Search

SHAMHAT: AN OG MESOPOTAMIAN MILF?

Updated: May 5



Over four thousand years ago, the epic story Gilgamesh was created - think of it as an ancient Lord of the Rings. The story is all about a king called Gilgamesh, who starts off as a bit of a tool, his best bro/crush/bff Enkidu, who starts off as a wild beast person, and how their adventures together make Gilgamesh a better and more enlightened person. It’s a really cool story, which I’ll definitely dive into in a later post, but firstly I want to talk about a pretty key character: Shamhat. Shamhat is a harimtu, or sex-worker, who is hired to try and civilise Enkidu, a process which, naturally, involves sex. But while she originally appears to be only there to get Enkidu laid, she ends up helping him discover how to be a ‘real person’, in what arguably seems like a particularly maternal role.

So let’s dive in with the basics - who is Shamhat? The name Shamhat comes from the word shamahu, which means voluptuous beauty - basically the Kim Kardashian of her time. In most Western translations you’ll read, Shamhat is normally mentioned as ‘the harlot’, in what seems to be a pretty slut-shaming fashion, considering her very important role. The ordinary ancient Mesopotamian however, might have sided with the feminists on our gal’s behalf. Shamhat gets a lot of respect from the other characters in the novel, who consider her a wise lady who has the gods on side. Some people think this suggests she was a religious sex worker - using her body in worship of a god, probably the goddess Ishtar (stay tuned for her exploration coming soon). In fact, you can see how important Shamhat must be within the community when Enkidu curses her, wishing that she had no tables for the banquets she held in her house, and that she’ll have to work in public - suggesting that her current lifestyle is full of big houses, parties, and private entertainment.

The first time Shamhat meets Enkidu, she straight up seduces him. She encourages him to lie down as he does so, and they have sex on the ground - which, it turns out, is a pretty important step for him. The sexual position Shamhat goes for helps Enkidu be humanised: animals have sex doggy-style, real humans do missionary. Immediately after, Enkidu is rejected by his other animal friends, the gig is up, he’s human now.


As the old saying goes, sex changes a relationship. But Shamhat and Enkidu’s relationship doesn’t seem to grow any deeper sexually, instead Shamhat appears more and more maternal. After Enkidu is rejected by his beastly BFFs, he returns to sit at Shamhat’s feet, reflecting his new childlike status, and her role as his elder. Perhaps because of this new dynamic, we see his something revolutionary - a male lead who actually listens to a woman. When Shamhat suggests he might be happier off in the city of Uruk (where he’ll meet the legendary Gilgamesh), Enkidu listens intently, then agrees - she is pretty wise after all.


As the pair embark on their journeys, they rest in a shepherds’ camp, where Shamhat teaches Enkidu to eat and drink, y’know, like a parent does. The meal of choice however? Beer and ale - the same food and drink that Gilgamesh will later use to describe a wife’s role - to feed their husband bread, and pour him ale. Now the two sides of Shamhat’s character have explicitly come together: she is at once both sexual, and maternal.

Shamhat’s role within the text is complex, and multifaceted. By allowing her both maternal and sexual roles, Shamhat is given the power to guide Enkidu through symbolic stages of growth from the uncivilised child, to civilised adult, as well as representing the importance of different women and their roles within this journey. Let’s face the facts, Shamhat enables Enkidu’s development into a civilised man, without which the entire narrative would fall apart. She is the Gandalf needed to guide, empower, and teach our Frodo. Both Shamhat’s sexuality, and her care-giving nature are vital, and central characteristics, which she uses simultaneously in order to achieve her goals. This powerful, maternal, sex-worker, and all the types of women she represents, are integral to both this epic, and to the creation of change.

210 views

©2020 by Yentl Love. Big cheers to Wix.com