What is the context behind Gilgamesh's rejection of Ishtar?
In Tablet VI of the Epic of Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh rejects Ishtar's advances after describing the harm she has caused to her previous lovers (e.g. she turned a shepard into a wolf).
I have a few questions about that part of the story:
- Why does Ishtar do those horrible things to her lovers?
- Is there a broader significance to that scene?
I understand the question to be asking what is the author’s intent in having Gilgamesh describe Ishtar’s prior lovers in the way he does, and what, as a literary matter, did the author want to convey through that scene. I agree with Jeffrey Tigay (p. 42) that there was a single creative mind behind the Old Babylonian, Akkadian text, who deserves to be viewed as an author, not simply as a complier or editor of earlier textual sources and myths. From this perspective, looking at the background of other myths is necessary and helpful, but we know that creative authors do change earlier material around for their own purposes, so in the end we must figure out the authorial intent. Since the earlier answer has already covered the Sumerian general background well, I’ll not dwell on that myself but focus on authorial intent.
Having said that, however, I should mention that the Sumerian myth Gilgamesh and the Bull of Heaven (see on ETCSL) is fairly relevant here. In that story Inanna is upset at Gilgamesh because he seems to want to usurp her ceremonial functions at the Eanna temple (and also spend too much time hunting in the wilds), and so she sends the Bull of Heaven after him, which he and Enkidu kill as in the Gilgamesh epic. Unlike in the Gilgamesh epic, here there is nothing about Gilgamesh rejecting the goddess as a lover (it appears at the beginning of the myth that they already have been lovers), but like in the Gilgamesh epic this myth does show Gilgamesh as having an overweening pride and disrespect for the goddess, which is what gets him into trouble, so this hubris motif is consistent as between the two stories. I don’t think that the Sumerian background generally portrays Inanna (later Ishtar) and Gilgamesh as eternal enemies, which would be unimaginable for this king of Uruk where Inanna had her Eanna temple as tutelary deity of the city he ruled (meaning that as king he may have annually undertaken a sacred marriage ritual with her). In another Sumerian myth known as The Huluppu Tree, it is Gilgamesh who is Inanna’s hero and benefactor. There he chased a serpent, the Anzu-bird, and Lilith away from Inanna’s sacred tree in her garden after her own brother Utu had ignored her entreaties and refused to do so. Gilgamesh came to her rescue, and then fashioned parts of the tree into gifts for her. It is possible that in the aftermath they became lovers. Thus, I think the cause of their spat in the Gilgamesh epic is particular to this story, which gets us back to what its author was up to.
From a literary standpoint, I think Gilgamesh’s encounter with Ishtar in the epic should be considered against Enkidu’s earlier sexual encounter with the cult courtesan Shamhat, from whom he gains wisdom and becomes civilized. Gilgamesh, on the other hand, already has this knowledge and a high degree of wisdom when he confronts Ishtar. But here he is too smart and knowledgeable for his own good. So when Ishtar makes her advances, he calls up the litany of her failed relationships with other lovers and says he wants no part of that. But he goes on and on about it in a prideful way and is really insulting to Ishtar, something that a human (or demigod like Gilgamesh) should never do to. This is a display of hubris, which explains the long litany. If he is to refuse, he should at least do so politely and diplomatically, but he did not apply his wisdom here. Further, humans must stay in their proper place in relation to deities and not rise about their station. Thus, Gilgamesh probably should not have refused at all, and acted according to his station in life. Recall that, as king of Uruk, Gilgamesh probably would have been obligated to undertake annually a sacred marriage ceremony with her, in which case his rejection of her would be an improper dereliction of duty in violation of the established cosmic order. His and Enkidu’s pride brings on the onslaught of the Bull of Heaven, where they display even more hubris, Enkidu by throwing the haunch of the dismembered Bull at Ishtar. This sets up the real punishment. Gilgamesh instead of Enkidu could have perished in response to vanquishing the Bull, but the gods decide that Enkidu should die. Nevertheless, Gilgamesh suffers greatly by reason of Enkidu’s death, which is necessary for the plot because this is what gets him thinking about immortality and sets him off on his quest for that. In that quest he displays more pride and ambition, but in the end he has to be reconciled with human life and his fate as it is.
On the other hand, Ishtar too is being portrayed negatively here. From her own behavior (e.g., she does the proposing) and what Gilgamesh describes about her in the litany, it becomes clear that she is acting badly, in fact much like a man, so it is understandable why Gilgamesh rejects her. Contrast this with the story’s favorable portrayals of Shamhat and Siduri, who reflect more traditional feminine profiles favored by the author. Thus, both Ishtar and Gilgamesh are aspiring to go beyond their proper stations, as a result of which each of their expected roles has become inverted to some extent: Gilgamesh attempting to become divine rather than living as a man, and the goddess acting like a man rather than serving in a more conventional female role.
Dalley, Stephanie. Myths from Mesopotamia. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1989. Contains text of Gilgamesh epic with annotations.
Foster, Benjamin, trans. and ed. The Epic of Gilgamesh. New York: Norton. 2001. Norton Critical edition with critical essays.
Jacobsen, Thorkild. The Treasures of Darkness. New Haven: Yale University Press. 1976.
Leick, Gwendolyn. A Dictionary of Ancient Near Eastern Mythology. London: Routledge, 1991.
Tigay, Jeffrey. The Evolution of the Gilgamesh Epic. Wauconda, Illinois: Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers. 2002.
Wolkstein, Diane, and Samuel Noah Kramer. Inanna: Queen of Heaven and Earth - Her Stories and Hymns from Sumer. New York: Harper & Row. 1983. Contains The Huluppu Tree myth.