The Role and Portrayal of Women, Human and Divine, in the Epics “Gilgamesh” and the “The Odyssey”

There is a famous anecdote that is much used in the issue of gender relations. The starts with a teacher writing a simple line on the blackboard that says “woman without her man is nothing.” The teacher then asked the students to put punctuations marks within that line. A male student were first to go to the blackboard and put punctuations and his answer was “woman, without her man, is nothing.” Then after that, a female student, with a slight grin on her face, wrote “woman! Without her, man is nothing.” That anecdote was not only witty but it is also very profound as it talks about the ever vague issue of gender relations, especially the sub-issue of the role of women in the society.It appears that women are always on the losing side on the struggle between genders. The roles and the value of women in the society has been an issue since the early years of the first societies of the early humankind. As a source of evidence for this claim, we can review ancient world literature to have an idea of how the society of ancient times approach and view the issue of the role of women in the society. The reason for that is to help us trace if there are changes regarding the issue. For that matter, literatures that we are to employ should be belonging to the most popular and most widely-read.During the early times of one of the most developed among early civilizations, TheGreeks, Homer had written the epic poem entitled “The Odyssey.” Another of the earliest known works of literary fiction from, this time from Ancient Mesopotamia, is the “Epic of Gilgamesh.” These two epics are among the earliest known works of literary fiction in human history. These two epics are in many ways unique. That is because women were highly incorporated within the narrative of these epics. What made that inclusion of women within the narratives is that women were in many ways disregarded during the early times. Other early epics would even be devoid of women characters in the story.We will start unearthing the roles of women one epic at a time. Divine beings such as goddesses and other mystical beings are no exception. This essay would include all women within the two epics, may they be human or divine beings, or even if they are some hybrid between the former and the latter, and how did these women become a representation of the views of early civilizations regarding the issue of the place of women in the society.To start off, we will first dissect the epic poem of Homer “The Odyssey” and see how the epic provides a view towards women.  There are probably more than ten women characters in the whole the epic poem. Among the most notable ones are Athena, Calypso, Circe, and the nymphs can be categorized as the divine/mystical; Eurycleia, Helen, Nausicaa, Arete, and Penelope can be categorized as humans. Except for the antagonists, practically all the women characters were given positive characteristics that are well associated to womanhood. Penelope as woman is characterized as very loving and loyal wife to his husband. In the course of the story, Odysseus was lost and unable to go back home to his wife Penelope. Penelope had shown tremendous strength of faith by believing that his husband will still return home in one piece. Through his love for his husband, she had shown great loyalty by not giving to her many opportunistic suitors even if her father and brothers were telling him to marry Eurymachus, the riches and most influential of all her suitors “…now her father and brothers are urging Penelope to marry, Eurymachus, who excels all his suitors at giving gifts and drives the bride-price higher…” (Fagles, 1996, 320) Another important role of Penelope is that because Odysseus badly misses her so much, she becomes the driving force that fuels the hero to overcome tons of hardships to continue his quest for home.The character of the goddess Athena also plays an important role in the story of Odysseus. She is the representation of the strength of a woman in all aspects. Unlike Penelope whose only source of strength is her love for his husband—still she is endowed with stereotyped flaws of women like defenselessness. Athena is characterized as having strength in both aspects if the physical and in character. Needless to say, she has physical strength because of her being a daughter of Zeus, she is after all a goddess endowed with superhuman physical strength and wisdom. But she had shown tremendous strength in character by having empathy for Odysseus, helping the hero through the injustices inflicted by the gods. Athena had helped the hero when his ship was capsized (Fagles, 1996, 152-157) and during a battle which Odysseus opponent was superior in strength (Fagles, 1996, 439-454) The character of Athena could suggest a representation that women are capable of doing anything.The other women in the story, though playing only supporting roles, were