The Mortality of Man, As Expressed in the Odyssey and The Epic of Gilgamesh


(Orpheus in the Greek underworld.  On the left, Hades and Persephone are seated on their thrones.  Orpheus is attempting to win his wife’s freedom from the underworld through his beautiful music.)

The final paper that I wrote for ‘World Civilizations: Pre-History to 1500’ dealt with the concept of man’s mortality in the Odyssey and The Epic of Gilgamesh, two examples of epic literature from ancient history.  The Odyssey as we know it today was written down in roughly 700 BC and The Epic of Gilgamesh was composed sometime around 3000 BC.  Today, people look to medical science and wonder if or when immortality will be achieved.  A few hundred years ago, people were questing after the Fountain of Youth (which has a parallel in The Epic of Gilgamesh).  Before that, people looked to magic or grants of eternal life from the gods.  It’s amazing how some aspects of what it means to be human don’t change.  If you’re not a student doing research, this might be dry reading!  Footnotes are at the bottom, along with a bibliography.  The paper was graded and received an A.


The Epic of Gilgamesh, which dates back to approximately 3000 BC, is a story that originated in the Mesopotamian area. It has survived to the present in the form of stone tablets and fragments of stone tablets which are being excavated from the ruins of abandoned cities in the modern Middle East.[1] These tablets have been translated by linguists from their various languages and compiled into a readable story by N. K. Sandars. The Odyssey, a Greek tale, was composed and written down in roughly 700 BC[2], but the stories it contains are believed to date from the beginning of the 12th century BC[3]. Prior to being written down, these stories were transmitted from generation to generation orally by professional bards. There is some speculation as to who composed the version used today, but authorship is generally attributed to Homer. Despite the large amount of time that passed between the writing of The Epic of Gilgamesh and the Odyssey, the stories share many similarities, including an underlying theme of the mortality of man and what it means to die.

Both stories clearly define man’s distinction from the gods, in that men are mortal while the gods are not. In the second chapter of N. K. Sandar’s translation of The Epic of Gilgamesh, titled “The Forest Journey”, Enkidu and Gilgamesh are sitting together and discussing a dream that Gilgamesh has. Enkidu interprets his dream, telling Gilgamesh that “The father of the gods has given you kingship, such is your destiny, everlasting life is not your destiny.”[4] Gilgamesh later agrees by saying, “Where is the man who can clamber to heaven? Only the gods live for ever with glorious Shamash, but as for us men, our days are numbered, our occupations are a breath of wind.”[5] Gilgamesh recognizes the fact that man has a limited life span on earth and that only the gods have power over immortality. This sentiment is echoed by Penelope in the Odyssey when she tells Odysseus that “Men’s lives are short.”[6] Man’s mortality is also expressed in Odysseus’ encounter with Calypso. When Hermes informs Calypso that she is required by Zeus to send Odysseus on his way, she tells Odysseus that he “need grieve no more; [he] need not feel [his] life consumed”[7] there on her island. This demonstrates that man’s time is finite and that it will eventually be consumed and extinguished. She entreats him to stay with her forever and offers him immortality, reminding him that there is a clear difference between them and that without her intervention he will eventually die. She also asks him if his mortal wife, Penelope, can compare to her, an immortal goddess. In his reply, Odysseus affirms that death and old age are unknown to the gods, while at some point Penelope will grow old and die, as all mortals do.[8] In both The Epic of Gilgamesh and the Odyssey, every man knows that he must eventually die, but there are loopholes. With the assistance of the gods, life can be extended. If Odysseus stays with Calypso, he can be immortal in the sense that he lives forever, but if he leaves, he will age again. This is not true immortality. It is an extension of life. The gods cannot change the fate of man. They can merely delay it. In The Epic of Gilgamesh, Utnapishtim is said to be immortal, but his residence seems to be restricted to the island he lives on, presumably because that is where the plant that restores youth grows. One can infer that he is not truly immortal, but gains a modicum of immortality by remaining young through eating the plant, which may be a gift to him from the gods. True immortality is the realm of the gods, and while man may aspire to live forever, he cannot escape his mortality.

