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Introduction: Mythical Characters and Their Heroic Qualities
Mythical characters in literature have significantly projected personal qualities and ways of living in the communities. They also reflect different attributes of humans, such as heroism, revenge, apathy, etc.
The most commonly renowned mythological texts that project heroic attributes are Homer’s Odyssey and the Epic of Gilgamesh. Comparing different mythical heroes from literature can help understand their different qualities and heroic ideals. This paper makes a comparison of Odysseus and Gilgamesh in order to find out what their similarities and differences are.
Gilgamesh and Odysseus: Compare and Contrast
The text about Odyssey is written by Homer, while Gilgamesh is written by Shin-Eqi-Unninni. On comparison, Odysseus and Gilgamesh possess traits such as friendliness, courage, and heroism. Odysseus had a hereditary right to the throne and ruled Ithaca that was complemented 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 Homer’s Odyssey, one can observe that he was a hero based on his pure spirituality and strength to take challenges. At the beginning of the tale of Odysseus, he sailed far, reached 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 a heroic attribute. There were many memorable quotes mentioned in the Odyssey that show his high morals and astounding insights.
The fact that he had different heroic ideals 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 the protagonist is two-thirds god and one-third human. The character of Gilgamesh is an example of a supernatural force in the story. 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 about having a 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 in living a dazzling joyous life. Gilgamesh’s intrepidity said the words to follow 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 vs Odysseus have conflicting characteristics, throwing light on the varying role a hero plays. To normal understanding, both the heroes have the 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 his character. Odysseus, on the other hand, is exactly Gilgamesh’s opposite. He also has his ups and downs, but characteristically cares for his people and has a good relationship with his son and virtuous wife (George). In this aspect, Odysseus differs from Gilgamesh in a complete way.
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The comparison of Odysseus and Gilgamesh makes sense when a goal is materialized in both the stories. Both of them 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 makes the way Gilgamesh thinks about living different. The similarity of Enkidu and Gilgamesh is that they both realize that the gods, when angered, become devastatingly brutal. Ea is the god of wisdom and crafts rescues Utnapishtim and other species and the whole of humankind (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 human’s 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 the 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. While Gilgamesh is an example of a supernatural force, Odysseus stands out as a better strategist. His entering the enemy’s fortified area was indeed a clear display of valor. And fighting his way through the difficult times confidently emerging as victorious (Launderville).
Gilgamesh and Odysseus: Common Themes
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 faraway journey in pursuit of knowledge and wealth. Both the characters break themselves to hero and tyrants.
Gilgamesh succeeds with 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, though 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).
This essay looked at the similarities and differences of Gilgamesh and Odysseus, two famous characters of epics. In summary, it becomes visible that Odysseus vs 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. Still, there are some aspects in which Odysseus differs from Gilgamesh very much. The latter, for instance, is involved in manipulations, while the former characteristically cares for those who surround him.
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.