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Does Ishtar Advocate Premarital Sex?

February 2, 2010

Ishtar’s request and Gilgamesh’s denial is one of the interpretive cruxes of the Gilgamesh Epic. In “Gilgamesh: Sex, Love and the Ascent of Knowledge” from the festschrift for Marin Pope, Benjamin Foster proposes that the poet who wrote the Standard Edition of the Gilgamesh Epic intended to portray an arc from the simplest of human knowledge (sex) to the most lasting forms of wisdom, which are then handed down to the next generation (e.g. Gilgamesh’s discussion of the walls of Uruk at the end of the epic). In the midst of his argument he makes some interesting assertions concerning Ishtar’s intentions in her advances toward Gilgamesh.

Foster interpreted the refusal of Gilgamesh in Tablet VI as a rejection of sexual knowledge and the beginning of self-knowledge. Particularly interesting is Foster’s interpretation of lines VI:6-9.

The poet’s intention is clear: Gilgamesh is first urged to be a lover, then her husband. By this device the poet undermines the legitimacy of her proposal, as not only is a woman here proposing to a man, but she is proposing intercourse before marriage. (p. 34)

This interpretation is based off of reading line 7 in a particular way. Foster translates the line as follows:

“Come to me, Gilgamesh, you should be a lover.” (p.34)

However, Andrew George translates the line differently in his Penguin edition of The Epic of Gilgamesh:

“Come, Gilgamesh, be you my bridegroom.” (p. 48)

The translation of the Akkadian word ḫāʾiru is the real difference here. Is this person a “bridegroom” or a “lover”? The evidence is inconclusive. The CAD lists both as possibilities (CAD Ḫ, p. 31). However, the verb ḫâru is defined in the G as “to pick or take as mate (for oneself or someone else)” (CAD Ḫ, p. 119). This can be seen, for example in Code of Ḫammurapi §155:74 “If a man takes a bride for his son…”. The verb then points towards marriage (or at least concubinage) rather than simply sex.

If the verb might be use to help further elucidate the meaning of the noun, George’s translation of “bridegroom” might win the day; but that’s a big assumption. On the other hand, Foster’s translation assumes that the word means “lover;” and he adds to this the implication of illicit sex, which the lexical evidence for neither noun nor verb can testify. All this leads me to reject Foster’s interpretation of VI: 9-13, though I still find his larger schema for the epic quite useful.

In short, Ishtar isn’t imply sex before marriage in VI: 9-13.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. February 2, 2010 3:12 pm

    You might get some good hits out of this post. Absolutely no pun intended.

    Sometimes I think English is kind of like Arabic: every word has four meanings: its prima facie meaning; the opposite; something to do with sex, and something to do with cats/dogs.

    I think Foster came around to George’s translation of the line in question. In the Norton Critical Edition of the Gilgamesh Epic prepared by Foster – published in 2001 versus 1987 of the FS – he has:

    Come, Gilgamesh, you shall be my bridegroom!

    Okay, but the next line is:

    Give, oh give me of your lusciousness!

    It sounds like Ishtar wants a package deal: sex and marriage together. I’m not so sure Ishy is the kind of gal whose word is worth much, but she may have been within the outer limits of acceptable behavior in making such a proposal.

    I don’t think pre- or post- is the issue. If Gilgamesh had said yes to Ishy’s proposal, I don’t think it would have raised readers’ eyebrows if the narrative then went on to describe coitus followed by a wedding banquet, at some later time.

    That’s just a hunch, mind you.

  2. February 2, 2010 9:23 pm

    Okay, but in “Ishtar Will Not Tire” (Foster, Before the Muses 1:584) I’m sure there must be bachelors among those 120 young men who satisfy themselves upon her. I mean, just statistically… :^)

  3. February 3, 2010 10:14 am

    For professional reasons, as they say, one might have presumed, if one were in Gil’s shoes, that Ishy would have had an active extra-marital sex life. But Gil’s reasons for having cold feet go far deeper than that.

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