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, Eos, the goddess of dawn, 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 a 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 near 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]

* * * * *

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[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.


Abusch, Tzvi. 1986. “Ishtar’s Proposal and Gilgamesh’s Refusal: An Interpretation of The Gilgamesh Epic, Tablet 6, Lines 1-79.” History of Religions. 26(2): 143–87. Reprinted as Chapter 1 in Abusch (2015).

Abusch, Tzvi. 2015. Male and Female in the Epic of Gilgamesh: Encounters, Literary History, and Interpretation. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns.

Bachvarova, Mary. 2017. “The Hurro-Hittite Kumarbi Cycle.” Section 3.4.b (pp. 154-175) in Carolina López-Ruiz, ed. Gods, Heroes, and Monsters: A Sourcebook of Greek, Roman, and Near Eastern Myths in Translation. 2nd ed. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Beaulieu, Paul-Alain. 2005. “The God Amurru as Emblem of Ethnic and Cultural Identity.” Pp. 31-46 in Wilfred H. van Soldt. ed. Ethnicity in Ancient Mesopotamia. Papers Read at the 48th Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale, Leiden, July 1-4, 2002 (PIHANS 102). Leiden, Netherlands: Nederlands Instituut voor her Nabije Oosten.

Beckman, Gary. 2011. ‘Primordial Obstetrics: “The Song of Emergence” (CTH 344).’ Pp. 25-34 in Manfred Hutter and Sylvia Hutter-Braunsar, eds. Hethitische Literatur Überlieferungsprozesse, Textstrukturen, Ausdrucksformen und Nachwirken Akten des Symposiums vom 18. bis 20. Februar 2010 in Bonn. Münster: Ugarit-Verlag.

Boer, Rients de. 2014. Amorites in the Early Old Babylonian Period. Doctoral Thesis. Leiden Institute for Area Studies (LIAS), Faculty of Humanities, Leiden University.

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

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

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

Harris, Rivkah. 2001. “Images of Women in the Gilgamesh Epic.” Pp. 207-218 in Foster, Benjamin R., trans. The Epic of Gilgamesh: A New Translation, Analogues, Criticism. New York London: Norton & Company.

Helle, Sophus. 2021. Gilgamesh: A New Translation of the Ancient Epic with Essays on the Poem, its Past, and its Passion. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Hoffner, Harry A. trans. 1998. Hittite Myths. Second edition. Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press.

Murat, Leyla. 2009. “Goddess Išhara / Tanrıça İšhara.” Tarih Araştırmaları Dergisi. 28/45: 159-189.

Pruitt, Madeline Lawson. 2019. Cultural Identity, Archaeology, and the Amorites of the Early Second Millennium BCE: An Analytical Paradigmatic Approach. Ph.D. Thesis, Near Eastern Studies, University of California, Berkeley.

Rieken, Elisabeth et al., eds. 2012. hethiter.net/: CTH 344 (TX 2012-06-08, TRde 2009-08-31).

Sharlach, Tonia. 2002. “Foreign Influences on the Religion of the Ur III Court.” Studies on the Civilization and Culture of Nuzi and the Hurrians. 12: 91-114.

Sonik, Karen. 2020. “Gilgamesh and Emotional Excess: The King Without Counsel in the SB Gilgamesh Epic.” Chapter 16 (390–409) in Shi-Wei Hsu and Jaume Llop Raduà, eds. The Expression of Emotions in Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. Leiden: Brill.

Zgoll, Christian. 2021. “The Hittite ‘Theogony’ or Song of Going Forth (CTH 344): Stratification of Mythical Traditions with a Suggested Translation for Kub 33.120 Vs. I 19 F.” Journal of Ancient Near Eastern Religions. 21(2): 208–227.

medieval romance hero Guy of Warwick repented men-killing chivalry

Chivalry once meant a man’s sexual prowess. Chivalry once meant a husband prioritizing having sex with his wife above battling an attacking enemy. Chivalry once involved what were regarded as the jewels of manhood. Medieval European romances tragically transformed this humane understanding of chivalry into men-abasing, men-killing gender subservience of men. Guy of Warwick {Gui de Warewic}, a romance composed about the year 1200, provides a rare, critical perspective on the terrible wrong of romance chivalry.

