Bull of Heaven

Ancient Mesopotamian terracotta relief (c. 2250 — 1900 BC) showing Gilgamesh slaying the Bull of Heaven,[1] an episode described in Tablet VI of the Epic of Gilgamesh[2][3]

In ancient Mesopotamian mythology, the Bull of Heaven is a mythical beast fought by the hero Gilgamesh. In Tablet VI of the standard Akkadian Epic of Gilgamesh, the goddess Ishtar demands the Bull of Heaven from her father Anu after Gilgamesh repudiates her sexual advances. Gilgamesh and Enkidu slay the Bull together and Enkidu hurls the Bull's right thigh at Ishtar, taunting her. This act of impiety results in the gods condemning Enkidu to death, an event which catalyzes Gilgamesh's fear for his own death, which drives the remaining portion of the epic. The Bull was identified with the constellation Taurus and the myth of its slaying may have held astronomical significance to the ancient Mesopotamians. Aspects of the story have been compared to later tales from the ancient Near East, including legends from Ugarit, the tale of Joseph in the Book of Genesis, and parts of the ancient Greek epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey.


Gilgamesh and the Bull of Heaven

In the Sumerian poem Gilgamesh and the Bull of Heaven, Gilgamesh and Enkidu slay the Bull of Heaven, who has been sent to attack them by the goddess Inanna.[4][5][6] The plot of this poem differs substantially from the corresponding scene in the later Akkadian Epic of Gilgamesh.[7] In the Sumerian poem, Inanna does not seem to ask Gilgamesh to become her consort as she does in the later Akkadian epic.[5] Furthermore, while she is coercing her father An to give her the Bull of Heaven, rather than threatening to raise the dead to eat the living as she does in the later epic, she merely threatens to let out a "cry" that will reach the earth.[7]

Epic of Gilgamesh

In Tablet VI of the standard Akkadian Epic of Gilgamesh, after Gilgamesh repudiates her sexual advances, Ishtar goes to her father Anu and demands that he give her the Bull of Heaven.[8][9][10] She threatens that, if Anu does not give her Bull of Heaven, she will smash the gates of the Underworld and raise the dead to eat the living.[11][10] Anu at first objects to Ishtar's demand, insisting that the Bull of Heaven is so destructive that its release would result in seven years of famine.[11][9] Ishtar declares that she has stored up enough grain for all people and all animals for the next seven years.[11][9] Eventually, Anu reluctantly agrees to gives it to Ishtar and she unleashes it on the world, causing mass destruction.[8][11] The Bull's first breath blows a hole in the ground that one hundred men fall into and its second breath creates another hole, trapping two hundred more.[11][10] Gilgamesh and Enkidu work together to slay the Bull;[8][11][9] Enkidu goes behind the Bull and pulls its tail[11] while Gilgamesh thrusts his sword into the Bull's neck, killing it.[11]

Gilgamesh and Enkidu offer the Bull's heart to the sun-god Shamash.[12][13] While Gilgamesh and Enkidu are resting, Ishtar stands up on the walls of Uruk and curses Gilgamesh.[12][14][15] Enkidu tears off the Bull's right thigh and throws it in Ishtar's face.[12][14][15][9] Ishtar calls together "the crimped courtesans, prostitutes and harlots"[12] and orders them to mourn for the Bull of Heaven.[12][14] Meanwhile, Gilgamesh holds a celebration over the Bull of Heaven's defeat.[16][14] On account of Enkidu's impiety against Ishtar, the gods condemn him to death.[9][17] Enkidu's death becomes the catalyst for Gilgamesh's fear of his own death, which is the focus of the remaining portion of the epic.[18][19]

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