Just as the ancient world was full of stories of men heroes, many were portrayed as having close, even intimate, ties with other males. Some relationships were based on equality, as between male warriors, whereas others were rather of mentor-student relationships. At any rate, both types of friendship reflected “the double in the intensity of feelings of tenderness and love between men” (Sellner 24). As portrayed in poems and other surviving writings, male friendship was based on affection, trust, and honesty, as well as, oftentimes, on “the sharing of one’s body” (Sellner 25). Gilgamesh is not an exception.
THESIS STATEMENT: Although some critics disagree on the sexual aspect of relationship between Gilgamesh and his friend Enkidu, the genital expression of the relationship between Gligamesh and Enkidu is evident. This is evidenced by explicit homoerotic imagery, diction, and direct references to the intimacy of sexual relationship between the two heroes.
First, let us provide some literary and historical background to Epic of Gilgamesh, which will help understand the nature of the male relationship described in the poem. Considered by many critics to be “the greatest literary masterpiece from ancient Mesopotamian civilization,” the Epic’s origins date back to 2,900-2,350 BCE, the times when the Sumerian civilization was thriving at what is currently Iraq. Sumerians lived in independent city-states which were governed by priest-kings, and developed certain cultural traditions about the hero Gilgamesh. After they became politically dependent on the Akkadians, the latter absorbed the myth and narratyive, and around the middle of the first millennium BCE, the Epic of Gilgamesh, the way we know it today, evolved (Ackerman 34). Consisting of as many as three thousand lines, the work is a long and combined piece of narrative poetry, which was preserved on twelve clay tablets.
In the center of the poem, there is a friendship/love story between the two young men, Gilgamesh, a king and a mighty hero, and his bosom friend, especially created by gods to be his adventure comrade, savage Enkidu. Two major journeys are described in the epic: in the first one, Gilgamesh together with Enkidu slay Humbaba, a ferocious monster; in the second one, Gilgamesh gets victory over another monster, known as the Bull of Heaven, yet this time his victory does not bring him much joy, because Enkidu dies shortly. Unlike the first part of the poem, which is filled with joy, the second one is filled with despair and grief.
Although the poem’s plot develops as the journeys take place, the main focus of the poem is the relationship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu. Judging by a wealth of homoerotic imagery and diction, this relationship is homosexual rather than based on purely spiritual affection. Let us consider examples from the poem that would support this stance. In particular, in the poem, the relationships between Gilgamesh and Enkidu are constantly likened to that of a bridegroom and a bride, a man and a woman. For example, Enkidu is described as being loved by Gilgamesh “like a wife”; Gilgamesh veils his corpse “as if it were a bride,” and mourns over his friend “like a widow.” Also, Gilgamesh not simply “loved” Enkidu “like a wife,” but he also “caressed” and “embraced” him. Besides, there are detailed descriptions of Enkidu’s sexuality and sexual power, which create the following image of Enkidu: a sexually very able man (he maintains erection during all six days and seven nights he spends with a prostitute named Shamhat), he is “handsome” with lots of hair covering his body (hair was considered a sign of sexuality) (Sellner 28), as well as drawn to Gilgamesh by an instinct. Likewise, Gilgamesh is portrayed as “by earthly standards… most handsome” and sexually strong, since he sleeps with all brides of his tribe before their husbands take them.
Apart from the imagery and diction suggesting homosexual relationship, the poem features direct references to homosexual love. Specifically, the love relationship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu develops the way it would between a man and a woman, and the heroes themselves call it love. For example, the relationship starts as Enkidu prevents Gilgamesh from sleeping with another bride. As he stands on Gilgamesh’s way to the place of sexual intercourse, he explicitly stakes his sexual claim. After the two men wrestle, they kiss. This kiss is an evident sign of homosexual love just as Enkidu’s stopping Gilgamesh from sleeping with the woman. Interestingly, ever since that moment, Gilgamesh does not sleep with any brides, but instead “loves” Enkidu. Just as a couple in love, during the first journey, Gilgamesh and Enkidu, go hand in hand, to illustrate: “Take my hand, friend, and we shall go on together / Let your thoughts dwell on combat! / Forget death and seek life!” (Tablet IV). Further, the rivalry between Ishtar and Enkidu, where he says that he would kill her if he were able to catch her, reminds the rivalry between two women, where Enkidu is a jealous lover.
Overall, critics, including Halperin et al, Ackerman, and Boswell, are right when they define the relationship between the main heroes of the epic as homosexual. Their observations are confirmed by our analysis, which revealed an extensive use of homoerotic imagery, diction, and direct references to gay intimacy.
- Ackerman, Susan. When Heroes Love: The Ambiguity of Eros in the Stories of Gilgamesh and
David. Columbia University Press, 2005. Print.
- Boswell, John. Same-sex Unions in Pre-modern Europe. New York: Villard Books, 1994. Print.
- Sellner, Edward. The Double: Male Eros, Friendships, and Mentoring: From Gilgamesh to
Kerouac. Lethe Press, 2013. Print.
- Halperin, David, Winkler, John, & Froma Zeitlin (Eds.). Before Sexuality: The Construction of
Erotic Experience in the Ancient Greek World. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.