The issues of death and afterlife of the dead have been the most fictional ever known topic for discussion in almost every community of human race. Countless number of literary works has been made by numerous authors to explore the fact behind the perceptions people possess about the aforesaid aspects; however, the truth still remains undiscovered for lack of a convincing conclusion. The subject of death and underworld life has always inspired authors across generations to make creative writings meant for the enthusiasm of readers of all age. The Odyssey and Gilgamesh are known for their balanced levels of fictional themes consisting of spiritual and conceptual approach to life and death. This paper is meant to critically evaluate the changes in human attitudes towards the matter of death as a relationship with changing times of literature.
Death as in the Epics
‘Gilgamesh’ is an outstanding example of psychological transformations of mankind influenced by the intervention of factors of life which are incomprehensible to senses. In the Babylonian perspective, Gilgamesh was equal to gods in abilities and appearance. The plot of the epic describes that his godly glory turns devilish with abundance of wealth and might. He becomes cruelty personified and stands as a nightmare for both men and women of Uruk, his kingdom – men for the worry that they are used as forced labor while women with the fear of his sexual assaults. A king as strong as the stars in the heaven, Gilgamesh turns his enemy sent by the gods his best friend and continues to venture fierce destructions to the heaven itself. All through the course of Gilgamesh’s affinity with Enkidu, he never cares for death; rather, he never wants to know that death is a fact of life and humans are mortal.
The focal difference in the conceptual matter of the same subject of death and afterlife is common in the literary world because of regional, linguistic and cultural differences that appear to influence each author. In the Greek epics, there is enormous amount of emotional factors like valor, aggression, sorrow, grief and revenge around the element of deaths. In the Odyssey, the deaths were compensated with equal amount of justified revenge in them. For instance, Telemachus tells Nestor, “Oh Nestor, son of Neleus, Achaea’s pride and glory, what a stroke of revenge that was!(p.39)” All the mythical works generally possess a tendency to glorify the aspect of death to convey the fundamental truth that man is mortal and eternal life is not possible for anyone in spite of the supreme excellence human can achieve.
The concept of death though undefined, its influential hold in the minds of individuals and the optimism for prospective afterlife continues to exist through the various mythical works in different communities across the world. The great epics and other numerous fictional literatures over the world have discussed the concept of death and underworld in different perspectives. Many of the changes in the human attitude towards the expectations and beliefs about the underworld life, and that of the very aspect of death are caused by the variations in the viewpoints of authors of different ages.
The plot of the Babylonian epic highlights the emotional factor with the death of Enkidu, by portraying it as a heavenly punishment for his participation in killing Humbabu. The departure of Enkidu shatters Gilgamesh. According to Mitchell, Gilgamesh is so immersed in disbelief about the death of his friend as it is stated by Mitchell (2014), “He is so overwhelmed by the sight of Enkidu’s lifeless body that, a dozen lines after lamenting that his friend is dead, he can no longer even find a name for dead.” (p. na). This reference is a reflection of a bewildered mind after being forced to conceive the emphatic truth of death that can engross might of any height.
The aspect of death comes as a turning point in the transformation of the strongest men by the end of Enkudu. The Babylonian belief about the death is related in the plot as the author wants to point out that the cosmic law avenges death with death. In the era of Babylonian literature, the element of spiritual concepts and the value of afterlife were not influential in the beliefs of people. Hence death was not subject to argument of claims for the deceased’s position in the underworld. The epic positions death as a conceptual bifurcation for a tyrant’s life; it is easily noticed when Gilgamesh gets engrossed by the fear of his own death. The defunct king then goes around everywhere in search of a remedy to insulate himself from death. The real point of death as an inevitable part of human life is exemplified when the plot brings in Utnapishtam with his typical remedies to save Gilgamesh from death by advocating conditional tests. As it is referred, “If Gilgamesh can overcome sleep for seven days – sleep being the likeness of death – perhaps he will be able to overcome death too” (Mitchall, 2014). The moment when Gilgamesh fails, his death becomes definite.
In ‘the Odyssey”, the heroes are projected as martyrs of prestige and the spirit of war. The Greek literature ahs abundant points for heroes and warriors in the numerous war-based stories it had made in the ancient times. Homer’s Odyssey sparks great concern for the death of many heroes; however, the most touching of all of them is that of Achille’s. The death of the mightiest warrior, the son of Thetis himself, indicates that the concept of death is perceived as a matter of definite mortality fixed upon man on his creation by the gods. Achilles was surely the most invincible warrior for the Greek; therefore, from the Greek viewpoint, his fall has to be seen as a counter-strike set by the gods who avenged the death of Hector. The concept of death stands like a rhetorical question for introspection for the one who remained alive as it is seen when a victorious Odysseus reaches back home, there was hostility and humiliation awaiting him. Death is viewed in the similar angle in both epics for the mortality factor is inevitable for even the kings and the heroes. The mythical reasons for the deaths are the only differences in comparison with each other as both of them try to tell the fact that death is as true as life for anyone.
The differences in approach to death inflicted by the literatures of two different eras obviously indicate that the Babylonian era made heroes to die for inducing a transformation of spiritual aspects of the dependent characters. Moreover, it emphasizes the spiritual emptiness caused by death in the mind of even the mightiest people due to the instantaneous realization that losses can impose on them. It exactly happens to Gilgamesh in the instance of his departure for searching the methods to gain eternity. On the other hand, in the Greek and Roman literature era, the heroes were given martyrdom for the sake of regional and ethnical pride. However, from the perspectives of a reader in the Greek era, death involved no fear, but only glory in challenging the threats of gods. As the text says, “the minds of the everlasting gods don’t change so quickly.” (Homer & Fagles, n.d., p.37). Throughout the journey Odysseus makes to reach home after the exile, he travels through the world of the dead and meets several of his friends who had died in the Trojan War. The most important of part of this saga is the moment he meets Achilles. In the underworld, as Odysseus tells Achilles about the glory of their victory, Achilles refuses to hear it and tells life is more precious to him than war and victory. The afterlife of the heroes in the Odyssey is shown as a lesson the protagonist learns from the never-ending laments of the dead for the love for life which makes the killings meaningless.
The concept of death is a substantial subject for investigation in the spiritual viewpoint of life. Literatures of different eons have varying attributions to death and afterlife. In the Babylonian epic, Gilgamesh eventually runs for a fruitless search for eternity and learns that life is subject to the destined end as none can escape death. In the Greek era, the concept of afterlife evolves and the Odyssey is told as a regretful journey of the protagonist through the underworld in which he learns the meaningless of battles as eternity cannot be achieved by killing enemies. Overall, it is seen that the epics have almost the same perspective about death apart from the influence they conceded from the difference in their literary epoch.
Mitchell, S. (2014). Gilgamesh. US: Profile Books.
Homer & Fagler, R. (n.d.). The Odyssey. Retrieved from http://www.ahshistory.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/Homer-Odyssey.pdf