52, ancient Greek text and English translation (modified) from Murray (1924). The Chicago Homer provides a useful resource for studying the ancient Greek text of the Iliad.

Subsequent quotes above are similarly sourced. They are Iliad 14.157-8 (Zeus was then seated at the topmost peak of Ida…), 14.175-86 (When she had thus anointed her beautiful body…), 14.296 (without their parents knowing), 14.198-9 (Give now to me love and yearning…), 14.213 (for you sleep in the arms of Zeus, the mightiest), 14.214-7 (So Aphrodite spoke and unbound from her breasts…), 14.236-41 (Lull to sleep for me Zeus’s gleaming eyes…), 14.267-9 (Come now, do it, and I’ll give you one of the youthful Graces…), 14.315-28 (Never before has such desire for a goddess or mortal woman…), 14.346-51 (With those words Cronos’s son Zeus clasped his wife in his arms…), 14.357-60 (Now, Poseidon, earnestly help Greek men…), 14.357-60 (Not so loudly roars the sea’s surf…), 14.493-505 (He struck this man beneath the brow…).

[2] Hera is highly significant in the Iliad:

her unremitting lust for vengeance provides the divine model for the inhuman excesses of the final battle books {of the Iliad}. … Hera is prominent as a savage goddess who, in Zeus’ words ({Iliad} 4.34ff), lusts to “raw-eat” the flesh of Priam and of all Troy. This Hera is, finally, to triumph over the divine pity which Zeus comes to represent. The lust for raw-eating or omophagia, applied to her in Book 4, is the epic’s primary image of moral degeneration, just as a meal roasted and shared with others is the primary metaphor for the best of human behavior.

O’Brien (1990) p. 106. Zeus berated the war-god Ares as being like his mother Hera:

You have the unbearable, overpowering rage of your mother,
Hera. With my words I can scarcely control her.

{ μητρός τοι μένος ἐστὶν ἀάσχετον οὐκ ἐπιεικτὸν
Ἥρης: τὴν μὲν ἐγὼ σπουδῇ δάμνημ᾽ ἐπέεσσι }

Iliad 5.892-3. Zeus calls Hera “incorrigible {ἀμήχανε}.” Iliad 15.14. Exasperated with her manipulation and abuse of him, Zeus tells her, “surely there’s no more bitch-like one than you {οὐ σέο κύντερον ἄλλο}.” Iliad 8.483.

Hera isn’t subordinate to Zeus. Although they have different personalities, Hera and Zeus are equal partners and equal in honor. Pirenne-Delforge, Pironti & Guess (2022) pp. 1-4, 21-2. Hera and Zeus have a “productive antagonism {antagonisme productif}.” Pironti (2017) p. 83. Hera is “Zeus’ staunch competitor for influence and power.” McCall (2013) p. 35. The modern myth of ancient Greek patriarchy has grossly distorted understanding of Hera:

Hera is the most under-appreciated deity in the pantheon of Homer’s Iliad. Inseminating mortals with thoughts and understanding the secret plans of Zeus, Hera proves to be a goddess of the mind. Hera’s characteristic sphere of action is the phrénes, the realm of physiological, emotional, and intellectual activity. Hera’s own creative vision enlarges the imaginative scope of the epic – for her noetic mode of seeing brings unity to what is otherwise disparate and heterogeneous, including the community of gods themselves. In effect, Homer’s Hera solves the political riddle of Hesiod’s Theogony and thus stabilizes the Olympian regime.

Ali (2015), Abstract.

[3] The god Sleep (Hypnos / Ὕπνος) was then on the island of Lemnos under the rule of King Thoas. Scholars have questioned why Sleep was on Lemnos. Hunter (2021) pp. 66-72. Bringing Hera to Lemnos in her conspiracy against her husband associates her with the husband-killing Lemnian women. Virgil, a perceptive reader of the Iliad, similarly included the husband-killing Danaids on Pallas’s sword-belt.

[4] Hera and Zeus embraced on a meadow filled with flowers: “this is a youthful, secret, and extremely eroticised union.” Pirenne-Delforge, Pironti & Guess (2022) p. 34. The imagery evokes the life-giving potential of men’s sexuality:

With the cloud to cover them, the earth, unasked, throws up a carpet of spring flowers beneath the lovers, as if inspired by their divine potency and fecundated by the gleaming dew that drips down; this is a bold phrase, since we are not told outright that the dew comes from the cloud!

Janko (1994) p. 206. Scholars have seen in the story of Hera’s deception of Zeus influence of ancient eastern literature, including literature of ancient Mesopotamia, including Gilgamesh’s catalog of Ishtar’s lovers. No such influence is necessary to account for any aspect of the story. Kelly (2008).

Ancient adherents of traditional Greco-Roman religion disparaged Hera’s deception of Zeus in the Iliad. Arguing that the Iliad and the Odyssey should be banned from the ideal city, Plato regarded the story of Hera’s deception of Zeus as not “conducive to being under self-control {ἐπιτήδειον εἶναι πρὸς ἐγκράτειαν ἑαυτοῦ}.” Plato, Republic 3.390b. Plato’s teacher Socrates similarly sought to suppress discussion of castration culture.

Underscoring men’s vulnerable position in relation to women, Plutarch objected to Hera overly beautifying herself:

when she picks up those gold brooches and finely wrought earrings, and, lastly, turns to the witchery of Aphroditê’s magic band, it is plainly a case of overdoing things and of wanton conduct unbecoming to a wife.

{ ὅταν δὲ τὰς χρυσᾶς περόνας ἀναλαμβάνῃ καὶ τὰ διηκριβωμένα τέχνῃ ἐλλόβια καὶ τελευτῶσα τῆς περὶ τὸν κεστὸν ἅπτηται γοητείας, περιεργία τὸ χρῆμα καὶ λαμυρία μὴ πρέπουσα γαμετῇ γέγονεν. }

Plutarch, Moralia, Book 8, Table Talk {Quaestiones convivales / Συμποσιακά} 6.693c, ancient Greek text and English translation from Clement & Hoffleit (1969). Men typically don’t object to women beautifying themselves as long as women do so not at men’s expense and beautify themselves solely and sincerely to motivate men’s sexual labor on behalf of women.

[5] Zeus himself complained bitterly of Hera’s deceptions. After recounting his fury at her guileful persecution of his extra-marital son Heracles, Zeus told Hera:

I remind you again of these matters, so that you will cease your deceptions.
Don’t think that you will be protected by love-making in bed with me,
as when you came from among the gods and deceived me.

{ τῶν σ᾽ αὖτις μνήσω ἵν᾽ ἀπολλήξῃς ἀπατάων,
ὄφρα ἴδῃ ἤν τοι χραίσμῃ φιλότης τε καὶ εὐνή,
ἣν ἐμίγης ἐλθοῦσα θεῶν ἄπο καί μ᾽ ἀπάτησας. }

Iliad 15.31-3.

[6] This accumulating simile formally parallels Zeus’s expressed desire to have sex with Hera. It underscores the connection that the Iliad makes between women’s sexual manipulation of men and epic violence against men. On the men-obscuring translation of these verses in Wilson (2023), see note [9] in my post of Thetis’s plea to Zeus for Achilles.

[7] While showing no gendered concern for horrific violence against men, modern scholars have interpreted the Iliad with anachronistic, tendentious language of extreme violence. A peer-reviewed, scholarly article tendentiously and absurdly depicted Hera as a wife abused into compliance to her husband. This article claimed that “a paramount aspect of the relationship between Zeus and Hera” is “terrorism by physical abuse on the part of the husband and the compliant surrender of the wife.” Synodinou (1987) p. 22. Cf. e.g. O’Brien (1990), Pirenne-Delforge, Pironti & Guess (2022) pp. 1-4, 21-2, and Ali (2015).

Hera participated in a conspiracy to overthrow Zeus, the nominal head god in charge of the cosmos. Iliad 1.396-412. Hera’s deception of Zeus sexually is plausibly interpreted as another instance of treason:

Hera poses a challenge to Zeus and his ‘plan’, one that has undertones of the succession motif with all its entailed violence and destruction.

Garcia (2013) p. 205. Treason throughout history has typically entailed harsh punishment. Zeus scarcely punishes Hera for her attempted treason. Zeus’s physical threats against Hera have much less effect than the horrific violence against men in the Iliad.

In her introductory essay to her translation of the Iliad, Wilson describes women captured in war as enslaved and raped. Both Achilles and Agamemnon are thus an “enslaving rapist” in relation to Briseis. Wilson (2023) p. xlviii. The Iliad text itself provides no evidence that Achilles and Agamemnon treated Briseis worse than they did men who were subordinate to them. Achilles in his emotional simplicity seems to have been affectionately attached to Briseis. Moreover, being enslaved and raped is a grotesquely misleading characterization of Helen’s status in relation to Paris. More generally, captive women such as Ausonius’s Bissula had extensive freedom, high status, and high welfare, especially relative to men brutally killed in war. The relation of classical Arabic caliphs to their slave-girls provides more insight into captured women in the Iliad than does modern ideas of women enslaved and raped. Such violent language invokes oppressive, sexist stereotypes of rape, and supports vastly gender-disproportionate incarceration of men.

[8] Scholars haven’t adequately appreciated the significance of Hera’s deception of Zeus in the context of epic violence against men in Iliad 14. Ancient scholars labeled this story “the deception of Zeus {Dios apate / Διὸς ἀπάτη}.” Janko (1994) p. 149. They thus elided Hera, the vitally significant actor who deserves blame for her deception of Zeus. A leading modern scholarly commentary on the Iliad states:

The Deception of Zeus is a bold, brilliant, graceful, sensuous and above all amusing virtuoso performance, wherein Homer parades his mastery of the other types of epic composition in his repertoire. Its merits have made this episode all the more offensive to those, from Xenophanes and Plato (Rep. 3.390c) onward, who do not expect gods to take part in a bedroom farce. Many of the ancients tried to explain it as an allegory… .

Janko (1994) p. 168. In its context of epic violence against men, Hera’s deception of Zeus is much more significant than merely “bedroom farce.” A scholar without any apparent concern for gender observed:

Thus the despair of the heroic generals in the first scene of book 14 and the cruel deaths in battle of brave warriors in the third episode of that book are powerful indications of the pathos of the human condition; and what makes that pathos especially poignant and unbearable is the fact that while men are dying so pitifully, Hera and Zeus, without a thought or care for the deep distress of humanity, enjoy a romantic mountain top tryst amid all the pleasurable trappings of lust and seduction.

Golden (1989) p. 8. The pathos and distress that provides the context for Hera’s deception of Zeus particularly affects men. That pathos and distress poignantly indicates gender injustice that men endure with little social concern.

