More on Gilgamesh: Did Gilgamesh Kill Goddess Worship?

Even though I finished writing a complete and polished draft of my novel The Faithful Son, I’m still reading up a ton on Mesopotamian literature, especially Gilgamesh.  I find that so much began with those Sumerian poems about that ancient Urukian King that regardless what I turn my thoughts to, it comes back to me in a drift of understanding.

Everything literary began with Gilgamesh.  Perhaps, everything religious and everything gender-related begins with Gilgamesh.

So I have two new cool books to talk about.

1. The Queen of Heaven by Gavin White

The Queen of Heaven by Gavin White

This is a reconstruction of the most ancient philosophy of living known to mankind. Gavin reconstructs the evolution of the myth of the Goddess (first come to the world with the name Ninanna – later Inanna/Ishtar, or The Lady of Heaven) from pre-literate times through the Semitic-Akkadian period belonging to Gilgamesh.

I read this avidly like it was a graphic novel rather than a scholarly thesis.  I had read another book by Gavin on Babylonian star lore and I find everything that he writes eminently readable, clear, structured like a mystery, yet replete with rare and accurate information.

The Queen of Heaven affirms what many have already said, that the very first religions of men where goddess-based religions.  But what is interesting about White’s thesis is that he links much of what was later attributed to the sun god and the consequent slew of male gods that came after was original attribute of the goddess.  He proves this, beyond the literature, through the iconography of the times, from steles, to potteries to weavings.  It is so much fun to read this book because Gavin White teaches the reader how to interpret what at first appears to be arcane symbology but that, under his thorough and simple directions, becomes a whole new language.

Ultimately, White’s thesis proclaims that Gilgamesh was the first authority figure to “kill” the goddess worship, by establishing a cult of the dead and hijacking the attributes of the goddess towards a ruling male god. In doing so, Gilgamesh also replaced the philosophy of life and regeneration with one of permanent death.

Though at first I found his thesis plausible, after some reconsidering of what I read about Gilgamesh I find this thesis to be flawed, or at least, incomplete. I do agree, I think (for whatever that is worth) that the Akkadian Gilgamesh epic did become the nail on the coffin of goddess worship — or at least, it was one of the first major influences on a shift from the worship of a singular, nameless female divinity to worship of multiple male gods.

However, I have my questions that it was Gilgamesh, the historical king,  who brought about the schism because it isn’t until the much later Akkadian versions, written about 1,000 years after Gilgamesh’s death, that Gilgamesh becomes a demigod who scorns his goddess in favor of companionship with his male human friend Enkidu (and for his worship to Utu, the sun-god). Gilgamesh the real king of Uruk probably had no such altercation with the goddess, or with any such hijacking of the pantheon.

Nonetheless, White’s thesis is powerful and thought provoking and very much worth consideration.  There is certainly a schism between the genders and at a point in history we see the goddess fading and in all the iconography of the times, held in bondage by a male god.  It may have happened in Gilgamesh’s time, but for me to be persuaded that it’s so, I would have to see this connected to the oldest and most ancient of the literary sources on Gilgamesh.  Nonetheless Gavin White’s book is a thought-provoking work that ought to be examined closely by anyone who as an interest in this period and this subject.

The Evolution of the Gilgamesh Epic

2. The Evolution of the Gilgamesh Epic written by Jeffrey H. Tigay is a wonderful compendium of long needed-scholarly evidence on the evolution of the Gilgamesh story from its first appearance as disparate adventure poems to the Akkadian adaptation that we now know as the Epic of Gilgamesh.

The material in this book is thick and well referenced from its original languages in Sumerian and in various other ancient languages, like Hittite and Hurrian, Akkadian and, I believe, also Assyrian.  Tigay proposes that the Akkadian version that casts Gilgamesh as the lover and equal of Enkidu, who, shocked by the death of his friend, becomes obsessed with the search of immortality, is really a whole new Gilgamesh, a novelty only loosely based on other scriptures involving the two heroes that had been around for nearly 1,000 years before that version began to take over.

A lot of the material in this book I was proud to see I had already deduced, from the existing literature.  For instance, the minor but important detail that the Cedar Forest in the very earliest narratives lay to the east of Uruk and not to the northwest is a tantalizing and precious bit of information, especially since the location of the Cedar Forest referenced in the later works about Gilgamesh has been firmly identified as Lebanon (with some new scholarship based on wood analysis suggesting that it may also have been from Syria or even south Turkey).  If the original Cedar Forest were located to the east of Uruk, this would lend credence to my thesis that the journey to the Cedar Forest might in fact be an allegory for a plunder of Elam, to establish new trade routes after a truce between King Enmebaraggesi and Gilgamesh would have prompted Gilgamesh to find the ore and timber he needed to import from sources other than the ones controlled by his adversary.

