In the epic poem Gilgamesh, the main character of Gilgamesh and his friend Enkidu are shown to have a close friendship throughout the story – almost to the extent where readers wonder if they are more than friends. While the tale makes it ambiguous as to the exact nature of their relationship, it is interesting to see the parallels between their relationship and a sexual or romantic relationship. They say that they love each other just as a husband and wife do – sexual intercourse is a component of that, which begs the implication that they have sex with each other. They do hug and kiss each other on a regular basis throughout the novel, and in their journey to the Cedar Forest, they embrace each other in order to share body heat against the immense cold of their surroundings. That being said, there are other elements that indicate that they are not in an exclusively sexual relationship, and the different moralities and cultural norms between then and now may change the way we look at Gilgamesh and Enkidu’s relationship.
At the beginning of the story, Gilgamesh is given dreams about how a new companion will arrive for him, one he will love and carry around for years – this is Enkidu. He is told:“You will take him in your arms, embrace and caress him the way a man caresses his wife. She also called this person ‘the companion of his heart’” (Gilgamesh). Introducing him in this way makes their meeting seem like destiny, which is invariably a romantic concept. When Aruru creates Enkidu, she makes him almost in a woman’s image, “Hair covered his body, hair grew thick on his head and hung down to his waist, like a woman’s hair” (Gilgamesh). This would increase Gilgamesh’s sexual attractiveness to him, creating that element of seductiveness that would draw he and Gilgamesh together. Enkidu’s wild nature is only tamed through the work of a prostitute, solidifying him as a sexual creature, and done under Gilgamesh’s advice. Already, the sexual connection between Gilgamesh and Enkidu is solidified.
Gilgamesh, in the story, uses both action and inaction to imply his and Enkidu’s special relationship. Gilgamesh’s rejection of Ishtar in the story suggests he may not necessarily be into women; furthermore, when a couple he rules gets married, Enkidu blocks the door of the bridal chambers, and we do not receive confirmation that Gilgamesh has sex with a woman. This could have been done out of knightly honor, or out of jealousy that he could not have Gilgamesh himself. However, Enkidu compliments Gilgamesh on his strength and his rightness of rule, then “They embraced and kissed. They held hands like brothers. They walked side by side. They became true friends” (Gilgamesh). These homoerotic elements all play into the idea that Gilgamesh and Enkidu’s relationship had a sexual and romantic component to it.
Later in the story, Gilgamesh and Enkidu kill the monster they have been sent on a quest to dispatch. However, this comes at the cost of Enkidu’s life, which comes at a great shock to Gilgamesh. When Enkidu finally dies, he mourns like he has lost a lover: “When he heard the death rattle, Gilgamesh moaned like a dove. His face grew dark. “Beloved, wait, don’t leave me. Dearest of men,don’t die, don’t let them take you from me” (Gilgamesh). After he begs the gods to bring Enkidu back, only to be refused, Gilgamesh “veiled Enkidu’s face like a bride’s”, furthering the idea of their relationship being spousal and romantic (Gilgamesh). This closeness seems to indicate a closer relationship than just friendship, but there is no explicit mention of sex in the work. All of this theorizing is speculation on the part of readers who wish to understand the extent of their everlasting love for one another.
Despite this, however, women still play a huge part in the action of the poem. Gilgamesh is tempted with the world by Ishtar, if only he would love her; Enkidu, meanwhile, has sex with a prostitute. Gilgamesh’s rejection of Ishtar’s offer is what sets Enkidu on the path to an ignoble end. This makes their love somewhat tragic, making the presence of women something they have to inevitably submit to. When considering this in the face of the rest of the Gilgamesh/Enkidu argument, the work feels somewhat homophobic; the innocent gay lovers are stymied by the overpowering forces of womanhood, which tear Gilgamesh’s greatest love from him. At the same time, this also plays into the inner tragedy of Gilgamesh, as he needs to have something taken away from him in order to become a strong leader.
As a counterargument to the suggestion that Gilgamesh and Enkidu are lovers, there is the fact that history and culture may have different meanings for words than we do. As Gilgamesh loves Enkidu “like a bride,” he may not mean in a sexual or romantic way, but simply the deep closeness with which man and wife have affection for each other. Furthermore, the fact that we are unclear as to what kind of sexual relationships worked for the ancient Mesopotamians makes it hard to detect exactly how Enkidu and Gilgamesh related to one another. It is entirely possible that they were simply good friends, and no piece of text in the work actually solidifies that they are romantic or sexual with one another. The homoerotic tension between Enkidu and Gilgamesh is all between the lines, unspoken and in subtext; it may inform readings, but cannot be determined for sure.
In conclusion, while there is plenty of evidence to suggest that Gilgamesh and Enkidu were lovers, there is nothing definitive provided in the text to say so for sure. The story is already full of epic scope and preoccupied with traveling to distant lands: "Go up, Urshanabi, onto the wall of Uruk and walk around. Examine its foundation, inspect its brickwork thoroughly--is not (even the core of) the brick structure of kiln-fired brick, and did not the Seven Sages themselves lay out its plan!” (Tablet XI). To that end, the story is much more concerned with the adventures of the two than the intricacies of their relationship. However, having that reading of the text informs the rest of the tale, making their friendship the story of homoerotic love attempting (but failing) to win out against the forces of womanhood and fertility. Their love is cut short by their rejection of women (namely Ishtar), and this leads to Enkidu’s untimely demise. While the ambiguity of Gilgamesh and Enkidu’s friendship remains, the importance of the possibility of their romantic love is just as important to examine.
Ackerman, S. (2013). When heroes love: the ambiguity of eros in the stories of Gilgamesh and
David. Columbia University Press.
Lawall, S., et al., eds. (2012). The Norton Anthology of World Literature. Package 1. Vols. A,
B, and C. 3rd ed. New York: Norton, 2012.