[images] (1) Zeus and Hera (Jupiter and Juno) seated as co-rulers of the cosmos. Painted by Cornelis de Vos in 1635. Preserved as accession # 5122 in Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten Antwerpen (KMSKA) {Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp}. Via Wikimedia Commons. A painting by Frans Wouters in 1635 is similar. (2) Hera and Zeus embracing. Painted by Frans Christoph Janneck in the eighteenth century. Via Wikimedia Commons. (3) Zeus and Hera having sex on Mount Ida. Painted by James Barry in the 1790s. Preserved as accession # VIS.2742 in the Graves Art Gallery (Sheffield, England). Via Wikimedia Commons. (4) Greek and Trojan men at Troy fight over dead body of Patroclus. Painted by Antoine Wiertz in the nineteenth century. Via Wikimedia Commons. (5) In battle at Troy, Achilles tramples Hector’s dead body. Painted by Antonio Raffaele Calliano in 1815 for the throne room of the Royal Palace of Caserta {Reggia di Caserta} in Southern Italy. Via Wikimedia Commons.


Ali, Seemee. 2015. “Seeing Hera in the Iliad.” CHS Research Bulletin. 3(2).

Clement, P. A. and H. B. Hoffleit, ed. and trans. 1969. Plutarch. Moralia, Volume VIII: Table-Talk, Books 1-6. Loeb Classical Library 424. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1969.

Garcia, Lorenzo F., Jr. 2013. Homeric Durability: Telling Time in the Iliad. Hellenic Studies Series 58. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

Golden, Leon. 1989. “Διἐς Ἀπάτη and the Unity of Iliad 14.” Mnemosyne. 42(1-2): 1–11.

Hunter, Richard. 2021. “Some Problems in the ‘Deception of Zeus.’Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies. 64(1): 59–72.

Janko, Richard. 1994. The Iliad: A Commentary. Vol. 4: Books 13-16. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kelly, Adrian. 2008. “The Babylonian Captivity of Homer: The Case of the Διοσ Απατη.” Rheinisches Museum für Philologie, Neue Folge. 151(3/4): 259-304. Alternate online source.

McCall, Joshua B. 2013. Plot and Power in the Iliad. Master of Arts Thesis, University of Georgia.

Murray, A. T., trans. Revised by William F. Wyatt. 1924. Homer. Iliad. Loeb Classical Library 170 and 171. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Alternate source for Murray’s translation.

O’Brien, Joan. 1990. “Homer’s Savage Hera.” The Classical Journal. 86(2): 105–25.

Pirenne-Delforge, Vinciane, Gabriella Pironti, Raymond Geuss. 2022. The Hera of Zeus: Intimate Enemy, Ultimate Spouse. Classical Scholarship in Translation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Originally published in 2016 as Héra de Zeus (Paris: Les Belles Lettres). Review by Patricia Johnston.

Pironti, Gabriella. 2017. “De l’éros au récit: Zeus et son épouse.” Chapter 3 (pp. 63-83) in Gabriella Pironti & Corinne Bonnet, eds. Les dieux d’Homère. Polythéisme et poésie en Grèce ancienne. Presses universitaires de Liège. Alternate online source.

Synodinou, Katerina. 1987. “The Threats of Physical Abuse of Hera by Zeus in the Iliad.” Wiener Studien. 100: 13–22.

Wilson, Emily R., trans. 2023. Homer. The Iliad. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.

considering suicide, Felice feared for her husband Guy of Warwick

Penal systems vastly disproportionately punish persons with penises. Awareness of that grotesque social injustice deterred the medieval heroine Felice from committing suicide in the romance Guy of Warwick {Gui de Warewic}. As that romance makes clear, meninist consciousness saves lives.

Felice’s husband was Guy of Warwick. He fell into gyno-idolatry for her. She spurred him into the men-killing folly of chivalry. He eventually repented of that grave sin. He then decided to leave his pregnant wife Felice in order to seek his own godly salvation. In short, he was clueless about true love and acted like a complete jerk toward his wife Felice.

Felice, in contrast, loved her husband Guy despite his egregious behavior. Perhaps she appreciated that she had done grave wrong to him. In any case, she was extremely distraught at him leaving her:

“God,” she said, “what will I do,
since I’ll lose my husband,
the person I have most loved in the world?
And how will I be able to live?”
Then she fell swooning to the ground.
Such sorrow you never saw a woman make —
tearing her clothes and pulling out her hair.
There was large doubt about her continuing to live.
She wrung her hands, which were white,
such that she broke the rings on her fingers
and in her fingers blood appeared.
Enduring tenuous life that night,
she never stopped swooning and weeping.
She continuously lamented her good husband.

{ “Deu!,” fait ele, “que ferai,
Quant mun seignur perderai,
La ren del mund qu plus amai?
E jo coment vivre purrai?”
Atant chet pasmé a la tere,
Tel duel ne veistes femmes faire:
Ses dras depecer, ses crins detraire,
De sa vie ert grant arveire;
Ses mains detort, qui blanches erent,
Que les anels des deiz depecerent,
Par sum de deiz le sanc parut,
Dure vie demena la nuit;
De pasmer e plurer ne fina,
Sun bon seignur tutdis regretta. }

In leaving his pregnant wife, Guy of Warwick wasn’t a good husband. Felice, however, loved him till death do them part:

Now she took a sword
and pulled it out from its scabbard.
Then she said that she would kill herself
since she had lost her husband.
She put the sword close to her heart.
Thereupon she thought
that she was doing great folly.
Was she not pregnant with a child?
She could not kill herself
without the child having to die.

{ Atant ad pris une espee,
De l’eschalberc l’ad sachee;
Puis ad dit qu’ele se ocirad,
Quant sun seignur perdu ad.
Endré sun quor l’espee mis ad,
Quant ele dunc se purpensad
Qu’ele fesit folie grant:
Dune ert ele enceinte d’enfant?
Oscire pas ne se purreit,
Que l’enfant morir n’estovereit. }

The famous Queen Dido of Carthage killed herself and the child in her womb. Felice was more compassionate. Medieval Christians regarded suicide as a grave sin. Felice, in contrast, didn’t kill herself for the sake of the child in her womb.

She also didn’t kill herself for the sake of her husband Guy of Warwick. She astutely reasoned:

If she killed herself in that way
when the count, her father,
and her mother and her friends
and all the people of the country knew of it,
at once they would think that her husband
had killed her in madness,
and for this cause he had fled.

{ S’ele se oscie en tel manere,
Quant le savera le cunte, sun pere,
E sa mere e ses amis
E la gent de tut le pais,
Tost quidereient que sun seignur
Oscise l’avreit par folur,
E pur ço fui s’en serreit }

Men are vastly gender-disproportionately accused of crimes. Unlike so many persons today, Felice recognized criminal gender injustice. She didn’t want another man, her husband Guy of Warwick, to be wrongly criminalized. Men’s lives mattered to her.

Felice and Guy of Warwick in hermitage in which they died

Women’s lives are vitally important to men. That’s reason for any woman not to commit suicide. Many other reasons exist for women not to commit suicide. In the righteous medieval romance Gui de Warewic, the heroine Felice realized that men tend to get blamed for crimes. She didn’t want her husband Guy of Warwick to be blamed for murder if she committed suicide. Such praiseworthy meninist consciousness truly can save women’s lives.

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The Anglo-Norman verse romance Guy of Warwick {Gui de Warewic}, which might be regarded as a proto-meninist work, 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).

Immediately after describing Felice’s concern that Guy would be accused of murder if she committed suicide, the narrator declares: “Otherwise for sure she would have killed herself {Altrement pur veir s’oscireit}.” Gui de Warewic, v. 7770.

The quotes from Gui de Warewic show the Old French (Anglo-Norman) edition of Ewert (1933) and my English translation, benefiting from that of Weiss (2008). The online Anglo-Norman Dictionary and atilf’s Dictionnaire du Moyen Français (1330-1500) are helpful for translating the text. The quotes in the main text are vv. 7739-52 (“God,” she said…), 7753-62 (Now she took a sword…), and 7763-9 (If she killed herself in that way…).

[image] Felice and Guy of Warwick in hermitage in which they died. Woodblock print from Rowland (1701) p. 30.


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.

Zeus should have rejected Thetis’s plea for her son Achilles

After raging at King Agamemnon, the mighty warrior Achilles gave up his beautiful, beloved Briseis and sat alone on the beach. He looked upon the endless sea and wept. Then he did what men of all ages do in desperation:

With outstretched hands he earnestly prayed to his dear mother:
“Mother, since you bore me to be a man with a short life,
honor surely should be given into my hands by the Olympian —
Zeus who thunders on high. But now he has honored me not even a little.
For truly the son of Atreus, wide-ruling Agamemnon,
has dishonored me. He has arrogantly seized my prize and keeps her.”

{ πολλὰ δὲ μητρὶ φίλῃ ἠρήσατο χεῖρας ὀρεγνύς:
μῆτερ ἐπεί μ᾽ ἔτεκές γε μινυνθάδιόν περ ἐόντα,
τιμήν πέρ μοι ὄφελλεν Ὀλύμπιος ἐγγυαλίξαι
Ζεὺς ὑψιβρεμέτης: νῦν δ᾽ οὐδέ με τυτθὸν ἔτισεν:
ἦ γάρ μ᾽ Ἀτρεΐδης εὐρὺ κρείων Ἀγαμέμνων
ἠτίμησεν: ἑλὼν γὰρ ἔχει γέρας αὐτὸς ἀπούρας. }[1]

In medieval Europe, the most powerful person was Mary, the mother of Jesus. Whether it was a thief facing execution or a wayward cleric, Mary offered help to everyone. In archaic Greece, Achilles’s mother Thetis was merely a goddess. Nonetheless, Thetis cared enough for her son Achilles to dress him in women’s clothing to try to preserve him from the massive slaughter of men in the horrific Trojan War. Of course she would comfort Achilles in his rage:

His mother came, sat beside him as he wept,
stroked him with her hand, and called him by name:
“Child, why do you weep? What sorrow has come upon your heart?
Tell me! Do not hide it in your mind. Say it, so that we both may know.”

{ καί ῥα πάροιθ᾽ αὐτοῖο καθέζετο δάκρυ χέοντος,
χειρί τέ μιν κατέρεξεν ἔπος τ᾽ ἔφατ᾽ ἔκ τ᾽ ὀνόμαζε:
τέκνον τί κλαίεις; τί δέ σε φρένας ἵκετο πένθος;
ἐξαύδα, μὴ κεῦθε νόῳ, ἵνα εἴδομεν ἄμφω. }

Men of all ages and stations have the name “child {τέκνον}” to their mothers. Men don’t even know what’s on their agitated minds until their mothers cox them into speaking it. But men at least know that mothers know everything:

Then groaning heavily, Achilles, swift of foot, spoke to her:
“You know. Why should I tell these matters to you who know all?”

{ τὴν δὲ βαρὺ στενάχων προσέφη πόδας ὠκὺς Ἀχιλλεύς:
οἶσθα: τί ἤ τοι ταῦτα ἰδυίῃ πάντ᾽ ἀγορεύω }

That’s a sensible question. Thetis remained silent. Achilles then remembered that he shouldn’t question his mother. He thus told her about the matters that had caused him to rage and weep.

Because men regard mothers as all-powerful, men typically don’t pray to their mothers by invoking a mutual exchange of favors, as they would pray to a mere goddess or god in ancient Greece. Men simply implore their mothers for help against those hurting them. Achilles said to his mother Thetis:

But you, if you have the power, come to your son’s aid!
Go to Olympus and plead with Zeus, if ever before
you have warmed his heart by word or deed.

{ ἀλλὰ σὺ εἰ δύνασαί γε περίσχεο παιδὸς ἑῆος:
ἐλθοῦσ᾽ Οὔλυμπον δὲ Δία λίσαι, εἴ ποτε δή τι
ἢ ἔπει ὤνησας κραδίην Διὸς ἠὲ καὶ ἔργῳ. }

Zeus was Thetis’s former boyfriend. He left her because of a prophecy about her getting pregnant. The child claimed against his mother “you said”:

Often I have heard in my father’s halls
you boasting, declaring that you alone among the immortals
pushed aside shameful destruction for Zeus of dark mists, Cronos’s son,
that day when other Olympians thought to bind him —
that is Hera, Poseidon, and Pallas Athena.
But you, goddess, came and freed him from his bonds,
having quickly called to high Olympus the hundred-hander,
whom the gods call Briareus, but all men call
Aegaeon. He is mightier than his father Poseidon.
Exalting in this glory, Briareus sat down beside Cronos’s son Zeus,
and the blessed gods were frightened. They did not bind Zeus.
Now remind Zeus of this. Sit besides him and clasp his knees
in the hope that he might be minded to help the Trojans,
that he might pin the Achaeans between their ships’ sterns and the sea.
Dying, then they would have fitting reward for their own king.
Then Atreus’s son, wide-ruling Agamemnon, would know his
madness, for he honored not at all the best of the Achaeans.

{ πολλάκι γάρ σεο πατρὸς ἐνὶ μεγάροισιν ἄκουσα
εὐχομένης ὅτ᾽ ἔφησθα κελαινεφέϊ Κρονίωνι
οἴη ἐν ἀθανάτοισιν ἀεικέα λοιγὸν ἀμῦναι,
ὁππότε μιν ξυνδῆσαι Ὀλύμπιοι ἤθελον ἄλλοι
Ἥρη τ᾽ ἠδὲ Ποσειδάων καὶ Παλλὰς Ἀθήνη:
ἀλλὰ σὺ τόν γ᾽ ἐλθοῦσα θεὰ ὑπελύσαο δεσμῶν,
ὦχ᾽ ἑκατόγχειρον καλέσασ᾽ ἐς μακρὸν Ὄλυμπον,
ὃν Βριάρεων καλέουσι θεοί, ἄνδρες δέ τε πάντες
Αἰγαίων᾽, ὃ γὰρ αὖτε βίην οὗ πατρὸς ἀμείνων:
ὅς ῥα παρὰ Κρονίωνι καθέζετο κύδεϊ γαίων:
τὸν καὶ ὑπέδεισαν μάκαρες θεοὶ οὐδ᾽ ἔτ᾽ ἔδησαν.
τῶν νῦν μιν μνήσασα παρέζεο καὶ λαβὲ γούνων
αἴ κέν πως ἐθέλῃσιν ἐπὶ Τρώεσσιν ἀρῆξαι,
τοὺς δὲ κατὰ πρύμνας τε καὶ ἀμφ᾽ ἅλα ἔλσαι Ἀχαιοὺς
κτεινομένους, ἵνα πάντες ἐπαύρωνται βασιλῆος,
γνῷ δὲ καὶ Ἀτρεΐδης εὐρὺ κρείων Ἀγαμέμνων
ἣν ἄτην ὅ τ᾽ ἄριστον Ἀχαιῶν οὐδὲν ἔτισεν. }

Thetis wept in sympathy with her son. She lamented that he was doomed to a short life since he had shed his women’s clothes. He shouldn’t have to suffer additional grief. She told him that she would intercede with Zeus for him.

Fulfilling Achilles’s prayer, Thetis persuasively and persistently implored Zeus. Thetis used orthodox gestures of supplication and the typical bargaining practice of ancient Greek prayer:

She sat down in front of him and laid hold of his knees
with her left hand. With her right, she clasped him beneath the chin.
Begging lord Zeus, son of Cronos, she said:
“Father Zeus, if ever among the immortals I aided you
in word or deed, grant what I wish.
Give honor to my son, who will go to his death more swiftly than all
mortals. Put dishonor on Agamemnon, lord of men,
for by his own arrogant act he took and keeps my son’s prize.
Uphold honor for my son, Olympian Zeus, lord of counsel.
Give might to the Trojans, but only until the Achaeans
show respect to my son and honor him by making amends.”

{ καί ῥα πάροιθ᾽ αὐτοῖο καθέζετο, καὶ λάβε γούνων
σκαιῇ, δεξιτερῇ δ᾽ ἄρ᾽ ὑπ᾽ ἀνθερεῶνος ἑλοῦσα
λισσομένη προσέειπε Δία Κρονίωνα ἄνακτα:
Ζεῦ πάτερ εἴ ποτε δή σε μετ᾽ ἀθανάτοισιν ὄνησα
ἢ ἔπει ἢ ἔργῳ, τόδε μοι κρήηνον ἐέλδωρ:
τίμησόν μοι υἱὸν ὃς ὠκυμορώτατος ἄλλων
ἔπλετ᾽: ἀτάρ μιν νῦν γε ἄναξ ἀνδρῶν Ἀγαμέμνων
ἠτίμησεν: ἑλὼν γὰρ ἔχει γέρας αὐτὸς ἀπούρας.
ἀλλὰ σύ πέρ μιν τῖσον Ὀλύμπιε μητίετα Ζεῦ:
τόφρα δ᾽ ἐπὶ Τρώεσσι τίθει κράτος ὄφρ᾽ ἂν Ἀχαιοὶ
υἱὸν ἐμὸν τίσωσιν ὀφέλλωσίν τέ ἑ τιμῇ. }[2]

Thetis prayed that Zeus would temporarily give strength to Achilles’s enemies to dishonor Agamemnon and bring honor to Achilles. That’s much more complicated than praying for immortality for Achilles. Zeus remained silent for long. Nonetheless, she persisted. Thetis presented herself as a classic “poor dear,” but with a menacing undertone:

Yet Thetis, just as she had clasped his knees,
held on to him, clinging close to him, and asked again a second time:
“Promise this now to me without fail, and bow your head to it.
Or refuse it, for there’s nothing to make you afraid. Then I will know
well by how much I am the least honored among the gods.”

{ … Θέτις δ᾽ ὡς ἥψατο γούνων
ὣς ἔχετ᾽ ἐμπεφυυῖα, καὶ εἴρετο δεύτερον αὖτις:
νημερτὲς μὲν δή μοι ὑπόσχεο καὶ κατάνευσον
ἢ ἀπόειπ᾽, ἐπεὶ οὔ τοι ἔπι δέος, ὄφρ᾽ ἐῢ εἰδέω
ὅσσον ἐγὼ μετὰ πᾶσιν ἀτιμοτάτη θεός εἰμι. }

Zeus had much to fear. According to Achilles, Zeus’s wife Hera, along with Poseidon and Pallas Athena, had sought to overthrow him. In context, Thetis seems to be implying by apophasis that Zeus has reason to fear, not Hera, but her if he refused her plea.

Thetis supplicating Zeus on behalf of her son Achilles in the Iliad

Zeus didn’t dare to refuse Thetis’s plea. He bowed his head to her as she requested. He, however, feared Hera in acquiescing to Thetis:

This surely will be deadly work, since you will send me into strife
with Hera when she provokes me with her taunting words.
Even as it is, constantly among the immortal gods she
reproaches me and says that I aid the Trojans in battle.

{ ἦ δὴ λοίγια ἔργ᾽ ὅ τέ μ᾽ ἐχθοδοπῆσαι ἐφήσεις
Ἥρῃ ὅτ᾽ ἄν μ᾽ ἐρέθῃσιν ὀνειδείοις ἐπέεσσιν:
ἣ δὲ καὶ αὔτως μ᾽ αἰεὶ ἐν ἀθανάτοισι θεοῖσι
νεικεῖ, καί τέ μέ φησι μάχῃ Τρώεσσιν ἀρήγειν. }

Zeus was the head god in charge of the cosmos. He of course didn’t rule the goddesses around him. Like so many men in nominal positions of leadership throughout history, he did what goddesses told him to do.

Women’s power over men comes at a cost. Thetis coercing Zeus into empowering the Trojans to press a devastating attack upon the Greeks sets in motion the massive slaughter of men in the Iliad. The Trojan attack led to Patroclus’s death in battle and to Achilles rejoining the fighting on the Greek side. Instead of helping Achilles to seek honor, Thetis might have encourage him to go home, never again engage in violence against men, and to take up weaving with young women. Then Achilles would have had a longer and more humane life. Instead, Thetis pleaded for a Trojan attack. Women are deeply implicated in epic violence against men.

Women’s power over men can hurt women. In the largely lost Aethiopis of the ancient Greek Epic Cycle, the goddess of dawn Eos is a parallel figure to Thetis. Both Eos and Thetis in the Aethiopis gain immortality for their sons Memnon and Achilles, respectively.[3] In the Iliad, the foretold death of Achilles is the normal, brutal end for a warrior. Achilles’s short life and forthcoming death grieves his mother Thetis immensely. With much better access to literature now lost, subsequent poetry extensively developed the “dawn song.” That type of song tells of the dawn separating a loving woman and man. Powerful and inexorable, the goddess of dawn Eos raped men. The separation of women and men in love, along with men being raped, is an unspoken horror that Thetis, through her mythic association with Eos, includes in the Iliad.[4] The harm to women of separating them from men they love surely should be of social concern.

Venus supplicating Jupiter in Virgil's Aeneid

With his keen insight into women’s power, Virgil recognized that men must not allow women to have unlimited power. In a succession myth preserved only in the Iliad, Thetis prevented the destruction of Zeus’s divine order by deploying the hundred-handed man-giant Briareus to Zeus’s side. In the Aeneid, Virgil transformed Thetis’s appeal to Zeus into Venus’s appeal to Jupiter. Paralleling the poor-dearism that Thetis used so effectively with Zeus, Venus went “unusually sorrowful and with eyes brimming with tears {tristior et lacrimis oculos suffusa nitentis}” to Jupiter.[5] She begged him for help for her son Aeneas and the Trojans. What man wouldn’t seek to serve Venus? Jupiter kissed Venus on the lips and comforted her. He promised that Aeneas would found in Italy a Roman Empire without end. Jupiter foretold a reign of peace:

Grim with their iron and close-fitting bars,
the Gates of War will be closed. Within them, unholy rage,
sitting upon savage weapons, hands bound behind its back with a hundred
bronze shackles, will roar — a horror with blood-stained lips.