I also enjoyed reading the comparison between two scriptural responses from Enkidu when Gilgamesh, after capturing the Humbaba, proposes to let the monster go free. In both responses, Enkdu is high handed, strident in his advice to kill Humbaba, but in the second version Enkidu’s words are specific on the identity of Humbaba: an en priest (priest-king) and therefore, a sorcerer of that area (Elam?), and one who should not be released, because according to Enkidu, the en priest will immediately confuse the path in the forest and Enkidu and Gilgamehs will never find their way out.  So, some ideas come to mind based on this: 1. Humbaba was a priest-king commanding a large territory in Elam, or other territory to the east of Sumer which grew cedar wood; 2. rather than making him an ally, or viceroy, Enkidu suggested killing the man, because 3. he was a high priest or priest-king and therefore, according to the mentality of the time, he possessed the powers of magic or sorcery.

Another startling fact revealed in this book is that Enkidu once had his own epic. His merging into the Gilgamesh adventures was an evolution of later times.  Enkidu appears as Gilgamesh’s servant in the early Sumerian poems, and then is promoted to Gilgamesh’s best friend (and  lover) in the Akkadian versions, but apparently Enkidu never entered the earliest narratives on Gilgamesh.  Enkidu must have also been a king or character of popular imagination who, at some point in time, commanded his own literary tradition.  This fact casts into doubt whether the historical Gilgamesh knew any Enkidu at all.

In other posts I suggested that Gilgamesh is an alias for the god Dumuzi/AmaUshumgalAna, and I detailed the reasons in two long posts.  Many of the sources unearthed in this book provide support for this idea.  (See, The Problem With Dumuzi and On Gilgamesh and Dumuzi) Gilgamesh, as priest-king of a culture of goddess-worship, would have assumed the role of the god Dumuzi for sacred rites and other important cultural functions and it seems natural that the literature that narrates his life would have made little distinction between Gilgamesh the king and Gilgamesh the incarnation of the god.  But my question is whether or not the narrative of a half-god, half-human who betrayed and then paid dearly for defying his goddess, an entity who had to suffer the tortures of hell before he was “revived” or re-instated to the pantheon, is one that belongs to the ancient god Dumuzi of tens of thousands of years before Gilgamesh, or if it is Gilgamesh whose corresponding historical deeds caused the narrative to adopt these episodes and attribute them not to a mortal king (Gilgamesh) but to the immortal demigod he represented for the cults (Dumuzi).

Whether or not it was Gilgamesh who created a schism with his goddess is the question that I hope to answer.  According to Gavin White, it must be: all evidence points to this conclusion. Before the narratives of Gilgamesh existed, there is no question in White’s mind that a female divinity was worshipped for all the attributes that still to this day religious cults attribute to a male creator.  It’s only when Gilgamesh arrives on the scene that the power is usurped, the goddess ousted, and a new cult instated where the male divinities are ruling the still acknowledge the now rogue, wild, and often-hostile female force.  This is an interesting theory that has great repercussions on our understanding of the evolution of contemporary gender issues and one that ought to be studied carefully.

Both books provide new tantalizing material for the amateur Sumerologist, but they also provide interesting theories about the origins of our contemporary philosophy about the nature of existence and the fate of men after death.  Both books are absolute jewels. I’m happy to own them and recommend them highly.

Recommended posts: On Gilgamesh and Dumuzi, and The Problem With Dumuzi

Published by laura

I'm the author of two short story collections, a story cycle, and a collection of short memoirs. I am an educator, literary translator, journal editor, and writing coach.

12 thoughts on “More on Gilgamesh: Did Gilgamesh Kill Goddess Worship?

  1. Hello My Friend,

    I am writing a book on Sumerian music. I would love to use your picture of MS5101 – the picture of cuniform musical writing and its notation toady. Could you please give me information so that I might get permission to use this pic?? I would be so ever grateful!

  2. That’s why you’re the scholar and I’m not. 🙂 This is all great info. I’ll be on the lookout for the fragments you say. And yes, about there being no Enkidu, but it may still lend some possibility to the thought that what later became Enkidu might have simply been Akka.

