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Gilgamesh and odysseus: different heroic ideals

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                The Odyssey and Gilgamesh are two of the world’s oldest epics.  Each involves a great hero, and modern scholars have found enough parallels between the two epics that they suggest that Homer was familiar with the older Babylonian epic when he composed The Odyssey.  However, the protagonists in each of these epics are very different and they represent different ideals.

                One word which is commonly used to describe Odysseus is “clever.” (“The Odyssey”)  Odysseus is a thinker.  He is a very athletic man, capable of feats of considerable strength, as when he bends the great bow in his final confrontation with the suitors (Homer, bk. 21), but his foremost asset is his ability to think through problems.  Consider a few notable examples.  When trapped in the cave of the cyclops Polyphemus, Odysseus realizes that if he kills the one-eyed giant, he and his men will remain trapped in the cave.  (Homer, bk. 9)  He devises his plan: he  tells the cyclops that his name is “Nobody”; he gets the Cyclops drunk; he then blinds him.  The cyclops roars in agony, and rouses the help of others of his kind, but when he announces that “Nobody is killing me,” the other cyclopses misunderstand and assume that there is nothing wrong.  In the morning, the cyclops finally moves the great stone aside to let his sheep out, and Odysseus and his men escape by clinging to the bellies of the sheep. (Homer, bk. 9)

                By contrast, Gilgamesh relies almost exclusively on his great strength.  The one part of the epic in which wiles are used is the initial taming of Enkidu, but this is not Gilgamesh’s doing.  The sun god creates Enkidu, who runs with the wild animals.  A trapper’s son discovers him, and goes to his father.  The father suggests the way to trap Enkidu, by using the temple harlot, Shamhat.  Shamhat waits for Enkidu at a watering hole, and when he appears, she unveils herself.  He is captivated and submits to her charms, losing his wildness and his strength.  Shamhat eventually offers to take him to Gilgamesh, whom she describes as the only creature

    worthy of his friendship.  (Gilgamesh, tablet 2)

                This episode from The Epic of Gilgamesh also contrasts with another episode in which Odysseus shows his ability to think through problems.  In book 12, he must sail his ship past the isle of the Sirens, creatures whose enticing singing draws anyone who hear it to their isle, to be shipwrecked and eaten by these creatures.  Ulysses plugs his sailor’s ears with wax, so that they will not hear the sirens’ singing, but he has his men bind him to the mast.  This allows him to hear the sirens, but be powerless to sail to their island. (Homer, bk. 12)

                One of the first things about Gilgamesh that differentiates him from Odysseus is that Gilgamesh is part divine.  He is described as two-thirds god and one third man. (Gilgamesh, tablet 1)  Though Odysseus deals with many creatures who are partly divine, he is entirely human.  While he is befriended and protected by the gods, particularly the clear-eyed Pallas Athena, he is always vulnerable to the human failings. “The Odyssey”)  By contrast, at least in terms of physical strength, Gilgamesh stands far above mere mortals.  It takes such creatures as Enkidu, Humbaba the Terrible, and the great Bull of Heaven to challenge him.

                Both Odysseus and Gilgamesh go on marvelous heroic quests, but their motivations are fundamentally different.  Odysseus went to the Trojan War because of his loyalty to his fellow Greeks.  Like all of the other potential suitors for the hand of Helen, he had sworn an oath to join with the other Greeks if Helen suffered any insult.  Despite his oath, he resisted going.  He pretended to be mad.  To show this madness, he was plowing the sands of the beach.  But his companions outwitted him by setting his infant son Telemachus directly in the path of the oxen pulling the plow.  He had to turn the plow aside to spare his son, and in doing so, he showed that he was not mad.  (“Electra > Myth of the Trojan War,” para. 5, 6, 7)  The adventures in The Odyssey fall on Odysseus as he tries to return home.  It is a journey that takes him some ten years, and costs him the lives of every one of his comrades.  Had he had his own way, Odysseus would have sailed straight from the coast off Troy to Ithaca, foregoing the intervening adventures.  He is an unwilling hero in The Odyssey, a man who merely wants to go home.