{ … dirae ferro et compagibus artis
claudentur Belli portae; Furor impius intus,
saeva sedens super arma, et centum vinctus aenis
post tergum nodis, fremet horridus ore cruento. }[6]

Rather than preserving the divine order as did Briareus, this hundred-shackled monster represents savage, bloody civil strife. It’s “ghastly Discordia {Discordia taetra},” gendered through Homeric allusion.[7] The hundred-shackled monster is best understood as the “rage {μῆνῐς}” of Thetis, who controlled Zeus and Briareus.[8] In Virgil’s view, confining her rage, like recognizing the wickedness of the husband-killing Danaids, is necessary to ward off destruction and promote civic peace.

Zeus should have dared to say “no” to Thetis and to defy her power over him. He should have rejected her plea for him to strengthen a Trojan attack on the Greeks. If Zeus had refused Thetis, he would have saved the lives of many Trojan and Greek men. He would have helped Achilles to live a longer life. Zeus undoubtedly found Thetis sexually attractive, as Jupiter did Venus. Men in relation to women must acquire the capability to think with the head connected to the neck closest to their arms. Women’s support is of course essential for men’s nominal rule. Yet men must strive to be more than merely instruments of women’s will and pleasure. The Aeneid acutely represents gender trouble. Like women leaders, the god Zeus lacked concern for men’s lives.[9]

* * * * *

Read more:


[1] Homer, Iliad 1.351-6, ancient Greek text and English translation (modified) from Murray (1924). The Chicago Homer provides a useful resource for studying the ancient Greek text of the Iliad.

Achilles’s prayer to his mother Thetis differs from typical prayers to goddesses and gods in Homeric poetry. Achilles doesn’t declare specific favors he has done for his mother to deserve a reciprocal favor from her. In his opening prayer, he doesn’t even ask for a favor from her. He implicitly seeks from her sympathy for the wrong he has endured. As a technical matter, Achilles’s prayer is followed by the description “he spoke shedding tears {ὣς φάτο δάκρυ χέων}” rather than the typical Homeric form “he spoke praying {ὣς ἔφατ᾿ εὐχόμενος}.” Muellner (1976) p. 23, cited in Slatkin (1991) pp. 62-3, in reference to Iliad 1.357. Cf. Iliad 1.351 above. Not fully understanding men’s relation to their mothers has led to misinterpretation:

his prayer is substandard … Achilles is less a man addressing a goddess than a god addressing a goddess or, which is similar, a man addressing his mother who happens to be a goddess.

Muellner (1976) p. 23. Achilles’s prayer isn’t “substandard.” It’s readily recognized as a standard form for men praying to their mothers. Moreover, men characteristically regard their mothers as goddesses. That isn’t mere happenstance. Learned classicists have missed the obvious, enduring character of Achilles’s prayer to his mother Thetis. See, e.g. Tsagalis (2008), Chapter 10.

Subsequent quotes from the Iliad are similarly sourced. Those above are Iliad 1.360-3 (His mother came…), 1.364-5 (Then groaning heavily, Achilles…), 1.393-5 (But you, if you have the power…), 1.396-412 (Often I have heard in my father’s halls…), 1.500-10 (She sat down in front of him…), 1.512-6 (Yet Thetis, just as she had clasped his knees…), 1.518-21 (This surely will be deadly work…).

[2] On touching the chin as a conventional practice in ancient Greek supplication, Naidan (2006) pp. 47, 52, 58, 95. Athena rejects Theano’s supplication on behalf of the Trojan women by raising her chin (head):

She spoke in prayer, but Pallas Athene refused, throwing her head back.

{ ὣς ἔφατ ̓ εὐχομένη, ἀνένευε δὲ Παλλὰς Ἀθήνη. }

Iliad 6.311, ancient Greek text and English translation, with related discussion, from Brouillet (2019).

[3] On the parallel between Eos and Thetis in the Epic Cycle, Slatkin (1991) pp. 21-31. The Aithiopis / Aethiopis is attributed to Arctinus of Miletus. According to Proclus’s summary of the Aithiopis:

Memnon, the son of Tithonus and the Dawn, wearing armor made by Hephaestus and accompanied by a large force of Ethiopians, arrives to assist the Trojans. Thetis prophesies to her son about the encounter with Memnon. When battle is joined, Antilochus is killed by Memnon, but then Achilles kills Memnon. And Dawn confers immortality upon him after prevailing on Zeus. … {Paris and Apollo then kill Achilles} … Then the Achaeans bury Antilochus, and lay out the body of Achilles. Thetis comes with the Muses and her sisters, and laments her son. And presently Thetis snatches her son from the pyre and conveys him to the White Island.

{ Μέμνων δὲ ὁ Τιθωνοῦ καὶ Ἠοῦς υἱὸς ἔχων ἡφαιστότευκτον πανοπλίαν μετὰ πολλῆς Αἰθιόπων δυνάμεως παραγίνεται τοῖς Τρωσὶ βοηθήσων· καὶ Θέτις τῶι παιδὶ τὰ κατὰ τὸν Μέμνονα προλέγει. καὶ συμβολῆς γενομένης Ἀντίλοχος ὑπὸ Μέμνονος ἀναιρεῖται, ἔπειτα Ἀχιλλεὺς Μέμνονα κτείνει· καὶ τούτωι μὲν Ἠὼς παρὰ Διὸς αἰτησαμένη ἀθανασίαν δίδωσι. … ἔπειτα Ἀντίλοχόν τε θάπτουσι καὶ τὸν νεκρὸν τοῦ Ἀχιλλέως προτίθενται. καὶ Θέτις ἀφικομένη σὺν Μούσαις καὶ ταῖς ἀδελφαῖς θρηνεῖ τὸν παῖδα· καὶ μετὰ ταῦτα ἐκ τῆς πυρᾶς ἡ Θέτις ἀναρπάσασα τὸν παῖδα εἰς τὴν Λευκὴν νῆσον διακομίζει. }

Proclus, Chrestomathy, Aithiopis, with additions from Apollodorus, The Library, ancient Greek text and English translation (with editorial marks eliminated) from West (2003) pp. 110-4. Here’s Gregory Nagy’s translation. The White Island is the Land of the Blessed, an alternate fate to going to Hades. On Thetis thus conferring immortality on Achilles, Davies (2016) pp. 76-7.

[4] In the Odyssey, Calypso compares her capture and raping of Odysseus to Eos’s raping of Orion. Odyssey 5.121-4. Calypso offered Odysseus immortality in exchange for continually raping him. The first priority for a goddess, whether Thetis or Calypso, should be to prevent violence against men, whether that violence be the rape of men or epic killing of men. Immortality is hardly a blessing for men continually enduring violence in their lives. Cf. Slatkin (1991) pp. 42-3.

[5] Virgil, Aeneid 1.228, Latin text of Greenough (1900) and my English translation, benefiting from that of Fairclough & Gould (1999). Dickinson College Commentary and the Vergil Project are useful resources for studying the Latin text of the Aeneid. Like Zeus’s solicitousness toward Thetis, and Jupiter’s toward Venus, Vulcan’s armor-making service for Venus is a canonical example of yes-dearism.

[6] Aeneid 1.293-6, sourced as previously. The Aeneid explicitly refers to Aegaeon (Briareus) in a simile for the raging Aeneas:

Like Aegaeon, said to have a hundred arms
and a hundred hands, flashed fire from fifty mouths
and breasts when against Jove’s thunder bolts
he rumbled with an equal number of shields and bared as many swords,
so Aeneas over the whole plain rages victoriously
once his blade warms.

{ Aegaeon qualis, centum cui bracchia dicunt
centenasque manus, quinquaginta oribus ignem
pectoribusque arsisse, Iovis cum fulmina contra
tot paribus streperet clipeis, tot stringeret enses:
sic toto Aeneas desaevit in aequore victor
ut semel intepuit mucro. … }

Aeneid 10.565–70, sourced as previously.

The Hundred-Handers {Hecatoncheires / Ἑκατόγχειρες} were three male-gendered giants named Briareus / Aegaeon, Cottus, and Gyges. See, e.g. Hesiod, Theogony vv. 147–153. The most prominent Hundred-Hander was Briareus.

[7] Ennius, Annals, Book VII: “after ghastly Discordia / shattered the ironbound posts and gates of War {postquam Discordia taetra / Belli ferratos postes portasque refregit}.” Frag. 225, Latin text and English translation (adapted) from Golberg & Manuwald (2018).

Virgil apparently followed the Punic War {Bellum Poenicum} of the third-century BGC Roman epic poet Naevius in depicting Venus’s appeal to Jupiter:

In Book 1 of the Aeneid a storm is described, and Venus complains to Jupiter about the dangers her son faces, and Jupiter comforts her by telling her that her posterity will flourish. All of this is taken from Book 1 of Naevius’ Punic War: there too Venus complains to Jupiter while the Trojans are beset by a storm, and after her complaint Jupiter comforts her by speaking of her posterity’s great expectations.

{ in primo Aeneidos tempestas describitur, et Venus apud Iovem queritur de periculis filii, et Iuppiter eam de futurorum prosperitate solatur. hic locus totus sumptus a Naevio est ex primo libro belli Punici. illic enim aeque Venus, Troianis tempestate laborantibus, cum Iove queritur, et sequuntur verba Iovis filiam consolantis spe futurorum. }

Macrobius, Saturnalia 6.2.31, Latin text and English translation from Kaster (2011). Since the Iliad was widely known, both Naevius and Virgil would have recognized the parallel betweren Thetis’s appeal to Zeus and Venus’s appeal to Jupiter. Moreover, the dialogue between Juno and Jupiter about Turnus threatening Aeneas in Aeneid 10.464-73 alludes to the dialogue between Hera and Zeus about Patroclus’s impending killing of Sarpedon in Iliad 16.431–45. It subsequently influenced Ovid, Metamorphoses 15.803-15. Casali (2023). On Homer’s classical influence more generally, Nagy (2008).

[8] On the “rage {μῆνῐς}” of Thetis, Slatkin (1991), Chapter 3, “The Wrath of Thetis.” Slatkin translated “μῆνῐς,” the word that begins the Iliad in reference to Achilles, as “wrath.”

