Homer’s The Odyssey and Gilgamesh
The Odyssey and Gilgamesh: The Rule of Gods
Freud wrote in The Future of an Illusion that the idea of God has four functions: to exorcise the terrors of nature; to reconcile humanity to the cruelty of fate; to compensate humanity for the sufferings and privations of life; and to punish those, who fail to obey civilization’s laws. In Homer’s The Odyssey and in The Epic of Gilgamesh, the two different functions of God become evident: to punish those, who do not obey the laws of civilization, and to reconcile us to the cruelty of fate. The last function, however, exemplifies the true power of Gods and their ability to rule human fates, for it is only through tragic experiences and good lessons that humans can learn how to reconcile the realities of their lives with those of nature.
In Gilgamesh, the power of Gods and their ability to punish individuals for disobeying the basic civilization’s laws become evident from the very beginning of the epic, when Gods decide to send Enkidu as a potential opponent to Gilgamesh. “Is Gilgamesh the shepherd of Uruk-Haven, is he shepherd. … bold, eminent, knowing, and wise! Gilgamesh does not leave a girl to let her mother (?). The daughter of the warrior, the bride of the young man, / the gods kept hearing their complaints, so / the gods of the heavens implored the Lord of Uruk” (Tablet I). Whenever Gilgamesh comes down to misuse his power and dominance for the sake of his earthy desires, the Gods see it necessary to restrain him from making further mistakes. In The Odyssey, however, not disobedience to the rules of civilization but the power of gods to punish humans for their misbehaviors becomes the dominant theme. On his way away from the island, Odysseus faces a serious natural challenge: as an act of revenge for Cyclopes Poseidon sends a serious storm to kill Odysseus: “as he spoke a sea broke over him with such terrific fury that the raft reeled again, and he was carried overboard a long way off. He let go the helm, and the force of the hurricane was so great that it broke the mast half way up” (Book 5). In this context, however, another function of Gods comes into place – that of reconciling humans to the cruelty of fate. Saving Odysseus from the hands of Poseidon may seem as the gods’ attempt to protect humans from the terrors of nature, but given that ancient writings associate nature with Gods, and that Gods are responsible for the majority of natural disasters, it is fate that can save people from these dangers, and these are also gods that may redirect this fate in a more productive and positive way.
Homer depicts Poseidon’s revenge as the measure needed to tame Odysseus’s physical power, which he regularly used in his fights; and although the punishable power of Gods seems extremely threatening and unavoidable, these are the Gods that also save humans from the inevitable death and give them another chance to survive: “Then the god stayed his stream and stilled the waves, making all calm before him, and bringing him safely into the mouth of the river” (Book 5). In her actions, Athena pursues the same principles, making everything possible to create favorable conditions and to save Odysseus from Calypso’s imprisonment. That is why in ancient writings, the power of Gods produces a two-fold effect: on the one hand, it comes to signify the destructive force ready to erase the whole humanity from the face of the earth; on the other hand, this very power can also work to give humanity sufficient strength as to fight with environmental forces and Fate. It is difficult to deny that Athena tries to change Odysseus’s fate, which had led him to become Calypso’s prisoner. It is also difficult to deny that these are Gods that strive to change Gilgamesh’s fate by sending Enkidu to become his opponent, and later, his true friend. However, where gods attempt to punish humans for disobedience, such punishable desires also border on revenge. Poseidon is just one example of the way the power of gods is used for the purposes of revenge. In The Epic of Gilgamesh, Ishtar represents the evil side of the Gods’ punishable power. In the Tablet VI, we read Gilgamesh’s dialogue with Ishtar, in which he rejects her feelings toward him and her marriage proposal; becoming furious, Ishtar says: “Father, give me the Bull of Heaven, so he can kill Gilgamesh in his dwelling. If you do not give me the Bull of Heaven, I will knock down the Gates of the Netherworld” (Tablet VI). However, such punishment in ancient writings not only makes humans stronger and better prepared to the follies of the fate, but it also helps realize, that when men blame gods for their own failures, it is nothing “but their own folly” (Homer, Book 1). And whether a human is able to avoid punishment and to reconcile with the fate does not always depend on the power of Gods, but on how prepared an individual is to accept such Gods’ assistance, as well as to balance his (her) desires with the powers and the laws of the civilization, to which he (she) belongs.
