The myth of Gilgamesh is a journey rich with triumph, tragedy, and a symbolic quest for salvation. Throughout the epic, the reader encounters a landscape painted with hunger for power and outbursts of primitive shadow. The shadow is a tricky creature. It has no name and no face for it is unique to every individual, bearing their deepest and most rejected traits. “The shadow is that which has not entered adequately into consciousness, It is the despised quarter of our being. If it accumulates more energy than our ego, it erupts as an overpowering rage or some indiscretion that slips past us; or we have a depression or an accident that seems to have it’s own purpose.” (Johnson, 1991, p.5) For the purposes of getting the most out of this exploration, I would like to focus on the shadow of the masculine and feminine dynamic in the great epic of Gilgamesh.
Gilgamesh as a protagonist is ruthless in his approach and solid in his masculinity. “Surpassing all kings, powerful and tall beyond all others, violent, splendid, a wild bull of a man, unvanquished leader, hero in the front lines- two thirds divine and one-third human.. (Mitchell, 2004, p. 71)” The gods themselves have crafted him to be a “perfect” mold of a man for he has everything most men can only dream of- fame, splendor, strength, riches, and power. His thirst for power is so strong, in fact, that early in the myth the wild man Enkidu is retrieved from the forest and tamed to interject in Gilgamesh’s ways and bring solace to the people of Uruk. “Enkidu and Gilgamesh are also clearly representative of two extremes: total wild animal nature-associated man, and total civilization and domestication-associated man. (Barron, 2002 p.3)”At first glance, one might think that Enkidu himself is the shadow projection of Gilgamesh, or vise versa. However he evokes a balancing quality to Gilgamesh and exists on the other end of the spectrum of his persona. The myth is an ode to their friendship, their victories, and the premature demise of Enkidu, which prompts Gilgamesh to seek immortality and only then confront his shadow.
So where does projection come in and what does that have to do with the feminine and masculine dynamic? Gilgamesh, however brave and strong, is terrified of admitting his shortcomings and falling pray to death. Upon Enkidu’s demise, he goes through an existential crisis and goes on a journey in hopes of becoming an immortal demigod. He indirectly realizes that his grandiose attributes are superficial and will not save him in the face of real danger. This is paralleled of someone going through an ego death and facing the dark night of the soul. What comes of him once his enormous ego is stripped? Venturing into the myth reveals a look into the depth of a man who spent his whole life creating an overinflated persona of the masculine to parade around town for attention and recognition.
The persona is the Jungian concept that represents the social mask that is designed to make an impression on the outside world and simultaneously cover the truth of the individual. “The persona is what we would like to be and how we wish to be seen by the world. It is our psychological clothing and it mediates between our true selves and our environment just as our physical clothing represents an image to those we meet. (Johnson, 1991, p.4)” All the grandiose attributes that Gilgamesh took such pride in are diminished to nothing when he is confronted with his mortality. His shadow is his fear of death, of admitting his impermanence and being forgotten as he eventually loses his status as the supreme ruler of mankind. In admitting his vulnerabilities and fears, Gilgamesh seizes an opportunity to embody the true bravery of a man. The encounter of his shadow from the trauma of losing his best friend allows him to travel to the metaphorical underworld in search of truth. This is a quest that every man must go on when he comes of age to determine the meaning of life and his significance in the grand scheme of things.
The men in the Gilgamesh epic are presented as violent, boastful, and disconnected from nature as they lack respect to living things on an endless quest for recognition. This is demonstrated when Gilgamesh and Enkidu go into the cedar forest and kill it’s great protector Humbaba, simply to prove how mighty they are. In doing so, they enrage the gods and mirror the modern tragedy of men disrespecting the environment for selfish gains. The feminine presence in the epic is shown through the sacred fertility rites and sexual ritual, this is the opposite of the energy that the masculine carries within the story.
