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The Weak Gods of The Iliad, Odyssey and Gilgamesh

 

The Oxford English Dictionary defines god as Ò1. A being conceived as the

perfect, omnipotent, omniscient ruler and originator of the universe, the

principal object of faith and worship in monotheist religions. 2. A being of

supernatural powers, believed in and worshipped by a people.Ó The first

definition reflects Modern AmericaÕs connotation of the word god. The latter

recalls the Ancient Greco-Sumerian ideal of a being greater than man. While

both definitions are equally valid in literature, many perceive the word only in

the first view. However, the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Epic of Gilgamesh

portray gods with limits and weaknesses. The contemporary Christian god is

able to demand things of his followers, readily expecting wholehearted and

unquestioning obedience. This was not the case with his ancient counterparts.

 

Rather than exacting demands upon their followers, occasionally the ancient

gods were limited to requests. Often they were refused. In the Odyssey, the

goddesses Circe and Calypso both expected lifelong commitments from the

mighty Odysseus. Both promised great things to the hero, including godhood.

Odysseus was able to refuse both goddesses. Human obstinacy beat out the

whims of goddesses. If the Protestant god were to make sexual demands upon

his followers, more than likely, he would not be refused. One could argue,

though, that Odysseus did give in to the goddesses by bedding them. Always

though, his focus eventually shifted to returning home and reuniting with his

mortal wife. Homer portrayed a man who refused immortal beauty for true love:

ÒShe is mortal after all, and you are immortal and ageless. But even so, what I

want and all my days I pine for is to go back to my house and see my day of

homecoming. And if some god batters me far out on the wide blue water, I will

endure it, keeping a stubborn spirit within me, for I have already suffered

much (93-94).Ó Thus, the mortal Odysseus was able to deny the temptations

of the goddesses multiple times. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, another goddessÕ

whims are put down. Ishtar, goddess of war and love becomes attracted to the

mighty but mortal Gilgamesh. But rather than jumping right into the sack with

the goddess, Gilgamesh thought it out and refused. Thus, a second hero also

refuses a god. Sometimes the gods only wanted honest opinions from the

humans. In the events leading up to the Iliad; Hera, Athena, and Aphrodit all

contend to be the fairest of the goddesses, but out of prudence, no god will

endorse them with the distinction. When Zeus refers them to the mortal

shepherd, Paris, the three instantly cease to expect an honest opinion. The

question loses importance and the goddesses begin a persuasion match in

which each goddess offers the shepherd great things. In the end, Paris

chooses AphroditeÕs gift, and Her and Athena become bitter and spiteful

because of the judgment. If the goddesses were equivalent to the Christian

god, they would already have either the instant wisdom to know who was the

fairest. Also, their infinite power would give them each the ability to make

themselves infinitely beautiful. Finally, the modern god would not need to ask

the opinion of the human because his omniscience would already give him the

opinion. The current Christian god is omnipotent and in turn never feels

threatened by the ant-like humans below him. In contrast, the ancient gods

sometimes felt threatened by the strongest mortals. When this would happen,

the gods would seek ways to stop the power of the humans. The very premise

of the Epic of Gilgamesh involved a hero who nearly equaled the gods. In the

beginning of the epic, the gods sought to control and/or destroy Gilgamesh by

creating an antihero to defeat him. Later, the equals join, building the

insecurities of the gods. Eventually, they gods afflict Enkidu, compatriot of

Gilgamesh with a fatal disease, thereby stopping the power of the dynamic

duo. In the Odyssey, Poseidon developed a grievance against Odysseus. He

sent waves to alter the course of the her and many times attempted to dash

the hero against the rocks or drown him. Always, though, Odysseus won out.

Although his ship, crew, and ideals were destroyed by the wrath of Poseidon,

the man could never be stopped. However, should the Christian god wish to

destroy a human, he easily could with a thought. His process would not take

nature or antiheroes. Simply, he could think a personÕs entire existence away.

                    

Perhaps the gods were justified in their fears of strong heroes. The Iliad

depicts a Diomeds who rallied against many Trojans. When Aphrodit

stepped in his way, he stabbed the goddess, and she fled to Olympus in order

to cry on her motherÕs lap: ÒOh my wound! Diomeds hit me! that(sic) bully!

because(sic) I was trying to save my own son Aineias, my darling favourite!

This war of the Trojans has become a war of Achaians against gods (64)!Ó In

response, her mother, Dion speaks of past things humans have done to the

Olympians: ÒMake the best of it my love. Be patient even if it hurts. Many of us

Olympians have had to make the best of what men do, and we have brought

much trouble upon one another. Ars made the best of it, when Otos and

Ephialts made him their prisoner Ñ they shut him up in a brazen jar for

thirteen months. Indeed that would have been the end of the greedy fighter,

...[had not] Herms stole him away, when he was already in great distress from

his cruel prison (65).Ó The gods were challenged by the power of the mightiest

humans and went to great lengths to stop these people. Part of the strength of

the god of the Bible comes from his unwavering nature. He has no internal

conflict and his opinions are consistent. In contrast, when multiple gods

coexist, disagreement will occur. The gods always held different opinions

regarding the treatment of humans, and there was always someone to help

the humans escape from the godsÕ wrath. In the Iliad, the gods disagreed on

which side should win the Trojan war. Often, they would descend to earth in

order to aid each faction. Eventually, Zeus, the s trongest god, put a stop to

the intervention. Consequently, the war continued to drag on. In turn, the gods

strived to divert Zeus. Hera developed an elaborate plan to seduce Zeus in

order to make him fall asleep. She enlisted the aid of Sleep and Aphrodit.

Zeus fell to slumber, and the gods were able to further influence the war.

 

In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the gods contrived to destroy humanity because of

their inconvenient dispositions. Like in the Bible, a flood was sent to destroy

the bulk of humanity. But in the Epic of Gilgamesh, another god was present

to thwart the plan. The biblical god saved a select group of humans out of

grace. In the pantheist version, the cunning of a protective god saved the

small group of humans. Going against the will of his comrades, Anu gave

Utnapishtim directions to build a watertight ark and instructions on what to

bring. Because of this humanity survived. HomerÕs Odyssey depicted a god

attempting to destroy a specific human. Poseidon continually attempted to

destroy Odysseus. But on numerous occasions, other gods were present to

help the hero survive. When Poseidon sent OdysseusÕ ship in the wrong

direction, Aeoleus gave the hero a bag which encaptured every

counterproductive wind. When Odysseus fell into the sea after departing from

CalypsoÕs island, Ino, a sea nymph, gave him an enchanted scarf to aid his

directional sense. Athena also made constant provision, saving Odysseus

from destruction and hopelessness many times. A major weakness of the

pantheist structure was the discord among the gods. The pantheon limited the

power of the members within it. Clearly, the Greeks and Sumerians around the

time of Homer had an alternate sense of the divine being. They recognized

the power of the gods, but they were also aware of their limits. The realized

 that the gods were not all-powerful. Today that is a given with Christianity.

Humans challenged the ancient gods, while the contemporary Christian god is

infinitely great. All in all, the gods of Greco-Sumerian antiquity were powerful,

but in comparison to the modern Christian god, they were only a step above

the ant-like humans.

 

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