Gilgamesh to Odysseus Near Eastern Motifs in Greek Mythology Essay

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Greek Mythology

When the clay tablets that comprise the Akkadian / Old Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh were first pieced together and translated by scholars in the nineteenth century, some aspects of the ancient text seemed remarkably familiar. There was, for example, the account of a great flood, with only a pair of survivors, Utnapishtim and his wife: "How is it that one man has saved himself? / No breath of life was meant to be kept safe / from its obliteration in the flood."[footnoteRef:0] The first translators of Gilgamesh were familiar with at least two versions of this story. The first, which arguably everyone knows (and which in 2014 is about to receive a big-budget Hollywood treatment) is the Old Testament story of Noah's Ark -- and the narrative parallels between Utnapishtim and Noah are numerous. But the other ancient myth is a Greek one, the story of Deucalion and Pyrrha, who are similarly warned by a god (in their case Zeus) to avoid a flood. Before the discovery of Gilgamesh, western scholars were free to imagine whether the Greek and Hebrew myths bore any relation -- in general this line of approach was usually pursued by Christian scholars, who believed that the Bible was true, and thus assumed Noah's flood recorded a historical event, which was dimly reflected in the Greek myth of Deucalion. But the recovery and rediscovery of ancient Near Eastern texts changed this approach. If Greek myth was previously considered a pale pagan reflection of Biblical truth, now additional documentary evidence that was contemporaneous with or predated the Old Testament could be adduced, raising the question of whether Greek myth might have been influenced by (non-Hebrew) Near Eastern source material. A survey of the available evidence demonstrates that this is most likely the case, although the interesting question is how precisely this influence was transmitted. [0: David Ferry (trans.) Gilgamesh. (New York: Farrar Straus, 1992.) p74.]

A survey of mythic parallels between Greek and Near Eastern sources could fill an entire book: some are obvious, some are merely suggestive. It is worth noting, however, that most studies have focused on the earliest extant Greek poetry -- the Iliad and Odyssey of Homer, along with the so-called "Homeric Hymns," and the mythographical verse writings (including the Theogony, a genealogy of the Greek gods) of Hesiod. Book Eleven of Homer's Odyssey, for example, contains the much-imitated account of the descent of Odysseus into the Underworld, following the instructions of Circe:

Then came also the ghost of Theban Teiresias, with his golden sceptre in his hand. He knew me and said, "Ulysses, noble son of Laertes, why, poor man, have you left the light of day and come down to visit the dead in this sad place? Stand back from the trench and withdraw your sword that I may drink of the blood and answer your questions truly."[footnoteRef:1] [1: Homer, The Odyssey, Book 11. (Trans. Samuel Butler.) Massaschussetts Institute of Technology, Internet Classics Archive.]

However one element of the Gilgamesh narrative -- one that sits somewhat strangely in context, because it is unclear as to how it relates to the chronology of Gilgamesh's encounter with Enkidu and Enkidu's eventual death -- also involves a voyage to the Underworld: "He seized an arm and led me to the dwelling of Irkalla, the House of Darkness, the House of No Return."[footnoteRef:2] In Gilgamesh it is presented as Enkidu's dream-vision, but this is not far off from the magical ritual presented in Homer's Odyssey: in point of fact, the similarity of both narratives to the standard account of shamanistic experience (that has been described by Mircea Eliade among others) suggests that in both cases what we may be dealing with is a pretty standard written example of a primitive religious experience. It is not necessary that the author of the Odyssey would have read the clay tablets of Gilgamesh, or anything as direct as that. Indeed, after the study of the Homeric poems was revolutionized by the work of Milman Parry in the earlier twentieth century -- who recognized that the Homeric use of epithets and tag-phrases to pad out the dactylic hexameter was a sign of oral composition, and could be recognized as a compositional technique of oral poetry from other cultures still being performed in the twentieth century (like the Serbian guslars) -- it becomes an open question as to whether "Homer" was indeed even Homer, or was literate. As a result, the transmission of motifs from the ancient Near East to Greek mythographic sources was most likely folkloric. Robert Mondi summarizes the state of scholarly investigation in 1990 thus [2: Ferry, p.42.]

