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Comparing Gilgamesh and the Odyssey

When we read Gilgamesh and the Odyssey or for that matter any Greco-roman epic, the similar themes and motifs are striking. Life, death, afterlife, love and fear, mortal and immortal and journey to attain something feature in all works. Also, there are motifs such as dreams, rivers, faraway lands and the like. However, there are some striking differences too, maybe due to the different civilisations they belong to. Here, we examine certain similarities and differences in brief. 1) The Afterlife: In Gilgamesh, we are exposed to mainly two afterlives: one of Enkidu and the other of Gilgamesh himself.

Enkidu is said to be chosen by the gods to suffer and die for the wrongs of both. When Enkidu falls ill, he sees ominous dreams, each showing him a glimpse of his afterlife. In a dream, he sees himself being taken to Hell by a monster; he sees darkness and suffering there, where people are starving and eating stone. Enkidu’s vision of afterlife also frightens Gilgamesh, who sets out to attain immortality. The text of the epic ends with the god-man being taunted by a bull in his afterlife. In the Odyssey, the afterlife (the underworld) is also not described as a good place.

It is a place called Hades, ruled by the god of death, Hades. In Hades, the shadows of men exist. It is a dark and fearful place but suffering is not shown to be as bad as in Gilgamesh. 2) The hero: Gilgamesh is two-thirds god and one-third man, but still a mortal. He is the young rogue king turned just ruler. After losing his friend to death, he embarks on a journey to find immortality. Throughout the story, while Gilgamesh is shown to be a superhuman, at the end, almost like a tragic flaw, we are told how he is, after all a man who must submit to death some day.

Odysseus is a hero who has fought the battle valiantly but is now caught on the island of Calypso because of the wrath of the god Poseidon. He is later on a journey to not just reach home but to also realise who are his friends and who are his foes. The latter can be said to more heroic, as his weaknesses are mere and his heroics more. He fights valiantly, thinks wisely and is victorious, while Gilgamesh fails at some point. 3) Women in Mesopotamia: Women, as shown in Gilgamesh, can be submissive, powerful, passive, all at the same time.

Three prominent women in the epic are Gilgamesh’s mother Nunis, goddess Ishtar and the Harlot. Gilgamesh’s mother is someone who seeks help for her son from the gods and influences Gilgamesh’s life. Ishtar, who Gilgamesh refuses to marry, is fury personified as she attempts to fight him with the Bull of Heaven. But the most striking woman in the epic, as I see it, is the Harlot, who not only sexually attracts Enkidu in the forest but also turns him into a civilized man and prompts him into Uruk. She almost changes the course that the gods had designed for Gilgamesh and Enkidu.

While it is clearly a male-dominated society, where the king gets to sleep with virgin brides even before the grooms, there is no mistaking the power a woman keeps within herself. 4) Dreams in the epics: Dreams are used as tools to explain something more complex than the events of the day. It is used more like an aside or monologue as in a Shakespearean play. It reveals to the characters what is to come and is an explanation of things that are. In both epics, dreams are more like visions sent by gods. It may be a warning of what lies ahead or it may offer clarity about the way to choose.

In a rather complex way, dreams also are what a man is thinking deep in his mind; probably what he is not even aware of. 5) Feminine god: In Gilgamesh, there is only one female god – Ishtar. She wants to marry Gilgamesh but he refuses. That she would be refused by a mere mortal infuriates her and she seeks revenge. In the Odyssey, there are mainly three goddesses – Athena, Calypso and Circe. There is a human feel to the goddesses in the Odyssey, where two even share his bed. They keep watch over Odysseus and guide him home. Works cited Fagles, R. (1996). Homer: The Odyssey. New York: Penguin Books. http://www. wsu. edu/~dee/MESO/GILG. HTM

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