Fate of Women in Ancient Mesopotamia

What do Enkidu’s curse and then his blessing of the prostitute suggest about the lot of women in ancient Mesopotamia?

 There are women of all sorts in Uruk. There are Goddesses, ordinary women, singer girls and harlots. Enkidu first curses the harlot and then after hearing from Shamash blesses her. His heart grew quiet after Shamash explained that it was the harlot who introduced him to a better life. In this way, she did not do him anything wrong but had served Enkidu. So, he showers his blessings on her. The harlot represents the poor state of ordinary women in the Uruk society. While this status had changed a lot after Enkidu entered the story, before his entry they were worse than slaves. Gilgamesh, the cruel and unruly king violated them at will. Enkidu’s entry and Gilgamesh’s reformation change things a lot. Still, one can understand the lot of the women in Uruk from Enkidu’s cursing. The prostitute is just a bait, used by the trapper to bring Enkidu to social life. She is just a pawn or a puppet, following the orders of her client. She is not acting of her own will which shows that women in ancient Mesopotamia were subject to the will of the males.

The harlot has a poor fate. In Enkidu’s curse also, readers can see that he just wishes for a poor fate for the woman. He wishes that she loses her beauty and her clients. He also wishes that she be slapped by her clients and be forced to live in places where only pigs can dwell. This also shows that Enkidu knew that the poor harlot was no more than a commodity meant to satisfy the sexual needs of the society. After receiving Shamash’s will, he wishes her to be treated as a Goddess. The same woman becomes a life saver in his eyes and he wishes that she be worshiped as a Goddess. This also shows that there were distinct classes of women in Ancient Mesopotamia. The higher class including the royalty, the priestesses and the wives and relatives of the nobles would be treated like Goddesses. However, the ordinary women would be subjected to a somewhat inferior lot. The kind of treatment that Enkidu wishes for the harlot at first means women were seen as inferior. This shows how worse their fate in Uruk must have been and the atrocities these ordinary women must have been made to bear in Uruk.

  The status of the common women in ancient world is known to be of an inferior object in the society which was mainly meant for sex. Except the queens, princesses and those from noble families, the women from ordinary families received an ordinary treatment. There position was of no more than a sexual object. When Enkidu curses the harlot, he is cursing her for her sorcery and that she used her body to bring him to the hell. The harlot is a sexual object that feeds the sexual needs of the males in the Uruk society and Enkidu wants no mercy for her. His views change only after Shamash intervenes.  Still, the destiny of a harlot is more than clear from Enkidu’s words. It shows the same outlook that most men held in ancient world. If Enkidu cannot see the other side before Shamash tells him, it is because he too is seeing things from the same angle. He wishes that whatever status the harlot has in her society that she lose it and be subjected to the living hell that her body is. Once she was into her middle ages and past her youth, she would lose her charm and with it also her value. After that she was nothing but trash for the society. She would be trashed on the roads where drunkards can play with her. She would lie in the dung and pigs will sleep by her side. This picture was quite intimidating and paints a very poor picture of the women’s status in Uruk. They were entirely subject to the will of the men that whether they worship her or trash her.  

The ancient world is known for its queens and priestesses. Whether it was the Egyptian civilization, Mesopotamian or Greek, women were worshiped in some positions. However, this privilege was limited to the elites. The common women had to bear the same inferior fate. They were subject to be controlled by the males  and had to obey. So, except for the elite women life could be miserable for the common women. Another important factor that has been highlighted in Gilgamesh are the king’s powers. Gilgamesh used to exercise his power of Droit Du Seigneur on the women in his rule. It all just signifies one thing that the situation of women was worse in the ancient world. Enkidu’s curse and blessing reflect the same mentality. Ancient societies treated the women as the inferior sex. So, Enkidu too curses the harlot without considering her position and fate. That the position of the women in the ancient world was that  of the weaker sex gets clear from his words. 

Abhijeet Pratap

Abhijeet has been blogging on educational topics and business research since 2016. He graduated with a Hons. in English literature from BRABU and an MBA from the Asia-Pacific Institute of Management, New Delhi. He likes to blog and share his knowledge and research in business management, marketing, literature and other areas with his readers.