Saturday 13 October 2012

GILGAMESH, JIMMY SAVILE, and Le droit du Seigneur

Social historians try to deny the historicity of le droit de Seigneur–the right of the Sir, Sire or feudal overlord  to deflower all pubescent virgins. In George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four this jus primae noctis was propaganda with which children were indoctrinated about the oppression from which the revolution had freed them: they were no more subject to ‘the law by which every capitalist had the right to sleep with any woman working in one of his factories’ (I ch. 7). Hooray!

V. Polenov,  Le droit du Seigneur (1874)
Yet, for several decades, the modern equivalent of the feudal overlord or the capitalist factory-owner, a media superstar called Jimmy Savile, subjected hundreds of very young women to routine sexual  harassment (allegedly). Lots of people knew about it; some reported it; but nothing was done. He became a Seigneur or 'Sir', his knighthood a weird acknowledgement of his URTMWI (Universal Right to Molest With Impunity). Droit de Seigneur still functions in every human group exploiting the power of televisual personalities and messages: a BBC factual programmes producer of repulsive appearance proposed to me in 1991 that if I performed a sexual act on him he could make me famous. When I refused, he got nasty.

Men with power but no commitment to human rights have always felt entitled to be rewarded in sexual currency just for being powerful. The hero of the oldest recorded literature, Gilgamesh of Mesopotamia,  imposed droit de Seigneur on the terrified brides of Uruk until his best friend Enkidu pointed out that he was being tyrannical.[i]

It would be nice to think we had moved on since 6000 BC. But there are not enough Enkidus around.  Some male dons at Oxford in the early 1980s, when men-only colleges were newly open to female students, could not resist the potential of the power relationship between them and the 18-year-old women now sitting in their studies reading out essays on ‘Manliness in the Iliad’. 

I only attended the first of 16 tutorials on Homer. The groper responsible for this lacuna in my education (not a tutor at my own college) never reported my absence because he didn’t want the reason for it to be discovered. It was for the same reason but with a different individual that in my third year I gave up Ancient History after a distressing tutorial on Sparta and changed to Classics and Modern Languages. Moreover, I can absolutely guarantee that it would have been my reputation and career that would have been damaged if I had made a fuss, rather than those of the (now deceased) Lothario.

[i] .  This blog was inspired by my waking up trying to make GILGAMESH an anagram of JIMMY SAVILE but only got as far as JILVAMES—perhaps an Assyrian variant spelling?


  1. He was known as Bilgames in the earliest Sumerian texts, so assumingthe :

    a) either word-initial aspiration of the b phoneme giving way over time to a fricative rather than plosive pronunciation, and then in all word positions, or - more likely - the same change occurring in the case of intervocalic plosives (as occurs with the so-called BGDKPT letters of Syriac and Aramaic, for example);

    b) mutation of the plosive 'G' to the affricate 'J' (as is attested in Arabic);

    c) change or variation in the pronunciation of sibilants, allowing for the change from 'sh' to 's' (as again occurs in many Semitic languages, where the correspondence between sibilants is often somewhat erratic);

    d) the absence of short, particularly unstressed vowels where they would be expected in English, perhaps as a result of notation, the perception of native speakers (or a combination of the two), or explained in specific instances by features such as heavy velarisation of certain phonemes, such as the ‘L’ found here, making certain consonant clusters more probable;

    could all have occurred over time, through transmission to other (most likely Semitic) languages, or in at least some contemporary dialects, and, e) ignoring the fact that all this is garbage, then we can quite happily produce from 'Bilgames' the anagram 'Gime Sabl', pronounced as hoped for.

  2. Thanks, Matt! Your erudition is admirable. I knew my dream was trying to tell me something!

  3. This whole Saville fiasco is turning very ugly. Anne Robinson in The Guardian on Saturday sounds as if to say it was all hunky dory when it were Tom Jones but if it were somebody else it would have been considered abuse. I feel it's a bit too late in the day to dig up the dirt now and very difficult to establish facts but what happened (assuming the allegations are largely true) was very wrong. It is also interesting to see the shift in dynamics when there is a females in high positions seducing males! Assuming that is if Chaucer was correct in saying that women must always be on top!

    Wommen desiren to have sovereynetee
    As wel over hir housbond as hir love,
    And for to been in maistrie hym above.
    This is youre mooste desir, thogh ye me kille.

    (Geoffrey Chaucer. Book of the Tales of Caunterbury: Tale of the Wyf of Bathe).