Recognizing Difference through Dialogue

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The relationship, tensions and the power dynamics of the Gods or super-natural beings in accordance to the humans can be studied from different perspectives when dealt with literatures of the different ancient civilizations. Each ancient culture had their unique way of treating the mortal-God relationship and interactions; owing majorly to its socio-cultural and geographical aspects of the specific civilization. For instance both in the Roman and the Greek mythologies, due to its peninsular nature of the landscape, the god of the sea and that of lightening were the most important and powerful gods. In the Indian mythology too, before the evolution of the trinity, the most important god was Indra, the king of the gods and the one to control lightning and thunder. However, we would take the example of two ancient texts, from two different ancient pagan civilizations, to study the man-god relationship and conflict and the differences that can be perceived among the two societies. The Gilgamesh, which is considered as one of the oldest written epic belonging to the Sumerian civilization, and The Odyssey, a primary epic composed by Homer of ancient Greece, can shed some light on the man-God relationship as was perceived in the two cultures.

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In the Gilgamesh, the gods play a very important and vital role and are often projected as human-like who are not always perfect. They even have their own whims and act accordingly to create trouble. The gods of The Odyssey and that of the Greek mythology are also very important in the role that they play and are also not right at all times. In both these ancient epics, we notice that the gods do not have a neutral judgment every time and they seem to take sides. However there is one main difference in the role of the gods that are projected in both the texts. In the Gilgamesh, the gods themselves interfere in the business of the mortals when they see the prevalence of injustice; while on the contrary, the gods of The Odyssey do not involve themselves in person to fight injustice, they help certain human characters to fight their own battle, acting as catalysts in the re-establishment of order.The 'Story of the Flood' is an important section in the Gilgamesh that can be referred to as something very close to the 'Flood Episode' from the Book of Genesis. In the above mentioned chapter, the council of the Sumerian gods, led by Anu decided to bring a great deluge on the face of the earth and destroy all of mankind. All the gods including Enlil, Ninurta, Enungi and Ea supported this notion of destroying all that they themselves have created. In the early part of the chapter it stated, 'Enlil heard the clamour and he said to the gods in council, 'The uproar of mankind is intolerable and sleep is no longer possible by reason of the babel.' So the gods agreedto exterminate mankind.' However just as in the Book of Genesis, God had decided to save only Noah along with a pair of every kind of beast and fowl, Ea directed Utnapishtim with certain instructions to build a great boat and save his family and a pair of every type of beast and fowl. Ea said to Utnapishtim, 'O man of Shurrupak, son of Ubara-Tutu; tear down your house and build a boat, abandon possessions and look for life, despise worldly goods and save your soul alive. Tear down your house, I say, and build a boat.' Utnapishtim, a major character in the Gilgamesh attains immortality after the great deluge subsided. However this act of the gods can be seen as an act of partiality, destroying all but Utnapishtim who worshipped them. If we closely study the 'Story of the Flood' we would notice that the gods themselves decided to act, bringing in the great deluge in order to punish the people for causing so much misery and grief.

Now let us take an example from The Odyssey to study the role of the super human beings. Though the gods living in the Mount Olympus do interfere with the humans yet they rarely go into a direct confrontation with them. For instance in the beginning chapters of The Odyssey when Odysseus' palace was crowded by the suitors of Penelope, Odysseus' wife, who took advantage of Odysseus' absence and creating problems for Penelope and Telemachos, Odysseus' son. Athena, the goddess of art, in order to give moral support to Telemachos; she arrived at the gates of Odysseus' palace and says to his son, ' I declare I am Mentes, son of skillful Anchialos, / And I rule over the Taphians .. We declare we are guest friends of one another through our fathers . Your father The godly Odysseus has not died on the earth, / But he is still alive somewhere .' By stating that she was a friend of Odysseus, she actually wins over Telemachos' confidence and on stating that his father was still alive and in trouble, gives him the courage that he needed. She, herself could've driven away the suitors from the palace but in order to keep secret of her identity, she suggested him to take responsibility of ruling the state in the absence of his father. She suggested him by stating, 'Tomorrow call the Achian warriors to assembly; / Make a declaration to all. Let the gods witness it. / Order the suitors to disperse to their own affairs ..' There are even further examples to suggest that the Greek gods did not act themselves until it was vitally important or out of vengeance, which Poseidon does to Odysseus, it is learnt from Zeus' knowledge when he says, 'But Poseidon, who holds up the earth, remains obstinately / Enraged about the Cyclops whom he (Odysseus) blinded in the eye, / Godlike Polyphemos, who possesses the greatest strength / Of all the Cyclops.' Hence unlike the Sumerian gods in the Gilgamesh, the Greek gods in The Odyssey do not usually act directly to interfere with the mortals. They just help certain human characters with moral strength and by giving them certain powers in order to conquer their problems.

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However, it can be said that both texts do have some similarities and some differences, when it comes to the treatment of the super-human beings' relation, confrontation, interaction and exercising of power over the humans. Another feature that we notice in both the epics is the confrontations that the gods enter into over supporting or opposing a mortal character. In The Odyssey, we can see that the gods led by Zeus, their king and the controller of lightning and thunder, wanted to help Odysseus to return to Ithaca, but Poseidon, the god of the seas, would create problems for him in his return from the battle of Troy. It was stated early in the Book I of The Odyssey, ' .All the gods pitied him (Odysseus), / Except Poseidon.' Later Zeus tries to solve it and he says to rest of the gods, 'Well, come now, let all of us here carefully devise / His (Odysseus') return, so he may arrive; and Poseidon will slacken / His rage, for counter to all the immortals he cannot / Carry on strife alone against the will of the gods.' Similarly, in case of Utnapishtim, in the Gilgamesh, Ea wanted him to keep alive the human civilization along with the societies of the beasts and the birds and hence instructed him accordingly to survive the deluge, when all the other gods wanted the destruction of mankind, but it was solved once Utnapishtim was proved to be a worshipper who equally deified all the immortal gods. Ea asks Enlil, the king of the gods, 'Wisest of gods, hero Enlil, how could you so senselessly bring down the flood?

Finally let us consider the power of the Gods in the two cultures. In the Greek culture, from the study of Homer's The Odyssey, we can say that the gods are omniscient and omnipotent but are not omnipresent, quite unlike Christianity. There are several descriptions of the gods visiting places, just like Poseidon is said to have ' .gone to the far-off Ethiopians ' They cannot stay in all places at the same moment and also cannot perceive about all that is taking place in the other places. However in the Sumerian culture, through a study of the Gilgamesh we can say that the gods are omnipotent but are not omniscient or omnipresent, hence they did not understand initially that Utnapishtim has been able to survive the deluge and on discovering it Enlil, the king of the Gods said in anger, 'Has any of these mortals escaped? Not one was to have survived the destruction.

Though we do find lots of similarities between different Pagan cultures yet there are stark differences between them when it comes to the treatment of gods or super human beings in contact with the mortals.

References

Gilgamesh. The Norton Anthology of World Literature: Beginings to 1650, 2nd Ed. Vol.A. Ed. Lawall, Sarah, et al. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Homer. The Odyssey. The Norton Anthology of World Literature: Beginnings to 1650.2nd ed. Vol.A. Ed. Lawall, Sarah, et al. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.