Gilgamesh and Odysseus
The epic poems The Odyssey, written by Homer, and Gilgamesh, translated by David Ferry, feature the struggles and triumphs of two epic heroes, Odysseus and Gilgamesh. Epic heroes exemplify six common traits. They are all strong fighters, complete with physical beauty and intimidation. The epic hero is dangerous yet protects ordinary people. There is always an encounter with death and the cosmos. They are superhuman, but they are not supernatural, although they come in contact with the supernatural.
There are struggles with overwhelming difficulties while on a quest for self-discovery or some sort of goal, however all ordeals are overcome by quick intellect. Despite all the difficulties and obstacles, epic heroes always return from an extremity back to a normal lived life. Odysseus and Gilgamesh both attribute these traits, however both have other similarities and differences. Both have several different virtues and faults (Foley). Odysseus is on a journey home to Ithaca after a ten-year war in Troy.
During his journey, he is forced to venture through a sadistic Cyclops, angered gods, deeply obstinate goddesses, the Underworld, and determined suitors that are after his wife Penelope. His goal is to return home to be with his wife and son. In the same turn, Gilgamesh is on an epic journey as well, although his goals are more selfish. He steals trees from a forbidden cedar forest, defeats the forest demon Humbaba, challenges the gods, kills the Bull of Heaven, and then journeys to find immortality. All his journeys were some sort of way to overcome the gods and become immortal (Edwards).
Both the historical characters come within the realm of mythology and legend. Their fame is attributable to legend. Both men hold high places in the folk lore of many a centuries ago. Both are credited with stories of valor and heroism. Both these legendary figures possessed extraordinary physical powers gifted to them by the gods. Both the stories were initially written in the form of epic poems serenading their respective heroes (Edwards). Gilgamesh was the Babylonian king of Uruk (modern day Iraq). The people of the city prayed to the sky god Anu to provide them relief from the tyranny of Gilgamesh.
One might wonder at this strange situation. On the one hand those who were ruled by Gilgamesh prayed for succor from his oppressive and harsh rule. On the other hand he assumes the role of the hero of the story. Obviously there has to be a character transformation or else the change is for simply giving a twist to the story in order to create interest. This contradiction can be a subject for research which is outside the scope of this brief paper (Foley). The sky god provides relief in the form of a man named Enkidu who has phenomenal strength. He is to serve as a check on the desires of Gilgamesh.
The two men have a bout and since no one emerges as a clear winner they become friends and travel together sharing many adventures. They slay wild beasts and soon their reputation reaches far and wide (Edwards). Back in Uruk the two men kill the Bull of Heaven sent by Ishtar to destroy the city as Gilgamesh does not return her overtures for a courtship. The gods doom Enkidu to death. A brief quote from a book is reproduced below: “Through the medium of a dream, Enkidu learns that he has been singled out for punishment. ” After Enkidu’s death Gilgamesh becomes disconsolate.
He seeks the secret of immortality from the sage Utnapishtim. Gilgamesh however cannot retrieve the sea plant which has the properties of immortality as the plant is devoured by a serpent. He returns crest fallen to Uruk to live out his remaining life there (Foley). Odysseus was the ruler of the island kingdom of Ithaca. He was one of the original suitors of Helen of Troy but was frustrated when Menelaus succeeded in marrying Helen. This frustration showed when he put on an act as being insane while plowing fields. When his infant son was put before the plow he could not hide his normality.
Odysseus though fought heroically in the Trojan War. His return from Troy to Ithaca took ten years as the journey was plagued by many mishaps and calamities. His wife though waited dutifully for his return as is evidenced from this passage from page 199 of the book by Woodhouse referenced in the bibliography (Friedrich). “What of Penelopeia? The folk-tale did not offer the poet very much. The chaste and faithful Wife was a somewhat shadowy figure, hardly in the foreground-essential indeed to the story, but of little individual significance, and with little to do. ” His ship was struck by lightening and only he survived.
He reached the island of the nymph Calypso who made Odysseus her lover and captive. When released after seven years he set sail in a small boat but was again caught in a storm and swam to safety to the island of Phaeacians. The islanders here treated him well and escorted him to Ithaca. Homer portrays Odysseus as a bold and clever warrior and as a master strategist. It was he who conceived the idea of the Trojan Horse (Edwards). Odysseus is a Greek warrior hero. He belongs to the area which is now mainland Europe. As opposed to this, the Gilgamesh Epic is a Middle Eastern literary work written on twelve tablets of clay.