    1. Hi Laura, hope you had a productive retreat. By the way, I’m not an academic but an enthusiastic amateur with access to an academic library in central London.
      I have found that African anthropology is a useful guide to some of the major themes in the Gilgamesh traditions. The following notes are derived from ‘CIVILIZATIONS OF BLACK AFRICA’ by Jacques Maquet, Oxford University Press, 1972. They throw some light on the tensions and relationships between farmers and cattle-herders – or in Mesopotamian terms between the cattle-herders of Uruk and the farmers of Northern Mesopotamia. They fall under three headings: the Forest Farmers, the Savannah Farmers and the Cattle-herders.
         CIVILIZATIONS OF THE FOREST CLEARING – Forest farmers clear small areas for cultivation and after a couple of seasons move on to make new clearings, largely due to very poor soil.
         Their sculptural work is dominated by carved human figures – figures of Ancestors. Man is defined thro his kin. For the forest farmers this is usually patrilineal. Each individual will know a long list of forebears and if when two people trace back their ancestry they find a common ancestor – they regard themselves as related. There are ancestral ie blood relationships and affinal relationship – ie those forged thro marriage or alliance. Each form of relationship – son, father, nephew, in-law etc is defined by obligations & rights. 
         Great responsibility falls on fathers – to clothe & feed his children, perform ancestral rights, farm-work, etc. There is often a latent hostility here. After the death of the father the first act of the son is to perform homage to his ancestors. Grandfather and grandson often affiliate against the father – their close relation is expressed by the fact that they often share the same name. In some tribes there are ‘joking relationships’ between uncle & nephew – the uncle can laugh, take liberties, even insult his nephew but in return the youngster can steal from his uncle. Some tribes extend the concept of ‘father’ to their father’s brothers and other patrilineal relations. ‘Brother’, ‘wife’ etc can be similarly used. 
         A ‘Lineage’ is a real direct line of descent from an ancestor – this is the tightest social unit. surprisingly it should not become too large – a lineage depth of 4 to 6 generations is common. When the line grows beyond this some lines branch off by assuming a great-great-grandfather as a new lineage head. Lineage groups come together to perform major tasks such as forest clearance and house building. Normal farming activity is performed by the nuclear family. A family’s right to use a parcel of land is conferred by the lineage – a senior man of the lineage who represents the ancestors allots the land. 
         Lineage members are brothers and comrades. They support each other in disputes with others and share food in case of failed harvests. An ancestral shrine will be found in the villages with simple offerings – the ancestors are often moody so need to be appeased – note father-son relationship and the tension between the death of the father and the inheritance of the son. The shadow of an ancestor can be reborn in a descendant – they are recognised at birth or via the mother’s dreams when pregnant. The shadow is but one of three elements in the human constitution – the others are body & heart. The child will have a different personality from the ancestor but there is a common bond. 
         As a man cannot marry within his lineage – they are all his notional sisters – a bride has to come from a separate lineage. Paired marriages are common where a man gives his sister or daughter to the father or brother of his bride. But the exchange of a bride-price is more common among the forest farmers. Here various goods depending on the tribe are given to the bride’s lineage – goats or sheep; metal items; skeins of spun cotton. Sometimes these gifts can only be used to purchase another bride from another lineage. 
         A number, usually 2 or 3, lineage groups will be found in a single village (generally 50 to 200 inhabitants). The earliest lineage to settle there has precedence in political affairs but each lineage head has precedence over his line. Thus government such as it exists is not strictly territorial in nature but is effected via lineage lines and groupings. This basically means that political units larger than a village are rare – and given that villages are small and isolated in the jungle this is no surprise either.    
         While hunter-gatherers have a trusting attitude that mother nature will provide for them what they need – the farmers are different. They are opposed to their natural – forest – environment, they fight against nature to make their subsistence. In ritual there is a strong contrast between the forest and nature on the one side and the village and human culture on the other. This is the farmer’s essential mental and cultural make-up. Remember that rain-forest soil is very poor, and the forest itself, wet and close harbours many dangerous diseases. Animals are prey to many diseases too which is probably why these forest communities have very few. What livestock they do have – a few hens, a couple of goats and possibly a pig are not used for regular food but for occasional sacrifice at special occasions such as weddings and funerals. 
         The farmer’s main tools are the axe and hoe. Ploughs are no use in the thin, poor soil. Originally of stone, the coming of metal-work has revolutionised their lifestyle. Blacksmiths are masters of fire and are accorded special magical powers. It is significant that he is the only specialist in the village. 
         Farming practice. The lineage head selects a suitable patch for clearance. All the men of the lineage and sometimes the whole village participate. Undergrowth is cleared, trees felled and left to dry then its all burned. Then planting – the diet is mostly roots (manioc, yams, sweet potatoes) and bananas, of less importance are palm trees and cereals (rice, maize, sorghum, millet). They are left to grow with little maintenance till the women gradually harvest them as they ripen or are required. Only a handful of farming cycles are possible on any plot due to poor soil, that plot is then left for as many as 20 years to recover. Hence new land is constantly being cleared. When all the suitable land around the village has been used – the village is moved. This lifestyle also forces the villages to be restricted in size, be relatively isolated and thus quite primitive and static – not aware of innovations etc

