The Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the earliest literary explorations of the purpose and meaning of human life. The poem’s hero embarks on a quest for immortality, only to discover that, for humankind, eternal life lies in enduring works and contentment in domestic comforts. The motif of body cleaning – including the washing of hair and skin, anointment with perfumes, and the wearing of spotless garments – is woven through the epic narrative. Enkidu, a wild man who has been reared in the steppe, is cleaned and groomed as part of his transition into human society. Ninsun, the divine mother of Gilgamesh, bathes before making a ritual offering to the sun-god Shamash. Gilgamesh washes himself on his return from an expedition to slay the monster Humbaba. In each episode, the cleansing of the body provides entrée to a new social context. Freshly washed, Enkidu gains admission to the company of other human beings, Ninsun to the company of the gods, and Gilgamesh to the intimate company of a woman. When, at the close of the epic, Gilgamesh bathes for a final time following his quest to the end of the earth in search of everlasting life, the cleansing heralds his acceptance of his own mortality and his readmission to the ranks of humanity.
The epic establishes the clean body as a requirement for participation in society, and people who stand outside of the human social order are marked by their uncleanliness: these include the wild man, prostitutes, the grieving, and the dead. In a text whose aim is to establish what human beings can and should aspire to in the face of the inevitability of death, cleanliness emerges as a key value, a prerequisite to leading a rewarding human life of full social participation.
Hawthorn, A. Forthcoming. "Your Clothes Should Be Clean! Your Head Should Be Washed! Body Cleaning and Social Inclusion in the Epic of Gilgamesh." In Cleaning and Value: Interdisciplinary Investigations, edited by I. Bredenbröker, C. Hanzen, and F. Kotzur. Leiden: Sidestone Press.
Hawthorn, A. 2017. "Body Cleaning, Social Norms, and Value in the Epic of Gilgamesh."Cleaning and Value Interdisciplinary Workshop, Goethe University of Frankfurt am Main, Frankfurt, Germany. June 8-11.