Women and Goddesses in the Epic of Gilgamesh

Gilgamesh is a Babylonian epic, recorded in Akkadian on a number of ancient tablets. Gilgamesh is thought to have lived around 2,800 – 2,500 BCE[1], and most of the tablets, telling the standard version of the story, are thought to date from the seventh century BCE. Stephanie Dalley also gives an earlier version in her book, called the Old Babylonian Version, dating to around the early second millennium[2]. There are several versions of the stories, which concern the adventures of Gilgamesh and his comrade Enkidu as they embark on an eventful quest. Dalley asserted that the version that has reached us consists of stories that were stitched together:

[It provides a] unique opportunity . . . for tracing earlier independent folk-tales which were combined in the creation of the whole work, and we can see how the whole work in written form never became fossilized, but was constantly altered through contact with a continuing oral native tradition[3].

Dalley’s own view of Gilgamesh’s historicity changed. She began by believing him to have existed, but later changed her mind[4]. Whatever the truth of this, it seems certain that ancient people thought he was a real historical figure. I quote Dalley’s translation in this blog, and also the Kovacs translation, which is available online[5].

Photo: Uruk Archaeological site at Warka, Iraq
Uruk Archaeological site at Warka, Iraq

Briefly, the story tells of Gilgamesh—son of the King of Uruk, Lugalbanda—and his friend, Enkidu, embarking on a successful quest to kill the monster Humbaba. Gilgamesh offended two goddesses, and he and Enkidu were also required to kill the Bull of Heaven, but in doing this Enkidu lost his life, whereupon Gilgamesh embarked on a search for immortality. In this journey Gilgamesh and Enkidu encountered a number of women who helped them on their way.

The Epic, an early ring composition, begins with a description of Gilgamesh after the story has finished, when he was designing cities and building walls after the Flood. He was the son of the King of Uruk, Lugalbanda, and Ninsun, who had a wonderful epithet, the Lofty Cow or Wild Cow, also known as ‘she who knows all things’[6]. We are not told why her qualities were associated with cattle. However, cattle were represented frequently in ancient stories, where they were hunted, sacrificed, eaten, and generally needed to be controlled.

Relief carving: Ninsun. Female figure seated, facing left
Ninsun. Relief, 2350–2000 BCE

Ninsun’s main roles in the story were to interpret dreams and to dispense wisdom. Gilgamesh told her of a dream he had:

“Mother, I had a dream last night.
Stars of the sky appeared,
and some kind of meteorite(?) of Anu fell next to me.
I tried to lift it but it was too mighty for me,
I tried to turn it over but I could not budge it.
The Land of Uruk was standing around it,
the whole land had assembled about it,
the populace was thronging around it,
the Men clustered about it,
and kissed its feet as if it were a little baby (!).
I loved it and embraced it as a wife.
I laid it down at your feet,
and you made it compete with me.”
The mother of Gilgamesh, the wise, all-knowing, said to her Lord;
Rimat-Ninsun, the wise, all-knowing, said to Gilgamesh:
“As for the stars of the sky that appeared
and the meteorite(?) of Anu which fell next to you,
you tried to lift but it was too mighty for you,
you tried to turn it over but were unable to budge it,
you laid it down at my feet,
and I made it compete with you,
and you loved and embraced it as a wife.”
“There will come to you a mighty man, a comrade who saves his friend–
he is the mightiest in the land, he is strongest,
his strength is mighty as the meteorite(!) of Anu!
You loved him and embraced him as a wife;
and it is he who will repeatedly save you.
Your dream is good and propitious!”[7]

Modern statue depicting Gilgamesh wrestling a lion, in the style of ancient Assyrian sculpture
Lewis Batros: Statue of Gilgamesh, 2000, at University of Sydney

Early in his life Gilgamesh was overbearing and claimed the droit de seigneur, a right claimed by many ancient kings to have sex with newly married women in their communities:

He will impregnate the destined wife,
He first,
The husband afterwards.[8]

The women of Uruk opposed his behaviour and asked the Mother Goddess Aruru to intervene. She was credited with creating humans, including Gilgamesh, and she was called upon by the people of Uruk to correct Gilgamesh’s bad behaviour. So, she created Enkidu from clay. The epic tells us very little else about her.

Stone tablet: Enkidu. "He wears a horned helmet and his lower body is bull-like (not shown here).
Enkidu, relief from Ur, Iraq. 2027–1763 BCE

Enkidu was a wild man and Gilgamesh complained to his father, Lugalbanda, that Enkidu was uncontrollable:

He kept filling in the pits that I dug
He kept pulling out the traps that I laid
He kept helping cattle, wild beasts of open country, to escape my grasp
He will not allow me to work [9].

