Counselors from The Odyssey and the Epic of Gilgamesh
In The Odyssey by Homer, and the Epic of Gilgamesh the titular protagonists of their respective narratives, Odysseus and Gilgamesh face their own perilous journeys, by their own hands and at the caprice of the fickle gods. Odysseus is left to his infamous wit to devise a way home on his own, while Gilgamesh in search of immortality. But fortune does indeed favor the bold, as throughout the story, Odysseus and Gilgamesh each receive their fair share of words-of-wisdom from fellow characters in the story, whom serve as ‘counselors’, or advisers Such counselors in the story include Athena, goddess of wisdom and Odysseus’ patron; Circe, the witch-goddess who keeps Odysseus on the island as her sex slave and turns his men into swine; and Shamash, a solar deity and ‘family friend’ of Gilgamesh’s mother, Ninsun, sent at her behest to watch over Gilgamesh and safeguard him throughout his misadventures. It is because of these counselors that Odysseus and Gilgamesh escape their many close-calls with death, all thanks divine intervention. These counselors fall in the category of deus ex machina figures, meaning they can interrupt the flow of the story, popping up time and again to rescue their clients from certain death. They each go about helping their favorite mortals in their own way.
Athena, daughter of Zeus and patron goddess of Odysseus, throws herself into the fray on the side of Odysseus, admiring his intelligence, leadership skills, and ferocity as a warrior. Portrayed as mannish and often oppositional to female figures in the narrative, Athena often impersonates men when she presents herself to Odysseus. Since warmongering is often seen as the exclusive domain of men, and the fact that she is also a deity, contributes to how amenable Odysseus is on listening to what she has to say. Interesting enough, this gives credibility to the idea that Odysseus heeding the wisdom of others is conditional upon whether or not the source of that wisdom is a man or woman, even more so on the degrees of their acquaintance. However, this isn’t to discredit Athena’s preternatural instincts and beneficence from which Odysseus has used to his advantage. However, Odysseus’ gratitude extends only so far: “I didn’t see you then, didn’t sense your presence/ Aboard my ship or feel you there to help me.” (Book XXIII, p. 485, lines 329-331). Athena, in response, acknowledges her interest in Odysseus as purely intellectual, and as the reason why she won’t leave him to his woes: “Ah, that mind of yours! That’s why/ I can’t leave you when you’re down and out: Because you’re so intelligent and self-possessed.” (Book XIII, p. 485, lines 341-343), In any case, Odysseus’ homecoming wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for the goddess of wisdom’s tip-offs, which may as well have saved his life on many occasions.
One of his many obstacles on the long road home turns out to have been one of his greatest advice-givers. Circe, sorceress extraordinaire and goddess of magic, relents in freeing Odysseus after he fulfills his end of the bargain and does her bidding for a year. When Odysseus and his men are freed from Circe’s captivity, she provides some guidance in regard to what Odysseus will come face-to-face with next on his journey: “First you will come/ To the Sirens, who bewitch all men… Which is the lair of Scylla. She barks and yelps/ Like a young puppy, but she is a monster… Beneath this tree the divine Charybdis/ Sucks down the black water… Then you will come to Thrinacia, / An island that pastures the cattle of the Sun… But if you harm them/ I foretell/ Disaster for your ship and crew” (Book XIII, pp. 468-469, lines 40-41, 88-89, 107-108). Circe, despite her bad rep for leading heroes to their doom, in this instance her passion for Odysseus is shown as concern for his safety and wellbeing, and so she warns him of the troubles that lie ahead and divulges to him the necessary information that will allow to him overcome these obstacles when they show. Though not much is said of her in the narrative after Odysseus’ departure, her significance in the story is grounded in her role as Odysseus’ life-saver, for which she her only benefit is ensuring his survival of the journey in one piece. Her counsel, which Odysseus tries to follow to the letter, is not because of any male influence encouraging him, but rather because his looking out for his own self-interest demands he obey her as a higher authority with the wisdom to lead him back home.
Shamash, god of the sun and lookout for Gilgamesh, is enlisted by the goddess, Ninsun, mother of Gilgamesh to protect Gilgamesh from, primarily, himself, in his travels to slay these monsters of myth: “When Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and Humbaba meet, / Raise up for his sake, O Shamash, great winds against Humbaba, / Blasting wind, lashing wind, contrary wind, dust storm,/ Demon wind, freezing wind, storm wind, whirlwind:/ Raise up thirteen winds to blot out Humbaba’s face.” (Tablet III, p. 114, lines 63-69) Subsequently, Shamash did as he was prayed to for, providing Gilgamesh live up to his end of the bargain and make offerings to Shamash in return for his ‘eye in the sky’ patronage. Saving Gilgamesh from one monster after another, Shamash’ heroics are underestimated and taken for granted. Even Gilgamesh’s male companion, Enkidu, concurs: “The wild bull you saw is Shamash, the protector, / He will take our hands in need.” (Table IV, p. 119, lines 150-151) Prophetic in his statement, Shamash did indeed come in handy and proved himself a valuable asset when Humababa charged at Gilgamesh and Enkidu, summoning the full thrust of his power and hurdling the thirteen winds to immobilize Humbaba, which lead to his decapitation at the hands of Gilgamesh: “Hurry, confront him, do not let him go off into the forest, / He has not donned all of his seven fearsome glories, / One he has on, six he has left off!” (Tablet V, p. 120, lines 161-164) All in all, Shamash has shown where his loyalties lie and how valuable his aid was over the course of Gilgamesh and Enkidu’s expeditions. Athena, Circe and Shamash have their own distinctive methods of persuasion and are delivered through by various means. Athena, warrior-goddess and scheming patron of Odysseus, puts to work her very tomboyish personality and her domain as a goddess of strategic warfare and courage, character traits Odysseus possesses: “I always knew in my heart/ You’d make it home, all your companions lost, / But I couldn’t bring myself to fight my uncle, / Poseidon, who had it in for you.” (Book XIII, p. 486, lines 350-353) Circe, on the other hand, puts to good use her feminine wiles and seductive talents to attract Odysseus’ attention and lend her his ear. On par with Athena, Shamash also puts to utilizes his godly power via divine intervention to do his best in preventing any harm done to Gilgamesh and Enkidu, but even his very best was insufficient to defy the gods in their decision to cut short Enkidu’s life. It would appear to the be the case that masculine personalities seem to take advisers, male or female, farther than it would if they were to express feminine qualities of gentleness, comfort or self-sacrifice that is to be expected from female figures in such epics.
Only with the counsel of others do heroes such as Odysseus, Enkidu and Gilgamesh survive their encounters with every villain thrown at them at every turn. With the exceptionally wise words of Athena, Circe and Shamash given to their respective heroes, they become responsible for their safety and overall well-being. Overcoming tremendous hardship in the pursuit of their goals, the achievements of Odysseus or Gilgamesh wouldn’t have been possible without the brains and brawn of their counselors, helping them each step of the way. Suffice to say, these counselors help their heroes achieve their ends through various means.
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