Epic of Gilgamesh
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Contributed by Sharen Felty
Tablet 6
Summary

Gilgamesh returns to Uruk and washes his hair and body. He wipes Humbaba’s blood off his weapons and polishes them. He puts on a clean robe and cloak and ties his hair back and sets his crown on his head. He looks so majestic that Ishtar, the goddess of love and war, is overcome with lust. She sends a marriage proposal to Gilgamesh, promising him riches if he plants his seed in her body. She tries to lure him by saying that they will live together in a cedar house and that she will give him a lapis lazuli chariot with golden wheels. Kings and princes will offer him all their wealth, she says. But Gilgamesh spurns her advances. Since, as a goddess, she has everything she wants Gilgamesh has nothing to offer her in return. He understands that her desire for his body is fleeting, and that she’ll soon lose interest. The king of Uruk tells her he knows the fate of her other human lovers, and they’ve all learned how cruel her heart and whims are.

Her husband, Tammuz, the shepherd, is a prisoner in the underworld and is mourned in festivals every year. Another shepherd she loved is a broken-winged bird now. She fell in love with a lion but later got it trapped in “ambush pits". Next, Ishtar loved a stallion but controlled it with harnesses, whips and spurs. She turned a goat herder into a wolf and when her father’s gardener rejected her advances, Ishtar turned him into a frog.

Gilgamesh seeks to know why he should expect to fare any better. Ishtar is furious, she goes to her father, Anu, the god of the firmament, and mother, Antum, demanding that the Bull of Heaven be let loose so that she can watch it gore Gilgamesh to death. Anu does not understand her anger as all that Gilgamesh said was true. Ishtar then throws a tantrum, threatening to let all of the dead people out of the underworld so they can feast on the living. Still, Anu hesitates and warns Ishtar that the bull will cause seven years of famine. He, however, gives in, when the petulant daughter assures him that she has made provisions for the people and the flocks of Uruk.

Ishtar unleashes the bull on the city as it comes down bellowing and snorting from the sky. A crack opens up in the earth, and one hundred men fall into it and die. Again the bull bellows and again the ground cracks open. One hundred more men are swallowed up. Enkidu attacks the bull in its third attempt. The angry bull spits and excretes on him but Enkidu grabs it by its horns and calls out to Gilgamesh, and they fight the bull together. Finally, Enkidu grabs its filthy tail and holds the bulls tight, Gilgamesh, in the meantime, splits it into two with his sword and kills it. Then they cut out its heart and offer it as a sacrifice to Shamash. Enraged, Ishtar climbs on to the walls of the city and curses the two friends. Enkidu picks up one of the bull’s bloody haunches and throws it at her. He warns that if she comes closer, he’ll do the same to her. While Ishtar, her followers, the temple prostitutes, mourn the bull, Gilgamesh gathers his craftsmen and shows them how beautifully the gods had made the creature. They also notice how thickly its horns were coated with lapis lazuli. Gilgamesh cuts them off its head and fills them with oil to offer in sacrifice to his father, Lugulbanda. Then he hangs them on the wall of his palace as trophies. Gilgamesh and Enkidu scrub the bull’s gore off their bodies in the Euphrates and return triumphantly through the streets of Uruk, basking in the people’s admiration. A proud Gilgamesh asks the crowds who the best hero is and himself answers his own question: “Gilgamesh is… Enkidu is.” At night, Enkidu sees a dream but wakes up suddenly, he asks Gilgamesh why the great gods are meeting in council.

Analysis

This tablet describes about the mythological background of Gilgamesh, the significance of Ishtar, the goddess of fertility, and her cruelty about her mortal lovers. Gilgamesh counters Ishtar's advances by listing out the human lovers whom she had turned into animals: a shepherd changed into a broken-winged bird, a goat herder into a wolf and a gardener into a frog.
Ishtar's husband, Tammuz, the god of vegetation and flocks, is an extremely important deity in Mesopotamia. He is born a mortal shepherd and only becomes a god after Ishtar chooses him as his lover. Later, he dies and goes to the underworld. The reasons for his death vary, but in many traditions, Ishtar is said to be at fault. Tammuz is resurrected, and annual festivals celebrate his resurrection with the greenery’s return in springtime.

In the mythologies and religions of many prehistoric cultures, the story about the goddess of fertility and her mortal lover who dies for her and is resurrected is universal. In different cultures, it has different names, but the script remains almost the same everywhere. The Greek myth of Aphrodite and Adonis, told by Ovid in the Metamorphoses, is repeated in Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis. Some anthropologists identify Jesus as an embodiment of the same mythical archetype manifested by Tammuz and Adonis, because Jesus, like Adonis, is a young male god who dies and is resurrected. The Epic of Gilgamesh draws on and discusses these myths but it is not a myth in itself but a work of literature. Gilgamesh describes the stories from Mesopotamian mythology, such as those of Ishtar and Tammuz, and at the same time, reflects upon them and changes them in significant ways. Rather than simply trying to preserve and pass on those myths, the poem treats mythological materials in such a way as to define and portray Gilgamesh’s character and his state of mind at this point in the story. Gilgamesh has the option of following the pattern set by Tammuz and to be the goddess’s lover, but he refuses. In a way, he is refusing his own mythology and standing apart from it. The tone and style of this tablet is playfully allusive, witty, vulgar and blasphemous. It also reminds the readers that this epic is literary rather than sacred. The portrayal of Ishtar in this tablet is downright negative and some scholars are of the view that it reflects a deeper agenda. They say Gilgamesh spurning Ishtar's advances signifies a rejection of goddess worship due to patriarchy in those times. From a literary criticism point of view, the most notable aspect of this tablet is Gilgamesh and Enkidu’s astonishing presumption.

Ishtar is an important goddess in Uruk, her temple is at the center of the city, and she looks after its safety and prosperity. Uruk’s king ritually reenacts Ishtar and Tammuz’s lovemaking in the role of its high priest. When Gilgamesh rejects the goddess, he refuses to do one of his royal duties. Gilgamesh’s affection for a companion of his own gender, whether chaste or unchaste, might also have offended the goddess of fertility.

Gilgamesh cleverly rejects Ishtar by using sweet language but refusing a goddess is totally disrespectful of him. Enkidu throwing the bull’s haunch at the goddess and threatening to slaughter her is also very crude and childish. By their unruly acts, Gilgamesh and Enkidu seem to have forgotten that they are ordinary mortals and have gone too far. When they killed Humbaba and cut the cedar trees under his guard, they defied the god Enlil.

They behave with goddess Ishtar as if she is a cast-off mistress. Gilgamesh shows the dead the bull to his craftsmen like an object as though he wants them to make something comparable. Flush with their victory over Humbaba, and thrilled from their successful duel with the bull, they act as proud warriors. The tone of the poetry conveys their boastful attitude and suggests that the poet is enjoying the folly of his wicked characters. Though Gilgamesh and Enkidu are respectful to Lugulbanda and Shamash, their boasting to the citizens of Uruk during their victory parade will be the last straw for the angry divinities.

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