Lugalbanda suggested that a ‘harlot’, Shamhat, be asked to civilise Enkidu by seducing him at a watering place. The sexual activity is fairly explicit, but it seems to have been successful in civilising Enkidu so that:

[Enkidu’s] legs, which used to keep pace with his cattle, were at a standstill.
Enkidu had been diminished, he could not run as before.
Yet he had acquired judgement, had become wiser[10].

Shamhat was later referred to as Enkidu’s wife:

He has taken a wife from the gods
And he shall bring up daughters of gods[11].

I wondered whatever Shamhat was doing. In Dalley’s translation Shamhat is described as a ‘harlot’[12] , which is a word which suggests moral degradation. A quick look at the internet offers other, mostly pejorative, translations of the same Akkadian word: wanton, child of pleasure, tempter, and ensnarer. It all seems rather odd: a woman we might now call a prostitute was asked to have sex with Enkidu by members of a social aristocracy, not for Enkidu’s pleasure, but in order to make him a better person. This is moral enhancement through sex, not moral degradation. I think we should re-claim Shamhat from being an immoral harlot, to being a sexually-active woman, whose actions prove to be valuable to her community, and integral to the story. Perhaps she is like a temple prostitute. However, I do not think we really have a word for such a woman in English, and perhaps not even that concept.

The next part of the story is incomplete, but it tells of Gilgamesh’s first rejection of a goddess. Gilgamesh’s bed has been prepared for Ishhara, who was the Babylonian Goddess of Marriage and Childbirth, and whose symbol, according to Dalley, was a scorpion[13]. Enkidu appeared, though, and wrestled with Gilgamesh, preventing him from going to Ishhara, before a homoerotic passage, and the two men end the section in each other’s arms. Gilgamesh’s Mother, Ninsun appears to take part in this event, but parts of the story are missing and her role is unclear.

Terracotta plaque: Humbaba. Fierce looking head facing straight at the viewer
Humbaba, terracotta plaque, 2004–1595 BCE

Gilgamesh then decided to go on a quest to kill the monster Humbaba, who was guardian of the pine forest. Enkidu counselled against this, but they armed themselves[14]. Ninsun then went through a ritual and offered prayers to the Sun God Shamash for their safe return:

Ninsun went into her living quarters.
She washed herself with the purity plant,
she donned a robe worthy of her body,
she donned jewels worthy of her chest,
she donned her sash, and put on her crown.
She sprinkled water from a bowl onto the ground.
She… and went up to the roof.
She went up to the roof and set incense in front of Shamash.

I she offered fragrant cuttings, and raised her arms to Shamash.
“Why have you imposed–nay, inflicted!–a restless heart on
my son, Gilgamesh!
Now you have touched him so that he wants to travel
a long way to where Humbaba is!
He will face fighting such as he has not known,
and will travel on a road that he does not know!
Until he goes away and returns,
until he reaches the Cedar Forest,
until he kills Humbaba the Terrible,
and eradicates from the land something baneful that you hate,
on the day that you see him on the road.”

. . .
She banked up the incense and uttered the ritual words.[15]

The elders told the pair how to succeed in a quest together. In many myths heroes fight in pairs, and this might be the reason why:

The one who goes on ahead saves the comrade.
The one who knows the route protects his friend.
Let Enkidu go ahead of you;
he knows the road to the Cedar Forest,
he has seen fighting, has experienced battle.
Enkidu will protect the friend, will keep the comrade safe.
Let his body urge him back to the wives.
In our Assembly we have entrusted the King to you (Enkidu),
and on your return you must entrust the King back to us! [16]

Gilgamesh and Enkidu went on a travel and bonding ritual (an odyssey?), where the same narrative was repeated. It involved Enkidu’s interpretation of Gilgamesh’s dreams, rituals in honour of Shamash, the Sun God, and the two of them encouraging each other to remain courageous. They trekked through the cedar forest and encountered and killed Humbaba, who insulted Enkidu by saying he did not know his own father. Gilgamesh was frightened, but Enkidu encouraged him. In order to win they summoned Shamash, who was in charge of winds, and invoked the god Ellil. Humbaba acknowledged defeat, and Gilgamesh’s triumph over the forces of nature:

You have found out the nature of my forest, the nature [of my dwelling]
And now you know all their . . [17]

Gilgamesh washed and dressed ritually and went to Ishtar (goddess of love and war), and she promised him riches:

Come to me, Gilgamesh and be my lover . . .
I shall have a chariot of lapis lazuli and gold harnessed for you,
With wheels of gold, and horns of elmesu-stone . . .
The verdure of mountain and country shall bring you produce
Your goats shall bear triplets, your ewes twins’[18].

