Iliad and Epic of Gilgamesh Comparison Essay Example: Role of Gods

  • Category: Literature, Mythology,
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  • Published: 07 November 2020
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In both the Epic of Gilgamesh and Iliad, the role of the gods is very important in the development of the main character’s story. The three main roles that are evident in both literary works are the helpful gods, the malicious gods, and the neutral gods. In Iliad, the helpful gods are those that assisted the hero, Achilles, in his victories during the battle that was the Trojan war while the gods that aided Gilgamesh in his journey acted as his helpful gods in Epic of Gilgamesh. The malicious gods are the gods that had obvious malevolent intentions that acted as the hero’s obstacle or led to the hero’s second self’s demise.

In Iliad, the malevolent god made it difficult for Achilles to be victorious at war and provided many obstacles against the gods that were helping him. In Epic of Gilgamesh, the gods that had spiteful intentions in their actions that affected Gilgamesh are deemed malevolent. The neutral gods did not show a bias of friend or foe during the story, yet still proved useful in the overall plot of the story. The embodiment of these gods in both works are very similar as they are consistently involved in the hero’s story, but they don’t cause major harm or benefit for the main character over the course of the book. Although the gods may have had different contributions in the stories of Gilgamesh from Epic of Gilgamesh and Achilles from Iliad, their actions were still crucial and changed the fate of the hero throughout the tale.

Helpful Gods 

The helpful gods in the Epic of Gilgamesh and Iliad proved to play positive and supportive roles in both heroes’ stories. In the Iliad, the main supporting goddess was Athena, the goddess of battle strategy and wisdom, helping Achilles multiple times in the face of war against his many foes during the trojan war. In the midst of war, the book says “So spake Athene, and he obeyed and was glad at heart, and stood leaning upon his bronze-barbed spear of ash. But she left him, and came to goodly Hector in the likeness of Deiphobus both in form and untiring voice;” this quote shows details of Athena tricking Hector into fighting against Achilles. Athena, disguised as Hector’s brother Deiphobus, told Hector that she would assist him in fighting against Achilles only to disappear in his last moments both his death. Her form of trickery helped Achilles get revenge on Hector for murdering his best friend Patroclus earlier in the story.

In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the helpful god is personified in the form of Utnapishtim, the survivor of the great flood that was granted immortality from the gods. After the death of Enkidu, Gilgamesh decides to travel to the ends of the earth seeking knowledge on how to gain immortality from Utnapishtim. Although Gilgamesh fails in his first attempt to retrieve the gift of immortality, Utnapishtim agrees to give him a gift for his attempt and long journey. He says "Gilgamesh, you came here exhausted and worn out. What can I give you so you can return to your land? I will disclose to you a thing that is hidden, Gilgamesh...There is a plant... like a boxthorn, whose thorns will prick your hand like a rose. If your hands reach that plant you will become a young man again." Utnapishtim is speaking of a plant that will not grant immortality but will allow him to regain his youth at will. Gilgamesh eventually ends up losing this plant after he retrieved him and must accept that his death is inevitable. With the assistance of the benevolent gods, the heroes were able to overcome the negative consequences of the malevolent gods’ actions in their stories.

Malevolent Gods

For both Epic of Gilgamesh’s Gilgamesh and Iliad’s Achilles the malevolent gods were the biggest obstacle they had to face and made a detrimental impact on the development of the story. In Epic of Gilgamesh, the god's ill intentions is Ishtar, the goddess that was scorned by Gilgamesh’s rejection to her advances. Ishtar, filled with fury, approaches her father Anu and says “My father, give me the Bull of Heaven to destroy Gilgamesh. Fill Gilgamesh, I say, with arrogance to his destruction; but if you refuse to give me the Bull of Heaven I will break in the doors of hell and smash the bolts; there will be confusion of people, those above with those from the lower depths. I shall bring up the dead to eat food like the living; and the hosts of dead will outnumber the living.”

She is threatening her father to send the Bull of Heaven to earth in hopes that it will kill Gilgamesh for offending her. The exact opposite happens when Gilgamesh and Enkidu together kill the Bull of Heaven triggering the rage of the gods. As punishment for killing the Bull of Heaven, the gods have decided to kill Enkidu which sends Gilgamesh into a depressed journey across the world in search for his own immortality. In Iliad, the malevolent god is Apollo as his ill intentions causes a plethora of problems for both the heroine and helpful gods. Apollo was the first of the gods to physically enter the Trojan War and sided with the Trojans which is who Achilles was fighting against.

