Mythical characters in literature have greatly projected qualities of personality and ways of living. Mythological characters in literature project different attributes of humans such as heroism, revenge, apathy etc.
Most commonly renowned mythological texts that project heroic attributes are Homers Odyssey and the Epic of Gilgamesh. Comparing different mythical heroes from literature can be helpful to understand different attributes. This paper aims to understand different attributes of mythological heroes by comparing Odysseus with a katabasis namely Gilgamesh.
The mythical text Odyssey is written by Homer while Gilgamesh is written by Shin-Eqi-Unninni. On comparison, it becomes visible that Odysseus and Gilgamesh possess traits such as friendliness, valor and heroism. Odysseus had a hereditary right to the throne and ruled Ithaca that was complimented by his impartiality, ruthlessness and diplomatic skills.
On the other hand Gilgamesh was the king of Uruk in Babylonia who is physically sturdy and strong having supernatural powers and the will to protect his people (George). As Gilgamesh was an oppressor he was given the title of the goring wild bull.
By taking a look at Homers Odyssey, it can be observed that he was a hero based on his moral spirituality and strength to take challenges. Odysseus’s tale starts sailing far and wide and on reaching north put the ships on Hangar where Eurylochus who was second in command of Odysseus prepared a male and female sheep for sacrifice.
After offering prayers to the dead the people of the river offered the sheep to them and put the remaining parts in a pit that had been dug with shadows of the dead gathering around. It was a ritual to establish communion with the dead who bore messages for the living and was respected and offered sacrifices. Odysseus has been observed to take the challenge despite the fact he was aware of all the hardships (Louden).
Odysseus was greatly opposed by her wife, mother and other people who really cared about him. But he continues to achieve his objective and show is heroic attribute. There were many memorable quotes mentioned in Odyssey referring to having high morals and astounding insights that could be obtained from the chronology of the events.
The fact that he had heroic attributes can be understood by the following quotation from the text. It states that “‘Stand clear, put up your sword; let me but taste of blood. I shall speak true.‘” Book 11, lines 106-7 (Louden). The above noted dialogue was delivered by Odysseus’s mother on the event of slaughter of animals by Odysseus.
Similarly, in the epic Of Gilgamesh, we can note that Gilgamesh is two-third god and one-third human. He is not only brave and sturdy like Odysseus but also miraculously trusted by the people. Gilgamesh used his power for the sustenance of his people.
For instance, he dug wells and made barren land cultivable for his people providing them with space for agriculture and paving the way through mountains and making passes for access. He also constructed fortified walls for his people in and around Uruk. Gilgamesh had defiance in him as far as doctrines are concerned having thirst for glory (George).
On one fateful event Gilgamesh accompanied by Enkidu entered the forest that was forbidden to mortals. They cut the trees and slay fiendish Humbaba with the help of Shamash’s divine intervention. The most interesting part of Gilgamesh’s tale is that he initially was not liked by the masses but later on succeeded to live a dazzling joyous life. The words to follow were said by Gilgamesh’s intrepidity to his followers:
“Until the end comes, enjoy your life, spend it in happiness, and not despair. Savor your food, make each of your days a delight, bathe and anoint yourself, wear bright clothes that are sparkling clean, let music and dancing fill your house, love the child who holds you by the hand, and give your wife pleasure in your embrace. That is the best way for a man to live”. These words were said by Gilgamesh to highlight the true nature of life showing his fortitude and command due to his personal experience (George 83).
In Both historical mythologies the two prime characters of Gilgamesh and Odysseus have conflicting characteristics; throwing light on the varying role a hero plays. To normal understanding both the heroes have bravery and divine intervention in common (Launderville).
Gilgamesh, for instance, is involved in manipulating recent married brides who did not see their husbands face putting a big question mark on Gilgamesh’s character. Odysseus on the other hand is exactly Gilgamesh’s opposite. He too has his ups and downs, but characteristically cares for his people and has a good relationship with his son and virtuous wife (George).
The comparison between them makes sense when a goal is materialized in both the stories. Both Odysseus and Gilgamesh have a sense of urgency and stand for a cause. Odysseus is considered cunning but loyal to his wife and child and Gilgamesh tries to be immortal making “heroism” a cultural value in both the Sagas (Louden).
Gilgamesh becomes righteous king from a bully and tyrant by love or friendliness of Enkidu. The death of Gilgamesh’s friend’s death is another event that greatly changes the way Gilgamesh think about living. Both Gilgamesh and Enkidu realize that the gods when angered become devastatingly cruel and brutal. Ea is the god of wisdom and crafts rescues Utnapishtim and other species and the whole of human kind (Callen King).
Gilgamesh is portrayed as an oppressive hero and a fearless noble warrior. And the weakness displayed for the plant of youth and his friend’s death makes him only human and as we know there are no black or white areas in a humans reaction; there are only grey areas in Gilgamesh’s attitude. Was Gilgamesh free to act on his will or did the gods control him? Which makes a justified question? (Callen King)
Gilgamesh starts with a journey while Odysseus is already on one right from the beginning of text. Both men holding prominent positions in the respective tales have physical powers given to them by gods. Both the epic tales were initially poems praising their respective heroes. Odysseus stands out as a better strategist as mentioned above by entering the enemy fortified area was indeed a clear display of valor. And fighting his way through the difficult times confidently emerging as victorious (Launderville).
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The common theme present is of heroism in both the Epic tales. They are men with extraordinary strength and supremacy. The heroes give us sheer strength in mind and on the other hand understanding of heroic physical strength in particular. Both heroes face death and travel through their paths bravely and honorably with Odysseus’s family facing hardships due to his far away journey in pursuit of wealth and knowledge. Both the characters break themselves down to hero and tyrants.
Gilgamesh learns his lesson about the reality of man being mortal soon. He also understood that no matter what one’s achievements are even if they are godlike as far as Gilgamesh is concerned, one has to cherish the smaller things. It took Gilgamesh a single day while Odysseus’s journey expanded to twenty years to understand that everyone has to discover the meanings of life.
Gilgamesh and Odysseus were designed to confront the outer limits of human existence and then to bring back knowledge extracted from this extreme perspective (Launderville).
Gilgamesh shows no mercy to the beast and slays it taking apt advice from Enkidu who says: “Kill the beast now Gilgamesh. Show no weak or silly mercy towards so sly a foe.” Taking the advice Gilgamesh cuts the beast.
Odysseus, on the other hand through Athena’s divine assistance, along with Telemachus, and a couple of herdsmen, manages to kill all of the suitors. The katabasis generally referred to amongst many others as a trip to the supernatural underworld. Katabasis is also adverted to a journey through this world to another plane in this incident the trip to the underworld (Launderville).
Through the above analysis, it becomes visible that Odysseus and Gilgamesh are two heroic characters from mythological texts. Both the mythical heroes have shown that everyone has the attribute to take up challenges and learning from experiences. Thus, the common theme of both the mythical texts presents that attributes of heroism can be attained by anyone provided they are ready to face challenges.
Callen King, Katherine. Ancient epic. Chichester,West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.
George, A. R. The Babylonian Gilgamesh epic. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
Launderville, Dale. Spirit and reason: the embodied character of Ezekiel’s symbolic thinking. Texas: Baylor University Press, 2007.
Louden, Bruce. Homer’s Odyssey and the Near East. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011.