      CIVILIZATION OF THE GRANARIES Savannah agriculture usually produces an annual surplus even if food can be scarce in the period before harvest. Cereals such as sorghum, maize, rice and millet as well as peas, beans & other plants form the principle diet, which can be poor in nutrition leading to malnutrition in the human population. These crops are also easy to store and transport. The surplus is kept in granaries, the number and size of which are a clearly perceptible sign of wealth. Unlike the forest farmers and hunter-gatherers there is considerable differences in wealth among the savannah farmers.
         The chief has the largest granaries, which hold a large part of the surplus produced by the other villagers. He spends his time governing, dealing with his retinue and agents; he also supports specialist craftsmen. The surplus stored in his granaries are used for public feats and in times of scarcity. He thus holds political and economic power over the other villagers. This leads to chiefdoms which are the characteristic political system of most of Africa. 
         Chiefdoms may be a small as one or two villages but may expand to dominate many surrounding areas – thus forming much larger political units and the opportunity to accumulate great wealth. The open savannah facilitated military and commercial and population movements unlike the forests. Unlike the lineage authority of the forest elders the chiefs of the savannah farmers based their authority on wealth, a retinue, his judicial powers and his magical power – the last esp in regard to the land’s fertility. The real power base was how many villages he controlled. He drew men’s labour for his fields and took young men into his army. He also controlled the trade in ivory and elephant meat; he also kept slaves taken from defeated villages. Ivory was traded with Arabs – in the 19th C this included guns. 
         The chief’s retinue was composed of officials, his kinsmen above a certain rank & other courtiers hoping for advantage. Some of these men lead war-bands to subjugate neighbouring districts, occupy them and force the payment of tribute; others arrested and punished criminals, collected taxes and supervised works and services order by the chief. Local chiefs administered local justice but the High Chief was the final authority hearing final appeals. 
         The chief was thought to inherit the name and guardian spirits of a former chief. His health & well-being affected all his subjects and his sexual vigour, limited by many prohibitions, was a matter of public concern. He also had a priestly role invoking the guardian spirits in the sacred enclosures. 
          The chiefdom was a state in itself with a permanent organisation and coercive powers. Among the Bemba people, a centrally placed chief held a certain powers over all the other chiefs; he had 30 to 40 hereditary officials who performed various specific rites and held sacred relics and powers. It was thus a federation of small states rather than a unified state. Among other savannah peoples a unified state emerged from a set of chiefdoms – in effect being transformed into a kingdom with various officials delegated to govern the outer districts. The king’s retinue is subject to strict hierarchic conventions – where they sat, those to the right of the king having precedence over those on his left etc. They all spoke their opinions on various matters in ascending rank thus the higher authorities had the last word. Revenue from taxation was shared out between the king, various priests and the councillors all according to their rank. 
          Thus society is divided into the rulers who make all important decisions, who live on the surplus of others on the one hand and the agriculturists who provide the wealth from the land. As the ruler’s privileges are bound up with their offices they try to make these offices hereditary and thus a class of nobles or an aristocracy is formed. Often the Over-Chief can only come from specific lineages.
         Savannah farmers celebrate the coming of the rainy season and the harvest with sacred rituals. Many only have to work for 4 months of the year making it necessary to hold the surplus in the granaries. They are still bound by the ties of lineage and kinship but under the overarching power of regal authority. Many savannah groups reckon lineage thro the female line. 
         Matrilineal descent is not a mirror image of the patriarchal system. Children belong to the mother’s lineage, however authority over the children is wielded by the mother’s brother. The maternal uncle also receives the bride-price when his nieces are married off, and he supplies it when his nephews take wives. Among the Bembo children are sent off to be brought up by their maternal grandmother and as they grow up they are increasingly subjected to the authority of their maternal uncle. Succession also goes thro the matrilineal line – the office of a Bemba chief goes first to his brother, then his sister’s sons and then his sister’s daughter’s sons. The name, guardian spirit, social status and obligations of the peasantry also follow this line of descent. This system does not imply that women have greater status, and some wives go to live in the homes of their husbands and thus among strangers they are not accorded high status. Other wives stay at their parents home and the settlement is based around a mother, and her daughters. The lesser role of husband is reflected in the idea that the male only awakens the foetus, which is taken possession of by the guardian spirit of an ancestor entering into the womb of the pregnant woman.
         The idea of mankind is centred on the vital force, which is the essence of life not a function or attribute of it. All beings are forces not things. Invocations to the ancestors have the aim of increasing this vital force – it is manifested as the procreative powers of those individuals hence the fertility of the king and chiefs are intimated linked to the fertility of the land and the land’s women. 
         Death is a state of diminished vital power. The descendants of the dead man gave lend him some vital energy thro their offerings but when they neglect these offerings the ghost sends illness and bad luck. If no remedial action is taken the dead undergo a final dissolution – a second and final death. 
         An individual is his name, his inner name. He also has outer names related to initiation or other life-defining rites – investiture of kings, entering of spirits into healers and diviners. 