The steward’s son Guy of Warwick became mortally lovesick for the lovely young countess Felice. She rejected him with all the harshness that Gilgamesh showed toward the goddess Ishtar. He nonetheless didn’t seek to kill her, as Ishtar did to Gilgamesh. Guy continued to beg Felice for her love. She then directed him into the horror of chivalry:

“Guy,” she said, “now listen!
My thoughts are changed.
Don’t hold it to be an outrage
if I tell you now of my thought.
I don’t want to love any young man
if he isn’t a knight —
one beautiful and courteous and renowned,
brave and bold, and celebrated for weapons.
When you have received weapons,
and I have seen that,
I will grant you my love,
if such as I have said you become.”

{ “Gui,” fait ele, “ore entendez!
Mes corages sunt changez;
Nel tenez pas a ultrage
Se ore vus di mun corage:
Nul vaslet ne voit amer
S’il ne seit chevaler,
Bels e corteis e alosez,
Preuz e hardiz, d’armes preisez.
Quant les armes avrez receu,
E jo iço avrai veu,
L’amur de mei vus granterai,
Si tel estes cum dit vus ai.” }[1]

Guy thus acquired weapons and got himself knighted. Well-armed, he returned to Felice and said:

I have received weapons because of you,
and now I have come to you
in order to hear your wishes.
There is nothing that I more desire.

{ Les armes ai pur vus receu,
E si sui ore a vus venue
Pur oir vostre plaisir;
La rien estes que plus desir. }

If Felice sought to lessen violence against men and promote peace, she would have said that she wished for him to make love, not war. Felice instead perpetuated deeply entrenched social injustice against men:

“Guy,” she said, “Don’t rush!
You are not yet esteemed for use of weapons,
You are not yet of greater worth
that you were the other day,
except that as such you have been dubbed,
and you are called a knight.
When you have been in battles
and are esteemed in knightly tournaments,
and have captured other knights,
assailed towers and castles,
and through the land and country
has traveled talk of your fame
and of your great valor,
then you should request from me love.”

{ “Gui,” fait ele, “ne vus hastez!
N’estes uncore d’armes preisez,
Uncore n’estes de greignur valur
Que vus esteiez l’altre jur,
Fors de tant que estes adubé,
E chevaler estes apelé.
Quant as esturs avrez esté,
E de turneir serrez preisé,
E chevalers avreiz pris,
Turs e chastels assailliz,
E par la tere e par la contree
De vus voist la renomee
E de vostre grant valur,
Dunques me deiz requere d’amur.” }

Guy should have vigorously insisted on his intrinsic worth as a man. He instead traveled overseas to win fame as a knight in violence against men.

Guy of Warwick as a courtier and pilgrim amid knights

As a knight, Guy engaged in massive violence against men in the terrible tradition of epic and “songs of deeds {chansons de geste}.” In jousting tournaments he charged at other knights and brutally knocked them off their horses with his lance. He forcefully struck other men’s bodies with his sword. For more than a year Guy engaged in knightly tournaments in Germany, Lombardy, France, and Normandy. He put himself in grave danger, and he created grave danger for other men. Guy won all these brutal contests and became famous.

Guy then returned to Warwick. There Felice’s parents warmly welcomed him. They gave him gifts of gold, silver, silk garments, and tableware, as if they were grooming him to be a groom. Guy went to his beloved Felice and said:

I have come, my beautiful beloved.
By you I certainly have life.
If you were not, I would be dead,
destroyed and badly beaten in body.
You made me take up weapons,
and then told me your wishes.
Since that time I have taken up weapons
and crossed the peaceful sea
and far away in a strange realm
become well-praised in use of weapons.
I should be granted your love,
for which I have been so desirous.
Now I have come so as to hear,
beautiful beloved, your wishes.

{ Venuz sui, ma bele amie,
Par vus ai certes la vie;
Se ne fuissez, jo fuisse morz,
Destruiz e malbailliz del cors.
Les armes prendre me feistes,
Vostre pleisir puis me deistes,
Quant jo les armes pris avreie,
E la mer passé serreie,
E loinz en estrange regné
D’armes fuisse bien preisé,
Granté me serreit l’amur de vus,
Dunt ai esté tant desirus;
Ore sui venuz pur oir,
Bele amie, vostre plaisir. }

Unlike everyone else, Felice didn’t praise and honor Guy. She also didn’t appreciate his love for her. She demanded more from him:

Don’t rush, sir Guy!
You are not yet so praised
that no one else is so good in the realm.
You are very brave and valiant,
and in battle bold and combative.
If I were to love you above all,
and I granted to you my love,
you would become so love-struck
that you would be totally lazy.
You would no longer seek to carry my weapons,
nor to enhance your fame.
I would do wrong, so I think,
if for me you lost your fame.