His greatest offense was when he attacked Patroclus; “And from his head Phoebus Apollo smote the helmet, that rang as it rolled beneath the feet of the horses—the crested helm; and the plumes were befouled with blood and dust.” In the war, Apollo was responsible for leaving Achilles’ best friend Patroclus vulnerable to death in the middle of the battlefield by removing both his breastplate and helmet. The death of Patroclus triggered the irrepressible wrath of Achilles who later returned to battle to fight and avenge the killing of his best friend. Although the actions made by the malevolent gods served as obstacles that brought negative consequences to the heroes of the story, the roles they played led to the necessary evolution for the advancement of the story.

Neutral Gods

Although not playing a crippling or uplifting role in the plot in the stories of each hero, the neutral gods in Epic of Gilgamesh and Iliad were important in the advancement of the storylines. In Iliad, the neutral god is Hera, the mother to all the gods participating in the Trojan war. Although it may seem that she should favor the Greeks, Hera remained unbiased in her actions towards the war and discouraged her husband, father of gods, Zeus from interfering in the war. When Zeus was contemplating interference involving the killing of his son, Hera said to him “Do as you please, Zeus . . . but none of the deathless gods will ever praise you…if you send Sarpedon home, living still, beware!

Then surely some other god will want to sweep his own son clear of the heavy fighting too.” Hera is discouraging him from saving Sarpedon as it will not only encourage more involvement from the other gods but it will change the fate of not only Sarpedon, but the entirety of war and the human lives thereafter. Zeus heeds Hera’s advice and does not change the fate of Sarpedon. Instead he sends Apollo, Hypnos, and Thanatos to collect his body and carry him back to Lycia for a proper burial. In Epic of Gilgamesh, Siduri is the neutral god that provides guidance and shelter to Gilgamesh as he embarks on his journey.

When Gilgamesh goes to continue his quest for immortality, Siduri says to him “Gilgamesh, where are you hurrying to? You will never find that life for which you are looking. When the gods created man they allotted to him death, but life they retained in their own keeping. As for you, Gilgamesh, fill your belly with good things; day and night, night and day, dance and be merry, feast and rejoice. Let your clothes be fresh, bathe yourself in water, cherish the little child that holds your hand, and make your wife happy in your embrace; for this too is the lot of man.”

Siduri is trying to get Gilgamesh to realize that he is not meant to live forever and should enjoy life instead of travelling across the world in search of Utnapishtim. Although Gilgamesh does not listen to this advice, he eventually understands that Siduri was right and his immortality is sealed in the walls of Uruk that he has built himself. The neutral gods served as a source of wisdom and guidance for the advancement of the heroes’ stories. Without them, outcomes of the ending plot may have been drastically different, and the fate of the heroes would have changed.

Conclusion

The different roles of the gods were very important to the heroes’ progressive to the story and may indicate which characteristics were viewed in favorable and unfavorable lights by the characterization that the authors of each story provided. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, each of the gods’ characteristics were befitting of the roles they played in the story. Utanapishtim was the brave survivor of the great flood and was able to give Gilgamesh knowledge on how to live forever. Ishtar, the malevolent goddess, was characterized as a promiscuous goddess that was enamored with Gilgamesh after he killed Humbaba.

The neutral god in Epic of Gilgamesh was Siduri, the kind alewife that allows Gilgamesh to sleep in her tavern as he travels across the world for immortality. In Iliad, the characterization of the well-known gods and goddesses allowed for a clear and suitable role in Achilles’ journey. The helpful god was Athena, the goddess of battle strategy and knowledge that helped Achilles with many of the obstacles he encountered during war. The malevolent god was Apollo, the god of disease and healing, as he sent the plague to the Trojans in the beginning of the story. The neutral god was Hera, the mother of all the gods involved and fighting in the war. She was often discouraging the engagement of war from her husband, who favored the Trojans in war. The characterization of the gods in the story made it which role they would play in the story as it hinted at the potential reasonings behind their actions and their importance in the heroes’ story.