Stone carving: female pouring libation, facing forwards
Female deity pouring a life-giving water from a vessel. Façade of Inanna Temple at Uruk, Iraq. 15th century BCE

Gilgamesh rejected her, however, suggesting her promises were empty, and that her followers had been cruelly destroyed. He catalogued the dire fates of her previous lovers, and expressed his fear that similar fates await him if he married her. Ishtar is the only female in the story to react with strong emotion, and she felt rejection and shame. She persuaded her father to allow the Bull of Heaven to destroy Gilgamesh, arguing that she had been responsible for fertility and grain storage within the community, so fertility would be maintained even though the death of the bull, associated with plentiful harvest, might cause famine. Ishtar was ‘contorted with rage’[19], and wept as Enkidu and Gilgamesh killed the Bull of Heaven and presented it to the Sun God Shamash, celebrating with their male friends

In the Euphrates they washed their hands
And held hands and came
Riding through the main street of Uruk.
Gilgamesh addressed a word to his retainers,
“Who is finest among the young men?
Who is proudest among the males?
Gilgamesh is finest among the young men!
Gilgamesh is proudest among the males!”[20]

Drawing taken from a seal depicting Gilgamesh. Two lion-like creatures, a human, and a bull, in a struggle
Gilgamesh on a seal of Mesannapeda, 2600 BCE

This story is consistent with the concept of the sacred king, returning from his quest, being rewarded with sex with a queen or goddess, and then being sacrificed in order to preserve fertility in the land. Gilgamesh’s catalogue of Ishtar’s dead former lovers may represent Ishtar’s sacrificed kings. Gilgamesh rejected the old ways of heterosexual relations with goddesses in favour of the adoption of a male god, Shamash, and the company of men. If, as some suggest, this is one of the old stories that tells of the patriarchal takeover of a matriarchal religion[21], the evidence is here to support such an interpretation.

The gods discussed the developments, and eventually decided that Enkidu must die. Following Enkidu’s death, Gilgamesh voiced a long lament and carried out funerary rituals. In grief, he roamed the open country, prayed to the Moon God, Sin, and resolved to seek Utnapishtim, who would tell him the secret of immortality, and Enkidu’s resurrection. On his journey he encountered the fearsome and strange Scorpion people, who fulfilled the same role as others in the story, telling Gilgamesh about his route on his quest, and foretelling difficulty. The Scorpion Woman is only mentioned briefly, as the Scorpion man summoned her when the guests arrived and she commented that Gilgamesh was one third human and two thirds divine, a fact that had been established early in the story. She did little other than to demonstrate insight. Possibly the Scorpion people are connected to astrology, or perhaps with Ishhara, the goddess whom Gilgamesh first rejected.

Illustration from a modern verse translation of "Ishtar and Izdubar" depicting the characters in imagined period costume
Izdubar Taking Leave of Sabitu and Siduri in the Happy Halls, illustration 1884

Eventually Gilgamesh encountered ‘Siduri, the ale-wife who lives down by the sea’[22]. I love the rhythm of that epithet. Gilgamesh told her of his grief and his journeys and asked the way to Utnapishtim. In one version Siduri warned Gilgamesh that he would not find the immortality he craved:

Gilgamesh, where do you roam?
You will not find the eternal life you seek.
When the gods created mankind
They appointed death for mankind, kept eternal life in their own hands.
So, Gilgamesh, let your stomach be full,
Day and night enjoy yourself in every way,
Every day arrange for pleasures.
Day and night dance and play,
Wear fresh clothes.
Keep your head washed, bathe in water,
Appreciate the child who holds your hand,
Let your wife enjoy herself in your lap[23].

This ‘carpe diem’ sentiment is echoed in a number of other ancient writings, notably in Ecclesiastes 9.

Siduri advised Gilgamesh that crossing the sea is very difficult, but directed him to a boatman, Ur-shanabi, who might be able to cross the Waters of Death and take him to Utnapishtim. Gilgamesh, Ur-shanabi and Utnapishtim had many adventures and told each other their stories, including Utnapishtim’s experience of building an ark so that he and his family could survive a great flood. Utnapishtim’s wife provided bread and advised her husband that Gilgamesh should be persuaded to go home. Eventually Utnapishtim enabled Gilgamesh to acquire a plant that would ensure his immortality and sent him home. But a snake stole the plant, in a strange echo of a snake ensuring mortality in the Garden of Eden, and Gilgamesh went home distraught. There follows a description of Gilgamesh’s building in Uruk:

One square mile is city, one square mile is orchards, one square mile is claypits, as well as the open ground of Ishtar’s temple[24].

