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Religion in the Epic of Gilgamesh

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Religion in The Epic of Gilgamesh

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The gods in both the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Iliad play an important role in the story, and though they are gods from two different cultures, they act and seem quite similar. From their attitude towards mortals to how they influence the mortal’s decisions, both cultures gods are a strong comparison. Little details about the specifics of how the gods related to the mortals were different, but most major details lined up. The only major detail that does not seem to line up is how they communicate with the mortals. However, this is a small detail when one looks at how similar the two sets of gods are when they belong to two different cultures that were years apart.

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The Epic of Gilgamesh, being one of the earliest works of literature, was written as early as 2000 BCE and is filled with the ancient Mesopotamian culture. As a result, the gods that are consulted throughout the epic are the ancient Mesopotamian gods that the people worshipped. The Mesopotamian people spent their lives making sacrifices and trying to keep the gods happy so that they would treat them well. An article on semiramis-speaks.com explains the degree to which the people served this belief and the consequences that would follow if they did not appease the gods: “It was their belief that mankind had only been created in order to serve the ruling gods. If the gods were not pleased with their service, humankind would suffer evils such as plagues and earthquakes. If the gods were content, humankind would thrive and be protected” (Clark). Rituals were a very large part of the worship surrounding the Mesopotamian gods. There was also the practice of magic in the Mesopotamian religion. In a lot of ways, the Mesopotamian religion was very similar to that surrounding the worship of the Greek gods.

The concept of the gods in ancient Greece was similar but also held differences. The relationship between mortals and gods was viewed of as more of an equal exchange, rather than the relationship the Mesopotamians believed that was more of slave and master. The Greeks expected the gods to give them gifts and in turn, the Greeks would give offerings to the gods, usually of something like food as a thank you for whatever they believed the gods had blessed them with. Just like the Mesopotamians, it was a polytheistic belief system and “the ancient Greeks worshipped many gods, each with a distinct personality and domain” (Hemingway). The Greek gods were considered to be very involved with the mortals, even more so than the Mesopotamian gods.

Both sets of gods had distinct views on mortals and had philosophies of how they should involve themselves with the people. The Mesopotamians, as mentioned previously, viewed the mortals as more of slaves that lived to feed to their every need. They took on more of a commander or ruler role in the lives of humans and the people were constantly afraid that they would not satisfy the gods’ wants. The Greek gods seemed to like the mortals a lot more then the Mesopotamian gods. They were willing to give the people gifts as long as the people offered thanks in return, and the people were much less afraid that the gods would do something to them. The Greek gods were even thought to have humans that they particularly favored. This is evident in the Iliad when Hector is protected from being dirtied and destroyed when dragged behind the chariot because he was special to Apollo. There were also instances where the gods intervened to prevent one of their favorite humans from being killed. Often in the Iliad, the Greek gods were shown sitting in the throne room on Mount Olympus, watching the actions of the humans and discussing actions that should be taken. The Mesopotamian gods, while still involved in the lives of mortals, tended to keep their distance and not change the course of mortals’ lives like the Greek gods did. This tended to show itself more in how the gods communicated with the mortals.

In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Mesopotamian gods communicated with the people in a more indirect manner, through dreams. Gilgamesh and Enkidu have different dreams throughout the story and they believe that they hold messages from the gods that are meant to help guide their choices. However, because the gods are communicating with them in this manner, it is really left up to Gilgamesh and Enkidu’s judgement to determine what the dreams mean. Because the gods choose to communicate in this manner, they are not necessarily changing the course of the mortals’ lives, but merely trying to influence their decisions. In a way, they are warning the humans of what will take place if they continue on the path that they are on. However, since the Mesopotamian gods communicated indirectly, it was highly possible that Gilgamesh and Enkidu misinterpreted what the gods were trying to tell them, leading to Enkidu’s death. It seems to be a risk that the gods are willing to take because they tend to keep more of a distance between them and the mortals.

The Greek gods communicated much more directly with the people. As stated earlier, they spent a lot of time looking down on the people and trying to decide when to intervene or not. When they did decide to intervene, they would either appear to the people in their human form, because mortals cannot look on their godly form, or they would take the form of someone else in order to speak with them. This is seen in the Iliad when a god takes the form of a person the character is familiar with in order to trick them and lead the character to their death. Achilles’s mother also appears to him several times to offer him guidance and love. The people were supposed to pray to the gods, but if they called out in the name of a specific god, sometimes the god would appear to help them. The Greeks, although believing that the gods communicated with them directly through appearances and such, also believed that the gods gave them signs.

Both the Mesopotamians and the Greeks relied heavily on the guidance from their gods. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, we see the dreams that Gilgamesh believes to be sent from the gods guide his every move. He and Enkidu consult the visions that the gods have given them in order to decide what to do next. In other words, Gilgamesh and Enkidu let the gods make their decisions for them, something that shows heavy reliance on their guidance. The Mesopotamians also let the gods control every aspect of their lives because they lived in fear for what the gods might do should the people do something that they did not like. The Greeks also relied heavily on the gods in their lives. Before battles, they prayed for help from Ares, the god of war, to help them. They actively sought council from the gods through prayers. Achilles even went so far as to ask favors of the gods, which got him new armor made by Hephaestus. The battles that were fought during the Iliad were essentially fought for the gods. The Greek people dedicated everything they did to their gods, relying heavily on their gifts and eagerly giving back in thanks.

When the two different sets of gods from two different cultural pieces of literature are examined, it is evident that they have many similarities, even though they were from cultures years apart from each other. Both apart of polytheistic religions, the gods of the Mesopotamian and the Greek religions choose to interact with the mortals in some way, albeit different, and try to influence mortals’ lives. The people relied heavily on the gods they believed in and they were highly important in the functioning of each culture, meaning they also proved to be highly influential in the writing of both the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Iliad. This leads readers to wonder if the Epic of Gilgamesh could have been an influence for the Iliad and the Greek belief system.

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