The Scorpion Twins

8th century BCE Assyrian seal. Source: Walters Art Museum/Wikimedia Commons

8th century BCE Assyrian seal. Source: Walters Art Museum/Wikimedia Commons

In The Epic of Gilgamesh, the hero encounters scorpion people on his quest for eternal life. Scorpion men, called Girtablullu, are depicted in Akkadian and Assyrian drawings as composite human/scorpion/bird figures, reflecting a complex understanding of animal deities.

Gilgamesh encounters a male/female pair of scorpion deities at the “Twin Mountains,” probably in the Zagros range to the east of his Mesopotamian city of Uruk. The pair are guarding the tunnel through the underworld, which the sun travels at night. As Gilgamesh approaches, the Girtablullu remarks:

“This one who has come to us, his body is flesh of a god!”
The wife of the scorpion monster answered him:”Two-thirds of him is divine, one-third is human.”

The scorpion pair are usually depicted as husband and wife in English translations, but the text literally defines them as “scorpion-man” and “scorpion-woman.” Logic would categorize the two as brother and sister, not husband and wife, since the opening they guard is between mountains characterized as “twins.”

Why is this important? In pre-patriarchal societies sibling bonds are paramount and marital bonds are relatively unimportant, since the organizing principle of society is the mother-child relationship rather than that of husband-wife. The Akkadian culture where this myth was first recorded in written form was unquestionably patriarchal, yet vestiges of a pre-patriarchal culture can be gleaned within this story that unquestionably arose at an earlier time. Modern scholars impose a more rigid patriarchal framework when translating these myths, however, rendering the pre-patriarchal vestiges invisible to the reader.

So if Girtablullu is the Akkadian word for scorpion-man, what is the equivalent for scorpion-woman? I had to search for a transliteration of the Akkadian text for this one. I think it is Girtablullu-sinnistu.

Sources

Foster, Benjamin R., ed. The Epic of Gilgamesh. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2001.

Gardner, John and John Maier, eds. Gilgamesh.New York: Vantage Books, 1985.

Mitchell, Stephen. Gilgamesh: A New English Version. New York: Free Press, 2004.

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