Ms. Geek Speaks on Gilgamesh: Hero or Zero?

If there had been a woman in the writers room when someone proposed Gilgamesh as an Eternal for this new set of heroes in the 1970s, do you think she might have said something like: What a minute, guys. He’s known as a serial rapist. That’s not very heroic, right?”

Gilgamesh first appeared in “The Eternals #13” and was created by Jack Kirby (July 1977).

In the Marvel Cinematic Universe film “Eternals,” he’s the strongest and kindest member of the Eternals. In literature (“Epic of Gilgamesh”), he was a serial rapist that made his people turn to the gods for help. 

Looking in Britannica, I found this:

The Ninevite version of the epic begins with a prologue in praise of Gilgamesh, part divine and part human, the great builder and warrior, knower of all things on land and sea. In order to curb Gilgamesh’s seemingly harsh rule, the god Anu causes the creation of Enkidu, a wild man who at first lives among animals. Soon, however, Enkidu is initiated into the ways of city life and travels to Uruk, where Gilgamesh awaits him.

The rape of women is euphemistically characterized as a “harsh rule.”  Spark Notes is clearer on this: 

The epic’s prelude offers a general introduction to Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, who was two-thirds god and one-third man. He built magnificent ziggurats, or temple towers, surrounded his city with high walls, and laid out its orchards and fields. He was physically beautiful, immensely strong, and very wise. Although Gilgamesh was godlike in body and mind, he began his kingship as a cruel despot. He lorded over his subjects, raping any woman who struck his fancy, whether she was the wife of one of his warriors or the daughter of a nobleman. He accomplished his building projects with forced labor, and his exhausted subjects groaned under his oppression. The gods heard his subjects’ pleas and decided to keep Gilgamesh in check by creating a wild man named Enkidu, who was as magnificent as Gilgamesh. Enkidu became Gilgamesh’s great friend, and Gilgamesh’s heart was shattered when Enkidu died of an illness inflicted by the gods.

So the solution is a bromance that takes Gilgamesh away on adventures. It’s safe to assume that Gilgamesh wasn’t above rape and pillage on his travels because that is how war was conducted.  So then the solution is: Rape is fine with other women elsewhere.

Gilgamesh’s actions at home were an example of droit due seigneur, also sometimes known as jus prom noctis. I had been thinking about this (droit due seigneur) when I saw “The Last Duel,” feeling that by characterizing the Count Pierre d’Aleçon’s (Ben Affleck) frolics with three lovely naked women in an extramarital romp shared with friends like the possibly villainous Jacques Le Gris (Adam Drive) as totally consensual, the film might have missed some of the more troubling aspects of that time period for women. Instead of just feeling that Le Gris was an aberration, the film could have shown how the male culture of that era formed the basis for what happened to Marguerite, the wife of Jean de Carrouges, and how that applies to our current rape culture.

Affleck and Matt Damon were writing about the 1300s and their writing partner, Nicole Holocener was writing with the sensibilities of the 2020s. Kirby was writing at a time when the James Bond rape scene had already screened. James Bond was created by Ian Fleming in 1953 and Sean Connery played him in 1965 in “Thunderball” as forcing himself on a nurse who has already refused his advances. She had to give in to him in order to keep her job. In 1965, that wasn’t a joke to women.

By 1977, Susan Brownmiller had already been part of an event, New York Radical Feminists Speak-Out on Rape (24 January 1971). After helping to organize that, she went on to organized New York Radical Feminists Conference on Rape (17 April 1971).   This is the same New York where Jack Kirby was working for Timely Comics which was re-branded as Marvel Comics in 1961.  By 1977, when Gilgamesh was introduced into Marvel Comics, Brownmiller had also published her research on rape, a controversial book called: “Against our Will: Men, Women, and Rape.”

It’s likely that the issue of rape wasn’t taken seriously then–not seriously enough for Kirby or Stan Lee to consider when Gilgamesh was introduced. We have signs that rape isn’t taken that seriously now in contemporary US culture in the lenient sentencing of Brock Turner. Then there’s the more recent news item of a man able to dodge a trial on rape for 25 years

There are plenty of places that the MCU has made mistakes, but this seems particularly egregious. People, including young kids who see this film “Eternals” which is rated PG-13, might go online and discover who Gilgamesh was. Perhaps they’ll get the Britannica version and think Gilgamesh was just like a strict dad or father figure. Or perhaps they’ll find out that the guy was a serial rapist who went on to become a hero. There aren’t very many historical figures by that name. Also consider this: Kirby didn’t even attempt to disguise the name as he did with Sersi (Circe), Makkari (Mercury), Thena (Athena) or  Ajak (Ajax). 

