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The idea that God is a woman did not begin with the 2018 song by Ariana Grande. In fact, the concept has been around approximately the same amount of time humans have been roaming the Earth. The earliest evidence of this religious belief can be found within Paleolithic sites throughout Europe. Although it can be argued that the Epic of Gilgamesh is a story that revolves around masculinity and brotherhood, the role of women is much subtler, but each woman creates a huge impact to the story. Women are seen as carrying the fruit of all knowledge, seen through the character Shamat. Through Ishtar and Shamat we see how powerful women’s influence can be, both in good and bad ways. Furthermore, we can see that even when men hold a higher rank, women can still make a greater impact when we look at Utnapishtim’s wife. When looking at the Epic of Gilgamesh, we see the power that women have in the way they can fade into the background while creating the greatest influence in the journey of Gilgamesh’s life.
The first influential woman we are introduced to in the epic is Shamat, the harlot. Similar to the story of Eve, Shamat is seen to have the seeds to civilization. At the beginning of the story, she is tasked with aiding Enkidu in his rebirth. In order to turn this beast into a man, Shamat was to be “stripped naked; and when he sees her beckoning he will embrace her, and then the wild beasts will reject him”. When Enkidu’s beastly companions did eventually reject him after Shamat “taught him the woman’s art”, she then clothed and guided him towards civilization. Shamat continued to civilize Enkidu by teaching him how to eat bread and wine rather than drink the milk of animals. Through Shamat’s guidance and teaching, she helps set fate in motion by helping equalize Enkidu to Gilgamesh, creating a path to their rivalry, and eventually their friendship, that begins this quest. The influence Shamat has on the story can be overlooked due to her occupation as a prostitute, however it is through her sexuality that Enkidu is able to access to immeasurable knowledge and power he would not have been able to obtain.
As previously stated, the influences women had throughout The Epic of Gilgamesh are quite subtle, with Shamat being among the most obvious. Taking a closer look into the journey of our characters, we see every decision being a direct result of the will of goddesses. The goddess Aruru was the one who created Enkidu, who would become a very close friend to Gilgamesh, and the goddess Ishtar was the one who condemned Enkidu to death, causing Gilgamesh to lose most, if not all, sanity. Both of these events lead to the most important moments in Gilgamesh’s life story. This mirrors Mesopotamian goddesses who could be either helpful or vengeful. Shamat, a priestess of Ishtar, is a representation of the helpful side of the Mesopotamian religion when she “took hold of [Enkidu] as gods do”. Similarly, it is the female goddess Ishtar who carries out the vengeful side of the goddess’s personalities by sending the Bull of heaven down to kill Gilgamesh. By having the female characters in this epic act as a representation of the ancient Mesopotamian religion, they are shown to have had a much larger amount of power than their seemingly small role would suggest. Women throughout history have been portrayed as either vessels of knowledge and power or the having capabilities of mass destruction, further proving the grand impacts seemingly unimportant women have on the story.
In order to influence Gilgamesh’s journey, the female characters further engage in encouraging their supposedly more powerful male counterparts to put specific obstacles in his way in order to help him change his destructive ways. Enkidu’s death and Gilgamesh’s subsequent pursuit of immortality can be perceived as being a direct consequence of Ishtar’s persuasion of her father, Anu, the much more authoritative god of Heaven. Once again, this is seen in the final stage of Gilgamesh’s journey, with Utnapishtim’s wife convincing him to tell Gilgamesh about the plant of eternal life. By paving the way to Gilgamesh’s journey towards enlightenment, these women are portrayed as the powerful force working behind the face of the male race as the real authority in The Epic of Gilgamesh.
Within the Epic of Gilgamesh we are introduced to a multitude of influential women who both create and guide Gilgamesh through his life’s journey. Shamat portrays a helpful counsellor to Enkidu by civilizing him and preparing him for his role in Gilgamesh’s life. Ishtar provides the pain that Gilgamesh needed to encounter in order to begin his journey to finding eternal life in killing his closest friend. Finally, Utnapishtim’s wife shows how little a role you can have while still creating a huge impact by convincing her husband to inform Gilgamesh how to obtain immortality, eventually causing him to learn to be happy with the mortality he already has. Women are the driving force behind this epic regardless of how small a part they seem to play in the story.
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