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Enkidu’s Erotic Escapades

July 30, 2008

When working through Gilgamesh with my students this summer I ran into a snag. I posited that Enkidu’s socialization by Shamhat was a good thing. My students resisted. And in the process, I discovered some very interesting text-critical and translational choices of Andrew George.

To begin with, I should state that I’ve always interpreted Enkidu’s socialization in tablet I pretty much in keeping with Thorkild Jacobsen:

Something magical has happened. The easy, natural sympathy that exists between children and animals had been Enkidu’s as long as he was a child, sexually innocent. Once he has known a woman he has made his choice, from then on he belongs to the human race, and the animals fear him and cannot silently communicate with him as they did before…. “He grew up,” says the author, “and his understanding broadened.” (Jacobsen 1976, 197)

When I posed this interpretive framework for the Epic, my students pointed to Andrew George’s translation of I:199-200.

Enkidu had defiled his body so pure,
his legs stood still, though his herd was in motion. (George 2003a, 8 )

When we hit tablet VII and Enkidu’s cursing of Shamhat for the aforementioned sexual activity, my students pointed again to holes in my interpretation by quoting George’s translations of VII:130-31.

‘Because [you made] me [weak, who was undefiled!]
Yes, in the wild [you weakened] me, who was undefiled!’ (George 2003a, 58 )

All of this left me quite vexed and weakened myself. However, after looking into George’s larger, two volume edition (George 2003b), I believe that Jacobsen is right; and perhaps George is being a prude.

To begin with the second quote first, George’s scholarly translation give a clearer idea of the line.

‘Because [you made] me weak, me [who was pure!]
And me who was pure, [you made] me [weak] when I was in the wild.’ (George 2003b, 641)

Obviously, being ‘pure’ is different from being ‘undefiled.’ No one (including Jacobsen) would debate that Enkidu is no longer as pure as the driven snow after a week-long, marathon sexual escapade with a harlot! However, that doesn’t mean that he was defiled by the account. Nor, as it turns out, does the text in tablet I state that he was.

The George 2003b has Akkadian in 1:199-200 is as followed:

199 ul-taḫ-ḫi d en-ki-dù ul-lu-la pa-gar-šu
200 it-ta-ziz-za bir-ka-a-šú šá il-la-ka bu-ul-šú

While there are several variants among the three MSS that George has for this line, the only significant one for us is for the first verb: ul-taḫ-ḫi-ID. In a note, George states that this is an inferior reading (George 2003b, 551 n.37), but no real rational is stated. Indeed, the three MSS each have a different verb (the last option being ul-taḫ-ḫa, which while minor, nonetheless points to a real issue in corruption).

In the SAACT volume, Parpola transcribes the verb as ul-taḫ-ḫi-iṭ, taking it as a Dt perf of šaḫāṭu “to leap, jump.” (Parpola 1997, 140) Another possibility, and one that I prefer, is to realize the ID sign as –it and parse it from the verb šaḫātu “to fear.” Regardless, either translation doesn’t require poor Enkidu being defiled.

But, what of George’s preferred variant? He never states what verb he thinks it is. As best I can tell he takes it from šuḫḫû, which means either “to have (illicit) sexual intercourse” or “to remove, abolish” according to the CAD Š/3. My bet is with the first definition. However, even this definition doesn’t give the sense of “defile;” indeed it seems to be used for sacred prostitution! It should also be pointed that either possibility is poorly attested and really has to be crammed into the context. I’m all for taking the more difficult variant, but this seems to strain credulity.

This of course brings up the question of why George doesn’t take the obvious choice. If it were not for his popular translation I’d chalk it up to overly conservative epigraphy. However, the popular translation (George 2003a) makes me wonder if George is being a bit of a prude here. Why make poor Enkidu defiled if you don’t have to? I wonder if we’re getting George reading a bit too much into the text.

In the end, I’m please to say that I don’t think our friend Enkidu has been defiled by Shamhat. He may no longer be a virgin, and the text shows that there are consequences to his sexual liaison, but the author seems to think this is a good thing. And I have to agree.


George 2003a The Epic of Gilgamesh (2nd revised printing; Penguin).
George 2003b The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic (2 vols; Oxford Press).
Jacobsen 1976 The Treasures of Darkness: A History of Mesopotamian Religion (Yale).
Parpola 1997 The Standard Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh (SAACT 1; Helsinki).

3 Comments leave one →
  1. parkersmood permalink
    July 31, 2008 7:47 pm

    Thanks for sharing Jim,

    I was working on this text this week (in translation) looking especially at the erotic imagery in the text. Great post!

  2. Erik permalink
    August 4, 2008 11:22 am

    how can loosing the ability to walk and talk with the animals be a good thing?! That’s probably the chief reason I’m remaining undefiled.

  3. August 6, 2008 10:11 pm

    Jim, I feel your pain. I “grew up” reading Gilgamesh in Parpola’s edition. And the translation that I was most familiar with was Dalley’s. Then, right after I finished course work, George issued his translation and then eventually his ridiculously priced edition and commentary. Well, I bought the translation and ILLed the commentary once when my wife was writing about Gilgamesh for kids several years back. She’d come to me and ask, “remember when it says X and George says it means Y? What do you think about that?” I’d have to admit ignorance because it wasn’t in the previous editions I’d known or I’d never heard of that interpretation. It was all very frustrating until I read through his translation several times and worked through the commentary on the SB Version. Then I could actually converse about Gilgamesh to my wife! But my memory still recalls stuff from the old version and forgets what’s been added now and then. And students sometimes mention passages that have been recently reconstructed and it takes a minute to register.

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