What are the similarities and differences between the Iliad and The Epic of Gilgamesh?

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The Iliad and The Epic of Gilgamesh both belong to a conversation on ancient literature and, to varying degrees, to a conversation on myth narratives. Yet one is more fully "mythological" than the other. 

On our way to discussing these tales in the light of mythology, we can connect and...

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The Iliad and The Epic of Gilgamesh both belong to a conversation on ancient literature and, to varying degrees, to a conversation on myth narratives. Yet one is more fully "mythological" than the other. 

On our way to discussing these tales in the light of mythology, we can connect and contrast these works in a variety of ways. First, one of the most notable connections is the similar social function that these works may have played for their respective audiences.

In some ways, these are both works about national origins. The Iliad tells the tale of how a host of disparate armies came together to fight under one banner (more or less), the banner of the king, Agamemnon. A league of armies was formed and, from there, history tells the tale of the rise of Greece. This is the story of what it means to be Greek. It is also a story that defines what it means to be heroic as the narrative offers numerous examples of heroic figures from Achilles and Hector, to Odysseus and Patroclus.

The Epic of Gilgamesh does similar cultural work, as it offers a narrative of how the city-state of Uruk came to be ruled by a great king. Further, it tells the story of how this king learned compassion and humanity through his brotherhood with Enkidu, and demonstrated the qualities of a hero by defeating Humbaba and attaining wisdom in the form of a secret underwater plant that grants eternal life.  

Seen in this light, both of these stories function in the same general vein in terms of how they communicate a civic identity and also communicate the traits held in esteem by the community.

While these texts differ in a variety of ways including the sheer scope of each story (in terms of the number of characters, the length of the narrative, the complexity of the plot, etc.), the most important difference in these texts may be how we can or cannot read them on the level of metaphor.

The Iliad can be read as a myth and as an epic piece of narrative entertainment, but it leans heavily toward the latter. Gilgamesh, with its two part structure and its graphically drawn, clearly delineated archetypal characters can really only be read as a myth tale, according to the prevailing definition of the myth.

Myth tales, according to scholars like Joseph Campbell, are intended to be read metaphorically. The Epic of Gilgamesh presents us with a figurative scenario regarding human morality. We are invited to read its characters and its actions symbolically.

The king is unsympathetic and abusive, but is then challenged by a figure who is his brother and his equal. This binary pairing is starkly metaphorical in its depiction of the process of coming of age, by realizing humility through human connection. This metaphorical clarity continues as the hero overcomes obstacles to attain the wisdom of compassion, even as that compassion is bolstered by determination and courage. Thus, Gilgamesh finds his true (and singular) self.  In short, the figures in the story are vehicles for the social lessons embedded in the tale.

The Iliad may offer similar lessons but we have to dig much deeper and ignore quite a bit of the narrative material in order to resolve the complexities of Achilles, Paris, Menelaus and others into legible metaphors. This is not a tale intended centrally to convey a social lesson or to reify the rules of social coherence, which is generally understood to be a main function of pure myth tales. Instead, we have an uncertain set of heroes existing in a world that is unstable, as the gods repeatedly disturb any integrity the human plane might build for itself.

The intricacy and complexity of The Iliad tends to remove it from some of the “functions of mythology” that Joseph Campbell describes: 

Myth basically serves four functions. The first is the mystical function... realizing what a wonder the universe is, and what a wonder you are, and experiencing awe before this mystery....The second is a cosmological dimension, the dimension with which science is concerned – showing you what shape the universe is, but showing it in such a way that the mystery again comes through.... The third function is the sociological one – supporting and validating a certain social order.... It is the sociological function of myth that has taken over in our world – and it is out of date.... But there is a fourth function of myth, and this is the one that I think everyone must try today to relate to – and that is the pedagogical function, of how to live a human lifetime under any circumstances.

With this definition of myth in mind, we can argue that one of our texts checks all of the boxes and the other does not. The Epic of Gilgamesh ends with a tidy oration on the death of Gilgamesh where it is possible to say, “O Gilgamesh, this was the meaning of your dream.” We have an epic poem that fulfills the requirements for a certain metaphorical transparency of a myth tale.

The Iliad, on the other hand, ends with an appropriately obscure episode where Achilles has risen again in his might but agrees to hold off his troops so that Hector can be properly buried and mourned. These two different endings point to the essential differences of the texts. While both are epic poems, one is primarily a myth tale and the other is an epic adventure less open to direct metaphorical readings.  

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Although the Iliad and The Epic of Gilgamesh both fall in the genre of heroic epic, they have many differences.

Period and Setting: Gilgamesh appears on the Sumerian king lists as one of the historical kings of Uruk, a Sumerian city in Mesopotamia, while the Homeric heroes are Greek and Trojan. Gilgamesh lived around 2700 BC while the Trojan war occurred some 1500 years later, around 1200 BC. Uruk is approximately 1000 miles southeast of Troy.

Historicity: Both are fictionalized accounts of important historical events. 

Political Structure: Uruk was a highly centralized theocracy, but the Greeks as portrayed in Homer existed as a group of small, independent states, only loosely allied with one another through a system of family ties and diplomacy. Both epics are concerned with the relationship between justice and the legitimacy of authority.

Religion: Both epics reflect polytheistic beliefs with the gods actively intervening in human affairs and also often having affairs with humans. Nobles are usually distinguished by having some divine blood.

Style: The Homeric epics have greater evidence of oral composition, using elements such as ring composition and heroic epithets, whereas Gilgamesh seems a more literary text, written within a scribal environment.

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This is a very interesting question to think about. Of course, one of the major similarities you will want to focus on is the way in which both of these incredible works of literature are true epics, in every sense of the word. Both focus on epic heroes and their mighty deeds, but also their human weaknesses. Likewise the heroes have to undergo challenges and conflicts as part of their quest or struggle. Lastly, both works of literature are epics in that they summarise or convey a particular culture's characteristics from one generation to the next.

However, thinking of the differences between these two works, The Iliad is of course set during the Trojan War, and arguably contains many heroes that could be considered to be "epic." This is in contrast to Gilgamesh, who is trying to find immortality and is forced to confront his own mortality on his journey. Likewise in The Iliad, the war is waged by humans, but the pantheon of gods and goddesses take sides and have a big impact on the outcome. This is different for Gilgamesh, who is not strictly "human" himself.

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