The Epic of Gilgamesh | Study Guide


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The Epic of Gilgamesh | Book 6 | Summary



Home in Uruk, Gilgamesh bathes and dresses in fine clothing. When Ishtar, goddess of sexual love, sees his beauty, she's inflamed with desire and asks him to marry her. She promises him priceless gifts, honor, and abundance if he will be her "sweet man." But Gilgamesh distrusts the gifts because he could never repay Ishtar with equivalent gifts. Also, he fears what Ishtar may do to him when she grows bored with him. He knows her reputation as a fickle lover whom no husband has ever satisfied and whose punishments are infamous. Gilgamesh insults Ishtar and lists her former husbands—gods, mortals, and animals—and their tragic ends. Enraged, Ishtar flees to her father and mother, Anu and Antu, to complain of Gilgamesh's treatment. Anu correctly suspects that Ishtar provoked Gilgamesh, but she ignores his accusation and asks to take the Bull of Heaven to earth to destroy Gilgamesh and his palace.

When Anu hesitates, Ishtar makes a terrible threat: if her father refuses, she'll destroy the gates to the underworld and allow "a million famished / ghouls" to feed on the living. If the Bull of Heaven goes to earth, Uruk will suffer seven years of famine, but Ishtar claims to have stored enough grain to feed the people during the famine. So Anu allows Ishtar to lead the Bull of Heaven to earth. Immediately, the land shakes and smaller streams dry up; even the great Euphrates drops by ten feet. Cracks open where the bull snorts, and many warriors fall into the cracks and die. The third crack captures Enkidu, but the hero leaps out and grabs the bull's horns. The bull's slobber and dung cover Enkidu while Gilgamesh rushes to his aid; together the friends kill the bull with ease. They cut out its heart as an offering to Shamash.

Ishtar is even more enraged now. From Uruk's walls she howls that Gilgamesh insulted her and then killed the instrument of his punishment. Enkidu, amused by her anger, tears a thigh off the bull and throws it in her face, declaring his desire to rip Ishtar apart, too. Ishtar descends to her temple and calls her priestesses, who put the bull's thigh on the altar and begin to mourn him. Meanwhile, Gilgamesh's best craftsmen hang the bull's massive horns, made of lapis lazuli, on King Lugalbanda's statue. Gilgamesh and Enkidu wash off the battle's gore in the river and ride in a chariot, hand in hand, to the palace as the people cheer. The king sings his own praises as the most handsome man, who with his courageous friend killed the Bull of Heaven and got away with insulting Ishtar. Uruk holds a great feast, but that night, Enkidu has a terrible dream.


Book 6 is full of intriguing and sometimes humorous contradictions. The scene is straightforward. Having returned to Uruk, the heroes are filthy from travel and gory from slaughter; they put aside their traveling clothes and bathe. Gilgamesh, in high spirits and now more famous than ever, nearly glows with masculine beauty. Crowned and robed as a king, he catches Ishtar's eye. Ishtar is the city's patron god; her temple, where Shamhat and other priestesses honor her with sexual delight for any man, has pride of place in the city. She herself is the goddess of sexual love, radiantly attractive when she cares to be.

Filled with desire, Istar invites Gilgamesh to be her lover, and he rejects her—diplomatically at first, but with increasingly scathing insults as he continues to speak. Gilgamesh doesn't lie or exaggerate. Ishtar can be enticing and sweet, but when disappointed or snubbed, she's willing to dole out extreme punishment—and she's all too easy to disappoint. Gilgamesh catalogs her lovers' fates, getting more riled up as he piles up more evidence against her. Hubris, always his weakness thus far, pushes him to enrage the patron deity of his city. Perhaps because he defeated Humbaba, he becomes overconfident. Perhaps he knows how handsome and desirable he is, since later he declares himself the most handsome man in Uruk. Whatever the case, he strays from respectful, diplomatic language, stringing together colorful metaphors for Ishtar. She's a "broken oven that fails in the cold," a door that doesn't keep the wind out, an easily invaded palace, a leaky waterskin, and an ill-fitting shoe, among other undesirable things. To call the goddess of sexual love old, worn-out, and irritating is surely a mistake for a man who has already defied the gods—even if that goddess is indeed a treacherous lover.

Enkidu, rather than balancing Gilgamesh's excesses as he was created to do, joins his friend's attack, physically assaulting Ishtar by throwing the bull's bloody thigh in her face and threatening worse. If anything, instead of learning something about the limits of their privilege and power during the journey to fight Humbaba, the friends seem to think they're entirely beyond the gods' reach now.

The gods, however, behave even worse. Ishtar is willing to kill hundreds of warriors and let seven years of famine descend on the city, if it means she can punish and humble Gilgamesh. She even threatens to release the dead from the cold underworld, where they huddle and eat dust, to devour the living. Anu lets his irate daughter take the Bull of Heaven even though he knows Ishtar provoked the fight. In a sense, the battle with the Bull of Heaven is a conflict between mortals on earth and the gods in heaven.

The bull has a place in the night sky as the constellation Taurus; his curved horns are the slender crescent of the new moon, and in some legends, he was once a husband of Ereshkigal, queen of the underworld. (When Venus, the planet associated with Ishtar, apparently rests in the crescent moon, Ishtar is in the arms of the bull, according to one fertility legend.) When Gilgamesh and Enkidu slay the bull, they kill a deity. Readers may argue the death—or sacrifice, perhaps—of a sacred animal is necessary to protect the city. But the victory parade and feast afterward go too far, and Enkidu wakes the next morning with a terrible announcement: the gods are meeting in assembly. The mood of the epic shifts suddenly from vigorous triumph to anxiety.

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