This is a sample essay that discusses the ways in which mythology and the afterlife are explored in the Epic of Gilgamesh, a legendary story of an ancient Sumerian king. Exploring the human nature of mythology and the subsequent morality that results offers the individual a unique sense of appreciation for the morality of the ancient world, and the ways in which myth can reflect those lessons.
Mortality within Gilgamesh
The concept of death is something that is fundamentally frightening to humans. Throughout human history, many attempts have been made to understand death through the use of artistic mediums, philosophy, and various other schools of thought. The concept of the afterlife is inherently fascinating; all human cultures have developed some since of understanding of what happens to a person when they inevitably die.
Death has always frightened humanity, for obvious reasons. The end of mortal existence, the only one we can be remotely confident exists, is a mountainous event that many prefer to pretend does not exist until they are climbing the foothills. Religion and mythology, sometimes not so far removed from each other, have always made attempts to explain what happens outside of death and so make it less of an unknown.
Though still fearful, the afterlife has been made a familiar concept and, in some cases, isn’t all that different from actual life. It is also a repository of all the things humanity fears on some level, since it is such a convenient umbrella for that subject already. One of those fears appears to be knowledge of deep truth. In many myths where heroes travel to the underworld, they encounter familiar faces with very different perspectives on life and, whatever, the reason, the harrows of facing bleak revelations leave those heroes forever changed.
What is remarkable is that even after thousands of years, these mythical figures are not so different from modern people and many of their traits and experiences, including the changes they experience when confronted with the grim truth of reality, make them entirely accessible even after millennia have passed.
Mortality in ancient mythology
Babylonian mythology is some of the oldest in the world and it contains some of the most fundamental themes in literature. As a standard by which to measure beliefs and values of this ancient era, ancient myths like those of Babylon offer valuable insight into where humanity has come from and how we have changed, or how we haven’t. Though The Epic of Gilgamesh is by far the best known example of Babylonian literature, at least the closest approximation available, there are other myths from this time and place that provide similar insights into this most ancient of cultures.
The myths regarding the goddess Inanna offer a feminine hero, very much unlike Gilgamesh, who in turn demonstrates the kinds of power associated with women in that age. Very different from the strengths of Gilgamesh, the strengths of Inanna are familiar to readers of the modern world as being feminine qualities, much as the strengths of Gilgamesh are familiar as masculine qualities.
During the goddess Inanna’s journey into the underworld she undergoes the now-familiar transition from arrogant hero of the world to humble pilgrim of the underworld. In preparing for her journey, Inanna girds herself with decoration. While this might seem an obvious opportunity to make a gender joke, it is in fact no different from the arming and armoring of any hero before a quest. The distinction is that she chooses artifacts of her sphere, sensuality and seduction, rather than tools of war (Wolkstein 53).
At the outset she marks herself as a classic literary hero, but one that is unabashedly feminine. It could be perceived that this is an indicator that women were not considered able to be conventional warriors, but Inanna’s beloved servant Ninshubur is identified as a warrior and both of them engage in battle (Wolkstein 53). It is reasonable to interpret Inanna’s choice of jewelry over armor as an indicator of her office and her confidence in her own power rather than a mark of gender.
Inanna’s arrival and sense of power
Though Inanna entered the underworld proudly, she quickly came to realize that her power meant nothing there. Her first act in the underworld was to demand entry to someone else’s kingdom based on her position in her own (Wolkstein 55). Her arrogance is rewarded with exactly what she asks for which, if literature has taught mankind anything, it’s that getting what you wish for is often the last thing you want. Neti and Ereshkigal, the powers of the underworld, regard Inanna with reserve and seeming respect, but prove to her that power should never be assumed.
Stripped naked on her journey to Ereshkigal’s throne room, Inanna finds herself judged and punished, effectively damned for her deeds and her pride (Wolkstein 60). For the first time, Inanna is helpless and utterly dependent on outside aid. Upon escaping from the underworld, thanks to Ninshubur’s entreaties to the father gods for help, Inanna’s behavior reflects appreciation and loyalty to her follower, rather than arrogance (Wolkstein 69).
When asked to trade Ninshubur’s life for her own, Inanna shows humility and reverence for another, traits that did not appear in any significant away before her brush with death and with powers greater than herself. Though Inanna was one of the first to face the grim implications of the afterlife, she was by no means the last. Travel to the afterlife was a popular theme in Greek mythology as well.
Mortality in Homer’s “The Odyssey”
The travels of Odysseus in Homer’s The Odyssey are some of the best known in all of literature and his visit to the underworld provided valuable closure to Homer’s previous work, The Iliad. In telling his tale of meeting the dead, Odysseus reveals one of the most basic lessons taught by death, that actions have consequences. The first and simplest example of this axiom was the appearance of Elpenor, one of Odysseus’ crew members.
The man passed out drunk on a roof and fell off, breaking his neck (Fagles 88). Not unlike the experiences of Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol, this relatively mundane, fairly non-heroic first encounter is a profound example of the lesson that is to be demonstrated in variety of ways as Odysseus meets the spirits to come. On the tail of this familiar and lowly spirit came the spirit of the prophet Tiresias, one of the few men in Greek mythology equipped with the foresight to predict consequences.
While warning Odysseus about his future, Tiresias also explains that all the challenges of Odysseus’ journey have come about because he insulted Poseidon and he must bear up the weight of that consequence if he was ever to escape it (Fagles 89). That revelation alone might not have been enough to put the prideful Odysseus on the path to recovery, but the significant of consequences is not to be neglected during his meetings with the dead.
Confronting death and mortality
By encountering spirits from all walks of life, many with respected names, Odysseus comes to see the ultimate consequences for actions that, at the time, seemed heroic. He is forced to confront the fact of death in his mother’s lack of physical body. Though he can converse with her and feel close to her spirit, he can never again touch her. More than the mere fact of her death is that she tells him it is because he went missing that she died (Fagles 90).
This clear metaphor for all of mortality is made real to Odysseus because it is his mother, one of the few people that he seems to genuinely care about being parted from. He feels guilty for her death because she directly attributes it to him, but that is not so different from the guilt anyone feels when someone close passes.
The most famous of all Odysseus’ meetings in Hades is with Achilles. One of the heroes of The Iliad, Odysseus is not prepared for effect that death has had on the proud warrior. Achilles has no love left for himself and wishes only to hear news of those he left behind. It is both implied and explicitly clear that Achilles would at this point trade all his glory for one more day of life. The only joy Achilles has is in hearing that his son had grown up well and was alive and happy (Fagles 95).
Among the many other great men Odysseus meets, this is perhaps the most significant because Achilles was explicitly given the option to have either glory or a long life and he clearly regrets the decision that he made. Through these encounters and the others like it, Odysseus learns that life is a thing to be valued and approached with reverence and that death is nothing to aspire to.
Joy in Hades
For Aeneas, however, the knowledge gained in the underworld is sobering, but not quite so grim. Though there are many unpleasant sights and familiar faces, the important part of Aeneas’ journey through the underworld is its culmination when he meets his father, Anchises. Unlike other afterlife encounters, both in The Aeneid and in other myths, Aeneas’ reunion with his dead father is a joyous one (Fitzgerald 143). While this very different encounter might be interpreted as a different kind of message than has been sent previously, Anchises is also somewhat of an anomaly because he speaks freely of the future while other spirits were largely obsessed with their own pasts.
Anchises gives Aeneas a gift of foresight, prophesying the future greatness of Rome that would come about as a result of Aeneas’ bloodline (Fitzgerald 145-148). This hint at greatness gives Aeneas an sense of importance in his own life. Though spirits were a simple and mysterious means of conveying prophecy, it can also be interpreted that the role of the dead is to make the living make the most of life while it lasts. This is certainly a concept Anchises imparts to his son.
The journeys of heroes often brought them into direct contact with the afterlife in all eras and regions of mythology. While the details of the hero and the exact version of the underworld were fluid, the message remained the same. Life is short and precious. The dead were renowned for possessing secret knowledge of the past, present, and future, but in gaining that knowledge, heroes of all kinds also had to confront the grim fact of mortality. In this way, mythology from throughout all of history explains that growing in knowledge and responsibility must also mean growing in maturity and understanding about the fundamental reality of life; it ends.
Fagles, Robert. The Odyssey. New York: Viking, 1996. Print.
Fitzgerald, Robert. The Aeneid. New York: Random House, 1983. Print.
Wolkstein, Diane, and Samuel Noah Kramer. Inanna, queen of heaven and earth: her stories and hymns from Sumer. New York: Harper & Row, 1983. Print.