{ Ne vus hastez mie, sires Gui!
Uncore n’en estes tant preisé
Que alsi bon n’ait el regné.
Preuz estes mult e vaillant,
En estur hardi e cumbatant;
Si sur totes riens vus amasse,
E l’amur de mei vus grantasse,
Tant devendriez amerus
Que tut en serriez pereçus;
Armes ne querriez mes porter,
Ne vostre pris eshalcier;
Jo mesfereie, ço m’est avis,
Se par mei perdisez vostre pris. }

Felice clearly had read Chrétien de Troyes’s romance Erec and Enide {Érec et Énide}. She, however, didn’t interpret the story correctly. She didn’t understand that men’s value shouldn’t depend on their violence against men. Men should be respected simply for performing their nightly deeds in love with their wives. Instead, Felice declared to Guy:

I don’t wish to hide my thought from you,
yet rather I wish to show it to you clearly.
You will not have my love
unless you be so very good
that you don’t have an equal in any land —
no one so praised in bearing weapons —
and you would be the flower of chivalry,
and in all the world the best.
When you would be in all ways like that,
such that better than you doesn’t exist under Heaven,
then I will grant you my love
to do with it your will.
No one other than you will have my love
while I live so much as another day.

{ Mun corage ne vus voil celer,
Ainz le vus voil mult ben mustrer:
Que l’amur de mei pas n’avrez,
Se vus par issi bon n’esteiez
Qu’en nule terre n’eussez per,
Ne tant preisé d’armes porter,
E de chevalerie seiez la flur,
E del mund tut le meillur;
Quant del tut serrez itel,
Que meillur de vus n’en ait suz ciel,
De mei l’amur vus ert granté,
De faire ent vostre volenté:
Altre de vus n’avra m’amur,
Tant cum viverai a nul jur. }

Every man is unique and special. A man need not do anything to become the only man like himself. Deeds of violence against men, or even good deeds, don’t earn for a man true love.

Regrettably ignorant of such insights from meninist literary criticism, Guy didn’t denounce Felice for her misandry. He sighed:

“Now I know,” he said, “that you are mocking me,
when you command me so,
that I be the best in the world.
Such will never be for a single day.
To a foreign land I will go.
I’ll surely exert my ability for you.
About my death I will have no concern.
If I die, that will be for you.”

{ “Ore sai,” fait it, “que vus me gabez,
Quant iço me comandez,
Que del mund seie le meillur;
Iço n’ert ja a nul jur.
En estrange terre m’en irrai,
Pur vus certes mun poeir ferai,
De la mort ne serrai pas dotus;
Se jo moere, ço ert pur vus.” }

Men’s lives should matter. Like Leander to Hero, Guy should have told Felice that it was her turn to risk life and limb. Instead, Guy set off across the seas to win more fame in violence against men.

Seeking more fame, Guy killed many men and himself suffered great harm. After fighting as a knight in Normandy and Brittany, he traveled to Spain. There he became famous as a warrior. Then he went to fight in Lombardy. Near Benevento he suffered a serious sword wound. Lombards subsequently ambushed the wounded Guy. His companions Urri and Thorout were killed, and his companion Heralt suffered an apparently mortal wound. The Lombards Lambert, Huecun, and Gunter of Pavia were killed. So too were other Lombards, voiceless and nameless amid the extensive violence against men.

Seeking to impress Felice, Guy engaged in much further violence against men. He fought for Duke Seguin of Louvain against Emperor Reiner of Germany. This battle produced horrific butchery of men:

They cut into shields and hauberks,
and made men fall backwards, dead.
They cut off fists and arms and feet.
Men in that place lay mutilated.
Good, valiant knights
lay mutilated in the fields,
knights who were sons of noble barons,
knights who from far had come seeking fame.
Their fathers, when they learned of it,
for them would be overcome with great sorrow.

{ Trenchent escuz e halbercs,
Morz les funt chair envers,
Decolpent poinz e braz e pez;
Par la place gisent detrenchez.
Les bons chevalers vaillanz
Detrenchez gisent par les chanz.
Qui fiz a riches bruns estreint,
De loinz lur pris quere veneient;
Lur peres, quant le saverunt,
Pur els grant duel demerrunt. }

Similar slaughter of men occurred in Constantinople, with Guy defending the emperor against an invading sultan. Another massacre of men occurred with Guy fighting for his friend Torri’s father Count Alberi against the besieging Duke Loher of Lorraine. Merely in front of Constantinople Guy killed 40,000 men.[2] The total number of men that Guy killed was innumerable by the time he returned to Felice in Warwick.

