Influence of Theology on The Epic of Gilgamesh and The Odyssey
Writing is influenced by many factors, such as class, time, and beliefs, just to name a few. These factors vary as literature moves through different time periods and places. It is interesting to find similarities between pieces of literature written in opposite sides of the world and hundreds of years apart. But no matter the distance or time major themes remain constant throughout world literature. The earliest version The Epic of Gilgamesh, written in 2100 B.C.E., shares many of these universal themes with The Odyssey, which was written by Homer in eight century B.C.E. The Epic of Gilgamesh and The Odyssey are both stories of journeys that are influenced by gods, but they have different challenges and reasons for starting with journeys.
The Epic of Gilgamesh and The Odyssey are tales of grand journeys undertaken by a single man. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, King Gilgamesh undertakes a quest for eternal life. Enkidu, Gilgamesh’s best friend, fell ill and died. The death of Enkidu greatly affected Gilgamesh as it caused him to become aware of his own mortality. As he laments Enkidu, Gilgamesh questions, “Shall I not die too? Am I not like Enkidu?” (Gilgamesh IX.3). Gilgamesh travels great distances to find Utanapishtim, who has found a way to become immortal, to learn how to become immortal. In The Odyssey. Telemachus has to travel great distances to find out what happened to his father, Odysseus. Odysseus left for the Trojan War when Telemachus was a baby and has not returned. Everyone, except Penelope, Odysseys’ wife, think he is dead. Therefore, many suitors have to come win Penelope’s hand and take over Odysseys’ kingdom. The suitors are causing terror and Telemachus wants to kill them, but lacks the skills to actually kill them. So, Telemachus decides to find his father old comrades to see if they know what happened to his father.
Gilgamesh and Telemachus both face unforeseen challenges during their travels. Gilgamesh had the hardest journey by far. Gilgamesh’s challenges were physical, where as Telemachus’ were political. Gilgamesh is told that in order to reach Utanapishtim, he has to first travel through the sun tunnel in just twelve hours. Then he is told that he must paddle a boat over the waters of death because he ironically destroyed the Stone Charms, which would have made his journey easier. Eventually he finds Utanapishtim only to fail at his final task, staying awake for an entire week, in his quest for immortality. Unlike Gilgamesh, Telemachus does not face any physical challenges; he faces diplomatic problems. Telemachus travels across the sea to Pylos, where Nestor rules. Telemachus approaches Nestor and inquires about Odysseus. Being a former solider who fought along side Odysseus, Nestor begins a long tale about the Trojan War and eventually tells Telemachus that he does not know where Odysseus is, but to sail to Sparta because Menelaus might know where he is. So Telemachus travels to Sparta, where he meets King Menelaus. Menelaus also, recounts stories about the Trojan War that takes many hours. Finally, Menelaus discloses Odysseus’ location to Telemachus. While these long speeches may not seem like challenges, Telemachus had to actively listen to each one. If he did not the Kings would have taken offense and not have to Telemachus where his father is. So, Telemachus had to master diplomacy in order to find out what he wanted to know, which is hard to do. Each of Gilgamesh’s and Telemachus’ challenges mirrors that person. Gilgamesh is know for being exceptionally large and powerful man so his obstacles challenge the characteristics he is known for. Telemachus never learned how to fight and is not strong like his father. His challenges reflect this because they deal with public relations and not physical problems. If Telemachus’ journey was full of physical obstacles he would fail and his quest would be over before it even started. Gilgamesh and Telemachus, also, differ in their reasons for taking on their journeys.
No one ever does anything without a reason.
The same is true for Gilgamesh and Telemachus. Gilgamesh’s reason is selfish, while Telemachus is trying to help his mother and also find closer. Gilgamesh went on his quest so that he could become immortal. His search for immortality was purely for his own use. Gilgamesh had “grown afraid of death” (Gilgamesh IX.5) Fear drove him to travel great distances to find Utanapishtim. Everyone thought that Gilgamesh was fearless because he had fought terrifying monsters before. But his fear of death drove him to wander for weeks across the steppe, travel through the sun tunnel, and cross the waters of death. Dissimilarly, Telemachus decided to under go his quest for information about his father. Telemachus hopes that Odysseus is not dead that way he can get rid of his mother’s suitors, who have been destroying the kingdom. He also wants to know what happened to Odysseus so that he and his mother can have closure because Odysseus has been missing for ten years. Telemachus is thinking about his mother when he undertakes his journey because he cannot stand the way the suitors treat her. Gilgamesh’s and Telemachus’ reasons for undertaking their journeys also reflect their personality. Gilgamesh always got what he wanted to matter what because his citizens were afraid of him. Even if he did change after he meat Enkidu and became a better person, he still is used to getting what he wants. Only this time, he has to go get it himself. Telemachus was only raised by his mother, so he has a great compassion for her and would never want to see her hurt. The journeys in both The Epic of Gilgamesh and The Odyssey are spurred by the actions of gods.
While The Epic of Gilgamesh and The Odyssey have journeys that seem completely different, gods cause both journeys to happen. In The Epic of Gilgamesh, the gods decided to kill Enkidu for encouraging Gilgamesh to kill Humbaba, the guardian of the cedars. Enkidu even says, “Finish him off for the kill, put him out of existence, / Before Enlil the foremost one hears of this! / The great gods will become angry with us” (Gilgamesh V.68-70) Enkidu angered the gods and we all know what happens when you anger the gods. So with Enkidu dead, Gilgamesh realizes his own mortality and decides to find a way to become immortal; hence, his journey to find Utanapishtim in hopes of receiving eternal life. In The Odyssey, Athena convinces Telemachus to undertake a journey to figure out what happened to his father. Athena does this because she hopes that Telemachus can find a way to bring Odysseus back to Ithaca. The gods’ involvement in The Odyssey is slightly different than in The Epic of Gilgamesh because Athena directly tells Telemachus to take the journey. But in The Epic of Gilgamesh, the actions of a god in a previous event cause Gilgamesh to start his journey.
Overall, the journeys in The Epic of Gilgamesh and The Odyssey are mostly different. Gilgamesh encounters physical challenges, while Telemachus faces political. Gilgamesh’s fear drove him to take on a journey for selfish reasons. Telemachus went on a quest to find his father to help his mother get rid of her suitors. Maybe that is why Telemachus was successful with his quest and Gilgamesh was not. However, The Epic of Gilgamesh and The Odyssey both have gods influencing why the person took the quest. In the end, The Epic of Gilgamesh and The Odyssey are similar because they are epic poems about journeys, but they each have their own unique aspects with in the journeys.
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