Going on a quest? Something humans do, from Gilgamesh to Odysseus to…
It is a truth quite well known, that going on a quest means wandering, and that with a purpose, which usually means leaving home, often travelling to the ends of the earth, even maybe visiting the underworld, like Gilgamesh or Odysseus on their epic quests. In one of the above, the quest was not about leaving home but about getting home, home from the ends of the earth, in this case, after the Trojan Wars, Odysseus returning to his wife and son in his kingdom in Ithaca.
Some interesting parallels and differences can be observed by a broad study of the themes and motifs in these two dramatic poems. The story of Odysseus has much in common with the pre-semitic epic of Gilgamesh from Mesopotamia, which predates the Odyssey by at least one and a half thousand years and is thought to be the earliest epic verse written in cuneiform script on clay tablets. In both quests, fate and human endeavour offer a parallel, fate taking the form of an arbitrary and often calamitous intervention by the gods in the affairs of men.
In the Odyssey, the sea-god Poseidon continually frustrates Odysseus’ attempts to arrive home. Odysseus has offended Poseidon in one of his encounters en-route with a monster kyklops, Polyphemus, the god-child of Poseidon, and so he wishes to foil Odysseus’ efforts to reach home. Odysseus is shipwrecked on the island of the sea-nymph Kalypso, who falls in love with Odysseus and holds him captive for seven years, so that ‘he lives and grieves upon that island / in thraldom to the nymph; he cannot stir / cannot fare homeward, for no ship is left him / fitted with oars – no crewmen, or companions /to pull him on the broad back of the sea.’*
Here’s the Goddess Athena interceding for Odysseus to her father, Zeus, who sends the god Hermes to Kalypso to command that she set Odysseus free. Reluctantly Kalypso allows Odysseus to cut timber on her island and build a sail boat, and she provides him with supplies and instructions for navigation. But it’s not too long before that god of earthquakes, Poseidon, storming home across the mountains of Asia, sights Odysseus and declaims: ‘Here is a pretty cruise! While I was gone / the gods have changed their minds about Odysseus./ Look at him now, just off-shore that island / that frees him from the bondage of his exile!/Still I can give him a rough road in, and I will.’
The gods, as fate, have their place in the Gilgamesh story also, and clearly Gilgamesh brings this fate upon himself.
In The Epic of Gilgamesh you’ve got the young King of Uruk, handsome, athletic, seems he’s a bit too athletic, acting up badly so that his people make a plea to the god Anu to rein him in. The god Anu sends wild man, Enkidu, who lives with the beasts of the forest, to challenge Gilgamesh. But first Enkidu must be partially civilized by the temple goddess Shamhat, who seduces him and once that’s accomplished, after seven days he’s ready to go out and confront Gilgamesh.
Enkidu departs for Uruk, meets Gilgamesh and there’s a tremendous fight which Gilgamesh eventually wins. He and Enkidu become best of friends and together they set off to do heroic acts, to conquer and kill the monster Humbaba, whom the gods have made guardian of the great Forest of Cedar. When Gilgamesh and Enkidu kill Humbaba, the dangerous goddess Ishtar is impressed and makes overtures to Gilgamesh but he scornfully rejects her advances reminding her of the fate of her prior lovers. In revenge she asks the god Enkil to allow the starry Bull of Heaven to come to Earth to attack Gilgamesh and he reluctantly agrees. After a fearful battle, the two friends kill the great bull and this so angers all the gods that they decide to punish Gilgamesh by making his friend mortally ill.
Tended by Gilgamesh, after many days of suffering and visions of his fate in the underworld, Enkidu dies. When Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh won’t accept his friend’s death until the visible sign of corruption, the worm, appears. Then unable to bear the reality of human mortality, ‘How can I rest when Enkidu whom I love is dust, /and I too shall die and be laid in the Earth forever?’ * Gilgamesh sets out on a new quest, a quest for immortality.