After killing a dragon menacing the King of England, Guy sought Felice’s love in Warwick. Guy told her that many beautiful princesses had loved him, but he loved only her. Felice responded warmly to the now-preeminent Guy:

“Sir Guy,” she said, “thank you!
And I truly say it to you
that much have I been sought
by the most noble men of the realm,
but I didn’t want to love any of them,
nor did I ever do so for even a day.
I give myself to you, if you will accept me.
Do your wishes with me.”

{ “Sire Gui,” fait ele, “vostre merci!
E jo verrraiement le vus di
Que mult ai requise esté
Des plus riches del regné,
Mais amer nul ne voleie
Ne a nul jur mes ne fereie;
A vus me doins, si me ottrei,
Vostre plaisir facez de mei.” }

Guy was delighted. He joyfully kissed her. Later Felice told her father that she wanted to marry Guy. No other man would she accept as husband. Following formalities that modern scholars have ideologically misinterpreted, Felice’s father offered her in marriage to Guy. Guy accepted her father’s offer. The two men thus enacted the woman’s preference.

Felice and Guy soon married. They had an expensive wedding with a wedding celebration that lasted four days. Entertainment included monkeys and bears. No food fights were reported like at the Viking wedding of Ruta and Agner, but undoubtedly the festivities were lively. On the first night that Felice and Guy had sex — “mutual enjoyment {commun delit}” — they conceived a child. They slept together as husband and wife for only fifty days.

On a beautiful May evening fifty days after Felice and Guy had consummated their marriage, Guy climbed a tower and looked out upon the stars in the clear, calm sky. He began to think about his life:

And he thought how he had killed so many men,
taken by force towers and cities,
and he had done this with his bodily pains
far away in foreign realms
for a woman whom he loved so much.
For her he had endured so much evil,
but never for his Creator,
who had given to him great honor.
He had not put himself in God’s service,
but now he wanted to repent of that.

{ E que tanz homes aveit oscis,
Turs e citez par force pris,
E cum aveit sun cors pené
Loinz en estrange regné
Pur une femme qu’il tant amat,
Pur qui tant mals duré ad;
Mais unc pur sun criatur,
Qui fait li ad si grant honur,
Ne s’entremist delui servir;
Mais ore s’en voldra repentir.
A suspirer dunc comença,
En sun corage se purpensa
Que tote sa vie changera
E en Deu servise se mettra. }

Felice noticed that her husband was pensive and despondent. She insisted that he tell her his thoughts. He explained:

Since I first loved you,
I’ve sustained for you such evils
that never was born a man
who has endured such sorrow
for a woman, as I have for you.
For you I have done much, extreme violence —
killed men, destroyed cities, and
burned abbeys in many realms.
And whatever I have done in this world,
from the hour that I first met you,
whether for evil or good,
I have not wanted to hide anything from you.
And all the bodily pain that I’ve had,
and all that I have done and given,
for you I have done it, know that well.
And much more I’ve done that you haven’t heard here.
If I were so lucky as to have done
only half of it
for God who created us,
who has bestowed on me such great honor,
the glory of Heaven I would truly have,
and be a saint together with God.
But for Him I have never done anything,
and so I am wretched and despicable.
I have killed so many noble men.
Those sins remain with me.
From now on I will go in the service of God,
for I would like to expiate my sins.

{ Puis que primes vus amai,
Tanz malz pur vus sufferz ai,
Ne qui que home fust unc né
Qui tantes dolurs ait enduré
Pur une femme cum jo ai pur tei.
Pur vus ai fait maint grant desrei,
Homes ocis, destruites citez,
Arses abbeies de plusurs regnez,
E quanqu’en cest mund fait ai
Des l’ure que a vus m’acointai,
E de mal e de ben,
Nel vus voildrai celer rien,
E quanque ai mun cors pené,
E quanque ai fait e doné,
Pur vus l’ai fait, ben le sacez,
E asez plus que ci n’oez.
Si tant eurus eusse esté
Que solement la meité
Fait eusse pur Deu qui nus cria,
Que si grant honur presté m’a,
La glorie del ciel pur veir avreie,
Ensemble od Deu saint serreie;
Mais pur lui unc rien ne fis,
Pur ço sui las e chaitif.
Tant francs homes ai oscis,
En mei sunt li pecché remis;
El servise Deu desore irrai,
Mes pecchez espenir voldrai }

Like many men, Guy’s fundamental sin was gyno-idolatry. He treated Felice as God. After deciding to expiate his sin of gyno-idolatry, Guy told Felice:

For all the good that henceforth I will do,
half of it all I will grant to you.