Marvel isn’t the only place where Gilgamesh is used as a fictional character. He’s also a character in the Final Fantasy video game series, the Fate/stay night franchise, and the Babylonian Castle Saga. What does this tell women? I don’t know enough about these franchises and video games to say. 

What does the “Epic of Gilgamesh” tell women? It gives an example of how the victims of rape should act. They should pray to the gods. The epic places the responsibility of civilizing men on a temple prostitute (Shamhat) instead of placing responsibility on Gilgamesh or the primitive Endiku.

One may argue that Gilgamesh is more than a serial rapist. But what is he then known for? After the introduction of Endiku, Gilgamesh takes Endiku on an adventure to kill  Humbaba, the guardian of the Cedar Forest. Why did he kill Humbaba along with Humbaba’s seven sons? In order to gain fame. That’s a value that the social influencers and social influencer wanna-bes can relate to, but it that a positive social value?

Of course, Gilgamesh was also considered attractive in the poem. He rejects the advances of the goddess Ishtar whose father sends the Bull of Heaven as revenge. Gilgamesh kills it. So Gilgamesh could have had goddesses and women because he was attractive, but he still chose to rape women. As women were often treated by property, the crime then is against other men? So really, how much concern was there for women in this epic poem?

There are signs that rape culture is alive and well in comics in general (“The Comic 8 Ball: The Top 8 Worse Rape Culture Comic Moments” according to a guy named Anthony Kennedy), there’s been a paper on rape culture in  the Avengers (“Busting Loose: Ms. Marvel and Post-rape Trauma in X-Men comics” by J. Andrew Deman)  and a Marvel TV series (“Let’s Start with a Smile”: Rape Culture in Marvel’s Jessica Jones” by Verity Trott). I’m sure there are more. 

Kirby wasn’t one of the writers when the Avengers #200 was published. on 1 October 1980. 

In his abstract, Deman notes: “In Avengers #200, the character Carol Danvers (aka Ms. Marvel) was subjected to a sexual assault that was characterized as non-violent, non-traumatic and even as an act of love.” Luckily there was someone to help rescue her: “Chris Claremont, who had written the Carol Danvers character years prior, objected to this treatment of the character and recontextualized Carol’s assault as rape in Avengers Annual #10.” So even in the 1980s, just a few years after the introduction of Gilgamesh in to the Eternals, some men were paying attention to rape as an issue. The British-born US citizen Claremont was born in 1950 and significantly younger than Kirby (August 28, 1917 – February 6, 1994).  

Generational differences do not account for attitudes though. A recent film (“Promising Young Woman”) reacted against the concern for promising young men who get light sentences such as Brock Turner.  The judge (Aaron Persky) on the Brock Turner case wrote about “the adverse collateral consequences on the defendant’s life resulting from the felony conviction” due to publicity.  As an article in Harper’s Bazaar about the film “Promising Young Woman” noted: 

Much was made at the time of Turner’s promising future as a swimmer. As his father said in a much publicised court letter, why should his son’s life be “deeply altered” for “20 minutes of action”?

This line of argument is rampant when it comes to white, Ivy League or other esteemed college students who have bright careers ahead of them as doctors or lawyers or hedge fund managers. These men are destined to maintain their hold on the upper echelons of society, and they cannot be derailed by something as sordid and inconvenient as a rape accusation. Why do you have to ruin everything?

Watching “Eternals,” I wanted to cheer for representation when there was a person of East Asian descent playing a superhero (Korean American Don Lee), but felt conflicted because Gilgamesh was West Asian (Iraq). Further, Gilgamesh’s very inclusion in this movie also signals as it did at the time the Eternals was created that rape culture continues. That Chloé Zhao didn’t question the casting or the inclusion of Gilgamesh during script writing with Ryan and Kaz Firpo and Patrick Burleigh is disappointing. In this #MeToo era, none of these writers should get a pass.

Sure representation matters and I applaud an East Asian face as a hero, but not as a West Asian man who was a man of questionable morals because he egregiously raped women in a manner and extent that was even by the standards of his time, unacceptable. Such a man would certainly not in the 2020s be considered a good candidate for hero-hood. I’m sure people wonder, why I have to focus on the name Gilgamesh and its legacy of rape. He was a hero from West Asia that is part of Western literary learning and, in the case of “Eternals,” he’s a hero with the face of an East Asian so, why am I ruining this diversity casting in the MCU? Considering diversity is a good thing, but giving equal consideration to women in diversity representation means not downplaying sexual assault.  Gilgamesh as a villain, perhaps, but not as a hero.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

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