Wisdom Destiny In Literary Works Essay, Research Paper
The search for destiny is reflected in the literary works such as “The Epic of Gilgamesh”, Homer’s “The Odyssey”, and Virgil’s “The Aeneid”. The hero of each story travels to the land of the dead in order to satisfy their individual needs. And even though each one has a different motive for the journey, they share two things in common. First, each hero seeks to know something about his future or destiny. And second, their finds are not exactly what they were looking for. The nature of the quests into the underworld by the heroes Gilgamesh, Odysseus, and Aeneas range from immortality, happiness, and the need to know he is doing the right things in life but respectfully discover emptiness, sadness, and judgement.
After his friend Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh realizes that death is also imminent for him since he is part human. Thus, terrified of his future, Gilgamesh journeys into the underworld in search of immortality but instead finds
emptiness. Gilgamesh believes Utnapishtim, who resides in the underworld, holds the secret to avoiding death, since he himself was given immortality by the gods after the “Great Flood”.
However, Gilgamesh finds the underworld to be empty. This emptiness is foreseen in his journey through the league of caves. Shamash flat out tells Gilgamesh that he won’t find what he is looking for. But Gilgamesh is also given more subtle warnings. For instance, Siduri asks Gilgamesh why he is “in search of the wind” (38). Furthermore, the caves have “no light”; foreseeing that Utnapishtim will have no knowledge or secret about immortality (37). And the author repeatedly writes “nothing ahead and nothing behind” (37). This implies that Gilgamesh must learn to seize the day. He will not find life after death. Despite all these warnings Gilgamesh continues with his voyage. This courage to continue helps define Gilgamesh as a hero. After all Gilgamesh is a visionary and must continue his journey heroically (Norman, 213).
Once in the far off underworld, Gilgamesh finds only Utnapishtim and his wife. Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh about the flood and one time gift of immortality. Gilgamesh sleeps for six days and seven nights in Utnapistim’s
residence. It is after this sleep that Gilgamesh sees the relationship between his dreamless sleep and death. He finally comes to realize there is no life after death. There is nothing.
Even though Gilgamesh doesn’t find exactly what he was looking for he does find and come to accept a different kind of immortality. Gilgamesh can’t do anything about death but he can live his life to the fullest and be remembered as a great king. In other words, “Gilgamesh has the continuation of fame as a legendary king”(Thompson). He has the power to go back to his people to be a great role model and share his rebirthing experience. He learns that without death life is meaningless.
On the other hand, the hero Odysseus travels to the underworld in search of happiness but instead finds grief. For Odysseus, happiness is his wife, Penelope, his son, Telemakhos, and his kingdom, Ithaca. And he believes the prophet, Teiresias, who like Utanpishtim resides in the underworld, can show him the way home.
Like Gilgamesh, Odysseus’ journey into the underworld helps define him as a hero. This idea is supported throughout the chapter entitled “The Call to Adventure” in Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces”
(Campbell, 1973). Odysseus knows he is about to go into a land from which no mortal returns. And he is fearful. But he courageously continues on his voyage.
Odysseus views the underworld as a sad place. He often weeps for the familiar dead he encounters. He especially finds grief when he sees his mother, whom he did not know was dead. And he becomes even more grief stricken when he tries to embrace her. But like all the dead she was a phantom “wavering like a dream” (336).
When Odysseus finds Teiresias things do not get any better. Although Teiresias tells Odysseus the way home he also informs him that there will be more sadness and heartache on his journey. For example, his men will be killed after eating Helios’ cattle and he will find that suitors have taken over his home.
Odysseus also leaves the underworld with a better understanding of life. He spent 20 years searching for home. And he doesn’t realize that happiness is right in front of him. For example, he had sexual encounters with Kirk. And when he was stuck on Calypso’s island he sleeps with her at night and lies on the beach all day. This would be viewed as paradise for most men. But Odysseus still weeps for his home and wife. About half way through the
movie version of the Odyssey, Odysseus, played by Armand Assante, meets up with Teiresias. And the blind prophet tells Odysseus that his longing for home blinds him and he
does not see that it is the journey itself that makes up his life (1997). Thus Odysseus is revealed the way home and the way to happiness.
Like Gilgamesh and Odysseus, the hero of The Aeneid, Aeneas also voyages into the underworld to find out about his destiny. After leaving Dido he is unsure of his decision and needs to know if he is doing the right things in life. He is caught in a struggle between his romantic desires and his duty. Thus, before committing himself to anything, he seeks out the underworld and the wisdom of his dead father, Anchises.
Aeneas is also a hero for venturing into the unknown. And he views the underworld as a dark and gloomy place. The dead are much like the dead that Odysseus found, “empty images, hovering bodiless” (868). And he too meets lost companions.
Furthermore, Aeneas finds judgement. It is represented in the underworld by two distinct paths. One path leads to punishment and the other leads to the land of the blessed. Thus, there are separate locations for the good and the
bad. And unlike the underworlds in Gilgamesh and The Odyssey, The Aeneid’s land of the dead provides a distinct exit for the hero. Thus, it represents the possibility of reincarnation.
When Aeneas finally meets with his father he learns the meaning of his mission. Anchises tells his son about the future of Rome. It is a destiny not of Aeneas’ choosing. But more importantly, he learns that it is his heroic duty to accept it. Aeneas seems to go through a purgation process as he speaks with his father. And when he leaves through the exit of the underworld it’s as if he himself has been reincarnated.
In conclusion, all three heroes sought the land of the dead for answers about their future. And even though they didn’t necessarily find what they expected, they all submerged with a better understanding of life. They went through a transformation process. But more specifically, it was just a matter of each of them submitting to their destiny.
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. New
Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1973.
Homer. “The Odyssey”. Trans. Robert Fitzgerald. The Norton
Anthology: World Masterpieces. 7th ed. Vol.1. Ed. Sara Lawall. New York: Norton, 1999. 209-514
Norman, Dorothy. The Hero: Myth/Image/Symbol. New York:
World Publishing Company, 1969.
The Odyssey. Dir. Andrei Konchalovsky. Perf. Armand
Assante, Greta Scacchi, Isabella Rossellini, Vanessa Williams. Videocassette. Hallmark, 1997
Sanders, Nancy K., Trans. “Gilgamesh”. The Norton
Anthology: World Masterpieces. 7th ed. Vol.1. Ed.Sara Lawall. New York: Norton, 1999. 16-46.
Thompson, Diane. Gilgamesh Study Guide. 07 July 1999.
Online. Internet. 10 Feb. 2000. Available: novaonline.nv.cc.va.us/eli/eng251/gilgameshstudy.htm
Virgil. “The Aeneid”. Trans. Robert Fitzgerald. The Norton
Anthology: World Masterpieces. 7th ed. Vol.1. Ed. Sara Lawall. New York: Norton, 1999. 814-895