The only ‘immortality’ left to men is created and maintained in the memories of others through performing glorious and heroic deeds that will be spoken of, hopefully, for all time. It is with this in mind that Gilgamesh encourages Enkidu to accompany him to the Cedar Forest to do battle with Humbaba. Prior to leaving, Gilgamesh prays to Shamash for permission to enter the Cedar Forest, and in the course of explaining his desire, he again reiterates the idea that man cannot live forever and that he has to establish his name in another way. He tells Shamash, “I have looked over the wall and I see the bodies floating on the river, and that will be my lot also. Indeed I know it is so, for whoever is tallest among men cannot reach the heavens, and the greatest cannot encompass the earth.” He goes on to say that he will “set up [his] name where the names of famous men are written; and where no man’s name is written [he] will raise a monument to the gods.” He wants his name “stamped on brick.”[9] He wants glory and he wants to be remembered. He even welcomes the idea of falling in battle to Humbaba, believing that having his name linked to a great battle will ensure immortality in the memories of men. He tells Enkidu during their journey together to the forest that if they fall, they will “leave an enduring name.”[10] Of course, Gilgamesh does not wish for death, perhaps because that would prevent him from finding further glory, but if he dies, then he wants to die in a way that will ensure his name his remembered. The sister story to the Odyssey, the Illiad, says much about finding glory (‘kleos’) and a glorious death, but the Odyssey has no real parallel with this theme, since it is primarily a ‘nostos’ story, a story of homecoming. The only instance in the Odyssey where Odysseus could be said to be seeking glory is during his encounter with the Cyclops, Polyphemus. During this adventure, Odysseus and his men narrowly avoid being wholly slaughtered by the Cyclops, and while escaping on their ship, Odysseus says, “Kyklops, / if ever mortal man inquire / how you were put to shame and blinded, tell him / Odysseus, raider of cities, took your eye: / Laertes’ son, whose home’s on Ithaka!”[11] Because of the nature of the Odyssey as a ‘nostos’ story, a tale of homecoming and the tragedies of war, this act of glory-seeking is set up as the cause of all of Odysseus’ later problems. Humility, or at least the good sense to make a quick escape, would have had him pulling off quietly from the land of the Cyclops, but instead he taunts him, gives his name away, and thus reveals himself to Polyphemus’ father, Poseidon. Poseidon, enraged at Odysseus, takes actions that prevent him from reaching home, dragging out his return to Ithaka into a 10 year long ordeal that he barely survives. The Epic of Gilgamesh places a lot of emphasis on the necessity of seeking glory for one’s name. The Odyssey takes the opposite approach. In the Odyssey, Odysseus’ act of glory-seeking is the cause of the deaths of his whole crew and it is what prevents him from going home to his wife and son directly after the war. The suitors in his house, the suffering and mental anguish of his wife and son, his own suffering, all are a result of seeking glory. So, the Odyssey leaves the reader with the impression that glory alone isn’t enough, which is a theme that The Epic of Gilgamesh transitions to in the later stories.

Gilgamesh’s attitude towards death changes drastically after the encounter with the Bull of Heaven. Ishtar is offended by Gilgamesh and Enkidu and convinces the other gods that one of them must die. This fate falls on Enkidu and rather than dying gloriously in battle, he dies from sickness. Even worse, it is a prolonged sickness that leaves Gilgamesh traumatized. He realizes that “misery comes at last to the healthy man, the end of life is sorrow.”[12] Enkidu’s vision of the underworld, where even great men like kings and princes are reduced to bird-men that eat dust and clay, terrifies Gilgamesh. After Enkidu dies, he cries out, “Despair is in my heart. What my brother is now, that shall I be when I am dead.”[13] Gilgamesh sees that despite the great adventures they had together, Enkidu’s death is still final and a memory of past glories is not enough. Enkidu is still condemned to sit forever in the house of the dead. Gilgamesh suffers because his brother has been taken from him, but also because he does not want to share the same fate. He wants to live. He realizes that a glorious death is still death, but rather than accept it, he sets out to find immortality. This attitude towards death has a direct parallel in the Odyssey, expressed through Odysseus’ accumulating grief at seeing the ravaged state of the shades in Hades.[14] It reminds him of how final death is. In the shade of Elpenor, he sees that death comes to every man, great and small. In the shade of Agamemnon, he sees that death claims the great. In the shade of his mother, he feels his own impending death personally, as well as a more profound sense of loss at the memories and time with family he missed out on by leaving home in search of glory.[15] Even the shades of great heroes like Achilles and Heracles wind up in the realm of the dead, suffering the same fate as all men. They are separated from life and the people they love, as Gilgamesh finds himself separated from Enkidu. Achilles sums it up best, when he tells Odysseus that glory counts for nothing after death, that it is “better… to break sod as a farm hand / for some poor country man, on iron rations, / than lord it over all the exhausted dead.”[16] This is a lesson for Odysseus that he should enjoy every part of life while he can, before he dies, because after death glory means nothing, especially to the dead. Unlike Gilgamesh, he accepts it. After many trials and travels, Gilgamesh encounters his own shade of Achilles, in the form of a woman that lives in the garden of the gods named Siduri. She gives Gilgamesh advice that echoes Achilles’ statement. When she inquires as to why he has traveled so far, he tells her that he is searching for a way to live forever. She replies:

“Gilgamesh, where are you hurrying to? You will never find that life for which you are looking. When the gods created man they allotted to him death, but life they retained in their own keeping. As for you, Gilgamesh, fill your belly with good things; day and night, night and day, dance and be merry, feast and rejoice.”