{ De tuz les bens que mes ferai
La meité de tut vus granterai. }

Guy didn’t credit his wife for all his success. He came to envision his marriage to Felice as a conjugal partnership. A conjugal partnership necessarily implies rejecting gyno-idolatry.

Guy was vicious, cruel, and heartless toward his conjugal partner Felice. He declared that he was leaving her to serve God in foreign lands. That was only about fifty days after they married. Felice was then already pregnant with their child. Such behavior is unspeakably cruel. Astutely appreciating Guy’s need to repent of gyno-idolatry and chivalric folly, she told her husband:

If you want to do charitable works,
never from here need you go.
You can found churches and abbeys —
many of them in places throughout your land.
There through all days they will pray for you,
not ending by night or by day.
You can find salvation very well here.
Why are you going into exile?

{ Quant allmoisnes faire volez,
Ja mar d’ici vus en irrez;
Iglises e abbeies facez faire,
Plusurs par lius en vostre tere,
Que tuz jurz pur vus prierunt,
Ne neuit ne jur ne finerunt;
Ici salver ben vus purrez;
En exil pur quei vus en irrez? }

To those sensible, accommodating words, Guy told Felice to be silent. Neither women nor men should be silenced. Guy told Felice that he didn’t know when he would return to her, if ever. He then kissed her. That’s an ugly, empty gesture in the context of his heartlessness.

Guy immediately left Warwick and headed to Jerusalem. When he returned to Warwick years later as a beggar and then became a holy hermit living nearby, he didn’t even greet Felice personally. He revealed his presence to her only on his death-bed. That’s wholly despicable. Some might dismiss this monstrously inhumane Guy as merely another example of misandry and anti-meninism in medieval literature. But such a critical approach is superficial and ostentatiously moralistic. One should simply accept that Guy of Warwick became a cruel, horrible spouse to his wife Felice.

A distinctive passage of men’s sexed protest suggests that Guy resented Felice for all the men that were killed through her desire for him to become the world’s greatest warrior-knight. After a particular instance of horrific violence against men, Guy thought that his teacher and loyal friend Heralt had been killed. Guy lamented:

Wretched I, so harsh was made my fate
when to Felice I was sent.
Felice, for your love
the flower of chivalry has perished.
This isn’t the first or the last time
when a woman has filled me with wrong,
that a woman has led me to deceit and destruction.
By my experience, another should be forewarned.

{ Las tant fu dure ma destinee
Kant a felice fud enueie
Felice pur la uostre amur
De chiualerie vi perir la flur
Quant femme estes a tort men plein
Ne fu le premer ne le derain
Ke femme ad deceu e suspris
Par moi li autre seient garni }[3]

Guy’s words underscore the folly of unnecessarily contributing to men’s deaths for the love of a woman. Men must not consign their agency and responsibility to women. Men must learn to be strong, independent persons even in loving relationships with women.

Gui de Warewic shows Guy’s transformative conversion from romance chivalry and gyno-idolatry to strong, independent manhood. Although Guy’s transformation didn’t include completely rejecting violence against men, it’s nonetheless enormously significant.[4] The classical naturalist Lucretius, an eminent dispeller of delusions, sought to free men from gyno-idolatry and from gods generally. Few Christians have recognized the merit of Lucretius’s effort. The author of Gui de Warewic did. This medieval romance incorporates aspects of hagiographic narratives. Guy, however, is a highly unusual saint. He’s saintly in providing men with a teaching example against the sin of gyno-idolatry. Despite his egregiously bad behavior, Guy of Warwick is a saint for our time, and for all time.

* * * * *

Read more:


[1] Guy of Warwick {Gui de Warewic} vv. 617-28, Old French (Anglo-Norman) text from Ewert (1933) and my English translation, benefiting from that of Weiss (2008). This romance is dated to (shortly) “before 1204.” Id. p. 14. For a modern English translation of a fifteenth-century Middle English Guy of Warwick, Scott-Robinson (2019).

Subsequent quotes from Gui de Warewic are similarly sourced. Those quotes above are Gui de Warewic vv. 681-4 (I have received weapons…), 685-98 (“Guy,” she said…), 1041-54 (I have come, my beautiful beloved…), 1056-68 (Don’t rush, sir Guy…), 1069-82 (I don’t wish to hide my thought…), 1085-92 (“Now I know,” he said…), 2195-2204 (They cut into shields and hauberks…), 7439-46 (“Sir Guy,” she said…), 7560 (mutual enjoyment), 7581-94 (And he thought how he had killed so many men…), 7603-30 (Since I first loved you…), 7633-4 (For all the good that henceforth I will do…), 7661-8 (If you want to do charitable work…).