Some of these tablets may not have survived the ravages of time. It is in the form of an epic poem dedicated to its hero, Gilgamesh. It is perhaps one of the oldest stories known to mankind. It is an ancient tale from Sumeria. It reflects the backdrop of the Tigris-Euphrates civilizations. The language used for the original version may also be extinct now. Of the two stories the tale of Gilgamesh is more ancient. It appears as being more mythical, imaginary and supernatural than the story of Odysseus. The story of Gilgamesh tests the limits of ones powers to accept surrealism.
As a corollary the Odysseus saga appears more credible by comparison (Edwards). We have seen that Enkidu was doomed to death fro joining Odysseus in fighting the demon of Cedar forest. Here again one has the right to inquire whether the gods held supreme powers and the human forms were merely to carry out their orders or did they have liberty and freedom to exercise their own judgment and minds (Foley). Another negative aspect is the cutting down of the Cedar trees. One is at a loss to understand what was so brave about bringing destruction to the wealth of nature.
There is no such negativity in the tale of Odysseus. A weakness of Gilgamesh was that he cried when he lost his friend Enkidu and also when the serpent snatched the sea-plant which has the immortality properties. One may concede that he was only human. And that in real life there is no such thing as a black or white situation. It will always be varying shades of grey. The ‘good guy-bad guy’ formula exists in movies. Having said this, it is also true that a story must have coherence and consistency (Hunter). We find that the story of Gilgamesh does not explain, at first reading, the following: 1.
The role of Gilgamesh as a oppressive ruler and his later day character as a humane fearless and noble warrior. This needs reconciliation to put at ease the reader’s lack of comprehension. 2. The weakness displayed by Gilgamesh on the death of Enkidu and on losing the sea plant of immortality to the serpent. 3. The role of gods. Whether they actually directed Gilgamesh or was the latter free to act at will is also a question that begets a reply. Odysseus comes across as a better strategist than Gilgamesh. His idea of entering the enemy’s fortified domain trough the Trojan Horse is indeed a unparalled historical masterpiece.
Then again he fights his way through adversities during the ten eventful years. He successfully faces all the challenges and emerges victorious. That places him above Gilgamesh in terms of endurance and perseverance. Another area where Gilgamesh has his image tarnished is his oppressive rule as the King of Uruk. Odysseus does not carry any such negative perception vis-a-vis his rule over Ithaca (Friedrich). Both The Odyssey and the Epic of Gilgamesh are two incredible stories written long ago everyone knows this but what a lot of people don’t is that these two epics share many of the same concepts.
Such as the nostro (the Greek term for homecoming), xenis (guest/host relationship), oikos (household), and aganoriss (recognition). In both epics these themes are illustrated (Edwards). In The Odyssey the theme of nostro is very prevalent in this epic. Basically the whole story is based around this concept. The main character Odysseus whole goal in the book is his homecoming. Along his journey he faces many challenges separating him from his home Ithaca and his family. The main thing that keeps Odysseus going is the thought of one day being home with his family no matter how many set backs he faces (Friedrich).
In The Epic of Gilgamesh the theme of nostro is more or less established the only difference between the two epics is nostro is not the main focus in this one. The main character in this epic is the great and powerful king Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh is not affected by the theme of homecoming until the end of the book after his best friend Enkidu is killed by the Bull of Heaven and he goes looking for eternal life. Unfortunately he is not successful in his quest and realizes he is mortal and realizes how important his family is and returns to Uruk to be with them (Hunter). The next theme that is incorporated into the Odyssey is the theme xenis.
This theme is also well incorporated into this epic. It seems wherever Odysseus goes he is welcomed with open arms. For example when he arrives in Scheria the home of the Phaeacians the princess Nausicaa and her handmaidens bath him and take him to the palace of king Alcinous where he is invited to a banquet. This is very important in his successes after all without the help from all these people he would not be able to make it home. The relationship between guest and host is something needed in this epic (Foley). Xenis is represented in the Epic of Gilgamesh after Enkidu battles with Gilgamesh and they become friends and he accepts him.
He then stays with him and is treated like a guest. It seems in this epic xenis does not play as an important role as it does in The Odyssey. Therefore this is where these two would differ. Much of the Odyssey is based upon this theme (Edwards). Another theme oikos is integrated into the Odyssey. The household in this epic seems to be an important structure in the relationship between Odysseus, Penelope, and their son Telemachus. After all it is their household that is threatened by the suitors and leads Telemachus to search for the truth about the whereabouts of his father.
