"Try and be not the Source, for you could never be Her/Him, but a Reflection, like the moon over a lake.
Thus, the reflected image will also reflect your own True Self"
Shamhat, in the Epic of Gilgamesh, is the priestess of Inanna/Ishtar who teaches wild Enkidu the arts of civilization, eating and drinking and everything else, before he could meet his friend and Soul Brother Gilgamesh. But who is she in fact? Clearly, she is one of the most exciting and mysterious aspects of the Divine Feminine in Mesopotamian myth and religion, the character that initiates action in the first two Tablets of the Epic of Gilgamesh, the one whose presence is vital yet so brief. Fundamentally, Shamhat brings change and transformation, she is a catalyst whose mystery is nevertheless as alluring as the values of a true Erotic/Sensual Initiator she represents. But who was she really? What can we learn about her and what are her gifts for us here and now?
We don´t know much of her from the Epic of Gilgamesh either, not a word about her parents, childhood or puberty. What we do know about Shamhat though touches a deep spot within our souls that can only be grasped in the light of the ancient mystery traditions. Why so? Because Shamhat is a priestess of Inanna/Ishtar, the Great Goddess of Love and War, and she can be described as a harimtu priestess, who is called by Gilgamesh the king of Uruk to tame the wild man Enkidu and teach him the arts of civilisation. For those who are not familiar with the the myth of Gilgamesh, Enkidu was created to be the Soul Brother to Gilgamesh, the king of Uruk. But in the beginning, Enkidu is totally oblivious of civilisation and lives in communion with Nature and the wild, whereas Gilgamesh is the King, a macho boy, I must say. Enkidu is the natural man whereas Gilgamesh is the civilised brute. Both men will meet and befriend each other in a first story of male bonding ever written To make Enkidu into a man, Gilgamesh sends him then a priestess of Inanna/Ishtar called Shamhat. She first shows herself to Enkidu, then lets him make love to her for six days and seven nights (an allusion to the transit or initiation of the seven planets). After this time, Enkidu feels he has grown, and the wilderness is not his home anymore, for the beasts now run awy from him. He goes back to sit at the priestess' feet and she tells him that he is like a god and that there is someone he must meet.
Harimtu means virtually 'a woman under the ban of godhead', i.e. a priestess dedicated or belonging to Inanna/Ishtar in this case. Originally, this meant a being dedicated to a deity and therefore forbidden to a mortal. My belief is that a harimtu was a trained initiate and garment of the goddess whose bed was only shared with the offspring of the gods, once she was forbiddent to have contacts with a mere mortal. I will risk an educated guess that the children/offspring of the gods were the fruit of the Sacred Marriage rites, whose divinity was charted in the stars that were on the skies at the time of birth. Mesopotamians were the world's first astrologers, and must have traced in the stars the birth of special children.
How can we try and understand the role of a priestess of love like Shamhat? I believe most of us who live in this century where matter is dissociated from spirit cannot capture the numinosity of placing oneself as a Garment of the Goddess of Love and for a time provide for the deepest emotional needs of someone, not for one's gain, but for the Goddess. Her or his (because there were priests of Inanna/Ishtar too) sensuous body was not used in order to obtain admiration or devotion, because the hierodule often remained anonymous as a person, cloaked in the sacredness of her or his temple function. We can go back again to the myth of Gilgamesh and see that he summons a nameless hierodule (for only later we learn of her name), to tame Enkidu. The fact that the hierodule should remain nameless for the worshipper is of incredible relevance. This way the sacredness of the office could be preserved from the danger of any unwanted bond or transference from the worshiper to the priest/ess. In other words, we can infer that there was ethics in serving in the temple, not promiscuity.
Moreover, to illustrate the case of Shamhat, the priestess who initiated Enkidu and who disappears to the background as soon as she takes him to Gilgamesh the king, we will see that hers is an incredibly potent image of a woman and priestess who did not require a name or a man to give her a sense of identity. The laws of Shamhat are the laws of Inanna/Ishtar, and this vision she mediated selflessly to Enkidu. Shamhat teaches Enkidu to be a full man, to eat at the table the Earth's gifts laboured by man and drink from the Seven Cups the Beer of the Wise for his sake, not for her own gain. Indeed, Enkidu and Shamhat share a neophyte/initiator relationship.