      1. CIVILIZATIONS OF THE SPEAR Warrior society and cattle herders. 
           After the circumcision ceremony the warriors sang a song of the spear, their primary weapon that gave them courage and even propped H&E apart if they threatened to crush the warriors. Then the new initiate was given his spear that was splattered with the blood of a sacrificial animal. It was common to extol the virtues of this weapon in the herding cultures that cover east Africa. Such songs & poems were recited at feasts to commemorate military victories, the noble deeds of ancestors and during the night watch when young warriors sought to arouse their fighting spirit. Poems, both archaic and improvised, were appreciated. Such literary skills are well developed in warlike societies. 
           Weapons are decorated – spears, swords, sheaths, quivers and shields – all are embellished with non-figural designs. 
           Aristocratic values – courage, self-confidence, pride and a sense of collective superiority other others – these are the values of the aristocratic warrior. Such values were utilised in the execution of swift raiding expeditions against sometimes distant tribes. A band of warriors asked their chief to formulate a plan of attack, then they asked the diviner for consent. The warriors feasted on meat, sent out scouts and the expedition began. The primary object of these raids were the capture of cattle which on return were shared out according to strict rules – some for the diviner, some for the warriors who had distinguished themselves, the rest were shared between the rest of the group – if there were not enough the warriors divided into two bands and fought for them. The raided groups were not enslaved but those that resisted were killed and occasionally a woman was taken for a wife or a child was taken for adoption. 
           Not many people were actually killed on these raids – the ideal was to capture the cattle by surprise without actually fighting. Nor were many men killed in more conventional warfare where a small detachment of selected men were the only ones who fought. The winners of these battles took the cattle of his defeated opponent. 
           The Zulus took these ideals to the limit. Chaka, born around 1790, became chief of his tribe when his father died – he changed the weapons of his warriors from long throwing spears to short spears that had a wide blade. these new weapons were only used to stab at the enemy at close quarters. The army was organised into battalions of aprox 1000 men, each unit lived in its own compound, had it own war cry and decorated their shields with distinctive colours. They underwent a strict training and were forbidden to marry. Chaka also reorganised fighting strategy – he organised the troops into four groups – the central one held the experienced fighters, on each side was a flank group only one of which would engage in fighting from the start – the other flank concealed itself until the fighting was well underway, the fourth group acted as reserve and sat with their backs to the battle. These armies were not used for cattle raids but for territorial conquest, his beaten enemies were killed or driven off – however, many of its young warriors enlisted in Chaka’s army. But this is unusual among the cattle-herders whose main historical concern has always been small scale cattle-raids. 
           Nearly all cultures of the spear are pastoral in character. Cattle have a high economic significance in that a few herders can raise a large herd and derive a large income from it in terms of meat, leather, milk products and blood. Some derive their living entirely from cattle – blood and milk – tho this is rare. Cattle are movable wealth so have advantages over land which is relatively high in the amount of labour expended to derive a living from it. They are the capital of the ancient world producing wealth with little input of human energy. 
            They are easily lost and easily gained thro cattle raids. Hence cattle-herding societies are military societies as they have to use armed force to protect their herds and steal them from neighbouring tribes. As cattle essentially look after themselves it leaves the human population much free time to practice war. The herds have to be kept moving to fresh pastures and some or all the humans plus there dwelling have to move with them – a Nomadic lifestyle. 
           Purely pastoral societies have relatively small groupings of humans and as a rule are not socially stratified into rulers and ruled. However this changes when they confront agriculturalists. The cattle-herders move in and dominate the farmers largely thro their fighting strength. Thus they set themselves up as a ruling elite. One became king, the other chiefs followed him in war and gave him tribute in cattle, he in turn organised the protection of their herds and settled disputes. The situation among the Hima (cattle-herders) and Iru (farmers) is instructive – the farmers were not allowed to own productive cattle nor were they allowed to become warriors, or to intermarry with the Hima – thus the social disparities were set. 
           Among the Longarim their is a close affiliation between cattle and men. A young boy before puberty will choose a favourite calf. Later, if it has been castrated it will be sacrificed, eaten and replaced by another; if it wasn’t castrated it would only be killed on the grave of its ‘father’ – the man. Bull and man often share the same name. If the bull dies the ‘father’ goes into mourning, exposes himself to danger – can even commit suicide; and if it fights another animal the ‘father’ has to immediately kill that animal; if two favourite bulls fight – the two ‘fathers’ must also fight. Other tribes have developed close analogies between the life of man and cattle, on the human side they imitate cattle in dances, using their upraised arms as horns. 
           This cattle-man analogy has to be compared with two other institutions – that of ‘best friend’ and ‘age groups’. The best friend is chosen at adolescence from among his age-mates. The friendship is validated by sacrifices. The friends must look after the other’s interests more closely than their own and have no secrets – they form a team in all dangers, they each have a duty towards the other’s favourite bull giving it a bell and ivory ornaments to hang around its neck. The friends must praise each other for their actions in fights, dances and hunts as praise encourages valorous actions. 
           The institution of the age-class is common to all herding societies. It is composed of all males of similar age, when they consider that their numbers are sufficient they declare themselves complete and a new age-class is formed. The age-class engages in many communal activities – ceremonies, hunts, dances, expeditions, the boy informs his age-class of his choice of favourite bull and they in turn organise a hunt in his honour. A man needs a favourite bull to inspire brave deeds in times of war etc, ‘a man without a favourite bull is like a woman’. Thro valorous deeds a man may be promoted to a higher age-class. For instance the Nuer had at one time 6 age-classes but the oldest had very few members. The Zulu battalions were essentially age-classes. They tend to proceed from initiation and hold significance to their members for their entire lives. They act with respect to older age-classes. 
           Initiation marks the transition between child and adult. Very often it involves painful practices such as cutting and scarring. But essentially it is education as to the mores and obligations of adulthood. 
           The members of herding tribes are free and equal but they developed hierarchic societies when they encountered and settled with farmers. This domination was based on their military might and ownership of cattle. Their kings were considered divine. In Divine kingship the king is closely identified with the land – if his health/strength declines so does that of the kingdom. He lives in ritual isolation often not eating in public and protected from public gaze. He owns the life and property of his subjects. 