                By contrast, Gilgamesh seeks out most of his adventures.  Enkidu is sent to fight with him, and they fight, but Gilgamesh spares Enkidu, finding that this is a companion for him, someone who shares his superhuman strength and can undertake adventures with him.  (Gilgamesh, tablets 1-2)  Initially, they settle into indulgent luxury in Gilgamesh’s city of Uruk, but soon Gilgamesh becomes bored and proposes going to the Cedar Forest to cut down all the trees. (Gilgamesh, tablet 2)  To do this, they will have to face the terrible giant Humbaba.  Enkidu tries to dissuade him, knowing how fierce Humbaba is, but Gilgamesh insists, and eventually they set off together. (Gilgamesh, tablets 2-4)

                When Gilgamesh decides to go on the most perilous of his journeys, to seek out Utnapishtim, nothing compels him to go. (Gilgamesh, tablet 9)  He has come to fear death, and hopes to learn from Utnapishtim how to achieve eternal life. (Gilgamesh, tablet 9)  Eventually, Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh how to retrieve the plant that will restore him to youth.  Gilgamesh retrieves the plant, but does not use it on himself.  Instead, he tries to take it back to Uruk, where he will first test it on an old man.  Along the way a snake steals the plant, and achieves eternal youth by periodically shedding its skin. (Gilgamesh, tablets 11-12)

                In these adventures, Gilgamesh seems motivated primarily, and almost exclusively by a desire to glorify himself.  Gilgamesh goes on adventures to glorify himself rather than anyone else. (Gilgamesh, tablets 2, 9)  By contrast, Odysseus is much more interested in doing his duty.  He is a proud man, and as he sails from the land of the cyclops, and shouts back to the blinded Polyphemus, telling him who has bested him.  This allows Polyphemus to invoke the aid of his father, Poseidon, against Odysseus. (Homer, bk, 12)

                Because of his partly divine nature, Gilgamesh never faces serious opposition from human enemies.  He rules Uruk, and oppresses the humans, so that their only recourse is to seek divine assistance. (Gilgamesh, tablet 1)  By contrast, Odysseus faces many human opponents.  At Troy, while the gods occasionally interceded, it was human opponents that Odysseus faced most consistently. (Homer, The Iliad)  In The Odyssey, perhaps the greatest challenge he faces is in his own home, vastly outnumbered by the suitors.  Like him, they are men.  None of them have the strength to string his heavy bow, but they are still substantial men, and it is only through his cleverness in locking the doors and gathering weapons for himself and his few faithful followers that he is able to overcome the suitors.  Here, he needs his companions.  Had he been entirely alone, he would have been able to kill some of the suitors, but he probably could not have overcome all of them, and dying, he would have left Penelope unprotected and a true widow. (Homer, bks. 17-22)

                By contrast, Gilgamesh never needs the help of human companions.  While Odysseus slaughtered the suitors in order to restore order to his household, Gilgamesh so oppresses the people of Uruk that they pray to the sky-god Anu for relief.   In reply, the sky god creates Enkidu, who soon becomes a companion to Gilgamesh. (Gilgamesh, tablets 1-2)

                Although the Epic of Gilgamesh describes Gilgamesh as “the great hero who had all knowledge” (Gilgamesh, tablet 1), his exploits are almost entirely physical rather then intellectual. Because no one can match his physical strength, Gilgamesh can come and go as he pleases, prevailing against every opponent.  Knowing that he is only human and suffering from the vulnerability of being human, Odysseus sometimes assumes a disguise in order to avoid detection.  When he first drags himself ashore in the Phaeacian kingdom, he meets Nausicaa and lies about his background and identity. (Homer, bk. 6)  It is only in the evening, when he hears the bard telling the story of the exploits of the Greeks in the Trojan War, that he breaks into tears, and eventually discloses his identity to the good king Alcinous.(Homer, bk. 8)  When he reaches Ithaca, he again assumes a disguise, as a beggar.  With the assistance of Athena, he remains disguised even as he sits at the foot of the banquet table while the suitors carouse on his goods. (Homer, bks.  13-14, 16-18)  Only as he bends the great bow and sends an arrow through the holes in the twelve axes to clang off the stairs at the far end of the banquet hall do the suitors discover his true identity. (Homer, bk. 21)