Justice and obedience: The Epic of Gilgamesh vs. The Odyssey
Socrates asserted that courage and justice are the same for men and women. However, Aristotle wrote that courage for a man consists in commanding, while courage for a woman consists in obeying. Objectively, through the prism of Gilgamesh and The Odyssey, neither Socrates nor Aristotle were correct in their visions of courage, for in both works courage changes its form, depending on specific circumstances and objectives different men and women seek to achieve. Of course, it is difficult to deny that courage for men is always associated with power and commanding, and both Gilgamesh and Odysseus try to prove their male power and courage by being talented warriors. Everything is difficult with women, and not all of them are prepared to devote their lives to obedience. Moreover, from time to time both epics show that it is through disobedience that women can confirm their courageous intentions. Athena and Calypso in The Odyssey, as well as Ishtar and Siduri in The Epic of Gilgamesh – these women prove that justice and courage are the same for all women and men, but they also leave some place for obedience as another form of courage, of which Penelope is the bright example.
Athena in The Odyssey creates a vision of complete spiritual balance, which nevertheless does not make obedience an appropriate form of courage. Athena actively participates in the life of Gods and makes everything possible to change the life of Odysseus. That Athena saves Odyssey in the battle in Book 22 confirms her true courage and her ability to overcome difficulties: “They threw their spears as he bade them, but Minerva made them all no effect. One hit the door post; another went against the door; the pointed shaft of another struck the wall”. Yet, the power and justice for men and for women is as similar as it is also different, and where men associate power with physical force, women see courage and justice as a combination of physical power, magic skills, and wisdom. The latter is represented through Athena’s desire not to give Odysseus a chance for an easy victory: “But she would not give him full victory as yet, for she wished still further to prove his own prowness and that of his brave son” (Book 22).
Everything is different with Penelope, and from the very beginning of the story she seems the bright example of the way obedience works to prove inner strength, courage, and justice in women. When speaking of Penelope, Aristotle might have been correct in that obedience is the sign of female courage, as far as in the absence of Odysseus Penelope constantly has to fight with numerous suitors, who seek her favor. “Then the suitors came in and took their places on the benches and seats. Forthwith men servants poured water over their hands, maids went round with the bread-baskets, pages filled with mixing-bowls with wine and water” (Book I). In this tough atmosphere, however, Penelope finds enough power to question Odysseus from time to time, although no one believes he is still alive.
In the same way, The Epic of Gilgamesh sheds the light on the major philosophic controversies, which Aristotle and Socrates tried to resolve; but while Homer creates a picture of courage that comprises multiple features (including wisdom and obedience), in Gilgamesh we face a limited vision of courage and justice, which men show through physical force, and women – through magical features and their natural ability to fight the circumstances. In case of Siduri – the goddess of wine-making who allows Gilgamesh to enter her tavern – it is wisdom and her ability to make a life-important advice that distinguishes her from the majority of obedient women. Siduri’s courage and justice is in that she is not afraid to face the challenges of life. Certainly, she is a goddess and might possess certain magical features, but this is her natural femininity and natural striving to reconcile humans with their fates and the forces of nature that distance Siduri from a traditional representation of a woman as of an obedient creature: “There has never been, Gilgamesh, any passage whatever, / there has never been anyone since days of yore who crossed / the sea. / […] And even if, Gilgamesh, you should cross the sea, when you reach the Waters of Death what would you do! […] Go on, let him see your face. / If possible, cross with him; / if not, you should turn back” (Tablet X). Similarly, in her search for revenge, Ishtar mobilizes her magic force to send the Bull of Heaven and to combat Gilgamesh for his reluctance to become her mate.
Obviously, whether a woman proves her courage through obedience or through power depends on many circumstances. What seems important though, and both epics confirm this fact is in that neither in power nor in obedience do women-goddesses and women-humans dare to lose their feminine features. Whether in power or in obedience, women strive to prove their right to act on equal terms with men, but this equality never crosses the boundaries of genuine female charm. Women may act as men, and women may also show a sign of obedience, whey they feel they need to do it for the sake of achieving their goals. This flexibility and changeability distinguishes them from men – the flexibility, which neither Socrates nor Aristotle seem to have taken into account.