        Hope this helps, all the best, Gavin

  3. The info on tying enemies to the gate was something I didn’t know. Thank you for that one! That explains a lot.And I should also say, there is certainly something that doesn’t sit right with that Bull of Heaven episode. That’s a riddle that I often contemplate.

    1. Hi Laura, the stuff about binding enemies to the gates helped me as well. It would explain why Humbaba’s head is typically found on doorways. The same motif also occurs in the Epic of Creation where Marduk binds the defeated creatures of Tiamat to the gate of the Abyss. The fullest treatment of these ideas that I have come across is found in Amar Annus’ ‘The God Ninurta’.
      There is an unpublished Sumerian fragment that I’m sure will interest you. Andrew George gives a quick resume of it on page 7 of his scholarly edition of the Gilgamesh Epic (not the Penguin edition):
      “In addition, there await publication at least two more fragments of the same period (UrIII) that give literary narrative concerning Gilgamesh. One of them is too small to be useful. The other describes how Gilgamesh, disporting himself with young men and women, interupted the dancing to copulate with an otherwise unknown woman and kiss her. This fragment does not fit any of the poems of Gilgamesh known from later periods, although it clearly reports the tradition in which the hero tyranised his people with his excessive appetites for sex and play”.
      It seems pretty plausible that the stuff on the rite of the first night is derived, one way or another, from this tradition. Its also interesting that it appears to make no reference to Enkidu or the wrestling match in front of the marriage house.
      Apparently a scholar by the name of Gonzalo Rubio is going to publish these fragments in a forthcoming volume of Ur III literary tablets. I’ve made a quick search for this volume but can’t find it, so I guess its still awaiting publication.
      I also have lots of questions, without any answers, about the Bull of Heaven. Its Sumerian credentials are good – some twenty Sumerian language fragments, the earliest dating to the Ur III period. I do have problems with the way that some scholars dismiss the episode as superfluous to the structure of the Epic. But maybe that’s a topic for another post.
      Bye for now, Gavin

