Saturday, October 1, 2011

Comparing Epics

Last year I had to read Gilgamesh for NOCCA and it interestingly bares a lot of similarities to the Aenid. Gilgamesh, a Mesopotainian epic written in cuneiform on stone tablets, follows a Tyrannical king, his Wildman companion, their completion of several herculean tasks, the death of the companion, and Gilgamesh’s journey to the land of the dead. (While this is dramatically different plot-wise from the Aneid, there are many subtle thematic similarities between the epics.) Gilgamesh is comprised of 12 stone tablets similar to the twelve books of the Aeneid. Gilgamesh is a demigod like Aeneas, and Enkidu, the companion, was created by the gods as Gilgamesh’s equal. All three men are godlike mortals who complete herculean tasks that involve monsters. In both epics, the heroes receive prophesy in one form or another; in Gilgamesh, heroes receives prophetic dreams and Aeneas has to wrestle with his fate as revealed to him by Mercury. Gilgamesh’s experience with the Netherworld is quite similar in many ways to Aeneas’s journey through Hades; first both are only allowed through the gates of the underworld because of their half-god statuses, second, they both come to a river of the Dead that morals cannot touch and only a ferryman can cross, third, both must convince the ferryman to take them across the water to the land of the dead with foliage/trees (Gilgamesh has to cut hundreds ferry poles while Aeneas has to present a golden bow of a magic tree.) Both heroes cannot pass into the land of the dead (Elysian Fields or further into the Netherworld.) Both heroes are motivated to journey to the Netherworld to both see their lost loved ones (the companion/Aeneas’ father) and ascertain their own fate (Aeneas must found Rome, Gilgamesh must die because he will never attain the immortality he seeks.)

Also, thematically there are similarities; priestesses have prominent roles as guides in both epics (the Sybil, and a temple prostitute that “civilizes” Enkidu) and there is constant intervention/sacrifice to the gods along the way. Both heroes travel by sea or river and both have a love interest that ends badly (Dido’s death or an enraged goddesses wrath.) Fate plays a major role in both epics; Gilgamesh faces mortality and Aeneas must found Rome. Fighting in both epics is seen as, in some places, futile and a distinct part of the human condition however both heroes are ironically champion fighters whose tragic flaw is hubris.

1 comment:

ParkerC said...

I found this interesting, so I did some research. And one source said that the Greek scholar Ioannis Kakridis said there was a lot of parallels between Gilgamesh and The Odyssey. It might be that Virgil was influenced by this epic. I don't know how popular Gilgamesh during Virgil's time but he may have borrowed from it.