Also the peril of the suitors exhausting Odysseus’ resources and household drive him to kill the suitors. Which also plays into the story well. To me it seems as though these themes play more of a role in this epic (Friedrich). Okios is represented differently in the epic. It is apparent that in this epic the household is held as less important due to the fact that Gilgamesh corrupts other households by sleeping with the virgins before they are married, an abuse of power. It is not held to as high a standard as it is in the Odyssey. Not say Odysseus does stray from his wife but Gilgamesh makes a point of it.
It is not until the end when he realizes the importance of family and ht household (Edwards). The last of the themes that appear in the Odyssey is the theme of recognition, or aganoriss. Recognition is essential to Odysseus when he appears before kings, gods, and goddess. Why? When people or gods recognize who he is they treat him differently, all except Poseidon where recognition is Odysseus’ downfall. Also ad it not been for aganoriss King Nestor would not have supplied Telemachus with a chariot for his travel to Sparta where he could learn more of his father location and welfare.
And finally Odysseus needs to be recognized as the ruler of Ithaca to gain back control of his kingdom from the suitors. Again without aganoriss this story would not be complete (Hunter). In the Epic of Gilgamesh aganoriss is basically Gilgamesh’s life. The arrogant king needs recognition to exist it seems. He wants everyone to recognize that he this very strong, very courageous, and very good looking (almost godlike). The recognition contributes to his narcissism, which is his whole character. Without it he is not Gilgamesh he is more like his counterpart Enkidu who does not need recognition (Friedrich).
In conclusion both incorporate the four Greek themes in some form or another. They play different roles in each epic sometimes more important in one than the other. Without these themes the epics would not be complete. In doing this paper I gained a better understanding of why these epic included these themes (Edwards). A human’s need for companionship is one of many characteristics that help define the boundaries between humankind and the gods. While men are mortal and born with the innate need for companionship, the gods are immortal and do not require companionship.
Humankind, throughout history, has attempted to bridge the chasm between man and god without success. Often man is ignorant of these distinctions and of the role of the gods in their lives. For Gilgamesh and Odysseus, this need for companionship shapes the course of their lives (Friedrich). One characteristic of this boundary between humankind and the gods is a god’s choice for companionship and a human’s need for companionship. In contrast to Odysseus and Gilgamesh, the gods choose in some circumstances to have a companion, in other situations the gods choose to live alone.
Aeolus for example, custodian of the four winds, lives alone in a cave on a rocky island when Odysseus comes to him for help. Another god, Calypso, chooses to surround herself with many servants rather than the companionship of another god or equal. Although Calypso becomes enamored with Odysseus and keeps him for a short time, her choice to release him is ultimately what allows him to continue his journey. Likewise, Humbaba, guardian of the cedar forest, does not have a companion or equal, instead choosing to surround himself with many servants (Foley).
While the gods have a choice regarding companionship, they understand a human’s need for companionship and often use this need when guiding humans throughout life. Gilgamesh’s innate desire for companionship, for example, causes his people many problems. Answering the prayers of his people, the gods send Gilgamesh a companion, in the form of Enkidu, who satisfies his need. For Odysseus, on the other hand, the gods intensify his exile by slowing eliminating his crew and friends. The solitary Odysseus uses his desire to return home to keep himself alive.
These examples help illustrate the difference between a gods choice of companionship and a humans need for it, and also how the gods use a humans needs for companionship to guide them through life (Hunter). Many would think being born two-thirds god, being king of a great city and endowed with great strength, courage and beauty would be more than enough for one human. For Gilgamesh, however, his human side longs for and needs something more – companionship. He travels the world over, gathers armies of men, and pleases himself with many of Uruk’s women.
Gilgamesh cannot find anyone, however, who can satisfy his need for companionship. Only Enkidu, a gift from the gods whom they fashion by their own hands, fulfills his companionship needs. With his craving for companionship satisfied, he ends his destructive ways and, with help from Enkidu, begins bettering the life of his people and the city (Edwards). With the death of his one true companion Gilgamesh once again faces a void that no human on earth can fill. With all of its blessings, being born partially a god now becomes a curse for him.
Gilgamesh knows that he will never find another companion and the fear of his own death and the possibility of eternal solitude frightens him. Gilgamesh, realizing his human need for companionship, sets out to conquer his curse by becoming immortal. The author reinforces the human need for companionship when Gilgamesh arrives at the gate of the mountain Mashu and encounters two guards in the form of scorpions. The scorpions being one-half human and one-half dragon immediately sense that Gilgamesh is two-thirds god and one-third man.