Remains of columns, displayed in Pergamon Museum
Columns with clay mosaic cones from the Eanna precinct in Uruk, 3600–3200 BCE

In a strange final section Enkidu appears to resurrect from the dead, after a series of ritual activities.

The main theme of the epic is the change in the character of Gilgamesh, as he learned, by carrying out quests, that immortality rests in legacies to his community, and not in personal resurrection. His individual transformation occurred in the contexts in which the characters found themselves, which included travel and migration, the controlling of nature, urbanisation, recognition of different sexualities, a growing perception of what masculinity and immortality meant, and a rejection of the old religion and adoption of a new patriarchal religious focus.

It is noticeable that, while the men in the story changed profoundly, the women remained the same. I say ‘women’ here, and not ‘females’, because the only female in the story who reacted to change was the goddess Ishtar. Women represented stability, including geographical stability, and continuity, throughout (Bennett’s book[25] was useful in prompting me to think about this). Women’s activities included creation, religious ritual, wisdom and the expression of sexuality. The women used their powers derived from their wisdom and their sexuality to foretell societal change, and to facilitate men’s transitions.

Related topic

Open House | The Epic of Gilgamesh, with Jacqueline Vayntrub


1 Dalley, Stephanie (1989). Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, The Flood, Gilgamesh and Others. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989. p. 40.

2 Dalley (1989), p. 45.

3 Dalley (1989), p. 39.

4 Dalley, Stephanie (2016). “Gilgamesh and heroes at Troy: myth, history and education in the invention of tradition”. In: Sherratt, Susan. and Bennet, John (eds). Archaeology and Homeric epic. Oxbow Books: Sheffield Studies in Aegean Archaeology. 2016.

6 Dalley (1989), p. 136.

8 Dalley (1989), p. 139.

9 Dalley (1989), p. 53.

10 Dalley (1989), p. 56.

11 Dalley (1989), p. 66.

12 Dalley (1989), p. 54.

13 Dalley (1989), pp. 60 and 323.

14 Dalley (1989), pp. 62, 144

17 Dalley (1989), p.75.

18 Dalley (1989), p. 78.

19 Dalley (1989), p. 82.

20 Dalley (1989), p. 83.

21 For a discussion of this concept: Graves, Robert. The Greek Myths. London, Penguin. 1955. p. 14.

22 Dalley (1989), p. 99.

23 Dalley (1989), p. 150.

24 Dalley (1989), p. 120.

25 Bennett, J.M.  History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism University of Pennsylvania Press. 2006. Online at

Image credits

Uruk Archaeological site at Warka, Iraq
Photo: SAC Andy Holmes (RAF)/MOD. Open Government Licence version 1.0 (OGL v1.0), via Wikimedia Commons

Lewis Batros: Statue of Gilgamesh, University of Sydney
Photo: D. Gordon E. Robertson, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. via Wikimedia Commons

Ninsun. Relief, 2350–2000 BCE
Photo: Jastrow. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Enkidu, from Ur, 2027–1763 BCE
Photo: Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg). Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license, via Wikimedia Commons

Humbaba, 2004–1595 BCE
Photo: Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg). Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license, via Wikimedia Commons

Female deity pouring a life-giving water from a vessel. Façade of Inanna Temple at Uruk, Iraq. 15th century BCE
Photo: Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg). Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license, via Wikimedia Commons

Gilgamesh on a seal of Mesannapeda, 2600 BCE
Image: DR. L. LEGRAIN. Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication, via Wikimedia Commons

Izdubar Taking Leave of Sabitu and Siduri in the Happy Halls, 1884
“Illustration from: “Ishtar and Izdubar, the epic of Babylon; or, the Babylonian Goddess of Love and the Hero and Warrior King; constructed from the great Accadian Epic … found in cuneiform inscriptions on tablets … now deposited in the British Museum … Restored in modern verse, by L. Le C. Hamilton, etc.”
British Library, no known copyright restrictions, via Flickr

Columns with clay mosaic cones from the Eanna precinct in Uruk, 3600–3200 BCE
Photo: Neoclassicism Enthusiast, Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication, via Wikimedia Commons

Note: Images have been selected from pictures that are freely available with open source or Creative Commons licenses or from photographs sent in by community members for the purpose. The images in this post are intended to suggest the subject, rather than illustrate exactly—as such, they may be from other periods, subjects, or cultures. Attributions are based where possible by those shown by galleries or museums, or on Wikimedia Commons or Flickr, at the time of publication on this website.


Anne Spendiff is a member of Kosmos Society