Jul 17, 2019 in Literature

The Comparative Journey of Gilgamesh and Odysseus

Epic hero as an embodiment of the human’s social ideal is a bearer of the collective and conventional values of his culture. The images, motives, and the accompanying values which are included in the epic were formed in popular culture in the earliest time. Epic tales of different nations of the world contain a set of common plot motifs associated with the noble hero. They also have a number of features that are peculiar to a main character. This paper will try to identify the typological features, similarities, and differences of the plot motifs of the classical epic poems – The Epic of Gilgamesh and Homer’s Odyssey.

Brief Description of the Epic Poems

Homer’s Odyssey. The poem starts with the description of Odysseus’ marvelous birth and childhood. When Odysseus grows up, he fights in the Trojan War. After returning home after the war, Odysseus is captured by the nymph Calypso, who refuses to let him go. Faithful wife Penelope waits for Odysseus in his kingdom. Every day, numerous contenders for the Penelope’s hand and heart woo her. Penelope believes that Odysseus will return and abandons every proposal. Gods decide to make Athena their messenger. Goddess comes to Telemachus, the son of the main character, and encourages him to go to Sparta and Pylos to learn the fate of Odysseus.

Nestor, king of Pylos, sends some information to Telemachus about Achaean chiefs and invites him to appeal to Menelaus in Sparta, from which the young man learns that his father became a prisoner of Calypso. After hearing about Telemachus’ departure, numerous suitors of Penelope want to set up an ambush and kill him when he returns home.

The gods give Calypso the order to release her prisoner. Odysseus builds a raft and sets sails. Poseidon raises a storm because the protagonist is in a conflict relationship with him. However, Odysseus manages to survive and gets to the island of Scheria. There he meets king Alcinous, which arranges a feast in honor of his guest. During the feast, Odysseus tells Alcinous of his adventures that happened to him before he got to the Calypso Island. Having heard the story, he wants to help Odysseus get back home. However, Poseidon again tries to kill Odysseus and turns his ship into a cliff. Athena turns the main character into the old beggar. Odysseus is sent to live with Eumaeus, a swineherd.

Having returned home, Telemachus manages to avoid an ambush by suitors of his mother because he is warned in advance. Then the son of the main character goes to a swineherd Evmeyu, where he meets his father. Upon arriving at the palace, Odysseus found that no one recognizes him. The servants scoff and laugh at him. The main character is going to take revenge on the suitors of his wife. Odysseus tells his wife the secret, which was known only to the two of them, thus, Penelope finally recognizes her husband. Enraged Odysseus kills all servants that laughed at him and all suitors of his wife. Relatives of the killed try to rebel, but Odysseus manages to make peace with them.

The Epic of Gilgamesh. The Epic of Gilgamesh does not describe either the miraculous birth of Gilgamesh or his childhood, though these episodes are usually inserted into the epic about folk heroes. When the story begins, Gilgamesh has grown up and surpassed all other people by force and beauty, which is a consequence of his semi-divine origin. Furious energy of Gilgamesh tires out his subjects, and they appeal to the gods for help. Gods decide to give Gilgamesh an opponent named Enkidu, who later becomes his friend. The great friendship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu which began during the battle in Uruk is the link between all the episodes of the epic.

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Similarities of the Epic Poems

  • Divine origin

First of all, both the noble heroes of the epics are endowed with the divine origin. Divine origin foretells that the main characters will become great and noble heroes, not villains. Gilgamesh is the son of the goddess Ninsun, while Odyssey is the son of Zeus.

  • Help of a Dead Man

The important motive of archaic legends, preserved in the classical heroic epic texts, is seeking of help or advice from a dead man. Communication with the dead may be accompanied by a hero’s katabasis, which is shown implicitly in the Odyssey and through evoking the dead man’s spirit in the Epic of Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh communicates with the soul of his friend Enkidu, evoked from the underworld, in order to find out about the hero’s posthumous fate. Moreover, Gilgamesh descends into another world in order to learn the way of getting immortality from the priest Utnapishtim.

