Who Says Gay Marriage Isn’t Part of Western Civilization?: Gay Marriage Between Gilgamesh and Enkidu in Mesopotamia Circa 2500 BCE

The wrestling scene between Enkidu and Gilgamesh, at the end of Part One of the Gilgamesh Epic, raises some interesting issues about the role of sexuality, and even homosexuality, in the Epic:

In Uruk the bridal bed was made, fit for the goddess of love. The bride waited for the bridegroom, but in the night Gilgamesh got up and came to the house. Then Enkidu stepped out, he stood in the street and blocked the way. Mighty Gilgamesh came on and Enkidu met him at the gate. He put out his foot and prevented Gilgamesh from entering the house, so they grappled, holding each other like bulls. They broke the doorposts and the walls shook, they snorted like bulls locked together. They shattered the doorposts and the walls shook. Gilgamesh bent his knee with his foot planted on the ground and with a turn Enkidu was thrown.

Notice that Enkidu inserts himself between Gilgamesh and a woman, creating, as it were, a sublimated sexual triangle, much as occurs in Shakespeare’s Othello, in which Iago becomes Othello’s “cock block” to Desdemona. And the wrestling match between the two men, who are both described in the Epic as being of exceeding masculine beauty, is not far from Shakespeare’s description of sex, once again in Othello, as

[M]aking the beast with two backs.

Issues of sadomasochism, of dominance and submission, are components in all wrestling scenes, and in this case, when Enkidu is finally thrown and submits to Gilgamesh, they become bosom-buddies who love one another far more than any woman alluded to in the Epic. Indeed, it is only with the death of Enkidu (in Part 3) that Gilgamesh ever resorts to poetry to describe his emotions, opening with these three lines:

Hear me, great ones of Uruk,

I weep for Enkidu, my friend,

Bitterly mourning like a woman mourning.

The Epic also describes Gilgamesh touching Enkidu’s breast:

He touched his heart but it did not beat, nor did he lift his eyes again. When Gilgamesh touched his heart it did not beat. So Gilgamesh laid a veil, as one veils the bride, over his friend. He began to rage like a lion, like a lioness robbed of her whelps. This way and that he paced round the bed, he tore out his hair and strewed it around. He dragged off his splendid robes and flung them down as though they were abominations.

In the first light of dawn Gilgamesh cried out, ‘I made you rest on a royal bed, you reclined on a couch at my left hand, the princes of the earth kissed your feet.’

Though in the Epic both Enkidu and Gilgamesh engage in sexual relationships with women, it seems almost to be a cover. Their hearts belong to each other, and can almost be called a gay marriage, barely sublimated, in an ancient Mesopotamian epic, circa 2500 BCE.

Thus the literature of Western Civilization begins with a tale of two men, Gilgamesh and Enkidu, whose hearts are intimately connected, and who spend their lives together. It seems a logical extension that some men today might also wish to make such an exclusive connection to another, and add sexuality to it, as two women might also. And it also seems an equally humane gesture for our culture to acknowledge the power of such bondings, since they are so well known among heterosexuals, and not to interfere with, or attempt to drive underground, such a profound human need, when it arises between gay men or lesbian women, but give it civic acknowledgement as same-sex marriage.

Here’s a 1950s military recruitment video where the gods of eros and war are barely sublimated. There is a problem with the audio in the second half of this clip, but it otherwise illustrates the point:

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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2 Responses to Who Says Gay Marriage Isn’t Part of Western Civilization?: Gay Marriage Between Gilgamesh and Enkidu in Mesopotamia Circa 2500 BCE

  1. Señor Stomp says:

    i dont see much evidence of anything here. I mean, at least mention the spartan concept of sexual deflction in a male dominated military or something. and how does this ancient eastern epic mean gay marriage is destined in western civ? in works of antiquity, you hear about a man touching the breast of his dead friend and your best argument is “tee hee. touched his titty! They must be gay!” And the fact that they both made love to women was supposed to reinforce your juvenile theory? Look, im all for marriage equality, but not stupid baseless arguments citing few and poor examples. I think a better title would have been”how to turn works of ancient literature into homo-erotic porn”. Next time do your homework and dont just shit your opinion out on the internet.

  2. DM says:

    You make the mistake of looking at the epic through a western lens of what is appropriate and what is gay. Currently, men in the Middle East are a lot more intimate with their male friends. Kissing on the cheek, embracing and even holding hands can be seen on the streets. It does not mean they are gay, it’s just how they express friendship. So if currently there is a big difference between western and middle eastern approach to male friendship, what makes you think that the difference does not apply to the historical period of the epic as well. Hope this comment can help you think more critically, and be more objective than subjective in your writing.

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