Both epics reveal a metaphysical concern with life and death, a common underlying theme, the search for life in relation to death’s inevitability. From this theme, in the two epic quests, the characters of each of the protagonists evolve.
In both books, character is revealed by the heroes’ attitude to life and death, by their ability to face reality, and here the differences in character of Gilgamesh and Odysseus are revealed. Both epics depict a similar vision of death and a grim underworld, described by Enkidu in his dream of the house of the dead, where ‘residents are deprived of light,/ where soil is their sustenance and clay their food,/ where they are clad like birds in coats of feathers.’ and by Odysseus in his account of his journey to the underworld to question the blind seer, Teiresias, on what he must do to achieve his return to Ithaca. It’s a harrowing journey in which he meets ‘the blurred and breathless dead,’ conversing, not only with the seer, but with the shades of his mother, dead from grief over the loss of her son, and meets heroic comrades like Akhilleus who describes his feelings to Odysseus regarding the underworld: ‘Better I say, to break sod as a farm hand / for some poor countryman, on iron rations,/ than lord it over all the exhausted dead.’
And as the witch, Circe, sent Odysseus to the underworld, a journey which may be said to symbolize a search for life, so another enigmatic, magical woman, Siduru, tells Gilgamesh how to cross the ocean and waters of death to consult with Utnapishtim, only survivor of the Great Deluge, pre-biblical reference to Noah’s Flood, on how to avoid death. And as these sorties into the unknown necessarily involve fate, quests like the above don’t amount to much in human engagement unless they also involve TESTS.
‘Let the trial come,’ says Odysseus, and in the two heroes’ different quests involving human endeavour, Odysseus comes up trumps. Having fought at Troy and seen death at close range, having visited the dreaded underworld and been told of his own death by the seer Teiresias, Odysseus chooses to embrace his human condition, return to his wife and son, even though the nymph Kalypso offers to make him immortal if he remains with her. Odysseus shows himself to be a man of strong human loyalties, prepared to give up everlasting life for the sake of a few years with his family. And having chosen to embrace his humanity, he wastes no time on regrets, but courageously directs himself to his task: ‘Each day / I long for home, long for the sight of home./ If any god has marked me out again / for shipwreck, my tough heart can undergo it.’ What hardships have I not long since endured /at sea, in battle! Let the trial come.’
In confronting trial and tribulation, Odysseus is well endowed for the heroic quest, always grounded in reality, he is curious, intelligent and courageous. While curiosity leads him to investigate what manner of people and places he comes across on his travels, Odysseus makes few errors in his dealings with those he encounters, whether human or divine. Not for nothing is he called, ‘Odysseus the master strategist,’ or ‘improviser,’ ‘man of all occasions,’ or ‘cunning Odysseus.’ He likes to enter places in disguise, even when he returns home to fight the hordes of suitors who have invaded his kingdom and live off his patrimony while they vie for the hand of his faithful wife Penelope. No one recognises him until he’s ready to confront them and in these encounters Odysseus makes few mistakes.
We see his diplomacy when he is welcomed as guest in the kingdom of Alkinoos, and we learn of his past mishaps as Odysseus recounts the story of his journey home before he was shipwrecked on the island of Kalypso. In all these encounters except one, problems arise deux ex machina and also because his crew fail to heed sacred oaths and instructions: ‘Don’t open the god Aiolos’s gift, the sack of winds, that allows us safe voyage!’ They do and are blown back to where they set out. ‘Don’t eat the gods’cattle or sheep on the divine island of Helios or harm will ensue!’ They do and their ships are sunk and the crew drowned.