[9] In interpreting the Iliad, classical scholars have typically normalized the gender of the persons slaughtered, obscured the vastly gender-disproportionate violence against men, and ignored the implications for men’s welfare. The goddess Thetis is thus made into a hero like the man Achilles:

the Iliad reminds us of Thetis’s mythology, through allusions to her power and through emphasis on the reciprocity of achos {grief} that she and Achilles share — his Iliadic and hers meta-Iliadic — in order to assert the meaning of human life in relation to the entire cosmic structure: in order to show that cosmic equilibrium is bought at the cost of human mortality. The alternative would mean perpetual evolution, perpetual violent succession, perpetual disorder.

Slatkin (1991) p. 103. The cost of cosmic equilibrium isn’t massively gender-disproportionate violence against men. Other social orders are possible.

Epic violence against men should be explicitly recognized. Ending violence against men should be a measure of literature and a concern of critical analysis. Instead, men’s deaths are obscured in abstractions: “the Iliad is a poem that uses mass human death to explore the nature of immortality.” Hanink (2023). The Iliad isn’t about “mass human death.” It’s about mass killing of men. Translators of the Iliad have lacked concern for men as a gender. Consider this translation:

louder than all of these, the Greeks and Trojans
let out their terrifying screams and cries
as they attacked each other.

{ ὅσση ἄρα Τρώων καὶ Ἀχαιῶν ἔπλετο φωνὴ
δεινὸν ἀϋσάντων, ὅτ᾽ ἐπ᾽ ἀλλήλοισιν ὄρουσαν. }

Iliad 14.400-1, ancient Greek text of Murray (1924), English translation of Wilson (2023). The persons killing each other weren’t merely “Greeks” (Achaeans) and “Trojans”:

louder than all of these, Greek men, Trojan men
let out their terrifying screams and cries
as they attacked each other.

To promote continued study of classics, classics must explicitly recognize and appreciate men as a gender. Meninist literary criticism is wholly lacking in respected classical publications. That’s poignantly apparent in the wide-ranging documentation of scholarly power in studying Thetis. Paprocki, Vos & Wright (2023).

[images] (1) Thetis supplicating Zeus on behalf of her son Achilles in Iliad 1.500-10. Oil on canvas painting by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres in 1811. Preserved in the Musée Granet (Aix-en-Provence, France). Via Wikimedia Commons. In the eighteenth century, Anton Losenko painted Thetis supplicating Zeus. (2) Venus supplicating Jupiter in Aeneid 1.229-53. Excerpt from woodcut illustration on folio 133r in Brant (1502) (“Strasbourg Vergil”) via Dickinson College Commentaries.


Brant, Sebastian, ed. 1502. Publii Virgilii Maronis Opera cum quinque vulgatis commentariis expolitissimisque figuris atque imaginibus nuper per Sebastianum Brant superadditis. Strasbourg: Johannis Grieninger.

Brouillet, Manon. 2019. “A statue who shakes her head no.” Classical Inquiries. Guest Post. June 5, 2019.

Casali, Sergio. 2023. “The Books of Fate: The Venus-Jupiter Scene in Ovid’s Metamorphoses 15 and Its Epic Models.” Chapter 17 (pp. 386-41) in Joseph Farrell, John F. Miller, Damien Nelis, and Alessandro Schiesaro, eds. Ovid, Death and Transfiguration. Mnemosyne, Supplements, Volume: 465. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.

Davies, Malcolm. 2016. The Aethiopis: Neo-Neoanalysis Reanalyzed. Hellenic Studies Series 71. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

Fairclough, H. Rushton, revised by G. P. Goold. 1999. Virgil. Eclogues. Georgics. Aeneid: Books 1-6. Loeb Classical Library 63. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Golberg, Sander M. and Gesine Manuwald, ed. and trans. 2018. Fragmentary Republican Latin, Volume I: Ennius, Testimonia. Epic Fragments. Loeb Classical Library 294. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018.

Hanink, Johanna. 2023. “She Reeled Us In With The Odyssey. Now: The Hard Stuff.” Slate. Posted online Sept. 26, 2023.

Kaster, Robert A. trans. 2011. Macrobius. Saturnalia. Loeb Classical Library 510-512. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Muellner, Leonard. 1976. The Meaning of Homeric εὔχομαι through its Formulas. Innsbruck: Inst. für Sprachwiss. d. Univ. Innsbruck. Review by Evelyne Cosset.

Murray, A. T., trans. Revised by William F. Wyatt. 1924. Homer. Iliad. Loeb Classical Library 170 and 171. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Alternate source for Murray’s translation.

Nagy, Gregory. 2008. Homer the Classic. Hellenic Studies Series 36. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

Naiden, F. S. 2006. Ancient Supplication. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Paprocki, Maciej, Gary Vos, and David John Wright. 2023. The Staying Power of Thetis: Allusion Interaction and Reception from Homer to the 21st Century. Sovereign of the Sea: the Staying Power of Thetis in the Greco-Roman World and Beyond (Conference). Berlin: De Gruyter.

Slatkin, Laura M. 1991. The Power of Thetis: Allusion and Interpretation in the Iliad. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. Alternate presentation. Review by Andrew Becker. For a reprint with additional essays, Slatkin (2011). For scholars’ follow-up volume, Paprocki, Vos & Wright (2023).

Slatkin, Laura. 2011. The Power of Thetis and Selected Essays. Hellenic Studies Series 16. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

Tsagalis, Christos. 2008. The Oral Palimpsest: Exploring Intertextuality in the Homeric Epics. Hellenic Studies Series 29. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

West, Martin L., ed. and trans. 2003. Greek Epic Fragments: From the Seventh to the Fifth Centuries BC. Loeb Classical Library 497. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wilson, Emily R., trans. 2023. Homer. The Iliad. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.

Gilgamesh rejected marriage to Ishtar to favor Martu & Amorites

The goddess Ishtar, earlier known as Inanna, dominated Uruk in ancient Mesopotamia. The high-level description of Uruk in the Epic of Gilgamesh distinguishes Ishtar’s temple and characterizes it as half the size of the city itself. Moreover, Ishtar was the Queen of Heaven and also an important figure in the Underworld. This goddess sought to marry the beautiful and manly Gilgamesh, King of Uruk. As the reigning divinity of Uruk, she potentially offered him favor in kingly rule, war, and sex. Mesopotamian history, however, led to the reign of the god Martu and the tribal Amorites. Underscoring that shift in divinities, Gilgamesh decisively rejected marriage to the goddess Ishtar.

Ishtar insisted on marrying Gilgamesh after gazing upon him regally dressed. Gilgamesh and his intimate friend Enkidu had killed the fearsome Humbaba in the Cedar Forest. When they returned to Uruk, Gilgamesh washed his hair, put on regal clothing, and donned his crown. Ishtar saw him:

The lady Ishtar gazed with desire upon Gilgamesh’s beauty.
“Come, Gilgamesh, you be the bridegroom.
Grant me your sexual fruits, I insist!
You will be my husband, and I will be your wife.”

{ ana dumqi ša gilgāmeš īnī ittaši rubūtu ištar
alkam-ma gilgāmeš lū ḫāʾer‡ attā
inbīka yâši qâšu qīšam-ma
attā lū mutī-ma anāku lū aššatka }[1]

Like the heroines Rigmel and Lenburc in the twelfth-century Old French Roman de Horn, Ishtar directly indicated her interest in having sex with a man, and she proposed marriage to him. Few men have ever objected to a woman respectfully asking to have sex with him, assuming she isn’t requiring him to pay her for sex. Moreover, most men would prefer that a woman propose marriage to him, even if she doesn’t do so on her knees like a feudal serf. In short, men generally don’t favor women’s sexual privilege.[2]

In addition to indicating that he would not suffer a sexless marriage with her, Ishtar offered Gilgamesh material luxuries if he became her husband. Most men would prefer to pursue personal fulfillment while their wives supported them materially. Ishtar apparently offered that appealing marital situation to Gilgamesh:

Let me harness for you a chariot of lapis lazuli and gold,
whose wheels are gold and whose horns are amber.
You shall have in harness storm-lion monsters, huge mules.
Come into our house with scents of cedar!
When you come into our house,
doorway and throne shall kiss your feet.
Kings, courtiers, and nobles shall bow down beneath you,
to you they shall bring produce of mountain and lowland as tribute,
and your nanny goats shall bear triplets and your ewes, twins.
Your young donkey under load shall outpace a mule,
your horse at the chariot shall gallop majestically,
and at the yoke your ox shall gain no rival.

{ lušaṣmidka narkabta uqnâ u ḫurāṣa
ša magarrūša ḫurāṣum-ma elmēšu qarnāša
lū ṣamdāta ūmī kūdanī rabûti
ana bītīni ina sammât erēni erba
[an]a bītīni ina erēbīka
sippu arattû linaššiqū šēpīka
lū kamsū ina šaplīka šarrū kabtūtu u rubû
[kala? li]qit šadî u māti lū našûnikka bilta
enzātūka takšî laḫrātūka tūʾamī līlidā
mūrka ina bilti parâ libāʾa
sīšû ina narkabti lū šaruḫ lasāma
[a]lapka ina nīri šānina ai irši‡ }

What a wonderful marriage proposal! Could it be too good to be true? Was Ishtar actually seeking to lure Gilgamesh to his death?[3]

Man of Larsa in ancient Sumer making an offering to Amurru (Martu) for Hammurabi's life

Given Ishtar’s prominence in Uruk, Gilgamesh knew about her amorous history. Ishtar was renowned as a kind and generous prostitute. Kindness and generosity are very desirable attributes in a spouse. Gilgamesh, however, knew the details of Ishtar’s non-commercial amorous engagements:

To Dumuzi the husband of your youth,
to him you have allotted perpetual weeping, year after year.

You loved the shepherd, the cattle-grazer, the herdsman.
He regularly piled up for you bread baked in embers,
and he slaughtered young goats for you every day.
You struck him and turned him into a wolf,
so his own shepherd boys drive him away,
and his dogs take bites at his thighs.

{ ana dumuzi ḫāmiri ṣu[ḫr]ētīki
šatta ana šatti bitakkâ taltīmīššu

tarāmī-ma rēʾâ nāqida utulla
[ša k]ayyānam-ma tumrī išpukakki‡
ūmišam-ma uṭabbaḫakki unīqēti‡
taḫmaṣīšū-ma ana barbari tutterrīšu
uṭarradūšu kaparrū ša ramnīšu
u kalbūšu unaššakū šaprīšu‡ }

Ishtar even had lengthy love affairs with animals — a bird, a lion, and a horse, which is endowed like a donkey. Unlike Gilgamesh’s intimate friend Enkidu, Ishtar treated non-human animals badly. Gilgamesh foresaw himself in the story of Ishtar’s relationship with Ishullanu:

You loved Ishullanu, your father’s gardener.
He regularly brought you a basket of dates,
and daily made your table gleam.
You gazed at him with desire and went up to him and said:
“O my Ishullanu, let me taste your sexual power.
Put out your hand and stroke my vagina!”
Ishullanu spoke to you:
“Me! What do you want of me?
Did my mother not bake? Did I not eat?
Am I to eat bread of insults and curses?
Shall I let rushes be my covering against the cold?”
You heard what he said.
You struck him and turned him into a toad-like dwarf.
You sat him in the midst of his labors, yet now
he cannot climb up a date tree, and he cannot lower a water bucket.