In turn, Odysseus commits sacrificial libations to the souls of the dead in Hades in order to get advice from the dead soothsayer, famous Tiresias of Thebes. As a result, the hero gets priceless prediction about the dangers on his way home, a means of precaution, the terrible consequences of violating the instructions received, the events waiting for him, and the things that must be done upon the arrival in Ithaca. The Agamemnon’s shadow also gives a piece of advice to Odysseus.

  • The Motive of an Offended Goddess

One of the reasons that explain the misfortune of a character is the wrath of the goddess whom he previously insulted. Mortal characters neglect the love of the goddess, causing her anger and revenge. This motive was designed fully and vividly in a conflict of Gilgamesh with the Akkadian goddess of fertility, Ishtar. Gilgamesh rejects her love. Offended Ishtar complains to her father, the god of heaven, Anu, who sends the Bull of Heaven to destroy Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh and Enkidu manage to defeat the Bull, but then angered gods send the deadly disease to kill his friend Enkidu in order to punish the recalcitrant hero.

The same motive can be seen in the Odyssey. After traveling into the possession of Hades in the Lower World and shipwrecking, Odysseus’ men eat the bulls of the god Helios and are destroyed by Zeus for this act. Odysseus, the only one who survived, appears on the island of the nymph Calypso after the long journey. She tries to force him to marry her, promising immortality and eternal youth in return. However, Odysseus rejects her, just as Gilgamesh rejects the claims of Ishtar.

  • On the Brink of Death

An epic hero often faces death, but miraculously escapes it. An epic poem knows three main compositional techniques in order to convince the audience in the reality of the threat without losing the main character:

  1. temporary death;
  2. near-death;
  3. the death of a friend.

The Odyssey and the Epic of Gilgamesh use the second and third technique accordingly. The second technique means that fatal blow does not reach the target due to the intervention of the assistant, supernatural forces, or a chance. Thus, Athena deflects the spears of suitors, thrown at close range (banquet hall), from Odysseus and Telemachus.

The third technique means that a friend, brother, son, or other close person dies instead of an epic hero. The most striking example of this technique is the fate of Gilgamesh and his friend Enkidu. Gods, enraged by the arbitrariness of Gilgamesh, send the deadly disease on Enkidu.

  • Winning by Cunning

The motive of character’s victory over the enemy in violation of the rules and usage of tricks or gimmicks usually occurs when protagonist fights with a monster. The main monstrous enemies are Polyphemus in the Odyssey and Humbaba in the Epic of Gilgamesh. There are important generic features of a monstrous enemy in both epic poems:

  1. Anthropomorphism (Polyphemus, Humbaba);
  2. Gigantic growth (Polyphemus, Humbaba);
  3. Cannibalism (Polyphemus);
  4. One-eyed monster (Polyphemus);
  5. The monster is connected with the other world (Humbaba protects the sacred mountain and the forest on behalf of the gods, while Polyphemus protects Poseidon.)

Being significantly weaker than a monster, an epic hero can demonstrate his cunning and defeat the monster through an insidious trick, as Odyssey did gouging out Polyphemus’ eye. In other case, an epic hero can destroy a monster through attacking it together with a friend and severely refusing in mercy to the defeated monster, as Gilgamesh and Enkidu did to Humbaba.

The important feature of this motive is that even the most insidious tricks and cruelty of the protagonist that lead to the victory over the monster are not condemned but extolled and are aimed at the audience’s admiring of the cunning and inventiveness of an epic hero.

Differences of the Epic Poems

  • Character’s disguise

One of the common motives of an epic poem is the emergence of the future triumphant in such a way that disguises his heroic appearance and claims for a victory. The most striking and well-known example is the emergence of Odysseus under the guise of an old beggar before the massacre with the suitors. The example of Odysseus illustrates the two aspects of this disguising. Firstly, such a behavior of the character can be justified by the plot, since it gives a tactical advantage, for example, abruptness in a fight with a formidable opponent. Secondly, it is the compositional technique which emphasizes the triumph of the character with the help of the sudden transformation. In contrast to the Odyssey, the Epic of Gilgamesh does not have such a story feature.

