Posted by: mattcolvin | March 1, 2017

Lusting for the Hero


A Javanese shadow-puppet of Surpakanaka or Soorpanaka from the Ramayana.

Among the tropes or story-types shared between the Bible and pagan mythologies is the story of the lustful female who is refused by the hero. The earliest such account is in the Epic of Gilgamesh, tablet VI.
The story begins by putting the reader in the position of the goddess Ishtar, watching in an almost voyeuristic way as the narrator describes Gilgamesh’s bathing and re-beautification after the slaying of the ogre Humbaba in tablet V. The description follows the epic conventions of the beautification typescene. Think of it as a sort of verbal advertisement for shampoo and male fashion accessories:

“[Gilgamesh] washed his matted hair, he cleaned his equipment,
he shook his hair down over his back.
Casting aside his dirty gear he clad himself in clean,
wrapped cloaks round him, tied with a sash.
Then did Gilgamesh put on his crown.” (VI.1-5, A. R. George’s translation)

The physical beauty of Gilgamesh is the externalized glory of his feats of arms and kingly status: power is the ultimate aphrodisiac. (Cf. Donald Trump’s infamous comments to Billy Bush about what women will let you do if you’re a “star”.) Gilgamesh’s glorious and handsome appearance has the expected effect on Ishtar:

“On the beauty of Gilgamesh Lady Ishtar looked with longing:
‘Come, Gilgamesh, be you my bridegroom!
Grant me your fruits, O grant me!
Be you my husband and I your wife!” (VI.6-9)

Andrew George comments on “looked with longing”: “The expression īna/īnī našû, meaning ‘to look with desire’ and so ‘covet’, also describes Ishtar’s lust for Ishullanu (VI.67).” The mention of “fruits” is the goddess’ figurative but grossly forward way of expressing her desire to enjoy sex with Gilgamesh. Her speech is an inversion of a traditional Ancient Near Eastern marriage contract, which would ordinarily be expressed by a man to the woman he is courting, enumerating the benefits that will accrue to her. In Ishtar’s case, these consist of heightened fertility for his whole realm and ostentatious status symbols for Gilgamesh: a chariot pulled by lions and mules and a cedar palace.

Gilgamesh rejects her, citing as precedent the stories of how all her prior lovers came to grief. But his central objection concerns the incongruity of a mortal’s marriage to a goddess:

[And if indeed I] take you in marriage
… body and clothing,
[whence would come] my food and my sustenance?
[Would you feed me] bread that is fit for a god,
[and pour me ale] that is fit for a king? (VI.24-28)

The difference between gods and mortals is symbolically expressed by their differing clothing and diet. Men live on food that requires the most civilized arts to produce: agriculture, milling, and baking in an oven with fire. It is also, like mortal life itself, subject to corruption: at the end of the epic, Utnapishti’s wife will use increasingly moldy loaves of bread as evidence of how long Gilgamesh has slept. Beer, likewise, is a product of grain and requires fermentation. In Gilgamesh, these are the edible and potable symbols of human civilization. By contrast, the gods eat fruit made of stone, elaborately described in Tablet IX.170-190 (“the trees of the gods…a carnelian tree…a lapis lazuli tree…”).

Gilgamesh’s rejection of the goddess provokes her to go weeping to her father Anu and demand retribution for Gilgamesh’s “tale of foulest slander, slander about me and insults too” (VI.85-6). Hell hath no fury like a goddess scorned.

A similar story is found in the Indian epic Ramayana‘s account of Soorpanaka’s lust for the hero Rama. Soorpanaka is the sister of the evil Ravana, and a fellow asura, or demon-deity. I quote the somewhat archaic and stilted translation of Romesh Dutt from 1899:

Surpanakha, Raksha maiden, sister of the Raksha lord,
Came and looked with eager longing till her soul was passion-stirred!
Looked on Rama lion-chested, mighty-arméd, lotus-eyed,
Stately as the jungle tusker, with his crown of tresses tied,
Looked on Rama lofty-fronted, with a royal visage graced,
Like KANDARPA young and lustrous, lotus-hued and lotus-faced!
What though she a Raksha maiden, poor in beauty plain in face,
Fell her glances passion-laden on the prince of peerless grace,
What though wild her eyes and tresses, and her accents counselled fear,
Soft-eyed Rama fixed her bosom, and his sweet voice thrilled her ear,
What though bent on deeds unholy, holy Rama won her heart,
And, for love makes bold a female, thus did she her thoughts impart…

Like Ishtar, Soorpanaka is forward in her advances to Rama, boldly bidding him cast off his wife Sita:

Khara and the doughty Dushan with me in these forests stray,
But by Rama’s love emboldened I have left them on the way!
Broad and boundless is my empire and I wander in my pride,
Thee I choose as lord and husband, — cast thy human wife aside,
Pale is Sita and misshapen, scarce a warrior’s worthy wife,
To a nobler, lordlier female consecrate thy gallant life!

Of course, Rama rejects her proposal, and instead suggests that she should direct her proposals to his sidekick Lakshmana. This she does, but is instantly rejected by him also:

Surpa-nakha passion-laden then on Lakshman turned her eye,
But in merry mocking accents smiling Lakshman made reply.
‘Ruddy in thy youthful beauty like the lotus in her pride,
I am slave of royal Rama, would’st thou be a vassal’s bride?’