Thus, imagine a hierodule as woman (and man) whose emotions and creative body energies were united with the suprapersonal. This wo/man was in touch with regenerative powers and thereby as the Goddess Incarnate assured the continuity of Life and Love. The hierodule was the holy Vessel, the Ever-Flowing Cup of Joy and Delight. This is the reason why in some societies, like Babylon, the biblical city of harlots, every woman was required to serve the Goddess at least once in her life, and then return to her family, free to marry as she chose, her status and reputation enhanced. Furthermore, contemplating Shamhat in the light of modern Jungian psychology, she in her office as a hierodule could be described as a very positive Anima figure, the Muse and Inspirer. The Anima is a primeval form or archetype, an inner image of the feminine that both women and men possess within. Shamhat acts like a positive goddess-figure in Enkidu´s life, inspiring him to move further by making his own choices, not for her sake but for his own.
Think of Shamhat not as a Seductress, but Seduction and Eros. Indeed, in the myth she is the personification of Love and Delight Herself to share, not for her gain, but for the glory of the Spirit she saw in the person she had to initiate by her sacred vows. Now, I would like you to think of Love not as as the stupid little boy shooting arrows aimlessly to make people fall in love with the most unsuitable partners; think instead of Love Gods and Goddesses as Life Energy and Connection, Intimacy and Play, at once gallant and impetuous, desirous and full of wisdom. Do follow me now: the Greeks did not see Eros/Cupid as a little winged figure, but as a youth of maximum twenty years of age, full of lust, passion, physical beauty and prowess, a poet and inspirer. To reduce an icon of power to a lesser, childish form is a device to diminish His/Her importance.
Another key element to understand Shamhat is that as a priestess or garment of a Love Goddess or God, she cannot be possessed by anyone, because Love belongs to all. This is the reason why all great Love Goddesses are Eternal Virgins and All-In-One, and why precious things that make life worth living such as Love, Wealth, Knowledge, Understanding and Wisdom cannot be possessed, but are eternal flow, ever evolving, transforming and Be-Coming. Inanna/Ishtar, like Circe, has no other way but to transform Her lovers in their animal, bestial forms, whenever they attempt to possess Her just for themselves. How can one possess a moonray, dawn or sunshine?
From the points introduced above, it is easy to see that in the last two millennia there has been no place for the bright vision of garments of Shamhat, the Erotic/Sensual and Deeply Spiritual Initiators to manifest, to the impoverishment of our religious present. I will be generous and respectful to post-Mesopotamians, but there is sadly no way to equate religiosity and sexuality in today´s fundamentalist creeds. Indeed, this is the Original Sin against the Divine Feminine, the fall of the Goddess from grace.
Now, what do we need to heal the very needed figure of the Sacred Hierodule today? Be it understood that most of the bad press suffered by Inanna/Ishtar is precisely because of Her Character as the Hierodule or Love Priestess. I have discussed the issue of Sacred Sexuality in A Treasure File of Ancient Love Spells under the title The Resurrection of the Body or the Sacralisation of Sexuality, so for now it is enough to mention the following fundamental steps:
Firstly, we have to look at the past to understand a worldview in which spirituality is not divorced from sexuality, where spirit and matter are united as one. In this world, appreciation of life would be enhanced by living in communion with an universe ensouled, and therefore a sensual experience to be enjoyed in all levels: physical, mental and spiritual. This was the world of the Hierodule, and the wisdom s/he embodied and channeled to all.
Secondly, we need to have much integrity and common sense to understand our painful religious past so that a new future can start to be constructed. Clearly, humanity probably started with a childhood of mother worship, then went through very painful 2,000 years of father worship. It is my belief that a much more harmonious and grounded future could be built by retrieving the ancient consciousness of the Sacred Hierdodules, which saw men and women as physical, sensual, mystical and spiritual beings. Indeed, the Divine Feminine and Masculine cannot be separeted or alienated from each other. This was the way of our soul ancestors of Mesopotamia, and is still valid for us today.