The pairing of the guards itself, each being one-half human, further signifies the human need for companionship because of their reliance upon each other. Because of their need for each other’s companionship they sympathize with Gilgamesh and allow him to continue his journey in search of immortality. Although he ends his journey never obtaining immortality, his loss of companionship gives him the ability and compassion to become a better ruler (Foley). In contrast to Gilgamesh, Odysseus, king of Ithaka, already knows the joys of companionship, having a beautiful wife and a newborn son that he loves dearly.
Problems far from home threaten, however, and obligations to his people force him to leave his family behind and join his comrades in war against Troy. His only desire is to fulfill his duties as king and return to his wife and child. After Troy falls, Odysseus, in a moment of pride and arrogance, boasts aloud of his accomplishments without recognizing or acknowledging the role of the gods. This arrogance enrages Poseidon, without whom Odysseus’s Trojan horse would surely have failed. Poseidon decides to teach Odysseus a lesson and sends him into exile as punishment.
This exile last a large portion of his life costing him much time away from his family (Foley). During his exile, many of the encounters Odysseus faces endanger the lives of his men. In some cases, his arrogance and anger results in their death. For example, Odysseus and his men escape from Polyphemus the Cyclops; his egotistical words further enrage the Cyclops. Polyphemus responds with a prayer to Poseidon, the fulfillment of which takes more of his men’s lives. With each encounter, Odysseus’s arrogance proves to be more harmful than good. Homer illustrates a human’s need for companionship throughout Odysseus’s lesson on humility.
One by one, Odysseus loses all of his crew. Barely clinging to life, he washes ashore alone on Calypso’s island. Though Calypso nurses Odysseus back to health, she cannot satisfy his need for companionship and he spends his days longing for his home, wife and son. After many years of loneliness and grieving, Calypso allows him to leave. In the end, his desire to return home to his family gives him the strength to survive. When Odysseus finally reaches home, his lesson in humility proves useful as he rids his house of the wicked suitors and reclaims his family and place as king (Edwards).
The gods use Odysseus’s separation from his family as an aid in his lesson in humility, while Gilgamesh’s experience with companionship teaches him the compassion needed to be a great ruler. In spite of the ordeals each hero faces, their need and desire for companionship, as with every human, play an important role in shaping their lives. Works Cited Foley, John Miles. Traditional Oral Epic. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990. 5-8. Edwards, Mark W. Homer and Oral Tradition: the Formula, Part I. “Oral Tradition 1”, 1986. 171-230. Foley, John Miles.
How to Read an Oral Poem. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002. 38-57. Hunter, Richard. The Argonautica of Apollonius. “The action of Euripides’ Medea hangs over the epic like a cloud about to burst. ” Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993. 123. Friedrich, Rainer. Medea Apolis: On Euripides’ Dramatization of the Crisis of the Polis. “Alan Sommerstein et al. , eds. , Tragedy, Comedy, and the Polis”. Bari: Levante, 1993. 219-39. Annotated Bibliography Apollo and Daphne: Masterpieces of Mythology, retold by Antonia Barber. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 1998.
ISBN 0-89236-504-8. This gorgeous art book contains brief retellings of 15 stories, illustrated by the paintings of Botticelli, Pollaiuolo, Poussin, Raphael, Titian, Rembrandt, Burne-Jones, and others. Includes a handy index of artists and paintings, table of Greek/Roman names, and family trees of the gods. D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths, by Ingri and Edgar Parin D’Aulaire. Doubleday, 1962. ISBN 0-385-01583-6 (Trade), 0-385-15787-8 (Paperback). “A Children’s Classic. ” D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths, by Ingri and Edgar Parin D’Aulaire. Audio tape, 4 cassettes, from Airplay.
Unabridged. Read by Paul Newman, Sidney Poitier, Kathleen Turner, and Matthew Broderick. Favorite Greek Myths, by Mary Pope Osborne, Illus. Troy Howell. Scholastic, Inc. , 1989. ISBN 0-590-41338-4. Nice pictures, sort of Maxfield Parrish-y in style. Greek Myths, retold by Geraldine McCaughrean, Illus. Emma Chichester Clark. Margaret K. McElderry Books (Simon & Schuster), 1992. ISBN 0-689-50583-3. Includes stories from Hesiod, Homer, Ovid. Greek Myths For Young Children, by Marcia Williams. Candlewick Press, Cambridge, MA, 1991. ISBN 1-56402-115-7 (hardcover); 1-56402-Sample Essay of EduBirdie.com