One mistake Odysseus does make is when he takes a group of his men to explore the Island of the Cyclops and they become trapped in the cave of the one-eyed giant, Polyphemus. Polyphemus rolls a boulder in the entrance of the cave and questions his guests. The wily Odysseus tells the cyclops that he served under Agammemnon and that his name is ‘Nobody’. He doesn’t divulge where his ship is moored. He requests ‘guest protection,’ for himself and his crew but to their horror, Polyphemus catches up two of the men in his hands and strikes their heads on the cave floor, spattering their brains. ‘Then he dismembered them and made his meal /gaping and crunching like a mountain lion.’ Later he proceeds to devour other men as well. Odysseus works out what to do, offers Polyphemus gift-wine ‘to wash down your scraps of men.’. The giant has never tasted wine before and while he sleeps in a drunken stupor. Odysseus and his men blind him with a burning spar that they‘ve sharpened in the fire. When Polyphemus calls out in pain that ‘Nobody has ruined him,’ the other Cyclops outside his cave who had responded to his cries go away.
By dawn, when the injured cyclops rolls the boulder away from the door to allow his flock of sheep to leave the cave, Odysseus has already devised an escape plan so that he and his men pass through the cave entrance slung beneath the bodies of the giant’s rams. But as he escapes, Odysseus makes his fatal mistake, announcing his own name and baiting Polyphemus, ‘O Kyklops! Would you feast on my companions? /Puny, am I, in a Caveman’s hands? / How do you like the beating we gave you,/you dammed cannibal.? Eater of guests /under your roof! Zeus and the gods have paid you.’
‘If any mortal man enquire /how you were put to shame and blinded, tell him /Odysseus raider of cities took your eye.’
Turns out that there’s one god who learns of this from Polyphemus and that’s the monster’s father, Poseidon, and now Odysseus’ voyage home will be beset with deux-ex-machina, calamitous intervention, unhappily of Odysseus’ own making. But thanks to his own strenuous actions and help from the goddess Athena, Odysseus makes it home at last, defeats the suitors in battle and is reunited with his wife and son.
Odysseus came up trumps, Gilgamesh not so much. In the beginning of the Gilgamesh epic, we’re told that Gilgamesh has all the right attributes for a hero, athletic young king of Uruk, doesn’t shy away from a fight, beats Enkidu in fierce combat. But there’s a flaw. From the beginning Gilgamesh shows poor judgement in action. The reason the gods intervene in the first place is because the townspeople are fed up with him, he’s a tyrant abusing his rights. Then there’s the decision to go on a quest, not a wise quest, but a quest to kill the guardian of the cedar forest, a guardian put there by the gods. He’s in conflict with the gods from go to woe. Next, his encounter with the goddess of the city, Ishtar, who offers him marriage. If this had been Odysseus, he would have found a way to praise her charms while avoiding the dangerous liaison. Insulting her got Gilgamesh a visit from the Bull of Heaven and more trouble from the gods.
And now a change of quest. After Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh embarks on yet another foolish quest, a quest for eternal life. When he finally meets with Utnapishtim, he discovers just how foolish this is. Gilgamesh can’t even hold on to the rejuvenation plant he acquires at great effort. After journeying all that way to seek Utnapishtim’s advice, Gilgamesh doesn’t trust him about the plant. He could have found a way to test the plant’s potency there and then, but chooses to carry it all the way home and loses it on the way, because of carelessness.
So now Gilgamesh goes home. What has been gained by this quest? Perhaps for the reader, and perhaps for Gilgamesh, when he returns exhausted to Uruk, there may be some wisdom gained from the quest experience. But for Gilgamesh, it comes at the expense of a life spent on a futile activity, whereas he could have experienced a productive life as king and protector of his city and of its people’s enterprise, could have enjoyed his own human experience as he was advised to do in the course of his quest:
‘Make merry each day, dance and play, day and night,/ let your clothes be clean, let your head be washed,/ may you bathe in water. /
Gaze on the little one who holds your hand, /let a woman enjoy your repeated embrace, / for such is the destiny of mortal men.’
… But he didn’t
* ‘The Odyssey Homer.’ Translation, Robert Fitzgerald. (Panther 1965.)
*’The Epic of Gilgamesh.’ Translation, Andrew George. (Penguin 2003.)