Gender Roles and Masculinity in the Civilization in the Epic of Gilgamesh

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The epic of Gilgamesh gives us insight into one of the greatest world civilizations—Mesopotamian. It provides significant view on kingship, friendship and mortality. Crossing the cultural divide of over four thousand years, the epic of Gilgamesh addresses some of the fundamental questions of human existence that all of us face, which makes it one of the most influential and significant pieces in western literature. Before his close friend Enkidu came into his life, Gilgamesh was an arrogant, ruthless tyrant. Befriending with Enkidu helps Gilgamesh and makes him a better person by developing skills of empathy and understanding. Enkidu’s death changes Gilgamesh, lead him to understand the fragility of life since nothing could be more tragic and heartbreaking than witness of the bosom friend’s death.

Living in an age that is remarkably peaceful and stable, it is hard to imagine the significance of masculinity in Mesopotamian society. In the period of early civilization, civilized farmers that settled down in cities that were defensed by brick walls have great conflict with nomad people. In the world filled with warfare and competition, power and masculinity play more important role than today. People with strong power is the idea figure of the society since they have ability to protect people around them.

Gilgamesh was chosen as king in the role of people’s champion and guardian because he was the strongest man. Instead of caring for his people, Gilgamesh’s arrogance is unbounded day and night and leaves no daughter at home with her mother(Tablet I 60). Instead of protecting his men, he harries all of the young men in Uruk(Tablet I 58). Instead of being the shepherd of Uruk the sheepfold of the people as he should be, he abuses his people and lets no bride to her bridegroom(Tablet I 65).

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Enkidu is made as a mirror that reflects Gilgamesh. His tyrannical attitude stems from the fact that he has no equal. No one has the stormy heart that he can share his energy and strength with. In his pride, he lords it over his people and his tyrannical behavior goes unchecked because no one can stand up to him. Befriending with Enkidu helps Gilgamesh realize that there is someone as powerful as himself. The two bond as they fight monsters together. In fact, they are so close that some readers and critics have argued there is a romantic component to heir relationship. Many activities that imply loving relationship or homosexual are mentioned in the story. Why did the anonymous Mesopotamian author built the characters in this way. A muscular, beard hero in the company of another half- animal who wrestles wild beasts somehow seems incomprehensible even the relationship is interpreted as homoeroticism. Is it truly necessary to demonstrate the intimacy of relationship between two heroes by using words such as kissing, embracing and clasping hands. Considering the condition and environment of the early civilization, the relationship between these masculine characters should better be explained as an expectation that Mesopotamian culture had toward masculinity and violence. In the early stage of civilization, it is fair to reason that the conflict was frequent due to the limited resources. In the expectation of Mesopotamian people, men with strong power should not be constantly fighting with each other. Strong and powerful men should be united and live in harmony like the two protagonists in the story. By depicting the friendship between the most powerful and masculine men in the world, Sumerians covertly conveyed their wish for peace and harmony.

The friendship between Enkidu and Gilgamesh reveals much about the role of friendship in Sumerian society: a true friend is a most precious commodity and is even more precious than the relationship between a man and a woman. The female characters in the story seem to either be something to be sexual objects or maternal figures. This exemplifies a society with strong gender role distinctions and clear demarcations between the occupations and social lives of men and women.

Masculinity is an inherent consideration when defining heroism. We see that masculine friendship was greatly valued in the culture and that the epic valued physical strength and attractiveness in men, as well as martial prowess and loyalty. Men are seen as legitimately strong and dominant. Along with power, ideally, comes responsibility, with a king being judged on how he treats his subjects.

The men were given more power. Their rights consisted of owning land and own slaves. They could also rule, be a warrior and be priests when women were not even given that chance. Men had less severe punishments in Hammurabi’s code. Basically, men had a better social standing, more rights and treated better. We see masculine identity important in the culture just by looking at the description of Gilgamesh and Enkidu. Gilgamesh, described as the most handsome man on earth in the story, has thick beard and hair like barley. This obviously represents Sumerian’s aesthetic as well as their admiration and yearning for strength and masculinity.

The construction of masculinity generates from the need to deal with confrontation. For rulers during early civilization, violence was the key to success. Emperors would make most of their political statements by violence, whether it be by execution or attacking a neighboring land to exert their dominance. This violence reflects the time that Gilgamesh lived in. It was normal for people, men specifically to be violent and express their emotions through violence, it was socially acceptable for men to fight out their issues much like Gilgamesh and Enkidu did, no one batted an eye at their first battle, it was even encouraged as a solution to Gilgamesh’s tyranny in his own kingdom.

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