In normal epics, women are often depicted as less than men, and always come after. In the epic of Gilgamesh, however, women not only represent temptation and ruin, but great wisdom and power as well.
For example, Ishtar, “the goddess of sex and war, standing on a recumbent lion”(vii). Normally, women in these ancient texts are portrayed as incompetent and house slaves, always listening to their husbands. This epic, however, shows them as a stronger force, there to keep men in check.
Ishtar is shown as a brave, fearless woman that is stronger than most men. Women in this book also help Enkidu a lot, helping him ‘transform’ from his animal state to a man. A woman, who is sent into the woods by the gods, helps Enkidu, as she transforms him into a man. She “stripped off her robe and lay there naked …. For seven days / Enkidu stayed erect and made love with her” (79).
These actions lead Enkidu into manhood and breaks him away from his former habitat, the woods and living with the animals. It is the beginning of the process, which continues as she helps him. It brought Enkidu into a more human life, for Enkidu realized “that his mind had somehow grown larger, / he knew things now that an animal can’t know” (79). Though her acts were more temptational and lustful, the outcome helped portray her as a wise woman that was able to change Enkidu from a beast to a man. She brings knowledge to Enkidu, helping him become the man he was destined to be.
The second women in Gilgamesh that really affected the main hero is the tavern-keeper, Shiduri. Gilgamesh first meets her after Enkidu’s death, when he is searching for immortality because he doesn’t want what happened to Enkidu to happen to him. He stops by her tavern on his way, looking for answers to where he can find the one thing he wants the most: immortality. She advises him to leave his grief enjoy what he has in life right now, such as his role in society, his accomplishments, and his family. Gilgamesh doesn’t listen to her, however, and continues his journey. However, the fact that Shiduri was depicted as a wise women who could advise Gilgamesh. In Things Fall Apart, however, women normally play one role.
The role of working at home, taking care of the children, making/serving dinner, etc. They are portrayed as the lesser sex, always after the men. “Okonkwo ruled his household with a heavy hand. His wives, especially the youngest, lived in perpetual fear of his fiery temper …” (12).
As seen in this quote, Okonkwo dominated over his families, especially the wives and daughters of the family. Women often lived in fear of their husbands, always listening to them, or else they would get beat to ‘teach them the lesson.’ For example, while one of Okonkwo’s wives was making dinner, and picked some leaves for the dinner, which was for Okonkwo and his guests. Okonkwo, however, said she had picked the leaves from the wrong plant, and “Without further argument Okonkwo gave her a sound beating and left her and her only daughter weeping. Neither of the other wives dared to interfere” (38). None of the other wives could do anything, and they all had to watch as Okonkwo took out his anger on his wife. In this book, women have a more constrained role in society and their households. They would have to drink wine/eat dinner after the men had, they would be able to grow certain crops only (men would grow yams, for example, and women would grow beans or other foods like that).
Women would also be responsible for the children of the household. Daughter were often frowned upon in their society, such that ” At the end they decided, as everybody knew they would, that the girl should go to Ogbuefi Udo to replace his murdered wife. As for the boy, he belonged to the clan as a whole, and there was no hurry to decide his fate,” (12). The young girl was sentenced to marry a stranger, someone she doesn’t know, since her elders had decided that it was the right thing.
She did not have anything to do with the murder, yet she had no decision in this matter. She just had to give her hand in marriage and continue with it. The man, however, was let free, with minimal consequences, since he belonged to a clan, and since he was a man, he had a voice in the outcome of the situation. Though Okonkwo loved his daughters, which was abnormal, since they were often frowned upon, he wished that they were men, so that they could participate more actively with him.
The role of women in the novel was very constrained, since they didn’t have many rights, and were not depicted as anything other than child bearers and submissive to their husbands/fathers. Overall, women in Gilgamesh seemed to be treated more respectively than those in Gilgamesh. They weren’t completely undermined, and they could have an opinion on subjects, as Shiduri had, without getting a beating. Women, in general, have always been the lesser sex, including now, but the emphasis and level of this in Things Fall Apart is much more higher than that of Gilgamesh and our society right now.