{ tarāmī-ma išullānu nukarib abīki
ša kayyānam-ma šugurrâ našâkki
ūmišam-ma unammaru paššūrki
īna tattaššîšum-ma tattalkīššu
išullānî kiššūtaki i nīkul
u qātka šūṣâm-ma‡ luput ḫurdatni
išūllānu iqabbīki
yâši mīnâ terrešīnn[i]
ummī lā tēpâ anāku lā ākul
ša akkalu akla pišāti u errēti
ša kuṣṣi elpetu kutummūʾa
attī tašmê-ma annâ qabâšu
tamḫaṣī ana dallali tu[tterrīšu]
tušēšibīšū-ma ina qabal māna[ḫātīšu]
ul ēlû miḫḫi ul ārid … […] }

Ishtar’s father was the moon god Nanna. As merely a gardener, Ishullanu apparently felt that he would be cursed and dismissed for having sex with the moon god’s daughter. With her sense of sexual entitlement and her anger at a status-inferior rejecting her sexual advance, Ishtar condemned Ishullanu to a fate worse than opprobrium and poverty. Especially given lack of social concern about women sexually harassing men, many men acquiesce to powerful women’s insistent sexual demands.

Defying the established order in Uruk, Gilgamesh dared to reject the goddess Ishtar’s marriage proposal. He refused to become another man or non-human animal that Ishtar, the reigning goddess of Uruk, tormented and made miserable:

And you would love me and transform me as you did to the others?

{ u yâši tarammīnnī-ma kī šâšunu t[utarrīnni] }

A wise and outspoken man who consciously valued his sexual appeal, Gilgamesh refused to cow to Ishtar’s insistent demand. To the contrary, he vehemently disparaged this powerful goddess:

Why would I marry you?
You are frost useless for making ice,
slatted door that doesn’t block breezes or drafts,
palace that massacres warriors,
elephant that pulls down her coverings,
pitch that stains the hands of its bearer,
water-skin that dirties the hands of its bearer,
boulder that smashes a wall of stone,
battering ram that destroys walls of enemy land,
a shoe that bites the foot of its owner!

{ [… ana kâš]i? aḫḫazki
[… lā kāṣira]t šurīpi
dalat arkab[inni ša lā i]kallû šāra u zīqa
ēkallu munapp[iṣat] qarradī
pīru […] kutummīšu
ittû muṭ[a]ppil[at qāt?] nāšîša
nādu [mur]assât? [(…)] nāšîša
pīlu … […] … dūr abni
yašubû muʾabbit[at] d[ūr?] māt nukurti
šēnu munaššikat šēpī bēlīša }

Men throughout history have commonly endured vigorous invective, including invective attacking their sexuality and threatening them with castration. Gilgamesh is distinctive in directing similarly vigorous invective at a preeminent goddess, Ishtar.

Gilgamesh’s invective against Ishtar moves beyond earlier invective against the foreign god Martu. Martu was constructed as the god of the Amorites: tribal persons whose food, drink, clothing, and practices differed greatly from those of Uruk residents. The Sumerian myth Marriage of Martu tells of Martu asking his mother to find him a wife. His mother refused this traditional, very important, motherly role:

By the goddess, my son, I will give you advice. May my advice be heeded!
I shall say a word to you. You should pay attention to it.
Marry a wife of your choice —
marry a wife of your heart’s desire.

{ dsu-he-/nun\-[na-ju10] [na]/ga\-e-/ri\ na-/ri\-[ju10 he2-dab5]
inim ga-[ra-ab-dug4inim-ju10-ce3 jectug2-zu]
igi il2-la-zu dam[du12-ba-ni-ib]
cag4-ge gur7-zu dam[du12-ba-ni-ib] }[4]

A festival was then being held in the city. The god Numucda was there with his daughter Adjar-kidug. At this festival, Martu distinguished himself as a champion wrestler. Numucda in response offered Martu silver and jewels. Martu, however, preferred marriage to Numucda’s daughter Adjar-kidug. Numucda demanded extensive marriage gifts. Martu provided those gifts. He was thus positioned to marry Adjar-kidug. But one of her girlfriends disparaged him and his fellow Amorites:

Now listen! Their hands are destructive, and their features are those of monkeys.
He is one who eats what Nanna forbids, and he does not show reverence.
They never stop roaming about places.
They are an abomination to the gods’ dwellings.
Their ideas are confused. They cause only disturbance.
He is clothed in sack-leather.
He lives in a tent, exposed to wind and rain, and he cannot properly recite prayers.
He lives in the mountains and ignores the places of gods.
He digs up truffles in the foothills, he does not know how to bend the knee,
and he eats raw flesh.
He will have no house during his life,
and when he dies he will not be carried to a burial-place.
My girlfriend, why would you marry Martu?

{ a2-ce cu-bi ha-lam ulutim2 /ugu\[ugu4-bi]
an-zil-gu7 dnanna-[kam] ni2 nu-[tuku]
cu dag-dag-ge-bi X […]
[nij2]-/gig\ e2 dijir-re-e-ne-[kam]
[jalga]-/bi\ mu-un-lu3-lu3 cu [suh3-a dug4-ga]
/lu2\ /kuc\lu-ub2 mu4-a […]
/za\-/lam\-jar til3 im im-cej3-[ja2 …] sizkur [nu-mu-un-dug4-ga]
hur-saj-ja2 tuc-e ki-[dijir-re-ne nu-zu-a]
lu2 /uzu\-dirig kur-da mu-un-ba-al-la dug3 gam nu-zu-am3
uzu nu-cej-ja2 al-gu7-e
ud til3-la-na e2 nu-tuku-a
ud ba-ug7-a-na ki nu-tum2-mu-dam
ma-la-ju10 dmar-tu ta-am3 an-du12-du12-un }[5]

Adjar-kidug ignored what her sniping girlfriend said about the man she loved. Adjar-kidug simply responded assertively, “I will marry Martu! {dmar-[tu]/ga\-ba-an-du12-du12 }.” Martu and the Amorites thus gained social status within a Sumerian city.

Gilgamesh similarly challenged the established order, not by accepting a vehemently disparaged marriage, but by vehemently rejecting an apparently appealing marriage. About 2005 BGC, the Third Dynasty of Ur and its constituent city Uruk fell to invaders called Amorites. Amorites subsequently ruled Uruk for centuries through the Dynasty of Isin and the Old Babylonian Empire. Marduk, who probably evolved from Martu, became the national god of the Babylonians. The revered king Hammurabi, who reigned as the sixth king of the Old Babylonian Empire from 1792 to 1750 BGC, called himself an Amorite. Hammurabi championed worship of Martu / Marduk. Across Mesopotamian history, the god Martu probably replaced the goddess Ishtar as the most important divinity in Uruk. Gilgamesh vehemently rejecting marriage to Ishtar plausibly expressed in myth the historical rise of Martu and the Amorites.[6]

The goddess Ishtar wasn’t willing to accept amorous rejection from Gilgamesh, neither graciously nor at least according to literalist-fundamentalist “no means no” dogma. She was furious at Gilgamesh for rejecting her. Weeping, she went to heaven to plead with Antu and Anu, her divine parents. Knowing that women’s tears particularly influence men, Ishtar in tears pleaded to her father Anu:

O father, Gilgamesh has been heaping abuse on me.
Gilgamesh kept recounting things that insult me,
things that insult and revile me.

{ abī gilgāmeš itta[zzar]anni‡
gilgāmeš undenn⇠p[išātī]ya
pišātīya u errētīya }

Anu wisely inquired about the specifics of the situation. Ishtar ignored his question and insisted on getting what she wanted:

O father, give me the Bull of Heaven
that I may slay Gilgamesh within his gates.
If you won’t give me the Bull of Heaven,
I’ll smash the Underworld with its gates,
and to the world below I’ll grant manumission.
I’ll bring up the dead to consume the living.
I’ll make the dead outnumber the living.

{ abī alâ bīnam-ma
gilgāmeš lunēr[u i]na šubtīšu
šum[ma] alâ l[ā t]addan[a]
amaḫḫaṣ [danni]na? adi šubtīšu
ašak[ka]n … […] ana šaplāt[i]
ušellâm-ma [mī]tūti ikkalū ba[lṭ]ūti
eli balṭūti ušamʾad mītūti }

Anu hesitated. The Bull of Heaven (Gugalanna) was the first husband of Ishtar’s sister Ereshkigal, the Queen of the Underworld. Anu worried that if the Bull of Heaven were released, Uruk as a whole would suffer. Ishtar insisted that she needed the Bull of Heaven to kill Gilgamesh. The father naturally acquiesced to his daughter’s demand. He gave her the reins of the Bull of Heaven.

Ishtar released the Bull of Heaven on Uruk to kill Gilgamesh. The bull scorched the woodlands, the marshland, and the reeds. It lowered the water-line of the river. With snorts it opened up pits that engulfed three hundred men of Uruk. With another snort the bull sank Gilgamesh’s intimate friend Enkidu into a pit up to his waist. Enkidu then devised a plan to assail the bull together with Gilgamesh. Together they killed the fearsome, rampaging Bull of Heaven, the spouse of Ishtar’s sister.

Enkidu then enacted symbolically the change in reigning deity of Uruk. Ishtar wailed:

Woe to Gilgamesh, who vilified me, who killed the Bull of Heaven!

{ allû gilgāmeš ša uṭappilanni alâ iddūku }

Ishtar had sent the Bull of Heaven to kill Gilgamesh! Furious at Ishtar’s viciousness, refusal of responsibility, and cursing, Enkidu mythically indicated that her reign was over:

Enkidu heard this speech of Ishtar.
He ripped the penis off the Bull of Heaven and threw it down before her.
“You too, had I caught you, I would have treated you like it!
I would have draped its guts on your arms!”

{ išmē-ma enkīdu annâ qabê‡ ištar
išluḫ imitti alê(m-ma) ana pānīša‡ iddi‡
u (ak)kâši lū akšudki kī šâšū-ma lū ēpuški‡
errīšu lū ālula ina aḫīki }[7]

Castration culture is deeply entrenched in human history. Here Enkidu alluded to the change in divine reign from Anu to Kumarbi in the ancient Hurrian Song of Emergence:

Kumarbi assaulted him from behind,
and he grabbed Anu by the feet,
and he dragged him down from heaven.
He bit his male genitals,
and Anu’s manhood fused with Kumarbi’s heart like bronze.
When Kumarbi swallowed down Anu’s manhood,
he rejoiced,
and he laughed.