Siduri tries to get Gilgamesh to see that his quest is futile and encourages him to enjoy the life he has left in him. Man cannot avoid death and there is no amount of glory that can change the fact that after death, a man will sit in the house of the dead, alongside kings and commoners. The important thing to do is to enjoy the world of the living while one still has life, which is a lesson that Odysseus learned by speaking to the shades of fallen friends and family. Life is more important than glory.

Prior to speaking to the shades in Hades, Odysseus was still living for adventure. The experience, especially of seeing his mother, whom he tried and failed to hug, twice, reminded him of how short life is, and what it really means to die. The Epic of Gilgamesh’s parallel for the Odyssey’s shades can be found in Gilgamesh’s encounter with Utnapishtim. Gilgamesh attempts to convince Utnapishtim to give him the secret to living forever by passing a test, which is itself a reminder of how ridiculous it is for a man to want to live forever. Unable to pass this test, Utnapishtim sends Gilgamesh home, but makes sure to reinforce his point through two more examples. Utnapishtim gives Gilgamesh a set of clothes to wear on his return journey that will not wear out or show signs of aging. This is a reminder to Gilgamesh that even simple objects will outlive a man. One last spur to drive the point home is the plant that Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh about. It is a plant that will restore a man’s youth to him. Gilgamesh is successful in obtaining the plant, but before he returns with it to Uruk, or is able to use it himself, it is snatched away from him by a snake, reminding him that life is fleeting and cannot be held on to by man. Immortality is for the gods alone.

Despite being written by people from two different cultures, over one thousand years apart, the continuity of ideas regarding the afterlife presented in both works remains remarkably similar. In both The Epic of Gilgamesh and the Odyssey, the heroes admit outright that they know that immortality is reserved to the gods. In both stories, there are examples of opportunities to extend one’s life, perhaps to a semblance of immortality, but this is an exception, rather than a rule, and is not true immortality. Man has a fate and that fate is to eventually die. Only the gods live forever. In both stories, there is an obvious fear of being forgotten, and to avoid being forgotten, men go out seeking glory, to ensure that their names are remembered. Both stories, though, remind man that the best part of living is being alive and that glory counts for nothing after death. Even glorious heroes wind up in Hades or the house of the dead yearning for the living while the living yearn for the dead. What both of these stories try to impart to readers is that glory isn’t as good as it’s made out to be. Life is amazing and should be cherished by filling our bellies with good things, by dancing, being merry, feasting and rejoicing, because being alive and spending time with loved ones is worth more than lording it over all of the exhausted dead.

[1] Introduction by N. K. Sandars, Penguin Classics edition of The Epic of Gilgamesh.

[2] Page 3, “Date of Composition” section of Stanley P. Baldwin’s CliffsNotes on The Odyssey.

[3] Researchers have used astronomical events depicted in the Odyssey to determine that Odysseus slaughtered the suitors in his home on April 16th, 1178 BC.

[4] Page 70, The Epic of Gilgamesh, N. K. Sandars.

[5] Page 71, The Epic of Gilgamesh, N. K. Sandars.

[6] Book XIX, Line 386, Fitzgerald translation of the Odyssey.

[7] Book V, Lines 169 – 170, Fitzgerald translation of the Odyssey.

[8] Book V, Lines 212 – 228, Fitzgerald translation of the Odyssey.

[9] The previous three quotes are from page 72, The Epic of Gilgamesh, N. K. Sandars.

[10] Page 77, The Epic of Gilgamesh, N. K. Sandars.

[11] Book IX, Lines 548- 552, Fitzgerald translation of the Odyssey.

[12] Page 93, The Epic of Gilgamesh, N. K. Sandars.

[13] Page 97, The Epic of Gilgamesh, N. K. Sandars.

[14] In “Singers, heroes, and gods in the Odyssey”, Segal reaches this conclusion through the formulaic repetition of the line “When I saw him I wept and pitied him in my heart”, said by Odysseus, upon seeing the shades of Elpenor, his mother and Agamemnon. Page 41.

[15] Segal, Page 42.

[16] Book XI, Lines 579 – 581, Fitzgerald translation of the Odyssey.



Baldwin, Stanley P. CliffsNotes on Homer’s The Odyssey. John Wiley and Sons, 2000.

Fizgerald, Robert. The Odyssey. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Inc., 1998.

Maugh II, Thomas H. “Astronomers hit a homer with ‘Odyssey’.” Los Angeles Times. June 24, 2008. (accessed July 29, 2011).

Sandars, N. K. The Epic of Gilgamesh. New York: Penguin Classics, 1972.

Segal, Charles. Singers, heroes, and gods in the Odyssey. Cornell University Press, 2001.


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