also good reference for the issue of the roles of women. The mystical/divine beings like Calypso, Circe, and the nymphs show that women has this natural ability to control men by means of womanly attributes like charm that men are. The other human characters like Nausicaa and Helen show that women’s beauty can drive men to insanity, just like how those men aboard the thousand ships had risked their lives in the battlefield. Arete, the queen of the Phaeacians, is an embodiment of an intelligent and influential woman. The strong and manly hero Odysseus had asked for assistance from queen Arete. (Fagles, 1996, 184-187)Moving on to the other epic, the epic of Gilgagmesh, there are probably just below ten women characters in the whole epic. Among those women are Shamat, Utnapisthtim’s Wife, and Ninsun all belonging to the human category; Aruru, Siduri, Tammuz, Ereshkigal, and the Scorpion/man’s wife. As we can observe from the lists, the human women are outnumbered by mystical/divine women.Perhaps one of the most important representations of women is the character of Shamhat. Shamhat is a temple prostitute who was able to tame the wild nature of Enkidu through the use of her sexuality. What makes the character of Shamhat notable is that Enkidu is considered an equal of the hero of the epic Gilgamesh. (Mithchell, 2004) Enkidu’s wild nature was easily tamed by a woman in the charater of Shamhat. Shamhat is also the representation of being civilized as she had taught Enkidu the offers of civilizations.The wife of Utnapishtim’s wife, even though she was not given a name in the story, she had softened her husband to tell the secret of the plant that can make humans immortal. (Mithchell, 2004,) Her character just shows us that innate control of women over men that has been there since the early ages, but is gradually forgotten through time.Ninsun, the mother of Gilgamesh, is considered to be a minor goddess. For that she could be categorized as somewhere as a cross between human and mystical/divine. She is often called as a wild-cow in the story. (Mithchell, 2004, 2-4) Ninsun is an embodiment of a woman’s most sacred role in the society, being a mother. With that role, terms like nurturer of life, counsel, bearer of life, and the likes come along.Tammuz can also be considered a cross between the human and the divine. She was born as human, later on became the goddess became the goddess of vegetation and fertility. Vegetation and fertility could be well attributed as a woman’s characteristics. In the early times, men would gather food through hunting methods, women on the other hand would be busy growing crops. (Jayal, 1996) Fertility is well attributed to woman as they are carry a child in their wombs for nine months—physical changes would take place when pregnant, that’s is why we could associate women with the concept of fertility.Siduri, is a tavern keeper at the edge of the world, is actually a goddess. She had felt empathy for Odysseus so she helps him on his quest. But she had told the hero a thing about immortality. She said that he can’t have it because it is only for the gods. (Mithchell, 2004, 58-59)Aruru and Ereshkigal are two powerful divine beings that are also women in the story. Aruru is the goddess that had created Gilgamesh and Enkidu from clay, she is the goddess of creation. Ereshkigal on the other hand is the terrifying queen of the underworld. These two women is a representation of the ability of women to create/harbor life and the ability to also destroy it.There are lots of key differences and similarities in the roles and portrayal of women in both stories. In “The Odyssey,” women were generally described to have positive traits and are well treated by men. It is the opposite in the case of “Gilgamesh” as women were seemingly abusing the use of their sexuality to gain control over men. But still women were treated as mere sex objects just like in the case of the harlot Shamhat and all the women that were abused sexually by the hero Gilgamesh. Again that opposes the treatment of women in “The Odyssey” wherein women, like Penelope, were treated with respect and with love. Athena and the other goddesses were also revered much. The two epics suggest two approaches to the issue of the place of women in the society. “Gilgamesh” suggests that women should use their sexuality and at times generate fear in the hearts of men to render men defenseless. While in “The Odyssey,” women should subvert the stereotypes attributed to them, like frailty and defenselessness, just like Penelope and Athena had displayed a woman’s strength.ReferencesHomer. (1996). The Odyssey (Robert Fagles, Trans.) Detroit: Penguin Classics—. Gilgamesh (Stephen Mitchell Trans.) Arizona: Free PressJayal. S.(1966)The Status of Women in the Epics. Michigan: University of Michigan PressHarris. R. (2000). Gender and Aging in Mesopotamia: The Gilgamesh Epic and Other AncientLiterature. Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press