[2] The sultan’s Saracen champion Amorant of Ethiopia spoke of Guy killing 40,000 “of us.” Gui de Warewic vv. 8609-10. Fighting against Guy, Amorant had no incentive to exaggerate Guy’s prowess in killing men.

[3] Gui de Warewic, manuscript C, vv. 1155-68 (corresponds to insert after v. 1424 in manuscript E), Old French (Anglo-Norman) text from Ewert (1933) vol. 2, p. 193, my English translation. The existence of these verses is noted in Weiss (2008) p. 112, n. 18, but the verses themselves aren’t provided.

Using the sigla of Ewert (1933), Manuscript C is Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, Parker Library, MS 50, f. 103ra-181rb. These verses also exist in Gui de Warewic, manuscript G (Wolfenbüttel, Herzog August Bibliothek, 87.4. Aug. fol., f. 1ra-96vb) and manuscript B (New Haven, Yale University, Beinecke Library, 591, f. 1ra-86rb). Djordjevic (2007) p. 35, n. 20. The base text for Ewert (1933) and Weiss (2008) is manuscript E (London, British Library, Additional, 38662, f. 1ra-80rb). Manuscript E, although it’s the manuscript that scholars generally regard as best, doesn’t includes these important verses.

Here are the corresponding verses in manuscript G:

Alas, such evil was made my destiny
when I was sent to Felice.
Felice, for your love
the flower of chivalry has perished.
This isn’t the first nor will be the last time
when a woman has filled me with wrong,
that a woman has led me to deceit and destruction.
By my experience, another should be forewarned.

{ Allas tant mar feu destine
Quant a felice feu envoie
Felice pour la vostre amur
De chivalerie perd ieo la flur.
Mes quat femme es a tort me pleign
Ne sui primer ne ne serai derrain
Que femme ad deceu et suspris
Par moi: autre soyent garnis }

Gui de Warewic, manuscript G, vv. 831-8, Old French (Anglo-Norman) text from Herbing (1872) p. 10, my English translation. These verses in manuscript G apparently were the source for this passage in a Middle English Guy of Warwick:

All to evil it fell to me,
Felice, that I was sent to serve you.
For your love, Felice, you fair maid,
the flower of knights was slain this day.
Because you are a woman,
I can blame you nothing for that,
for the last amount to nothing among those
that women have brought to dust.
But all others might by me,
if they so wish, be forewarned.

{ Al to iuel it fel to me
Felice þo y was sent to serue þe;
For þi loue Felice, þe feir may,
Þe flour of kniȝtes is sleyn þis day.
Ac for þou art a wiman
Y no can nouȝt blame þe for þan,
For þe last no worþ y nouȝt
Þat wimen han to gronde ybrouȝt,
Ac alle oþer may bi me,
ȝif þai wil, ywarned be. }1361-70

Middle English verses from the Auchinleck Manuscript, Guy of Warwick, version in couplets (Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland, Advocates, 19.2.1, f. 108ra-146vb) vv. 1361-70, my English modernization. Djordjevic (2007) p. 35, n. 20. Cf. Wadsworth (1972) pp. 251-3. In the Middle English edition of Zupitza (1883), these verses are vv. 1557-66.

As the literary history of Guy’s sexed protest indicates, men face grave social risks in criticizing women. A fifteenth-century Middle English prose version prudently abbreviated Guy’s words of sexed protest to these:

Felice, it is through you that these three men lie dead! Let this be a lesson to every man.

English modernization from Scott-Robinson (2019). That’s similar to a 1907 version:

“Alas, Felice,” he said, “for your sake, fair maid, many brave knights have fallen this day, and Sir Heraud, the flower of them all, lies here at my feet.”

Darton (1907) p. 291. Even more prudently, an early eighteenth-century Middle English version only vaguely mentions Guy “grieving that destiny had dealt so hardly to take away his dearly beloved company.” G.L (1706) pp. 45-6, reproduced in Morley (1889) p. 356. After quoting most of Guy’s verses of sexed protest in a somewhat modernized form, a scholar published in 1848 sought to justify Guy’s verbal offense:

Nothing, certainly, but the extremity of distress could have wrung from this courteous and loyal knight a sentiment so derogatory to the honour of ladies; but it is to be remembered that Sir Guy was devoted and condemned to the search of such adventures, against his own wishes, in opposition to the will of his suzerain, and in defiance of the remonstrances of his parents, by the mere caprice of his haughty mistress.

