It’s a story of boy meets girl. This time, the story doesn’t centre around Dumuzid and Inanna, but rather, Inanna and Gilgamesh. It is the story of two politicians whose love affair made ancient headlines and whose story was inscribed into the tablets that tell the tale of how the unrequited love for power led to tremendous misfortune.

Inanna, a masterful politician, did not choose the partners she did due to love alone. Inanna’s choice in marriage had always been influenced by who would best serve her agenda and her goals. As a politician, she always knew that she, too, was a truly powerful woman in her own right. It is she who courts Gilgamesh. It is she who offers him an alliance.

And it is he who foolishly turns it down.

A Story of Retribution

Sumerian poems detailing the adventures and misadventures of Gilgamesh date back to around 2100 BCE. It is well known amongst scholars that the Mesopotamian narrative shares many similarities with the Book of Genesis–and even predates it.

Throughout The Epic of Gilgamesh, we see an arrogant king determined to achieve immortality and power. While he is brave, he is also reckless. While he is ambitious, he is also foolhardy.

Gilgamesh is Uruk’s young king. He has a companion called Enkidu and together they fight a series of battles. It was in Enkidu that Gilgamesh found his match in a partner. The two were equal in strength and became friends unexpectedly. They were inseparable and went on many adventures together. This lasted till Gilgamesh made the mistake of insulting Inanna.

By rejecting Inanna’s offer of marriage, Gilgamesh sparked a chain of events that resulted in his regression as a leader. For some, Gilgamesh’s refusal of Inanna made him an ancient Mesopotamian Peter Pan. By refusing to marry, he failed to accept the responsibilities that would have made him a better king. In Gilgamesh’s rejection of Inanna, he dismisses the gifts that would have been bestowed upon him had he accepted or at least considered the generous offer.

In the text, Gilgamesh’s response presents an image of the goddess as seen through his inner projections. As Gilgamesh mocks and belittles the Goddess, he twists and manipulates the knowledge he has regarding Inanna into a condemnatory verbal attack.

At that point, it seems that Gilgamesh has won the verbal battle. While the other Gods in the pantheon are always swayed by Inanna’s oratory abilities, Gilgamesh dismisses her words easily. He is neither attracted to her physical beauty nor her words. While this may show his cleverness and independence on his part, it soon becomes apparent that he has failed to consider the full repercussions of his actions.

Inanna does not respond to Gilgamesh’s insults but instead runs to her father, Anu. Inanna demands revenge and asks her father to send down the Bull of Heaven to kill Gilgamesh. In an unexpected twist, Gilgamesh kills the bull. Anu then demands retribution. Instead of killing Gilgamesh, however, Anu kills that which Gilgamesh loved the most–Enkidu.

The sequence of events triggered by Gilgamesh’s rejection of Inanna is what ultimately led to the death of Enkidu. It was this foolish and foolhardy act that results in Gilgamesh’s transformation; physically, emotionally and spiritually. The loss of his companion Enkidu will have the result of setting Gilgamesh on the very path he sought to avoid: the potentiality of future losses due to an alliance with Inanna.

In his attempts to circumvent his perception that he will be next-in-line in Inanna’s pattern of ‘victims’, he becomes an unwitting instrument of Inanna’s pursuit of vengeance–but it would not be one that would be enacted on him personally; but on the one whom he considers his best friend.

Retribution is usually thought of in a similar vein to karma. You get what you give. But through the tale of Inanna and Gilgamesh, we learn that justice is not an eye for an eye. Rather, justice is about evening the score. It is about the restoration of balance.

Ishtar Gate at Pergamon Museum

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