Sumerian Social Constructs in The Epic of Gilgamesh

In every structured society constructs exist. which are deemed as obvious rules for citizens to adhere to although they may not be morally or realistically correct. Gilgamesh’s world in The Epic of Gilgamesh is centered around himself and his legacy in the town that he rules over. Uruk And while Gilgamesh may be the ruler of his town. every civilian, whether a lowly shepherd or powerful goddess falls into the trap of societal constructs set in place by Sumerian culture. Two of the main constructs present in The Epic of Gilgamesh are related to image. how one views both his or herself, and others. The former is represented by the constant worry of the afterlife, the uncertainty whether one’s name is going to be preserved in history forever, or if they will fade into the shadows like so many before them The latter can be easily explained by the role women play in Sumerian culture: they are regarded as either harlots. mothers and wives, or virgins.

The need to know whether there is life after death is an age-old mystery, and a parallel can be drawn between life in the 21st century and Gilgamesh’s time period. sometime around 2700 B.C. In Gilgamesh’s society. there is a great deal of importance placed upon making a name for oneself. because then the person has a chance of living on forever. figuratively. This goes for Enkidu, who died early on in the epic. As he lays on his deathbed. he turned to Gilgamesh, exclaiming. “’My friend, one who [falls] in combat [makes his name,] / but I. [I do not fall] in [combat, and shall not make my name]”. Enkidu believed he did not die with honor because instead of dying in battle making a name for himself. the gods determined his fate for him. Sumerian culture places a heavy importance on finding honor and, therefore living on forever. Gilgamesh takes the quest for immortality literally seeking out how to rid himself of the part that makes him human, for in the epic he is only two-thirds god.

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He goes out on a journey to achieve immortality and preserve his name forever in Sumerian society. When questioned by the tavern keeper upon why his cheeks were so sunken and his visage appeared so unkempt. Gilgamesh sorrowfully answered. “‘[Then I was afraid that I too would die.] [I grew fearful of death, and so wander the wild.] lWhat became of my friend [was too much to bear]‘”. When Gilgamesh says this. it is revealed he is scared of death. Even though Sumerian culture follows polytheism and therefore an ‘afterlife‘ exists, there is still an uncertainty about death, and so one‘s drive to seek out immortality, whether literally or figuratively is inevitable within the constructs of the society. Sumerian society has principles regarding women that are questionable, yet follow the trends of many cultures throughout the world: women in Uruk were seen as mere helpers to men, and were in place to assist men either sexually or in the home, although some such as Ninsun and Aruru, gave guidance and meaning to situations in Gilgamesh’s life.

Shamhat, a sacred prostitute, is one of the first female figures introduced in The Epic of Gilgamesh. She assists Enkidu in his transformation from animal to human by seducing him and doing “for the man the work of a woman”. On the other hand, Ninsun is a very strong figure in the epic too, although she helps the men through nurturing and guiding them. As Gilgamesh’s mother. she is a goddess. and takes Enkidu in as her son when he comes to Uruk. Although she is known for her wisdom, the epic still comments on her womanhood, reducing her stature in society to nothing more than an aid in a man’s life: “[She donned] a fine dress to adorn her body. / [she chose a jewel] to adorn her breast”. Another motherly figure is Uta-napishti’s wife, who is not even given a name, although she is wise and gives Gilgamesh solid advice by telling him of the “Plant of Heartbeat”, which can grant him immortality. She is not a central character. and other than her advice, is only referenced in the scene of the epic in which she bakes bread to reveal to Gilgamesh how long he had slept.

Lastly, women also play the role of virgins in Sumerian culture, and while this is a small part of the epic, it reveals the lack of authority women have over their bodyieilgamesh had a tradition of sleeping with every bride before she was sent off to her new husband (Citation). Women in Sumerian culture were entrapped by social constructs, and therefore not allowed much authority over their bodies, leading them to be not much more than aids in men’s lives. Sumerian society like all civilizations, has widely accepted constructs which are not questioned, even though they may not be correct. Women in Gilgamesh’s society play a pivotal role in assisting and taking care of men, while the women in.

The Epic of Gilgamesh provide wisdom and guidance they are not seen as much more than helpers to men, and therefore not respected for than their bodies or nurturing skills. Another important construct to note in Sumerian society is the fear of death, caused by uncertainty of the afterlife, and ultimately leading to the desire to immortalize oneself. Through making a name for oneself, one can potentially live on forever, both literally and figuratively. Social constructs are present in every civilization, and it is interesting to note various constructs that have sun/ived the passage of time and are still somewhat present in societies today. as well as those of the past.

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Sumerian Social Constructs in The Epic of Gilgamesh. (2023, May 20). Retrieved from