Ellis (1848) p. 202, which quotes verses close to Guy of Warwick, Auchinleck version in couplets, vv. 1363-79. A scholarly work published in 1990 provides alternate excusing for Guy criticizing women:

These sentiments are not what we should expect from a knight; he is not seeing things from a knightly point of view. His human grief for the loss of his friends overrides for the moment his determination to win Felice. He almost begins to think that the price is too high. But as yet Guy has not been initiated into the real glories of knighthood.

Hopkins (1990) p. 87. Put differently, Guy hadn’t yet learned the directives of Spartan mothers.

In responses to texts of men’s sexed protest, scholars in recent decades have largely favored merely labeling them with bad names. Guy’s words of sexed protest in response to many men’s deaths thus becomes merely a “conventional anti-female tirade.” Wadsworth (1972) p. 253. Even worse, it’s an “anti-feminist passage.” Mills (1992) p. 68, n. 20. An even worse label is obvious. Guy’s words are an “anti-feminist tirade.” Djordjevic (2007) p. 35, n. 20. Showing ready deployment of hate, Guy’s words of men’s sexed protest have been labeled a “misogynist rant.” Gos (2012) p. 120. Many scholars today apparently aren’t mature enough to consider such passages without engaging in name-calling. Cf. Crane (1986) p. 63.

[4] Guy of Warwick was a very popular romance in medieval and early modern England. A scholar has summarized this romance’s appeal:

Much of its power came from its being the prime story of the chivalric knight who finds that chivalry is not enough.

Cooper (2004) p. 32. Guy of Warwick didn’t find that “chivalry is not enough.” He found that chivalry, which had come to mean gyno-idolatry, is foolish and sinful.

Scholars have vastly under-appreciated the significance of Guy turning away from gyno-idolatry. While precedents exist in troubadour song, Guy’s turn is so distinctive within romance that it’s not plausibly just a means to prolong narrative entertainment. Cf. Price (2000), similarly Calin (1994) pp. 83-7. Failing to recognize the mortal sin of gyno-idolatry and Guy’s distinctive saintliness, literary critics have declared that Guy is “clearly not saintly,” or “not especially saintly.” Crane (1986) p. 117, and Weiss (2010) p. 56, respectively. Gui de Warewic / Guy of Warwick, properly interpreted, has implications for medieval personal transformation:

Neither of these men {King Henry II and statesman William Marshal}, commenting in precisely opposing ways, believed in the possibility of transformative conversion. And ultimately, despite modern anxieties that we might anachronistically read our own desire for character consistency into medieval narratives, I am not convinced that medieval chroniclers, hagiographers, or romancers believed in transformation either.

Ashe (2011) p. 172. To the contrary, Guy of Warwick’s turn away from gyno-idolatry, like Margery Kempe’s turn away from sex with her husband, is a personal transformation that medieval men surely would have regarded as significant. As a young scholar perceptively observed:

it is not only Guy who needs spiritual reforming, but the entire model of chivalry he embodies in the first half; it suggests that chivalry as a social structure risks alienating the individual knight from his own autobiography in a way that has dire consequences for his capacity to perform the cognitive work required of a morally and spiritually engaged Christian individual.

Haniford (2020) pp. 136-7.

[image] Guy of Warwick as a courtier and pilgrim amid knights. Illumination by the Talbot Master in 1444. On folio 227r of British Library, Royal MS 15 E VI (“Talbot Shrewsbury Book”): “A collection of fifteen romances, chivalric treatises, instructional texts, chronicles and statutes compiled as a gift to Margaret of Anjou, on her betrothal to Henry VI, from the 1st Earl of Shrewsbury, who escorted her to England for the marriage in 1444.” Version on Wikimedia Commons.


Ashe, Laura. 2011. “Mutatio Dexteræ Excelsi: Narratives of Transformation after the Conquest.” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology. 110(2): 141–72.

Calin, William. 1994. The French Tradition and the Literature of Medieval England. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Cooper, Helen. 2004. The English Romance in Time: Transforming Motifs from Geoffrey of Monmouth to the Death of Shakespeare. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Review by Richard Moll and by Jordi Sánchez-Martí.

Crane, Susan. 1986. Insular Romance: Politics, Faith, and Culture in Anglo-Norman and Middle English Literature. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. Alternate source.