                The attitude of the heroes toward the gods is also very different.  In only two parts of the Epic does Gilgamesh intone the help of the gods.  The first time is when Gilgamesh is journeying toward the Cedar Forest, where he knows he must face Humbaba the Terrible. (Gilgamesh, tablets 3-4)  The second is when he discovers that the snake has eaten the plant that gives renewed youth. (Gilgamesh, tablet 12)  By contrast, when Ishtar is smitten with him and comes to him offering to be his lover, he insults her.  He has some reason for this, because she has taken many mortal lovers and ruined them, but his insults go beyond anything needed for his own protection. (Gilgamesh, tablet 6)

                By contrast, Odysseus respects the gods.  He falls afoul of Neptune, because the sea god is the father of the cyclops Polyphemus. (Homer, bk. 9)  His men offend Zeus when they kill some of the cattle of the son, sacred to the king of the gods. (Homer, bk. 12)  On the other hand, he invokes the aid of the gods on many occasions.  They free him from Calypso’s isle. (Homer, bks. 1, 5)  Athena brings him ashore at Ithaca and protects him in the final fight against the suitors. (Homer, bks. 13, 15, 18-22)

                Odysseus is also much more respectful of women.  In the Epic, Gilgamesh claims the right to sleep with any bride on her wedding night, a practice that so offends Enkidu that he bars Gilgamesh’s way. (Gilgamesh, tablet 2)  When Ishtar offers herself to him, he insults her. (Gilgamesh, tablet 6)  By contrast, Odysseus treats Calypso with sufficient respect that she offers to give him immortality. (Homer, bk. 5)  When he finds Nausicaa, he treats her with such deference and respect that she brings him back to the royal palace and presents him to her parents. (Homer, bk.6)  At the banquets, she is clearly taken with Odysseus. (Homer, bk. 8)  When he does return to Ithaca, he eventually has the maidservants who had sex with the suitors hanged, but for those who have remained faithful his return marks the restoration of order in the kingdom.  (Homer, bk. 22)

                Finally, there is an overall outlook of Odysseus:  he is a social being.  At the start of his homeward journey, he tries to protect the men on his twelve ships. (Homer, bk. 9)  In the cave of the cyclops, he works to get all of the men he can out of the cave alive. (Homer, bk. 9)  He mourns the death of Elpenor. (Homer, bk. 10)  When they go ashore on the Isle of Helios, he warns them not to molest the cattle of the sun, sacred to Zeus. (Homer, bk. 12)  In Ithaca, he puts his own house in order. (Homer, bk. 22)  In short, he lives a society and is part of that society.  Gilgamesh is the king of Uruk, but there is no indication that he protects or cares for his people.  They prey for relief from his oppressions. (Gilgamesh, tablet 1)

                The Epic of Gilgamesh may indeed have served as a model for Homer’s Odyssey.  However, it is clear that there are more differences than similarities between the heroes of these epics.


    “Electra > Myth of the Trojan War,” Department of Classics, Haverford College.  Dated Jan. 27, 2007; retrieved Feb. 25, 2007, from < electra/trojanwar.html#top>.  Internet.

    “The Epic of Gilgamesh.”.  Poznan Supercomputing and Networking Center.  Undated, retrieved Feb. 23, 2007, from <>.  Internet. [cited as “Gilgamesh”].

    “Gilgamesh.”  Mesopotamia.  Dated June 6, 1999, retrieved February 25, 2007from <>.  Internet.

    Mitchell-Boyask, Robin.  “Study Guide for Homer’s Odyssey.”  Temple University. Dated Jan. 31, 2002, retrieved Feb. 24, 2007, from <>.  Internet.

    “The Odyssey by Homer” The Internet Archive.  Dated 2004, retrieved Feb. 24, 2007, from <>.  Internet. [cited as “Homer”]. .


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