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. The story of the Bull of Heaven has two different versions: one recorded in an earlier Sumerian poem and a later version in the standard Akkadian Epic of Gilgamesh. In the Sumerian poem, the Bull is sent to attack Gilgamesh by the goddess Inanna for reasons that are unclear. The more complete Akkadian account comes from Tablet VI of the Epic of Gilgamesh, in which Gilgamesh refuses the sexual advances of the goddess Ishtar, the East Semitic equivalent of Inanna, leading the enraged Ishtar to demand her father Anu for the Bull of Heaven, so that she may send it to attack Gilgamesh in Uruk. Anu gives her the Bull and she sends it to attack Gilgamesh and his companion, the hero Enkidu, who slay the Bull together.

After defeating the Bull, Enkidu hurls the Bull's right thigh at Ishtar, taunting her. The slaying of the Bull 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, the Sumerian equivalent of Ishtar.[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 Heaven, where she complains to her mother Antu and her father Anu.[8] She demands that Anu give her the Bull of Heaven[9][10][11] and threatens that, if he refuses, she will smash the gates of the Underworld and raise the dead to eat the living.[12][11] 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.[12][10] Ishtar declares that she has stored up enough grain for all people and all animals for the next seven years.[12][10] Eventually, Anu reluctantly agrees to give it to Ishtar, whereupon she unleashes it on the world, causing mass destruction.[9][12]

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.[12][11] Gilgamesh and Enkidu work together to slay the Bull;[9][12][10] Enkidu goes behind the Bull and pulls its tail[12] while Gilgamesh thrusts his sword into the Bull's neck, killing it.[12] Gilgamesh and Enkidu offer the Bull's heart to the sun-god Shamash.[13][14] While Gilgamesh and Enkidu are resting, Ishtar stands up on the walls of Uruk and curses Gilgamesh.[13][15][16] Enkidu tears off the Bull's right thigh and throws it in Ishtar's face.[13][15][16][10]

Ishtar calls together "the crimped courtesans, prostitutes and harlots"[13] and orders them to mourn for the Bull of Heaven.[13][15] Meanwhile, Gilgamesh holds a celebration over the Bull of Heaven's defeat.[17][15] Tablet VII begins with Enkidu recounting a dream in which he saw Anu, Ea, and Shamash declare that either Gilgamesh or Enkidu must die as punishment for having slain the Bull of Heaven.[2] They choose Enkidu, who soon grows sick,[2] and dies after having a dream of the Underworld.[2] Tablet VIII describes Gilgamesh's inconsolable grief over his friend's death[2][18] and the details of Enkidu's funeral.[2] 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.[19][20]

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