As in Gilgamesh, the social gap between the goddess and the (seeming) mortal is made the main grounds of rejection. It is also interesting that, though The Epic of Gilgamesh does not have Ishtar propose to Gilgamesh’s sidekick Enkidu, he does insult her after vanquishing the bull of heaven:

‘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.
‘Had I caught you too, I’d have treated you likewise,
I’d have draped your arms in its guts!’


Gilgamesh and Enkidu kill the Bull of Heaven on a bronze situla of unknown provenance.

Soorpanaka’s response to Lakshmana’s and Rama’s rejection is rage, especially directed at Sita:

Wrath of unrequited passion raged like madness in her breast,
Torn by anger strong as tempest thus her answer she addrest:
Are these mocking accents uttered, Rama, to insult my flame,
Feasting on her faded beauty dost thou still revere thy dame?
But beware a Raksha’s fury and an injured female’s wrath,
Surpa-nakha slays thy consort, bears no rival in her path!”

Soorpanaka’s comparison of herself with Sita (“Pale is Sita and misshapen, scarce a warrior’s worthy wife…feasting on her faded beauty dost thou still revere thy dame?”) should remind us the most famous instance of the trope of the goddess lusting for the hero: namely, Calypso and Odysseus. Like Soorpanaka, Calypso makes an appeal to Odysseus by comparing herself favorably with his mortal wife:

“But if you only knew, down deep, what pains
are fated to fill your cup before you reach that shore,
you’d stay right here, preside in our house with me
and be immortal. Much as you long to see your wife,
the one you pine for all your days . . . and yet
I just might claim to be nothing less than she,
neither in face nor figure. Hardly right, is it,
for mortal woman to rival immortal goddess?
How, in build? in beauty?” (Odyssey ε.228-236, trans. Fagles)

Calypso’s offer is better than Ishtar’s: it overcomes the main objection of Gilgamesh, sc. that mortals and immortals are incompatible. Calypso offers, indeed, to make Odysseus immortal and give him rule (“preside”) in her palace by her side forever, enjoying sex with a woman who forever retains the figure of a supermodel and the face of a makeup ad, while the flesh gathers under Penelope’s chin and the wrinkles creep around her eyes, worn down with years of sorrow and waiting. But such a choice would come at a terrible price, which Odysseus is unwilling to pay: he would lose his kleos, the glory for which he has suffered so much already at Troy and after; his name and his deeds would be covered up forever, known to no one. That is what the name “Calypso” means, after all: “I will cover up”. Not for nothing does she dwell in a cave: symbol both of her threatening femininity and of the dark oblivion that would swallow up Odysseus’ future glory.


Vanessa Williams as Calypso clings to Armand Assante’s Odysseus in the 1997 Konchalovsky miniseries.

It is sometimes missed that Calypso’s reaction to rejection by Odysseus is not all equanimity and kindness. Not only does she vent her spleen at Hermes as the carrier of Zeus’ unwelcome orders, and complain bitterly about the double-standard that judges goddesses more harshly than male gods for sleeping with mortals. Like Soorpanaka and Ishtar, she attempts to destroy the former object of her lust. Unlike them, she does it in a sneaky way, for that is how women operate in the Odyssey, with charms and spells and plots, not outbursts of rage. Calypso gives Odysseus clothes. Irene DeJong (A Narratological Commentary on the Odyssey) comments: “Calypso’s clothes will in fact play an important role in the ensuing events: they weigh [Odysseus] down, when he has been thrown into the water (321); Ino/Leucothea urges him to take them off (343), which, after some hesitation, he finally does (372), so that he stands naked before Nausicaa (6.130ff.).” Thus the clothes which appear to be a parting guest-gift actually turn out to be a deadly weapon by which the spurned goddess attempts to exact her vengeance.

In the Bible, similar dynamics are at work in the story of Potiphar’s wife (Genesis 39). Like Gilgamesh and Rama, Joseph is described as “handsome in form and appearance” (יְפֵה־תֹ֖אַר וִיפֵ֥ה), but unlike those epics, Genesis devotes no space to any detailed description of his masculine beauty.

Joseph’s handsome appearance has the expected effect:

And it came to pass after these things that his master’s wife cast eyes on Joseph, and she said, “Lie with me.”

The Biblical narrator elides any description of female lust, shrinking it to a single phrase: “she cast eyes upon him” (וַתִּשָּׂ֧א… אֶת־עֵינֶ֖יהָ אֶל־יֹוסֵ֑ף). The proposal itself is even more direct than Ishtar’s, only two words in Hebrew: “Lie with me” (שִׁכְבָ֥ה עִמִּֽי), which it’s hard to render into English in any polite way.

Mrs. Potiphar changes once she is rejected, engineering his imprisonment by falsely claiming to be a victim of rape. Thus she fits the epic trope of the spurned goddess, converting her lust into rage. Unable to use her sexual power to seduce the hero, she uses feminine craftiness to engineer his downfall. The narrative thus highlights Joseph’s virtue in contrast to Potiphar’s wife’s vice: although his master has trusted him alone with his wife, and Joseph might easily have used his superior male strength to rape her, he does not.


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