Darton, F. J. Harvey, with A. G. Walker, illustrator. 1907. A Wonder Book of Old Romance. New York: F.A. Stokes.

Djordjevic, Ivana. 2007. “Guy of Warwick as a Translation.” Chapter 3 (pp. 27-43) in Alison Wiggins and Rosalind Field, eds. Guy of Warwick: Icon and Ancestor. Studies in Medieval Romance. Woodbridge, Suffolk: D.S. Brewer.

Ellis, George. 1848. Specimens of Early English Metrical Romances: To Which Is Prefixed an Historical Introduction on the Rise and Progress of Romantic Composition in France and England. London: Henry G. Bohn.

Ewert, Alfred, ed. 1933. Gui de Warewic, Roman du XIIIe Siècle. 2 vols. Les classiques français du Moyen Âge, 74-75. Paris: Champion. Review of volume by Siobhain Bly Calkin.

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

Gos, Giselle. 2012. Constructing the Female Subject in Anglo-Norman, Middle English and Medieval Irish Romance. D. Phil. Thesis, Centre for Medieval Studies, University of Toronto, Canada.

Haniford, Alicia. 2020. Textual Transformations and the Challenges of Self-Narration in Bevis of Hampton and Guy of Warwick. M.A. Thesis, Carleton University, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.

Herbing, G. A. 1872. Der Anfang des Romans von Guy de Warwick. Abdruck einer auf der herzoglichen Bibliothek zu Wolfenbüttel befindlichen Handschrift herausgegeben. Programm der Grossen Stadtschule zu Wismar als Einladung zur Michaelis-Prüfung. Wismar: Druck der Hinstorff’schen Rathsbuchdruckerei.

Hopkins, Andrea. 1990. The Sinful Knights: A Study of Middle English Penitential Romance. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mills, Maldwyn. 1992. “Structure and Meaning in Guy of Warwick.” Chapter 5 (pp. 54-68) in John Simons, ed. From Medieval to Medievalism. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Morley, Henry. 1889. Early Prose Romances: Reynard the Fox, Friar Bacon, Robert the Devil, Guy of Warwick, Virgilius, History of Hamlet, Friar Rush. London: G. Routledge and Sons.

Price, Paul. 2000. “Confessions of a Godless Killer: Guy of Warwick and Comprehensive Entertainment.” Pp. 93-110 in Judith Weiss, Jennifer Fellows, and Morgan Dickson, eds. Medieval Insular Romance: Translation and Innovation. Cambridge: Brewer.

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.

Wadsworth, Rosalind. 1972. Historical Romance in England: Studies in Anglo-Norman and Middle English Romance. D. Phil., Department of English, University of York.

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.

Weiss, Judith. 2010. “The Exploitation of Ideas of Pilgrimage and Sainthood in Gui de Warewic.” Chapter 3 (pp. 43–56) in Laura Ashe, Ivana Djordjevic, and Judith weiss, eds. The Exploitations of Medieval Romance. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer. Review of book by Scott Kleinman.

Zupitza, Julius, ed. 1883.. The Romance of Guy of Warwick: The First or 14th-Century Version. Ed. from the Auchinleck Ms. in the Advocates’ Library Edinburgh and from Ms. 107 in Caius College Cambridge. London: Published for the Early English Text Society by K. Paul Trench Trubner. Alternate presentation.

wives strengthened husbands amid destroyed civilization of Roman Gaul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

Read more:


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

intimate friendship, not Shamhat, civilized Enkidu and Gilgamesh

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

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

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

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

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

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

ancient Mesopotamian hero like King Gilgamesh of Uruk

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

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

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

Responding to this request, Aruru creates Enkidu:

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

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

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

Enkidu, who became intimate friend to Gilgamesh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

{ וַתִּפָּקַחְנָה עֵינֵי שְׁנֵיהֶם וַיֵּדְעוּ כִּי עֵירֻמִּם הֵם }

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gilgamesh and Enkidu slay Humbaba, guardian of the Cedar Forest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May both of them not grow old together!

{ ay ulabbirū kilallān }

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

{ iktum-ma ibra kīma kallati pānuš }

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

May she welcome my friend and walk at his side!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

cuneiform tablet containing the Epic of Gilgamesh, tablet 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

Read more:


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

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

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

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

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

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

McCaffrey (2021) p. 183.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ponchia (2019) p. 201.

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

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

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

Id. p. 4.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the woman’s wisdom landed in his heart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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