The Great Myths #40: Enkidu Comes of Age (Mesopotamian)

One of the greatest stories of a person “living in nature” becoming “civilized” is perhaps the earliest one. Also here is an intense ambivalence towards the role of women in civilization, as well as the gifts of urban life, such as bread and beer. By the time Enkidu encounters all of them, something has certainly been gained; but it’s clear from the story that something has also been lost.

The goddess Aruru, she washed her hands,
took a pinch of clay, threw it down in the wild.
In the wild she created Enkidu, the hero,
offspring of silence, knit strong by Ninurta.

All his body is matted with hair,
he bears long tresses like those of a woman:
the hair of his head grows thick as barley,
he knows not a people, nor even a country.

Coated in hair like the god of the animals,
with the gazelles he grazes on grasses,
joining the throng with the game at the water-hole,
his heart delighting with the beasts in the water.

A hunter, a trapper-man,
did come upon him by the water-hole.
One day, a second and then a third,
he came upon him by the water-hole.
When the hunter saw him, his expression froze,
but he with his herds – he went back to his lair.

The hunter was troubled, subdued and silent,
his mood was despondent, his features gloomy.
In his heart there was sorrow,
his face resembled one come from afar.

The hunter opened his mouth to speak, saying to his father:
“My father, there was a man came by the water-hole.
Mightiest in the land, strength he possesses,
his strength is as mighty as a rock from the sky.

“Over the hills he roams all day,
always with the herd he grazes on grasses,
always his tracks are found by the water-hole,
I am afraid and I dare not approach him.

“He fills in the pits that I myself dig,
he pulls up the snares that I lay.
He sets free from my grasp all the beasts of the field,
he stops me doing the work of the wild.”

His father opened his mouth to speak, saying to the hunter:
“My son, in the city of Uruk go, seek out Gilgamesh!
……… in his presence,
his strength is as mighty as a rock from the sky.

“Take the road, set your face toward Uruk,
do not reply on the strength of a man!
Go, my son, and fetch Shamhat the harlot,
her allure is a match for even the mighty!

“When the herd comes down to the water-hole,
she should strip off her raiment to reveal her charms.
He will see her, and will approach her,
his herd will spurn him, though he grew up amongst it.”

Paying heed to the advice of his father,
the hunter went off, set out on the journey.
He took the road, set his face toward Uruk,
before Gilgamesh the king he spoke these words:

“There was a man came by the water-hole
mightiest in the land, strength he possesses,
his strength is as mighty as a rock from the sky.

“Over the hills he roams all day,
always with the herd he grazes on grasses,
always his tracks are found by the water-hole,
I am afraid and I dare not approach him.

“He fills in the pits that I myself dig,
he pulls up the snares that I lay.
He sets free from my grasp all the beasts of the field,
he stops me doing the work of the wild.”

Said Gilgamesh to him, to the hunter:
“Go, hunter, take with you Shamhat the harlot!

“When the herd comes down to the water-hole,
she should strip off her raiment to reveal her charms.
He will see her, and will approach her,
his herd will spurn him, though he grew up amongst it.”

Off went the hunter, taking Shamhat the harlot,
they set out on the road, they started the journey.
On the third day they came to their destination,
hunter and harlot sat down there to wait.

One day and a second they waited by the water-hole,
then the herd came down to drink the water.
The game arrived, their hearts delighting in water,
and Enkidu also, born in the uplands.

With the gazelles he grazed on grasses,
joining the throng with the game at the water-hole,
his heart delighting with the beasts in the water:
then Shamhat saw him, the child of nature,
the savage man from the midst of the wild.

“This is he, Shamhat! Uncradle your bosom,
bare your sex, let him take in your charms!
Do not recoil, but take in his scent:
he will see you, and will approach you.

“Spread your clothing so he may lie on you,
do for the man the work of a woman!
Let his passion caress and embrace you,
his herd will spurn him, though he grew up amongst it.”

Shamhat unfastened the cloth of her loins,
she bared her sex and he took in her charms.
She did not recoil, she took in his scent:
she spread her clothing and he lay upon her.

She did for the man the work of a woman,
his passion caressed and embraced her.
For six days and seven nights
Enkidu was erect, as he coupled with Shamhat.

When with her delights he was fully sated,
he turned his gaze to his herd.
The gazelles saw Enkidu, they started to run,
the beasts of the field shied away from his presence.

Enkidu had defiled his body so pure,
his legs stood still, though his herd was in motion.
Enkidu was weakened, could not run as before,
but now he had reason, and wide understanding.

He came back and sat at the feet of the harlot,
watching the harlot, observing her features.
Then to the harlot’s words he listened intently,
as Shamhat talked to him, to Enkidu:

“You are handsome, Enkidu, you are just like a god!
Why with the beasts do you wander the wild?
Come, I will take you to Uruk-the-Sheepfold,
to the sacred temple, home of Anu and Ishtar,

“where Gilgamesh is perfect in strength,
like a wild bull lording it over the menfolk.”
So she spoke to him, and her word found favour,
he knew by instinct, he should seek a friend.”

[…]

By the hand she took him, like a god she led him,
to the shepherds’ camp, the site of the sheep-pen.
The band of shepherds was gathered around him,
talking about him among themselves:

“This fellow – how like in build he is to Gilgamesh,
tall in stature, proud as a battlement.
For sure it’s Enkidu, born in the uplands,
his strength is as mighty as a rock from the sky.”

Bread they set before him,
ale they set before him.
Enkidu ate not bread, not looked askance.

How to eat bread Enkidu knew not,
how to drink ale he had never been shown.

The harlot opened her mouth,
saying to Enkidu:
“Eat the bread, Enkidu, essential to life,
drink the ale, the lot of the land!”

Enkidu ate the bread until he was sated,
he drank the ale, a full seven goblets.
His mood became free, he started to sing,
his heart grew merry, his face lit up.

The barber groomed his body so hairy,
anointed with oil he turned into a man.
He put on a garment, became like a warrior,
he took up his weapon to do battle with lions.

Gilgamesh, Tablets I and II and other sources,
translated by Andrew George

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