The Interconnection of The Odyssey and The Epic of Gilgamesh
Every culture has a representation of their heroes whether they are real or mythological. The heroic characters of Gilgamesh and Odysseus present from two different time periods, but each share many attributes. In each epic lies the story of a man looking for his way driven by the love he shares with others, death and rebirth of the characters, and the consequences of the gods.
The Epic of Gilgamesh depicts the main character, Gilgamesh, as “perfect in strength (Foster Tablet 1, line 36),’ but a brutish fellow who takes what he wants because he is the King of Uruk. He was born two-thirds divine and one-third human. He rules his city with an iron fist, works his people to death, and sleeps with all the women. “For Gilgamesh, king of ramparted Uruk, people’s veils are open for the taking! He mates with the lawful wife, he first, the groom after (Foster II,67-70).” A partner was created in hopes to tame the wildness of Gilgamesh and bring Uruk peace. Commanded by Anu, Aruru “pinched off clay, she tossed it upon the steppe, she created valiant Enkidu in the steppe… (Foster I, 94-5).” Gilgamesh and Enkidu came to battle due to Gilgamesh’s lust for the brides. After their struggle, “they kissed each other and made friends (Foster II, 115).” The love shared between Gilgamesh and Enkidu produced many trials and heartbreak for Gilgamesh. Following Enkidu’s death, Gilgamesh set to walk through hell to bring back his best friend. He was willing to sacrifice anything to have his friend back. His love for Enkidu becomes what guides him. Enkidu becomes his family, his home. The sense of being that was found through his friendship with Enkidu has been lost. It will be Enkidu’s death that sets Gilgamesh on his journey of self-discovery.
In The Odyssey, Odysseus is trapped on an island trying to get home. His wife and child await him but have given up hope of his return. Odysseus yearns to be home with his wife, his love for Penelope is everlasting and abounds far beyond his need for glory or fame. Penelope is Odysseus’ driving force as Enkidu was for Gilgamesh. While Odysseus was on the island with Calypso she would find “him sitting where the breakers rolled in. His eyes were perpetually wet with tears now, his life draining away in homesickness (Homer Book V, 150-52).” Calypso realized that his suffering was due to his homesickness and longing for his wife. “You poor man. You can stop grieving now and pining away. I’m sending you home (Homer V, 159-60).” The struggles he faces on his way home were not going to keep Odysseus from returning to his wife. The desire for his wife was the force that kept Odysseus longing for his home in Ithaca.
In both The Epic of Gilgamesh and The Odyssey there is death and rebirth of the characters as the reader watches each character grow into the man he is to become. Gilgamesh fights with the idea of immortality. He is two-thirds god but does face an eventual sleep. He wants to live forever but is faced with the reality that he will die. The idea of living and accepting his eventuality will become his greatest lesson. Gilgamesh laments the death of Enkidu telling the tavern keeper that he would not have wasted away but “the fate of mankind has overtaken him (Enkidu) (Foster Tablet X, 48).” The tavern keeper offers him wisdom by telling him “the eternal life you are seeking you shall not find. When the gods created mankind, they established death for mankind… (Foster X, 69).” When Gilgamesh visits Utanapishtim she reveals to him “a secret matter, and a mystery of the gods (Foster XI, 285-86),” there is a certain plant that can be picked to bring immortality. Gilgamesh says he will pick this plant and eat it, so he can return to his youth. He has accepted that death will come for him but that before it does he will do right and live his life with integrity. Life is to be lived despite looming death and it is when one quits living life that one truly dies.
Death is woven into The Odyssey and Odysseus’ journey. He is confronted with the death of his shipmates as well as the death of his friends in the Trojan War. Book XI tells of Odysseus’ journey into the Kingdom of the Dead. He has traveled to there to speak with Tiresias for advice on how to get home but comes across Achilles first. Odysseus tells Achilles that he is “like a god, and…(he) rule(s) the dead with might. You should not lament your death at all… (Homer Book XI, 505-07).” Achilles tells him that he would “rather be a hired hand back up on earth, slaving away for some poor dirt farmer, than lord it over all these withered dead (Homer XI, 511-13).” Achilles is letting Odysseus know that he needs to rethink how he wants to be remembered. Death and rebirth is being used metaphorically to show the death of his less desirable traits into a man that would make Penelope proud. Achilles is trying to show Odysseus it is of no importance to have fame and your name known but the way you live your life is what is valued.
The gods in each epic play major roles in the outcome of the stories. In The Epic of Gilgamesh, Ishtar, the goddess of love and war, asks for Gilgamesh’s love. He does not give his love to her as she is notorious for her anger. She became endeared to the gardener who denied her so she “struck him and turned him into a scarecrow (Foster Tablet VI, 73).” Gilgamesh knew of her wantonness and had no desire to be with her. He insulted her, and she lamented to her father asking him for “the Bull of Heaven, so (she) can kill Gilgamesh on his home ground (Foster VI, 91-2).” He had angered her which resulted in the unleashing of the bull which eventually killed Enkidu. His act of denying her put in play the greatest sorrow he would endure, the loss of his friend and the wandering of him to find meaning.
As the Trojan War ends Odysseus and his crew are headed home to Ithaca when they are shipwrecked on the island where Polyphemus, Poseidon’s son resides. Polyphemus is a cyclops and bound by the sacred duty of hospitality. Though the cyclops soon forgets his duty and begins feeding on the guest. “He tore them limb from limb to make his supper, gulping them down like a mountain lion, leaving nothing behind – (Homer Book IX, 283-85).” Odysseus acts against the cyclops. He heats a stick in the fire, waiting till it is glowing hot, and drives “the sharp point right into his eye… (Homer IX, 361).” Odysseus builds a raft to get off Calypso Island only to have Poseidon sends a storm. The god of the sea leaves Odysseus without a boat and forces him to swim ashore. Poseidon was filled with so much angered that he prolonged Odysseus travels by twenty years. The adventures of Odysseus trying to get home are created by Poseidon and his anger.
Each of these epics consist of adventures carried out by the hero of the story. Both stories leads the reader on a journey of discovery. Gilgamesh and Odysseus learn what is important in life. Each experiences a form of death, and a form of rebirth that leads them to a new understanding of themselves. The gods in each epic play a vital role in the shaping of the characters. Both god like heroes learn that they are not truly gods but immortal beings. They are to live their lives humbly and not upset the gods for they can rain wrath upon your head.
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