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Ep. 3 - The Epic of Gilgamesh: Exploring Ancient Sexualities

Hi guys and welcome back to the Sex and the Sacred Show Notes! There’s lots of material for this episode, so let’s get right to it.

At the beginning of the episode, I told you that the Epic of Gilgamesh is the oldest work of ancient literature that we know of. The bulk of the story comes to us from a set of 12 clay tablets, found in an excavation at Nineveh in 1853. This version was written somewhere between 1300-1000CE, nearly a millennium after the oldest fragments of the story were written. Needless to say, this story is beyond ancient. Look through the slideshow below to see a few of the cuneiform tablets. Likewise, if you’d like to read the epic in its entirety, check out the story here. If you want the details of the story without the ancient grammar, check out the SparkNotes here!

The Epic centers around Gilgamesh, king of Uruk. Uruk is one of the oldest cities known to archeologists, and was part of a series of cities composing the region that we now call the “Cradle of Civilization,” or Mesopotamia. Check out this link to learn more about the history of Uruk!

Uruk, throughout the Epic, is ruled by Gilgamesh, who begins his story as a cruel leader and sexual predator. It is jarring for the modern reader to see such abhorrent crimes glossed over by the ancient author but, as is the case in many historical contexts, Gilgamesh’s behavior was not uncommon. I will not dive into the horrors of what ancient women’s bodily agency looked like in this article, but it is important to remember the biases of ancient writings. Gilgamesh is regarded as the hero of the story; while historians must explore the story as it is given to us, it is important to read both what is written and what is ignored by the ancient authors.

Okay. With that in mind, let’s move on to talk about Gilgamesh’s relationships in the story.

As mentioned in the episode, there are three key sexual relationships. While the Sex and the Sacred episode focuses mostly on the primary relationship (that between Gilgamesh and Enkidu), scholarship has produced a number of fantastic works exploring all of these relationships. Use the lists below to explore!

Gilgamesh and Women of Uruk

Gilgamesh and Enkidu

Gilgamesh and Ishtar

Sex and the Sacred will be publishing an episode on the figure of Ishtar in Mesopotamian culture in the coming months. Stay tuned!

Before we zoom in to Gilgamesh and Enkidu’s relationship, I want to take a moment to revisit the discussion of language and meaning in the podcast episode. Historians are tasked with uncovering the past; we do this in a variety of ways and, inevitably, we struggle to separate our subjects from ourselves. Most of the history of, well, history is focused solely on the group of elites that conquered, killed, and learned to write their stories. Recent scholarship has begun the process of undoing a great deal of our previous ideas of what “history” really looked like; the budding field of history and sexuality is a perfect example of this. In reading the Epic of Gilgamesh, modern scholars can approach the variety of relationships in the story in a new way. Instead of applying our modern concepts of sexuality (in much the same way that our forefathers applied their concepts of morality and, often, homophobia), we can approach the story without assumptions. By refusing to use modern labels for ancient characters, we can achieve a far better understanding of Gilgamesh and the literary (and historical) world he lived in.

If you’d like to read a little more about this, check out the two works below from linguist and historian John D’Emilio. The first is wonderfully thorough, albeit a little dense; the second applies this concept to 19th century history, but conveys the message well:

Okay, now to the heart of the episode.

Gilgamesh and Enkidu’s relationship, as previously mentioned in the episode, clearly takes on erotic elements. Susan Ackerman’s book When Heroes Love: The Ambiguity of Eros in the Stories of Gilgamesh and David does a fantastic job of breaking down the evidence; I highly recommend the book to any of you who are interested in exploring further. Ackerman’s work is joined by a number of other works that go a long way to analyse the relationship between the once wild-man and the king of Uruk. Check out the list below to read them!

The dynamics of Gilgamesh and Enkidu’s relationship take on, shall we say, a decidedly gendered tone. Enkidu, once he meets with the protagonist of the story, gives up his dominant personality traits in favor of more demure ones; traits that are, unmistakably, coded to be female. In order for Gilgamesh and Enkidu’s relationship to flourish, Enkidu had to adopt the position expected of women in Mesopotamian society. As I mentioned in the episode, this is less a reflection of Enkidu’s character, and more a reflection of Mesopotamian society itself. Check out Tzvi Abusch’s book, Male and Female in the Epic of Gilgamesh: Encounters, Literary History, and Interpretation to read more!

Alright, that’s all I have for you today! Thanks for stopping by the ShowNotes; I’ll see you in two weeks to chat about Joanne of Arc!

P.S. Check this out! It’s a rolling pin engraved with text from the Epic of Gilgamesh, Tablet 5 - WAY better than a regular gingerbread house!!!



Abusch, Tzvi. 1986. “Ishtar’s Proposal and Gilgamesh’s Refusal: An Interpretation of ‘The Gilgamesh Epic’, Tablet 6, Lines 1-79.” History of Religions 26 (2): 143–87.

———. 2014. Male and Female in the Epic of Gilgamesh: Encounters, Literary History, and Interpretation. University Park, PANAMA: Penn State University Press.

Ackerman, Susan. 2005. When Heroes Love: The Ambiguity of Eros in the Stories of Gilgamesh and David. Columbia University Press.

Christensen, Peter. 2001. “Gilgamesh and Enkidu: Friends or Lovers? A Review of Translations and Bibliographical Essay.” Lamar Journal of the Humanities 26 (1): 19.

Cooper, Jerrold. 2002. “Buddies in Babylonia: Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and Mesopotamian Homosexuality.” In Riches Hidden in Secret Places: Ancient Near Eastern Studies in Memory of Thorkild Jacobsen, edited by Tzvi Abusch, William W. Hallo, Stephen Geller, and Tzvi Abusch. University Park, PANAMA: Penn State University Press.

D’Emilio, John. 2019. “The History of Sexuality: An Assessment of the State of the Field.” History and Theory 58 (1): 126–34.

Foley, Helene P. 2005. “Women in Ancient Epic.” In A Companion to Ancient Epic, 105–18. John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

Freedman, Estelle B., and John D’Emilio. 1990. “Problems Encountered in Writing the History of Sexuality: Sources, Theory and Interpretation.” The Journal of Sex Research 27 (4): 481–95.

Harris, Rivkah. Gender and Aging in Mesopotamia : The Gilgamesh Epic and Other Ancient Literature. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2000.

Leick, Gwendolyn, and Gwendolyn Leick. 1994. Sex and Eroticism in Mesopotamian Literature. London, UNITED STATES: Taylor & Francis Group.

Noegel, Scott B. 2005. “Mesopotamian Epic.” In A Companion to Ancient Epic, 233–45. John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

“Sexuality and Religion in Mesopotamia - Leick - 2008 - Religion Compass - Wiley Online Library.” n.d. Accessed June 27, 2021.

“Tavola Shop.” n.d. Tavola Mediterranea (blog). Accessed June 27, 2021.

The Epic of Gilgamesh. n.d. Accessed June 27, 2021.

“The Epic of Gilgamesh: Study Guide.” n.d. SparkNotes. Accessed June 27, 2021.

Villiers, Gerda De. 2020. “Suffering in the Epic of Gilgamesh Epic.” Old Testament Essays 33 (3).

Ziolkowski, Theodore. 2011. Gilgamesh among Us: Modern Encounters with the Ancient Epic. Ithaca, UNITED STATES: Cornell University Press.

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