The Iliad, The Odyssey and the Epic of Gilgamesh are three Greek hero tales that are very popular with readers all over the world. In all the three tales, there is one common theme that stands out and this is the theme of life vs. death or in other words, mortality vs. immortality. In the three tales, the main protagonists are all somehow haunted by this predominant theme. This is indeed a very common phenomenon that occurs in Greek tales where mortality is always a burning question. The mortality human condition is seen as the definition of a true heroic life.
In Homer’s “The Iliad”, the main protagonist is Achilles who is a famous and mythological war hero. In regards to his character, Achilles is described as an extremely furious and angry person. His constant need for glorification speaks volumes about his desire for immortality. At one time, when he is debating with himself on whether he wants to go war, his mother tells him that if he stays home, he will be safe but will not be glorious. However, if he proceeds and goes to war, no matter the outcome, he will be remembered forever and will thus achieve immortality (Bloom 23). In another scene, when his best friend Hektor is killed, he breaks into a sad song that once again brings into light the theme of immortality. He states that, “When he died, the songs did not leave himthe god’s decided to hand over that man, dead as he was to the songs of the goddess”. This actually is a depiction of something that is explored throughout the Iliad, that, just as the death of a hero, his immortality is also absolutely necessarily. The hero or his story rather cannot actually be complete if continues living. In death, the hero achieves the ultimate prize in eternal life in song. Achilles also declares this himself when he states that his heroic death will ultimately transcend the imaginable fleeting beauty of this earthbound human life. He states that “IfI remain to fight around Troy town; I lose all hope of home but gain unfading glory” (Bloom 61).
The Epic of Gilgamesh is actually one of the oldest ever written from Ancient Sumeria The story is about a King of place form a place called Uruk who embarks on a journey looking for immortality. It is through the actions and words of Gilgamesh, the main character, that the theme of mortality vs. immortality clearly is depicted. Gilgamesh was an extremely brutal ruler who terrorized his subjects. Therefore, when they cried to their gods to help them, the gods sent them an equally powerful man named Enkidu who was supposed to keep Gilgamesh in check. The two would later become great friends and when Enkidu died, Gilgamesh was devastated and went to look for immortality. However, he has a very important to lesson to learn, that even though he is king, death is actually a reality just like it is in normal people (Tigay 56).
This is actually very surprising because initially, Gilgamesh himself was not scared of death as shown in his words to Enkidu when they were going to confront a terrible monster. He says that, “All living creatures born of the flesh shall sit at last in the boat of the West, and when it sinks, when the boat of Magilum sinks, they are gone, but we shall go forward on this monster.” This essentially shows his defiance towards death. However, when his friend dies, he is suddenly terrified of death and he embarks on a journey to look for eternal life from Utnapishtim who he asks “How shall I find the life for which I am looking for?” to which Utnapishtim responds, “There is no permanence” (Tigay 78).
The third story also dominantly depicting the theme of mortality vs. immortality is The Odyssey. This theme is constantly explored through the words and actions of the main character named Odysseus. Apart of the theme is also explored through symbolization where it is made clear that the main character Odysseus will ultimately have to die no matter what. The heroine of the book Penelope tells Odysseus that indeed life is short. The goddess of Ogygia known as Calypso, who has held Odysseus captive for seven years tries to seduce Odysseus to stay with her forever by offering him immortality telling him if that if chooses not to accept her offer, he is one day bound to die. However, Odysseus is aware of her true intentions and responds by stating that “Old age and even death are all unknown even to the gods, let alone the mortal humans”. He further adds that just like all other mortal or human beings do, Calypso will also one day die. These words are a clear depiction of Odysseus beliefs towards immortality (Lattimore 59)
As seen above, the theme of life vs. death or in other terms mortality vs. immortality form a very essential component of the three Greek tales. This theme is constantly exhibited through the actions and words of the main protagonists as seen. However, the main thing that emanates from the three tales is that no matter one’s position in the society, death is inevitable.
Bloom, Harold. Homer's the Iliad. New York: Chelsea House, 2005. Print.
Tigay, Jeffrey H. The Evolution of the Gilgamesh Epic. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003. Print.
Lattimore, Richmond. The Odyssey of Homer. New York: Harper & Row, 2000. Print.