{ EGIR-an-da-aš-ši ša-li-ga-aš dku-mar-bi-iš
na-an GÌRMEŠ e-ep-ta da-nu-un
na-an-kán ne-pí-ša-⌈az⌉ kat-ta ḫu-it-ti-⌈et⌉
pár-ši-nu-uš-šu-⌈uš⌉ wa-ak-ki-iš
⌈LÚ-na⌉-tar-še-et-kán A-NA dku-mar-bi ŠÀ-⌈ŠU⌉ an-⌈da⌉ ZABAR
ma-a-an dku-mar-bi-iš ŠA d⌈a⌉-nu LÚ-⌈na⌉-tar kat-ta pa-aš-ta
na-aš-za du-uš-kit9-ta
na-aš-⌈za⌉ ḫa-aḫ-ḫar-aš-⌈ta⌉ }[8]

Sexual violence against men shouldn’t be regarded as a laughing matter. Kumarbi, a major Hurrian god, corresponds to the Akkadian god Enlil. In Tablet 11 of the Epic of Gilgamesh, Uta-napishti told Gilgamesh about Enlil nearly washing away humanity with a great flood. Gilgamesh had journeyed to Uta-napishti to find the secret of eternal life. Enkidu, in castrating the Bull of Heaven and flinging its penis at Ishtar, perpetuated the reign of castration culture while challenging the reign of Ishtar. Enkidu made a terrible mistake. Men’s genitals are essential to the eternal life of humanity.

Bilgames / Gilgamesh castrating the Bull of Heaven

For all the sexual privilege she put forward in relation to Gilgamesh, Ishtar at least appreciated the vital importance of penises. She didn’t merely react with personal anger at Enkidu hurling the Bull of Heaven’s penis at her. She mourned the general catastrophe of castration culture:

Ishtar assembled the courtesans, prostitutes, and whores.
She instituted mourning over the Bull of Heaven’s penis.

{ uptaḫḫir‡ ištar kezrēti (šamḫāti) u ḫarimāti
ina muḫḫi imitti (ša) alê bikīta iškun }

As medieval European works such as Piers Plowman indicate, many wives also appreciate their husbands’ penises. Ishtar failed to mention those women. However, prostitutes in ancient Mesopotamia typically treated men well. Prostitutes themselves are worthy women to mourn a inert penis.

Gilgamesh didn’t understand Enkidu’s terrible wrong in mutilating the Bull of Heaven’s genitals. In a council of great gods, Enlil condemned Enkidu, but not Gilgamesh, to death. Both were responsible for killing Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven. Only Enkidu, however, was guilty of mutilating the Bull of Heaven’s genitals.

Gilgamesh nonetheless couldn’t understanding why Enkidu must die. Gilgamesh incongruously admired the magnificent thickness of the Bull of Heaven’s horns. He hung them in his bedroom. Those horns are a trifling thing compared to the splendor of a penis fully functioning as part of a male’s loving body. In cutting off the Bull of Heaven’s horns, Gilgamesh wrongly aligned himself with Enkidu’s castration of the Bull of Heaven.[9]

Death for men comes through castration, not from outspokenly rejecting a goddess’s marriage proposal. Scholars haven’t recognized a ruling goddess insisting on marriage to one of her subjects is tantamount to sexual harassment. Men shouldn’t be forced into marriage out of a sense of duty to their city or their society. Yet a scholar in our benighted age has accused Gilgamesh of a “royal crime” in rejecting Ishtar, or perhaps in not speaking properly to her:

The degree to which Gilgamesh mismanages Uruk’s relationship with Ishtar makes it the most egregious of his royal crimes. Not only does he fail to pay homage to Ishtar; he insults her bitterly. His crime is not simply turning down a marriage proposal; Gilgamesh endangers the entire city with his insults. Ishtar reacts by unleashing the Bull of Heaven and had the heroes not managed to kill it, it would probably have laid waste to Uruk. Gilgamesh’s behavior is the opposite of what was expected of a responsible ruler.[10]

That is today’s common, peculiar standard for judging crimes. The goddess can do no wrong. Her seeking to kill Gilgamesh, and in the process destroy Uruk, isn’t a royal crime.[11] The egregious crime that justifies Ishtar’s murderous action is that Gilgamesh insulted her. Is it any wonder that penal systems today predominately punish persons with penises? Is it any wonder that men suffer about a six-year life-expectancy shortfall relative to women? According to this much-lauded Gilgamesh book published by Yale University Press, responsible men merely accept the goddess’s oppressive rule. Gilgamesh heroically didn’t.

Castration, even of the dead Bull of Heaven, is a deadly wrong in the Epic of Gilgamesh. Nonetheless, at the heights of intellectual life today, castration is scarcely a wrong relative to insulting a goddess:

Nowhere is Gilgamesh’s self-destructive character clearer than in his rejection of Ishtar. Why does he turn down her offer of marriage? Surely, the insatiable hero must have been tempted by the goddess of sex. … what is striking about it is the spite with which it is delivered. Even if Gilgamesh had good reasons to decline Ishtar’s offer, it was hardly a tactful way to do so, and Enkidu only adds to the insult by throwing the Bull’s penis in her face.[12]

Men will not achieve equality with women until men are free to insult goddesses. Men should feel free to insult goddesses with all the invective richness that men and women use in insulting men.

Gilgamesh rejecting Ishtar’s insistent marriage proposal and vibrantly insulting her symbolizes the change in rule in Uruk from the goddess Ishtar to the foreign god Martu. The Epic of Gilgamesh teaches that men need not always have the status of Amorite-foreigners in woman-centric society. Change in rule can come. But for men and women together to realize the promise of eternal human life, fundamental political change must also wash away castration culture.

* * * * *

Read more:


[1] Epic of Gilgamesh, Standard Babylonian (literary Akkadian) version, 6.6-9 (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.

Ishtar’s marriage proposal to Gilgamesh is included in the Sumerian poem Gilgameš and the Bull of Heaven (t. George (2003) p. 471-2. Ishtar’s marriage proposal apparently wasn’t part of the earliest Akkadian version of the Epic of Gilgamesh. Abusch (1986) pp. 180-1.

Subsequent quotes from the Epic of Gilgamesh are similarly sourced from the Standard Babylonian version. I modify George’s English translation slightly to be more fluently readable and to omit editorial markings, including relative short ellipses. Some verse numbers in George (2022) differ slightly from those in George (2003). I consistently use the verse numbers of George (2022).

The subsequent quotes above from the Epic of Gilgamesh are vv. 6.10-21 (Let me harness for you a chariot…), 6.46-7, 58-63 (To Dumuzi the husband of your youth…), 6.64-78 (You loved Ishullanu, your father’s gardener…), 6.79 (And you would love me…), 6.32-41 (Why would I marry you?…), 6.84-6 (O father, Gilgamesh has been heaping abuse on me…), 6.94-100 (O father, give me the Bull of Heaven…), 6.153 (Woe to Gilgamesh…), 6.154-7 (Enkidu heard this speech of Ishtar…), 6.158-9 (Ishtar assembled the courtesans…).

[2] Having fundamentally misunderstood gender positions, scholars have trivialized Gilgamesh’s rejection of Ishtar by claiming that he rejected her because she took the initiative in love with him:

she has behaved like a man in proposing marriage and in offering him gifts. She has thus assumed an active, aggressive posture, an unacceptable role for a female.

Harris (2001) p. 215. Proposing marriage to men and offering gifts to men are roles that men generally wish more females would accept. Helle raised “the issue of female agency”:

First is the issue of female agency. Ishtar’s marriage proposal is often read as assertive, even aggressive because it is made by a woman, through here again the distance between reality and fiction can be difficult to gauge.

Helle (2021) p. 212. In the double-speak of dominant gender discourse:

the object of her desire fails to be attracted to her — by Ishtar, the most beautiful and enticing of all cuneiform goddesses! In the scene, female agency is thus both asserted and undermined. Ishtar is free to make the first move and state her desire, but she does so only to be rejected.

Id. p. 213. That’s a superb description of socially constructed female sexual entitlement. Female sexual entitlement produces the preposterous claim that female agency requires men to accept any amorous initiative a woman makes. In reality, failure is an intrinsic aspect of human interpersonal agency.

Ishtar’s proposal should be read as assertive, not because it’s made by a woman, but because the text itself indicates that her proposal is assertive. In Epic of Gilgamesh 6.8, Ishtar tells Gilgamesh, “Grant me your fruits, I insist! {inbīka yâši qâšu qīšam-ma}.” Foster rendered more literally the doubled forms of “give {qiāšu}” in translating that verse as “Give, O give me freely of your fruits of love.” In making this translation, Foster noted Ishtar’s “agitated first person” and “the intensity of her desire.” Foster (1987) p. 34.

[3] With detailed, learned textual analysis, Abusch argued that Ishtar was attempting to entice Gilgamesh to his death:

Ishtar is attainment but also attenuation; Ishtar is the opposite of what one values. To love her is to surrender one’s identity. The free become domesticated; insiders are expelled; the settled are forced to wander; the living and humans are turned into animals. Stability and balance are lost and are replaced by discontent, distress, and agitation. In proposing marriage, Ishtar offers to enhance Gilgamesh’s identity while at the same time depriving him of it. Her proposal to Gilgamesh is an offer of power; it is also an offer to transform his living self into his dead self. …

Here I must emphasize that it would be an oversimplification to say that Gilgamesh refused Ishtar’s proposal only because he recognized it to be an attempt to transform him into a lord of the netherworld. He also recognized therein a form of death that was repugnant to him. For Ishtar wished not only to kill him but also to turn him into an animal; she wished to change him from a live, civilized man into a dead, wild animal. The prospect of death is all the more frightening when it is seen to involve not only the loss of life but also the loss of human form.

Abusch (1986) pp. 173-4, 175. Men’s deaths generate relatively little social concern. Innumerous deaths of men have been largely invisible in literary scholarship on the epic tradition. Abusch’s reading is extraordinary in its concern for Gilgamesh’s humanity and his death. George described Abusch’s reading that Ishtar was attempting to lure Gilgamesh to his death as “a highly speculative and individual reading.” George (2003) p. 471, n. 98. If literary studies were more concerned about men as a distinctive gender, such a reading would be more generally appreciated.

Consistent with Abusch’s interpretation, the Epic of Gilgamesh apparently situates Ishtar in the Underworld, the place of the dead. In particular, when Enkidu died, Gilgamesh made offerings so that Ishtar would walk by Enkidu’s side in the Underworld:

A throwstick of mahogany, the gleaming wood,
for Ishtar, the great queen, Gilgamesh displayed to the sun god Shamash:
“May Ishtar, the great queen, receive this,
may she welcome my friend Enkidu and so walk at his side!”

