The "Thigh" of the Bull of Heaven.

The vast and scary Bull of Heaven was sent down to plague the Mesopotamian city of Uruk at the angry insistence of Ishtar (goddess of sex, inter alia), whose naughty advances the excellent hero-king Gilgamesh had declined to accept as being a bad risk. In the Gilgamesh, Ishtar embodies passion and lack of control, having first been seduced by the most powerful of aphrodisiacs (Gilgamesh's success), and then threatened dire consequences out of proportion to the slight if her father Anu were not to release the Bull of Heaven into her custody for purposes of revenge. (Also goddess of the underworld, she threatened to break down its gates and let the dead mix with the living--ick!)

The irrepressible heroes Gilgamesh and Enkidu, currently on a winning streak, manage to do in the Bull of Heaven handily. And then it gets interesting. The lousy translation by Sandars to which I have access has this for the sequel:

But Ishtar rose up and mounted the great wall of Uruk; she sprang on to the tower and uttered a curse: "Woe to Gilgamesh, for he has scorned me in killing the Bull of Heaven." When Enkidu heard these words, he tore out the Bull's right thigh and tossed it in her face, saying, "If I could lay my hands on you, it is this I should do to you, and lash the entrails to your side." Then Ishtar called together her people, the dancing and singing girls, the prostitutes of the temple, the courtesans. Over the thigh of the Bull of Heaven she set up lamentation."

Here is a better translation of the same scene (by Andrew George):

Ishtar went up on the wall of Uruk-the-Sheepfold, hopping and stamping, she wailed in woe: 'Alas! Gilgamesh, who mocked me, has killed the Bull of Heaven.' Enkidu heard these words of Ishtar, and tearing a haunch off the Bull, he hurled it towards her. 'If I could catch you also, I'd treat you the same, I would drape your arms in its guts!' Ishtar assembled the courtesans, prostitutes and harlots, over the Bull of Heaven's haunch she began rites of mourning.

What on earth? Is Enkidu threatening to rip out Ishtar's right thigh? That's ridiculous. There has to be more to this. And why get all those courtesans to lament over a thigh? The answer lies in a habit of euphemism common to the semitic languages, a species of polite indirection (think of Noah's "nakedness"). Though the Akkadian word for the thing pulled from the Bull is imittu (right hand, right shoulder, haunch or side), it likely refers to the Bull's phallus. The argument is not iron-clad, because the word birku (knee) is the one usually used as a euphemism for the phallus.

But it makes a lot more sense this way. Ishtar, in a fit of pique, sends down a monster that kills hundreds of people in Uruk before the city's great heroes can kill it. Enkidu's emotions are running high, and he wants to find a suitable reply to the horrible goddess of sex. So he rips out that most sacred part (to Ishtar) of the Bull (the sexual seat of the powerful animal) and flings this bloody penis in her face. Bad enough. But then he says he would do the same to her if he could. I'm stuck straining to see through translations, since I can't read any of the languages in which the epic was written, but I see Enkidu as wishing he could violate her with his penis analogously to the way he has symbolically done so with the Bull's.

Certainly the Gilgamesh is full of frank sexual activity and eroticism (which doesn't make it past the translators, usually), so the threat is not outside of what we might expect. Here is one of Ishtar's subtle pickup lines quoted back in her face as Gilgamesh rejects her: "O my Ishullanu, let us taste of your vigor: Put out your 'hand' and stroke my quim!" Note also the euphemistic use of 'hand' for 'penis' here.

But then Ishtar and the courtesans--the prostitutes who sacrificed their daily "labors" for her in her temple--gather round and lament the piece of the Bull. I find it telling that Ishtar gathers those of her acolytes who are most strongly connected with sex to lament the Bull's piece. Why these sex workers for a mere thigh or haunch? It only seems to make sense if they are lamenting a part of the Bull which has a special significance for them.


George, Andrew. 1999. The Epic of Gilgamesh. A New Translation.

I am indebted to Prof. Tzvi Abusch (of Brandeis University) who set me straight on the philological aspects of this puzzle, and who informs me that my idea goes way back to the 19th-century scholar Goerge Smith, and that this thesis has now been argued in detail by S. Parpola in SAA 9: xcvi-vii.

I was taught many years ago that Ham's seeing Noah's nakedness is a euphemism for sleeping with his mother ("sleeping" being yet another euphemism).

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