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Posted on September 3rd, 2012, by

Among many ancient epic works of literature, there are several that stand out separately. Among such outstanding works are “The Epic of Gilgamesh”¯ and “The Odysseus”¯. Both of these epics have significantly influenced ancient and modern culture; have inspired a great number of poets, writers and artists to create new masterpieces. Both epics have survived through thousands of years, were first passed from generation to generation by oral traditions, and then were presented in written form. Both of these works of literature consist of several parts (tablets in Gilgamesh epic and books in the Odysseus epic). Finally, both of these epics are usually considered to be composed by male authors and for male society. However, at closer consideration the conclusions may be different. The aim of this essay is to analyze gender roles, the images of men and women and to find out whether some of the authors of these epics could be women. The statement of the essay is the following: there is a lot of evidence in the text of “The Epic of Gilgamesh”¯ and in “The Odysseus”¯ proving that some of the authors of these epics were women.

1. Gender roles in Gilgamesh

The epic of Gilgamesh belongs to the earliest known works of literary writings, originating from Sumerian poems and legends, which were transformed into a poem in Akkadian society. The most known version of Gilgamesh nowadays belongs to Assyrian writings, and dates back to 7 century BC. The whole epic, though being full of “traditional”¯ for male audience content such as battles, struggle, travels and deeds, nevertheless contains many images and attitudes for women that are uncharacteristic for the society of that time. Moreover, the unexpected “switching”¯ of roles of men and women (and between men as well) can be noticed in the epic. Therefore, one can make a conclusion that though there obviously were male authors who created “The Epic of Gilgamesh”¯, there also were female authors making their contribution.

In the life of society in Mesopotamia, women did not play a significant role; they were supportive of men and obeyed them. They had certain rights, which were limited, though. Such attitude to women is present in the text of the epic: However, the epic also contains the description of wise women, with highly respectful attitude to them (in the text). The examples of such women in Gilgamesh may be Shamhat, Siduri and, of course, Ninsun. The way that the author speaks about these women does not resemble the general way of describing women in the epic. It is likely that these episodes were either inspired by some outstanding women, or, what is more likely, were created by female authors. Different words were used in the epic for describing the notion of “wife”¯ in different episodes; and the role of Ninsun, for example, was extended in different versions of Gilgamesh. Perhaps, initial plot was changed and extended by female authors, which explains the change of vocabulary and extension of roles. Since women had less rights and less freedom in the course of time, and later, in the Assyrian society, it is logical to suggest that they tried to express themselves thought art and literature. Also, it is unlikely that men have made the described changes ”“ because the role of women was decreasing in the society.

There is further evidence about female authorship. Firstly, there were numerous goddesses in Mesopotamian society, they were greatly admired and worshipped, especially Ishtar. In the epic, however, the image of Ishtar is ambiguous: she is depicted as a warrior and powerful goddess, however, Gilgamesh mocks at her and rejects her. Moreover, here we can see the change of roles: Ishtar appears to perform typically male actions ”“ aggression, anger, revenge. Secondly, the change of roles can be also seen in the relations of Gilgamesh and Enkidu, which are often paralleled with the relations of husband and wife. Thirdly, other goddesses mentioned in the epic are almost not worshipped and serve as the simple supporting and executing entities. In my opinion, if all these episodes were written by women, the attitude to goddesses would be more respectful, their images would be more divine and the relations of Gilgamesh and Enkidu would be expressed in a more masculine manner (even if these relations were quite close). In the case of Gilgamesh epic, it is possible

2. Gender roles in Odysseus

Compared to early Mesopotamian society, ancient Greeks gave more freedom to women and allowed them to participate in social life more.

However, for the most people (excluding famous thinkers, philosophers and poets) women still occupied a subservient position. In many pieces of literature of that time one can witness typically male themes: wars, hunting, problems of power etc. The choice of words and the whole atmosphere of the majority of epics of that time are usually brutal and heroic. However, “The Odysseus”¯ is an outstanding phenomenon compared to other works of literature (and even compared to other works of Homer), due to its optimistic and bright language and plot including not only war and trips, but also telling about love, devotion and temptation. In my opinion, these differences of the text from other epics show that women have made a significant contribution into writing Odysseus. The epic is full of humor and outstanding female characters; many critics note that “The Odysseus”¯ differs from other Homer’s works. There even were arguments whether this epic was really written by Homer, but after all the researchers came to the conclusion that “Ilyad”¯ was written in Homer’s early age, while “The Odysseus”¯ was created in the old age. However, I believe that Odysseus adventures is the epic which also emerged as a tale and was passed on orally, while Homer was the one to write it. And again, there are numerous facts indicating that among “The Odysseus”¯ writers there were women.

The epic contains a lot of female characters, vivid and greatly contributing to the action, and the poet treats them with respect and worships them. From a certain point of view, the epic represents a catalogue of women embodying various female qualities, which are greatly admired by the author ”“ Nausicaa, standing for youth and innocence, Arete, standing for pride and maternity, Penelope, embodying devotion, Circe and Calypso, embodying seduction, and Athene, standing for intelligence and independence (a really unexpected view of a woman for a man living in Hellenic society, indeed). Such varied, colorful and respected portraits of women clearly show that women did take part in creating the text of Odysseus. Also, ethical issues appear in “The Odysseus”¯, like loyalty and devotion. In fact, Odysseus receives several moral lessons in the course of actions. The presence of ethical thoughts, such specifically women’s subjects, in my opinion, also serves the proof that women added a lot to the plot.

There also are researchers who suggest that “The Odysseus”¯ was totally written by a woman; for example, Andrew Dalby in “Rediscovering Homer: Inside the Origins of the Epic”¯ analyses why the story has crossed the boundary from songs to written form, and comes to the conclusion that judging by attitude, vocabulary and composition, the author of “The Odysseus”¯ was female.

Conclusion

After closer consideration, we can make a conclusion that for both epics, “The Epic of Gilgamesh”¯ and “The Odysseus”¯ there were female authors who made a significant contribution. For the story of Gilgamesh, the unusual for those time reversal of roles, the vivid images of women and unexpectedly critical attitude to goddesses allow to make such conclusions. Also, the description of relations between Gilgamesh and Enkidu are made in a manner not characteristic for men. In the story of Odysseus, there is even more evidence: the varied and colorful personalities of women, their significant role, the presence of Athenes with individuality and independence absolutely unfamiliar for Hellenic society ”“ all these facts add up to the statement that women were present among those who composed this epic.

Moreover, the language, vivid plot (compared to other epics of that time) and finally, ethical questions raised in the Odysseus, indicate the presence of women’s influence. Despite the fact that these two epics were created in different times and in different societies, I believe one of the reasons that made these epics become icons of literature is the combined creative work of men and women.

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