…no convincing case has yet been made that any work of early Greek literature is in whole or part a translation, or even an adaptation of a particular Near Eastern text. There are, it is true, occasional literary parallels between Greek and Oriental texts close enough to be suggestive. Achilles and Gilgamesh, for instance, while mourning over their slain companions are at that moment both compared to a lion grieving over lost cubs; were this mere coincidence it would be a remarkable one at the very least. But such a close and specific parallelism is not common and seldom extends over a substantial narrative sequence. In light of the oral transmission of early Greek poetry, we can assume that any impact of Oriental literature on Greek literary activity during this period took the form of a gradual and ongoing absorption of Eastern literary themes and motifs into the poets' repertoire of compositional elements, where, adapted over time to their new environment, they became ultimately an ingrained and inseparable part of the poetic tradition.[footnoteRef:3] [3: Robert Mondi, "Greek Mythic Thought in the Light of the Near East." In Lowell Edmunds (ed.) Approaches to Greek Myth. (Baltimore: JHU Press, 1990.) p.150.]

The ensuing quarter century has not disrupted this scholarly consensus nor revealed any sort of textual smoking-gun, in which a several-thousand-year-old papyrus is discovered with the name "Gilgamesh" scratched out and "Achilles" written over it. Instead the proof of influence has to be accomplished indirectly, as there would be no direct textual borrowings. Scholars must instead posit the modes of transmission in an oral culture (something that is easy enough to understand when we consider the circulation of folklore even in 2014) while considering the possibility for cross-cultural borrowing. The difficulty is that there can be no solid and indisputable proof, just (as Mondi indicates) "suggestive" evidence. But it therefore becomes a matter of some contention as to which ancient Near Eastern parallels are broadly accepted, and which are generally rejected as scholarly overreach. One fascinating example, which dates from the virtual infancy of such mythography and analysis, actually pre-dates Milman Parry and comes from the 1920s -- this is Victor Berard's study of the Odyssey, in which he proposes that the poem incorporates Near Eastern (specifically Phoenician) knowledge of ocean-going routes, and provides a fairly accurate map of the Mediterranean. Very few (with the exception of James Joyce) have accepted Berard's thesis, but of course it hinges on the oral transmission of actual knowledge rather than folklore.

We are on more solid ground when it comes to the transmission of more specifically mythographical content. Although the Homeric poems do qualify to a certain degree as mythography -- they involve the doings of heroes and gods -- they are not intended as religious, rather than narrative, texts. This is one departure from what we get in Gilgamesh, where William W. Hallo (an emeritus Yale professor generally considered the dean of American Assyriologists) has claimed that "the epic is also noteworthy for its proverbial inserts" (Hallo 617). In other words, Gilgamesh goes beyond the Homeric poems, with their emphasis on heroic narrative, and steps into the familiar Biblical genre of "wisdom literature," in which generalizations are offered to the reader or listener as a means of guiding interpretation or underscoring the moral of the story. We can turn, however, to more obviously religiously-minded Greek texts to see a fuller panoply of parallels with ancient Near Eastern material -- the crucial figure in this wise is Hesiod, roughly contemporaneous with the Homeric poems, and the author of the Theogony, a mythographical poem which attempts to give a history and genealogy of the gods. Here Charles Penglase has usefully detailed the ways in which the account given of the Greek goddess Aphrodite -- in Hesiod but also in the Homeric Hymns to Aphrodite -- finds a remarkable set of parallels in similar Near Eastern literature regarding various goddesses, mostly Ishtar and Astarte. Penglase lays out the case for influence as follows:

1. The most important characteristic of Aphrodite as the goddess of love, especially of sexual desire and its physical expression, is exactly parallel with the character of Ishtar/Astarte as goddess of love.

2. More strikingly, like Ishtar and Astarte, Aphrodite is androgynous.

3. Aphrodite is called Ourania, as Astarte is the Queen of Heaven, and as Ishtar is in…[continue]

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