What societal values are common to both the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Odyssey?

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thanatassa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Both of the works are examples of heroic epic. Their protagonists are both of noble families with some admixture of divine blood. This suggests that both societies are ones that believe to some degree that family is destiny and that great and heroic characters are members of the nobility. 

Next, as both protagonists are rulers (of Uruk and Ithaca, respectively), we also see what their respective societies consider to be the characteristics of good rulers. The most important one is self-restraint, a quality that Odysseus, renowned for his clever and calculating ways, demonstrates consistently and Gilgamesh learns gradually.

Although both societies accept the notion of hereditary rulership and a hierarchy based on birth, they both also believe rulers have obligations to their subjects—namely, obligations of fairness, justice, and charity. It is the job of rulers in both these societies to protect the weak and not to abuse their own power.

Physical strength, attractiveness, and prowess in war are valued in men, while women play primarily a domestic role. 

Both societies are deeply religious with a polytheistic belief system. Both epics show the gods as routinely interfering in humans' lives, as anthropomorphic and capricious, and as very powerful. In both epics, one gets a sense that currying the favor of the gods and avoiding their anger was important.

ntv667 | Student

Both stories are as ancient as they get, yet they both reflect societal values of mankind’s fascination with the supernatural and man’s relationship to the gods. These two stories represent early man’s attempt to convey values, morals, and beliefs about their cultures and civilizations in the form of myths. Of course, the common theme between these two epics are that man must live according to their duty to their fellow men/family, fear the gods and death, and propagate the human race in the face of mortality.

               In the Epic of Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh and Enkidu begin their association as enemies, but after they fight they become friends and go on an epic journey together to explore the world and test the gods. They are the perfect foils for each other, Gilgamesh being a cruel, despotic two-thirds god, one-third man befriending a primal being who barely transcended from an animalistic primitive. Their polarities make them fit for one another and there is a manly bond between them. Because of one of their adventures, they trespass against the gods, triumph over a demon, and kill the Bull of Heaven (sent by a goddess who lusted after Gilgamesh but was rejected), which results in the gods exacting punishment in the form of a cruel death for Enkidu, which sets Gilgamesh on a path for immortality as he saw how death comes so easily and without warning. Gods can be seen as the forces of the world, which should be respected and feared as they set limits on human potential and influence the world. This is why there is the story of the great deluge, which the gods allowed one man how to survive and was granted eternal life. Because of this action by the gods, the fact of life is that all men are mortal but if they pass on their seed, mankind will continue. After Gilgamesh gets so close to eternal life and obtaining a plant that could restore youth, he returns to his kingdom empty-handed yet building it up instead of abusing his power like before. He finds that despite his own mortality, achievement and the continuity of humankind is the closest thing to immortality humans can attain. In other words, we live on through our descendants.

               In the Odyssey, Odysseus seeks to return home from war to his wife and son but is imprisoned and delayed by gods and demi-gods. Also, before on Odysseus’s journey of war before his men are all killed, he did feel responsible for trying to bring them back home alive, but the gods and monsters along the way do not allow that. It is interesting to note that Odysseus is captured by a demi-goddess who was in love with him. It seems both stories have men of heroic quality that are the objects of desire of the gods. Yet, they deny them and reveal that gods are fickle, too. Trespassing against gods seems to be the ultimate folly of our heroes, yet their defiance suggests courage and determination, which gods should respect—but in the end, why men live in fear of the gods. However, Odysseus is aided by the goddess Athena in his journeys and is able to return home to protect his family and lineage from suitors. Unlike Gilgamesh, Odysseus does not seek immortality, but to secure his family’s future and see that his son continues the next generation—in sync with the theme of propagating human kind and duty to one’s peoples.

               Both these stories end back where they ultimately started (following a cyclical hero’s journey). In finality, these stories convey a tradition of the supernatural, gods and goddesses, and ultimately the human condition. Sometimes the human endeavor to bear fruit and multiply seems to be the defining ends to human life. Our ancestors live on through us and our descendants will carry us into the future with them. Overall, these two stories enlighten their audience through fantastical situations and perilous ordeals to ingrain in their audience the facts of life as told by ancient poets and storytellers. Like these stories that are still being read and studied today, civilization continues on and where one human dies, another lives; and the stories pass on and on to future generations. Is that not immortality?