{ [tamḫ]īṣu kallirê iṣi el[li]
ana ištar šarrati rabīti [šamaš u]ktalli[m]
[li]mḫur ištar šar[ratu ra]bīt[u]
ana pān ibrīya l[ū ḫadât-ma idāšu] lillik }

Epic of Gilgamesh 8.135-8.

The Sumerian poem Inanna’s Descent to the Netherworld (t.1.4.1) describes Inanna being detained in the Underworld. She had journeyed there apparently seeking to rule it in place of her sister Ereshkigal. Inanna allowed her husband Dumuzi (also called Dumuzid or Tammuz) to be detained in the Underworld as her substitute for half of every year. Gilgamesh would have understood Inanna’s Descent to the Netherworld as a warning against marrying Ishtar.

[4] The Marriage of Martu (c.1.7.1), vv. 45-9, cuneiform transliteration and English translation (modified insubstantially) from the Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature, second edition (ETCSL). A few other Sumerian texts refer to Martu, including A šir-gida to Martu (Martu A) (t.4.12.1) and A hymn to Martu (Martu B) (t.4.12.2).

The subsequent two quotes above are similarly from The Marriage of Martu, vv. 127-39 (Now listen! Their hands are destructive…) and v. 141 (I will marry Martu!).

[5] Linen was a luxury fabric for clothing in ancient Mesopotamia. Wool was a more common textile. Being clothed in sack-leather characterizes Martu as primitive. Living in a tent characterizes him as a nomad. Eating raw flesh is a hyperbole. Human ancestors have been using fire for cooking for more than a million years.

In being a champion wrestler, Martu was like Enkidu, who lived in the wild, and like the bull-strong Gilgamesh. Enkidu and Gilgamesh wrestled to a draw in the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Contempt for Amorites has been preserved in the Bible. Ezekiel conveyed the Lord’s scorn for unfaithful Jerusalem, a metaphor for the Israelites:

Thus says the Lord God to Jerusalem: “Your origin and your birth are of the land of the Canaanites. Your father was an Amorite and your mother a Hittite.”

Ezekiel 3:16.

[6] Mesopotamians used Martu / Mardu (logogram dMAR.TU, syllabic spelling Amarru) for a region, the Amorite people of that region, and the Amorite god:

the god dMAR.TU can only be either the deified geographic location known as Amurru, or a divine personification of the Amorites, who were generally though not exclusively associated with the West in the Mesopotamian perception. In the previous case dMAR.TU should be interpreted simply as dAmurru, meaning literally “the Divine West,” while in the latter case it should be understood as a gentilic and transcribed dAmurrû, “the Divine Westerner,” or “the Western god.”

Beaulieu (2005) p. 32. Martu, and perhaps the ethnic category Amorites as well, was a Mesopotamian conceptual construction:

Amurru was simply a product of the Mesopotamian mind projected onto a foreign population. … the god Amurru was a Mesopotamian construct, a god born of the necessity to find a symbolic place for the Amorites in the pantheon of Sumer and Akkad at the time of their invasion {Ur III period} of Mesopotamia and their eventual assumption of political power. There was no god Amurru for the Amorites, at least not until they assimilated into Mesopotamian society and embraced its values.

Id. pp. 34-5. On the possible connection between Martu / Mardu and Marduk, Sharlach (2002) p. 98.

After the fall of Ur III about 2000 BGC, rulers calling themselves Amorites governed Mespotamian cities in the Isin-Larsa period and particularly prominently in the subsequent Old Babylonian era. Amorites became much less prominent after the fall of the Old Babylonian Empire about 1600 BGC. On the Amorites, Pruitt (2019) and Boer (2014).

The god Enlil understood the terrible wrong of castration. Through castrating Anu and swallowing Anu’s manhood, the Hurrian Kumarbi gave birth to his usurper, the Hurrian Teshub. Enlil, who corresponds to the Hurrian Kumarbi, knew the pattern that Kronos learned in relation to Zeus: castration ultimately undermines a male god’s position. Enlil gave way historically to Martu / Mardak.

The Sumerian Poem of Creation / Enūma eliš tells of Marduk overthrowing the goddess Tiamat. She betrayed her husband and sought to kill her children. Like Ishtar, Tiamat was a powerful female ruler who did wrong.

[7] Consistent with philology’s penis problem, scholars have been reluctant to recognized that Epic of Gilgamesh 6.155 refers to the Bull of Heaven’s “penis {imittu}.” George prefered the translation “haunch.” He explained:

The imittu (Sum. zag.dib) of a bull is the top portion of the leg, though whether the shoulder or the haunch seems unclear. Since it was a choice cut I assume it was from the rear leg. S. Parpola has suggested, on the basis of a supposed analogy with a bullfight that marked castration rites among the Galli of Anatolia, that the word is otherwise imittu, ‘right hand’, and ‘clearly a “metaphor for “penis”’. It would certainly be more obviously an insult for Enkidu to toss a bull’s penis at Ištar, and such an interpretation of imittu was first offered by George Smith in 1875, who intuitively translated the word as ‘member’. However, the following line, in which Enkidu states a desire to do the same to the goddess, then becomes a problem, for he cannot castrate her.

George (2003) p. 843, commentary to Tablet 6, v. 155 (internal references omitted). Enkidu perhaps was referring to Ishtar’s clitoris or the head atop her shoulders, which has similar significance to a man’s penis. In any case, “penis” is obviously the best translation for imittu in the context of Epic of Gilgamesh 6.158-9. Helle, not moving beyond George Smith’s work in 1875, translated imittu as “member.” The word “member” is archaic and periphrastic. In associated commentary, Helle should be credited with using the word “penis.” Helle (2021) pp. 59, 169.

In the Sumerian poem Gilgameš and the Bull of Heaven (t., Bilgames (who corresponds to Gilgamesh) castrates the Bull of Heaven and hurls its penis at Inanna (who corresponds to Ishtar). Bilgames, however, used the bull’s horns to store fine oil for honoring Inanna at her temple E-ana. Gilgameš and the Bull of Heaven, Version from Me-Turan, Segment D, vv. 49-59. The later Epic of Gilgamesh apparently recast the castration of the Bull of Heaven into a more sophisticated form that integrates it within the overall narrative and significantly alludes to the Kumarbi Cycle’s Song of Emergence.

[8] Kumarbi Cycle, Song of Emergence / Song of Going Forth / Song of Birth (CTH 344), previously called Song of Kingship in Heaven or Song of Kumarbi, vv. 32-39 in Rieken’s numbering (from sections 4-5: A i 18-29), Hittite text from Rieken (2012), English translation (modified) from Bachvarova (2017) p. 155, also benefiting from the English translation of Hoffner (1998) p. 42 and the German translation of Rieken (2012). TITUS provides an alternate source for the Hittite text. This text, which mainly concerns Hurrian myth, has survived in the Hittite language.

In the Hitte text, the word “manhood {LÚ-na-tar}” apparently functions here as a synonym for “male genitals {paršina}.” Kumarbi bites off and swallows Anu’s genitals. Beckman (2011) p. 27. The sperm in Anu’s testicles impregnates Kumarbi. The reference to bronze functions as a metaphor:

Anu’s white sperm and Kumarbi’s red heart (equivalent to the ancient idea of the female’s contribution to the fetus, menstrual blood) are equated with white tin and red copper, the components of bronze.

Bachvarova (2017) p. 155, n. 59.

The Song of Emergence provides “theogonic narrative material with Hittite-Hurrian-Sumero/Akkadian strata in a Hittite text.” Zgoll (2021) p. 225. Ishtar was an important goddess in Anatolia from no later than the third millennia BGC. Murat (2009).

Regarding the realia of the Song of Emergence, Beckman observed:

After all, what is more natural for worshippers of gods formed in man’s image than to conceive of their mutual relationships in terms of human sexuality and family ties?

Beckman (2011) p. 32. Despite this ominous view, all should have faith that human reason can overcome castration culture.

[9] Gilgamesh used the horns to store oil dedicated to the anointing of his father-god, Lugalbanda. George observed:

The allusion is evidently to the ritual anointment of a statue kept by Gilgameš in his private chamber for the purpose of honoring his deceased father.

George (2003) p. 477. This ritual use makes the horns’ association with castration even more poignant.

[10] Helle (2021) pp. 205-6.

[11] A woman scholar dared to offer a critical appraisal of Ishtar’s behavior:

The devastation wrought by the Bull of Heaven on Uruk is terrible. It is also, like the deluge that Enlil visits on the human race in Uta-napishti’s story of the flood, a punishment out of proportion to the infraction that caused it. Ishtar wishes to kill Gilgamesh “in his dwelling” (VI 95) for the insult he has offered her; she goes rather further in devastating the city and people of Uruk — even as she fails in her primary objective. (Gilgamesh and Enkidu, working together, will ultimately slay the Bull of Heaven.) It is noteworthy that Ishtar, too, neither exercises internal regulation nor accepts external moderation: she rejects the counsel, such as it is,offered by her father, which invites her to recognize the role she has played in her own embarrassment. In giving herself over to emotion, moreover, and permitting her towering fury to drive her, she demands — and persuades her father to accept — a course of action that cannot but yield utter chaos and folly. (These at least are not unexpected outcomes when Ishtar is involved.)

Sonik (2020) p. 404 (footnotes omitted).

[12] Helle (2021) p. 169. Helle offered an astonishing explanation for why Gilgamesh rejected Ishtar:

perhaps it was considered unacceptable for women to be so forward, and Gilgamesh’s reply suggests that, while she might be a great sex partner, Ishtar would not have provided him with the basic comforts he expected from a wife in a patriarchal household — food and clothes.

Id. The “patriarchal” household would have been Ishtar’s massive temple in Uruk. Certainly food and clothes would have been readily available to Gilgamesh as a husband whom Ishtar luxuriously maintained.

[images] (1) Man of Larsa (worshipper of Larsa) in ancient Sumer making an offering to Amurru (Martu) for Hammurabi’s life and his own life. Bronze statuette with gold leaf found at Larsa and made in Babylonia between 2004 and 1595 BGC. Preserved as accession # AO 15704 in the Louvre Museum (Paris). Image thanks to Marie-Lan Nguyen and Wikimedia Commons. (2) Votive tablet plausibly depicting Bilgames / Gilgamesh castrating the Bull of Heaven, as indicated in the Sumerian poem, Gilgameš and the Bull of Heaven, Version from Me-Turan, Segment D, vv. 49-59. The tablet might alternatively depict Lakmu (“The curly One”), the Akkadian God of underground rivers. Lakmu is often represented alongside the bull man, Kusarikku. This votive table was created during the reign of Naram-Sin, between 2255 and 2219 BGC. Preserved as accession # O.1054 in the Royal Museums of Art and History (Brussel, Belgium). Source image via Wikimedia Commons.


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