  • Best Friends

However, the Akkadian epic has a feature that is not found in the Odyssey. Even undefeated hero who is able to stand alone against the whole army needs the moral support. Friendship with a companion is rather important factor in life which could help a hero and can be predicted in his prophetic dream. The goddess Ninsun, Gilgamesh’s mother, foreshadows the emergence of Enkidu in his dream:

There will come to you a mighty man,

A comrade who saves his friend —

He is the mightiest in the land, he is strongest,

He is as mighty as the meteorite of Anu!

Gilgamesh and Enkidu friendship permeates the whole poem, from the acquaintance at the very beginning through joint exploits and until the Enkidu’s death, which encourages Gilgamesh on the journey to the underworld in search of immortality.

  • The Tragic Fate

Unlike Odyssey, who ends his days in the comfort of love, the feature of Gilgamesh is his tragic fate. In search of immortality, Gilgamesh finds a righteous man Utnapishtim, who was saved from the flood by the gods. However, it turns out that Utnapishtim’s immortality is a gift from the gods as a reward for his piety, while Gilgamesh challenges the gods and ultimately fails. As a result, the exploits of Gilgamesh are lost in vain. This is quite logical, since a character that neglects the gods can hardly rely on their favor.

Moreover, one can confidently say that Gilgamesh is a theomachist. There are several arguments that can prove this point.

  1. Gilgamesh kills Humbaba, the patron of whom is one of the three supreme gods Enlil;
  2. In the Humbaba forest, Gilgamesh reveals the secret abode of the gods of the earth;
  3. Gilgamesh challenges the goddess Ishtar;
  4. Gilgamesh rejects the advice of the Sun-god Schamasch, which sympathizes with him;
  5. Gilgamesh seeks an eternal life against the will of the gods.

Thus, the tragedy of Gilgamesh comes down to the fact that he does not have enough of his own forces to achieve the goal, and gods do not help him as well.

  • The Personality Change

The image of Gilgamesh, in contrast to the image of Odysseus, has an internal development. Young Gilgamesh in Tablet I does not know what to do with his force. In Tablet III, Gilgamesh looks wiser since he tells Enkidu about the inevitability of the death and the immortality of fame. In Tablet VII and VII, Gilgamesh consoles his friend and cries about him. The image of the character undergoes a further change when he is full of philosophical despair and reflects on the questions about the meaning of existence and equitable world order.

  • Difficult Choice

After getting directions from Circe, Odysseus leaves her island for a journey. After the successful passing the island of the Sirens, Odysseus and his cohorts approach the narrow strait between two rocks which are inhabited by Scylla and Charybdis. Since it is impossible to sail safely between the rocks, Odysseus chooses a lesser evil offered by Circe. He sails up closer to Scylla who devours people in order to prevent Charybdis swallowing up the ship. However, although Odysseus understands that he will inevitably lose some of his cohorts, he violates the regulations of Circe and arms himself for the battle with the monster. Odysseus cannot defeat Scylla and thus save his cohorts doomed to death. He knows very well that Scylla is immortal and invulnerable. However, exactly this impulse that occurs, it would seem, against all common sense and logic, just proves that not each epic hero acts schematically as needed. Odysseus makes his choice, and this choice is not a choice of Circe and not an order of the gods, but the internal decision of the epic hero.

Conclusion

The comparative analysis of The Epic of Gilgamesh and the Homer’s Odyssey shows that these epic poems have a lot of similarities and differences. Both epic heroes have a divine origin and resort to the help of a dead man. Both epic heroes were on the brink of death but avoided it, each on their own. Both epic poems have similar motive of an offended goddess and similar features of the main monstrous enemies which are defeated in their own way.

Moreover, the poems have differences. For example, the emergence of the main character under the guise of an old beggar is a common motive in many epic poems including the Odyssey, but not the Epic of Gilgamesh. Also, the main character of the Homer’s Odyssey is distinguished with a kind of self-reflection since he can make a difficult choice in spite of common sense and the laws of logic. However, the Akkadian epic is not far behind the Homer’s poem. Unlike to Odysseus, Gilgamesh has the best friend who helps him throughout the poem. The fate of Gilgamesh is tragic because the gods reject him. In addition, the image of Gilgamesh undergoes serious changes from the young and frivolous behavior to a philosophical despair and fundamental and existential questions. 

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