The Hierodules carried an important role within the Gilgamesh epic. They were the priestesses of the temple of Ishtar, otherwise known as Inanna, and performed sacred sexuality rites with the men of Uruk (Kluger, 1991, pp. 32-33). These women were held in high regard and were considered sacred prostitutes for they embodied the sensuality and intensity of the Goddess of Fertility herself, gracing Uruk with the potency of the divine feminine. Shamhat was the Hierodule that emancipated Enkidu from the animal kingdom and turned him into a man through the art of lovemaking.
Now, Enkidu, you know what it is to be with a woman, to unite with her. You are beautiful, you are like a god. Why should you roam the wilderness and live like an animal? Let me take you to great-walled Uruk, to the temple of Ishtar, to the palace of Gilgamesh the mighty king, who in his arrogance oppresses the people, trampling upon them like a wild bull. (Mitchell, 2004, p.80)
This woman took it upon herself to bridge the worlds and initiate Enkidu into the man he was destined to be. If it was not for Shamhat, Enkidu would have still been roaming among the wild animals and Gilgamesh would have never united with his trusted friend.
Upon the discovery of the fatal illness that the gods bestowed upon him, Enkidu cried out to the god Shamash and cursed Shamhat, projecting his grief and disappointment onto her. “Shamhat, I assign you an eternal fate, I curse you with the ultimate curse, may it seize you instantly.. Shamhat, may all this be your reward for seducing me in the wilderness when I was strong and innocent and free. (Mitchell, 2004, p.147)” This was a prime example of the masculine projection onto the feminine. Enkidu’s sophistication became his shadow and he instantly craved to go back to the freedom of his true wild self. It was although Shamhat gave birth to the civilized Enkidu, yet he blamed her for his misfortune and did not take accountability for the actions that led there. When Enkidu was shown the error of his ways by Shamash, he took back the curse and blessed Shamhat, yet the mere act of projecting onto her showed that by blaming an external source, the ego attempts to cleanse itself and avoid the inevitable.
This projection of the brute masculine onto the feminine is also apparent when Gilgamesh turns down Inanna’s advances. “Inanna is in many ways the exact thematic opposite of Gilgamesh. Rather than emphasize sexual disunion and represent the severance of human and non-human nature, Inanna celebrates sexual union and the harmony of humanity with domesticated non-human nature. (Barron, 2002, p. 5)” When Inanna approaches Gilgamesh to unite in sacred union, he rejects and insults her, presenting her as an evil man-eater who wants to destroy him. This is the opposite of what Inanna stands for; as she values synthesis and initiates people into states of higher consciousness to heighten their ability to receive love. The perception of her that Gilgamesh presents looks more like the projection of his own shadow and the wounded manipulative feminine that lives within him. Enraged, Inanna sends the Bull of Heaven to destroy Gilgamesh and Enkidu.
"The two men kill this sacred beast; afterwards; Enkidu goes so far as to throw a bloody hunk of the animal into Inanna’s face, thereby insulting her further. Here again, Enkidu attacks an animal, a being he had once protected. Is Enkidu, in addition to aiding Gilgamesh in his violent insult, enacting a form of self-hate and destruction? At any rate, it is clear that his traumatic dissociation from animal kind has grown to extreme proportions; in his rapacious attacks upon Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven, Enkidu has reached the brink of self-annihilation." (Barron, 2002, pp.7-8)
However daunting and triggering the shadow is, we cannot live without it for life would be dull and the self-awareness of our psyche would not reach the depths it is capable of. As Johnson (1991) states, “We need a shadow. The shadow keeps us down to earth, reminds us of our incompleteness, and provides us with complementarity traits. We would be very poor indeed if we were only what we imagined ourselves to be. (Johnson, 1991, pp. 118-119)” Through the act of projection, the shadow makes itself known and reveals the layers that the ego considers to be outside dangers, which are actually within us. The great epic of Gilgamesh narrates to us the separation that occurs when the shadow is not kept in check and masculinity takes over the fertile rich lands of the feminine nature. Going on this journey teaches the powerful lessons that cannot be taught directly, only understood through the realm of myth as our psyche absorbs the symbolic beauty of this timeless epic.