  4. Well, thank you. I had misunderstood that you were forwarding a list of references, but I read your treatise with a lot of interest. I have had some back and forth with some Sumerologists about Anshan which may or may not have existed in the period the real Gilgamesh is supposed to have existed (circa 2800 BC?). As far as I know, Anshan was not a recognized territory until much later in the millennium, but I personally believe that the Huwawa/Humbaba is a mixture of Huban, the Elamite god, and Awan the tribe. So, I buy into what you’re saying, although I don’t know your sources, except for the last part on his experimenting with the cult. As I said in previous posts (The Problem with Dumuzi, Gilgamesh and Dumuzi), I am still firmly a believer that the rights of first night is a complete construction. As far as I know there is nothing to indicate that this is what they did, or that this is what Gilgamesh did, since in the original Sumerian poems the story is quite different. The episode with the Bull of Heaven is an Akkadian construction — or rather, the first references to the Bull of Heaven have a different spin than the one accepted in the Standard version. In both versions besides, Gilgamesh does end up “with his tail between his legs” so to speak and capitulates to goddess power. I definitely can see that as a secular leader he did try to assert himself against cult rulership — and failed. The rights of first marriage is probably a misinterpretation, a product of the 19th century mindset of the first translations. I have read too many sources now to buy into the idea that Sumerians cared about virginity or that they respected any such thing as chastity that would have provided a context for the first night rights: I don’t see that anything would have stopped any Mesopotamian king from having any woman he wanted, whether they were married or not. Sex to them was as normal as eating, besides. Moreover, the interpretation on the existing literature seems to hinge on the identity of the so-called shamatu, which to the early century translators who still knew very little about Sumer interpreted to be a prostitute. The vague reference to Gilgamesh wanting to intrude on the marriage bed may be referring to the shamatu — but Gilgamesh wrestles before the multitudes for this. It is likely that this was far more important than some kind of vice for girls who are on their marriage night. It is obvious, in my opinion, from the context that Gilgamesh’s legitimacy was always shaky, and that he was at odds with the cult, which you seem to reaffirm in your reply to me. The way I interpret the literature is that he really wanted the goddess to legitimize him, but that she (or the sect) would not, for whatever offense he did, probably because he was heavy handed. In my posts (Gilgamesh and Dumuzi) I outlined my theory: Enkidu was a contender, another foreign threat, perhaps from Ur, or perhaps he is satirizing the powers of Kish. Gilgamesh and Enkidu fought over the right to marry the Goddess because that is what legitimized them. Gilgamesh has a consistent m.o.: he pretends allegiance and then stabs in the back, as in the story with Akka/Aga that you have reviewed in your post. He does the same with Humbaba, first offering wives, telling him “let’s be kinsmen” and then capturing him and killing him. His behavior with Humbaba is an echo of his behavior with Enkidu and I wouldn’t at all be surprised if Enkidu is a satirical representation of Aga of Kish. I believe, and this is my thesis that I’m working on with my story and with some other articles, that Kish and Uruk collaborated on wars against Elam and that this was a love/hate relationship that was often strained. The same story repeats itself in Ninurta and Shurur on the side of Kish: while Uruk may be representing Kish as the wild man Enkidu, Kish may be representing Uruk as the object/mace Shurur. That is, both cities would claim to be the supreme hero of the situation, while begrudgingly acknowledging cooperation from the other city, but demoting that greatness to the level of savage/object. Thus, the first dream: Gilgamesh takes an axe and loves the axe – may be some residue of that love/hate exchange. In short, I suspect that all the other stories are another elaboration of the only story in the Gilgamesh series that was probably true and literal: the allegiance and later discord between Kish and Uruk. Thanks again for sharing. It is a pleasure to exchange these ideas with someone who actually knows what I’m talking about. 🙂

  5. Hi Laura, I tried to leave you a quick message on the Goodreads website but the message link on your page doesn’t seem to work. First up, I’d like to give you a big thank you for the reviews and comments etc concerning the ‘Queen of Heaven’. That is brilliant.
    From your blogs and other comments I can see that you have a serious interest in Gilgamesh. I did a couple of years research on him with the intent of doing a book. But that turned out to be over ambitious. By the time I’d finished the research I realised that there were so many aspects to the stories that I had no understanding of that a book was out of the question.
    However, as part of that research, I did construct a quick and very speculative ‘life-history’ of the man where I tried to account for all the stuff I think he may have done in his life. If you are interested I can send you a word of PDF copy. Also, have you come across J Hansman’s journal article ‘Gilgamesh, Humbaba and the Erin Trees’ – if you are interested in the idea that the Sumerian account of the Cedar Forrest was set in Elam this could provide a lot of useful data to you.
    All the best, Gavin

      1. Hi Laura, its a pretty short piece so I should be able to post it here:
        As a part of my research I tried to put together a ‘possible life-story’ of Gilgamesh the man and king. There are odds and ends in the various traditions that provide a basis for some speculation. An outline of Gilgamesh’s life can be strung together as follows:

        I don’t think Gilgamesh was a native of Uruk and perhaps not even a native of Mesopotamia proper. One Hittite text describes him as ‘roaming through all the lands’ before he came to Uruk. A confirmation of sorts is found at the end of the poem Bilgames & Akka where Gilgamesh described himself as a ‘run-away bird’ and a ‘man on the run’.
        An Old Babylonian version provides a potential clue to his origins when it describes him as arming himself with the ‘bow of Anshan’ as he sets off on the expedition to fight Humbaba. Anshan is a region of Elam – so how does Gilgamesh have a bow from this region before he has even set out on the expedition to get there? This reference inclines me to think that there was some ‘previous history’ between him (or his family) and the area of Anshan/Elam. Some modern scholars have also suggested Elamite affinities to his name.
        I imagine him as a war-leader (possibly a nobleman) with a band of followers who threw their lot in with the dynasty of Kish. After making the standard promises of submission to the Kish system of hegemony, whereby ‘the king of Kish’ was treated as an overlord of all Sumer and Akkad, Gilgamesh was granted the right to be En of Uruk. This gave him considerable power even if he still had to act as a vassal governor bound to pay tribute (& perhaps military obligations) to the dynasty of Kish.
        To be installed as the En-priest he would probably have followed in the footsteps of Enmerkar, one of his predecessors on the throne of Uruk who married Inanna in the sacred marriage rite. This rite was an early and seemingly later model of kingship in Uruk (and possibly Kish as its patron deities were the war-like Zababa and warrior Ishtar who were married to each other).
        Then some time after his establishment in Uruk, Gilgamesh decided to go independent. First he builds up the city walls and trains up the men of Uruk. Only then does he break from the nation state imperialism of Kish. (This would explain the obligation, ‘the favour of old’, that Gilgamesh paid back to Akka at the end of the poem ‘Bilgames & Akka).
        As part of this rejection he goes off and slays Huwawa who in part represents regions of Elam which are already in some kind of treaty relationship with the Kish dynasty (hence Enlil’s criticisms of the heroes at the end of the Cedar Forest poem).
        In terms of its structure, the story of Huwawa’s slaying is in many ways a parody of the Nippur ideology in which the king acts according to the mythical deeds of warrior Ninurta. This narrative can be condensed as: News comes in from the outlying lands that a great threat to the realm has arisen. A great warrior (the king) arises to meet the challenge. After due preparations the hero makes a long and arduous journey to seek out the evil and destroy it. The evil is characterised by semi-human creatures like Humbaba and Asag, in the geo-political realm these monstrous beings represent the foreign lands, their peoples and their kings. By subduing the enemy, the hero is able to bring back wealth and other benefits that their homeland requires. Ninurta’s exploits in the mountains brings slaves, cattle and all sorts of mineral wealth. Any captured kings were put in chains and brought back to the homeland. After a formal victory parade, captured kings would be bound to certain gates and there displayed in their humiliation just as the mythical enemies of Ninurta (the Slain Heroes) were captured, paraded and installed on gateways. As a grand finale to the return of the conquering hero, the king to be made obligatory offerings at the temple of Enlil and would then be crowned and installed as king. This is the essence of the Nippur theology of kingship. It often compares the king to a farmer (another of Enlil’s & Ninurta’s aspects) who subdues the wilds of nature (the foreign lands) and harvests its bounty (slaves, cattle, mineral wealth, timber) for the benefit of mankind (the state).
        I’ve come to think that the narrative of the Cedar Forest is a kind of parallel and, in some respects, a parody, of the Nippur theology especially the Epic version. Gilgamesh hears of the evil ogre, prepares and sets off on his long journey. He engages with the evil and finally comes to grips with it and is triumphant. With the downfall of the great evil, the heavens open and the hero is free to harvest the wealth (timber) of the foreign lands.
        Then as a parallel to the conquering hero being crowned in Nippur under the auspices of Enlil (the god of gods), the heroes deliver the great door to Enlil before returning home to Uruk. Gilgamesh has used the Nippur ideology to legitimise his kingship. He is proclaiming himself king by right of being a conquering warrior who captures bounty from the foreign lands.
        Returning to Uruk he is emboldened. Now he can reject the rites and the ideology of the sacred marriage and destroy the cult of the heavenly cattle. Unlike Geoffrey Tigay and others who seem to dismiss the importance of the Bull of Heaven episode, I think this is an essential and very relevant part of what Gilgamesh was about. I tend to agree with Andrew George who reckons that the Sumerian poem is a pretty close parallel to the Epic account with all the essential motifs of a marriage offer from the goddess, its rejection by the king and the consequent wrath of Inanna.
        After this, I think he may experiment with some new ideological forms. He takes upon himself the sun god’s title ‘father of the black-headed peoples’ (ie the Sumerians) as a model and starts to demand the Rite of the First Night, where he sleeps with all the brides-to-be in Uruk. But the population threaten to rebel against this rite as a form of oppression. Then came the solution we are more familiar with: Gilgamesh proclaimed himself as the son of Ninsun and Lugalbanda. As child of a goddess (a cow goddess like Inanna but decidedly NOT Inanna) and of a previous hero/king of Uruk, he establishes his right to rule through his parentage and lineage. As in later strains of royal ideology Gilgamesh promotes himself as a man made perfect for kingship by the gods who are his nominal parents rather than his spouse.
        This marks the start of the final stage of his reign, when he introduces the various rites of the dead and the concept of the underworld. At the end of his life, he, like many of the other kings of the late Early Dynastic period, was buried in a great subterranean tomb along with his court personnel and wives. I saw an intriguing website where some German archaeologists (using magnotomiters/electrical resistance surveying techniques) claim to have located a small brick-built structure right in the middle of the old course of the Euphrates – they reckon it may be his tomb. That was before the 2nd Gulf War and I haven’t heard anything more about it.
        That is my reconstructed history of Gilgamesh. I often ask myself: to what extent is this ‘history’ applicable to the man himself or to the age he represents; and to what extent does it reflect the Early Dynastic period or what later generations thought it was or should have been. With the total lack of any useful evidence from the earliest periods I don’t think I’ll ever be sure about the answers.
        I tend to think that the stuff about wisdom, the carpe diem philosophy, the years wandering the wilderness and visiting the flood hero were added to the story later. My greatest doubts concern his relationship to Inanna and the rite of the Sacred Marriage.
        Hope that this may provide some ideas, all the best, Gavin

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