This is the way of alchemy, put so well by Caitlin and John Matthews (The Western Way1994):
" 'where each man stands for the Logos or God, and is capable of mediating that force, and each woman stands under the macrocosmic influence of the Goddess or Sophia, and is capable of mediating that force. As a man is able to experience the love of a woman, the inspiration of his inner companion - the muse or sibyl - and behold the macrocosmic beauty of the Goddess, so, too, is woman able to experience the love of a man, the inspiration of her inner companion - the daimon or prophet - and behold the macrocosmic beauty of the God' (408p).
This means that we have to go beyond the concept of polarity, of male and female, Sun and the Moon, King and Queen to embrace the complementarity of mind, body and soul. The hierodule had the understanding of this mating in all levels and mediated this reconciliation in her or his religious practice.
Earlier I mentioned that Shamhat, the hierodule and votary of Inanna/Ishtar who initiated Enkidu to civilisation in the Gilgamesh Epic could be described as a very positive Anima/Muse/Inspirer figure, because she was the catalyst of change in the Wild One. Shamhat did the Goddess bidding to transform Enkidu into a fuller human being, and graciously disappeared when he was ready to meet Gilgamesh the king, his opposite and Soul Brother. Shamhat did not want Enkidu for herself, as any jealous or possessive lover would, but prepared him for a world Enkidu had to discover by his own choice and doing. She was at once deeply spiritual, practical and joyfully sexual.
It is remarkable that Shamhat shows Enkidu exactly what Gilgamesh was unable to see: that lovemaking is the most sacred act of being human and in connection, and that it transforms us in all levels. To surrender to love is to be filled up by the Universe. Gilgamesh sends a love priestess to teach Enkidu this most precious aspect of a fully mature and integrated human, the art of connecting with others at the deepest levels, but somehow the young king of Uruk was too full of himself to understand the depth and implications of the gift he sent to Enkidu.
Now, my experience of the mystery embedded in the sacred hierodule, the gifts she has to offer us today. In the temple and in real life in the service of the Goddess, the hierodule does not want love to serve her, as any imature person would, but she serves Love, and as such is the embodiment of Joy, Passion and Play which then is mediated in the priestly office. The ethics embedded in this is very clear: one serves the Goddess by empowerment, by bringing back to those who need passion, healing and relatedness. There is no encouragement to promiscuity, because the hierodule cannot use her office for power or personal gratification. Indeed, if any Great Goddess of Love encouraged promiscuity and power, they would be patrons of strife instead! The hierodule´s silent mantra may very well be "with my being I worship you, for yours is the image of the Divine in flesh by my vows I should serve here and now, not for my gain, but for the glory of the Living Spirit I adore and am called to serve in you."
This is why the presence of Shamhat is so strong and fundamental, yet so brief. She is the Erotic Initiator, the Bringer of Change, like Jane did it for Tarzan or even Julia Roberts did it for Richard Gere in "Pretty Woman". However, the authority, gentleness and altruism of Shamhat is yet to be equalled in world mythology as far as my knowledge is concerned. Shamhat is also the nightmare of all woman-demeaning creeds, a lovely nightmare, I must add, that was never really erased from human consciousness nevertheless.
Shamhat as the hierodule or love priestess is the one who leads Enkidu to the discovery of his potential in all worlds. She consciously embodied the Principle of Receptive Love, of Full Humanity in Connectedness and thus took over Enkidu´s universe to set him free. And as silent as she came, Shamhat took Enkidu to Uruk, and left him to find out the world on his own. To try and grasp Shamhat´s depths is one of the greatest challenges a true Love Priestess needs to apprehend. This is why I included that cryptic quote in the beginning of this essay. My experience of it is retold in The Priestess of Enkidu, which is perhaps one of my most personal retellings of a Mesopotamian myth. It is also the one who strikes people most, and I never cease to marvel at this mystery. Shamhat has been a living force in my life, and lately she has grown to embrace more and more the facets of a modern garment of a scribe priestess, Enheduanna be praised!
I said there was no psychopomp or Guide of Souls in Mesopotamia not so long ago. I was wrong. There is a Guide of Souls, human and passionate, and her name is Shamhat.
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