The Role of the Harlot

One matter to consider when examining Enkidu’s role in the story is the purpose of the temple harlot. Many of us find her sexual initiation of Enkidu into civilization somewhat offensive. Two things to note:

  1. Even her culture had a conflicted view of her role.
  2. Specifically, the term that describes her is hierodule, a temple prostitute, a sacred "other" considered to have the power to maintain fertility. Yet a typical proverb of the day remarked, "Never marry a prostitute who gives herself to everybody. In your misery she will not support you; in your law-suit she will bring calamity on you; surely she destroys a house. The one who marries her will not prosper." This suggests that Sumerian culture was willing to perpetuate a fundamental hypocrisy in its treatment of women.

  3. We can critique this aspect of the story without losing the benefit it may have to offer in other areas.

Even if we acknowledge that the harlot’s role may reinforce a dangerous deception (cf. Hosea 4:10-14 for one voice that decried this trend), this need not negate anything of value the text has to offer us in other areas. Consider this: What might Enkidu teach us about the nature of human culture? Enkidu has to learn to dress himself, eat meals, and otherwise enter the life of the community. Enkidu’s learning of the rituals of eating suggests that being part of the human community entails embracing its customs, especially ones that build community between people.  Yet it may also suggest a disturbing view of what constitutes civilized.

 Four strengths to Gilgamesh’s and Enkidu’s friendship

Below are four common observations about qualities essential to a friendship. Note how these apply to Gilgamesh and Enkidu:

  1. Companionship – We share our lives with our friends. Gilgamesh and Enkidu are comrades. Try looking over what you’ve read so far. Where are places we can examine their shared lives?
  2. Common cause – Companions discover they have common insights or interests. What do these two have in common?
  3. Confrontation with truth – cf. Page 17. Enkidu is there to confront Gilgamesh with justice. Are there other places that Enkidu (or Gilgamesh) confront each other with truth?
  4. Co-struggles – Friends protect each other as they encounter dangers. How does their battle with Humbaba (and with the Bull of Heaven in the next unit’s reading) build their friendship?

"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding