An epic is a long, exalted narrative poem, usually on a serious subject, centered on a heroic figure. The earliest epics, known as primary, or original, epics, were shaped from the legends of an age when a nation was conquering and expanding; such is the foundation of Gilgamesh, of Homer’s the Iliad and the Odyssey, and of the Beowulf. Literary, or secondary, epics, written in conscious imitation of earlier forms, are most notably represented by Vergil’s Aeneid and Milton’s Paradise Lost. (Columbia Encyclopedia, 2008) The Aenid is, if not the greatest, one of the greatest Latin poems ever written.
Vergil wrote this in the time of political reforms in Rome. He was determined to make a glorified foundation of the start of the Roman Empire and thus, Aenid was born. The Epic of Gilgamesh is among the earliest works of literature to have been found. It is a Babylonian epic based on an actual historical figure, a king who reigned over the Sumerian city-state of Uruk around 2700 BC although the journeys that were undertaken by the protagonist had no real basis. In terms of form, both epics are divided into twelve (12) sections, with Aenid separated by books and Gilgamesh by tablets.
Similarly, the epics are also divided into two major parts. Books 1-6 of Aenid talk about Aeneas’ journey to Italy, and books 7-12 subsequently talk about the war that happened in Italy. The first seven tablets of Gilgamesh illustrate the relationship of Gilgamesh with Enkidu and the tasks they finish together, and the last tablets describe Gilgamesh and his quest for immortality due to his fear of death. Aenid is written in dactylic hexameter (also known as “heroic hexameter”, usually pertaining to epic poetry) while Gilgamesh has no noticeable meter.
Aenid uses a rhyming scheme, while, again, Gilgamesh doesn’t. Also, Gilgamesh makes use of a lot of repetition of a group of lines per tablet. Story-wise, Aenid starts with the journey of Aenid and the Trojans towards Italy. Aeneas is just an ordinary hero, but it is revealed to him that he is destined to establish a great empire once he reaches the place. In Gilgamesh, however, Gilgamesh is already the king of Uruk. His purpose of setting out with Enkidu is to gain fame and recognition. In both stories, women play roles as guides.
In Aenid, Sybil of Cumae is a woman who could tell the future. She guides Aeneas and goes with him to the Underworld. Her counterpart in the epic of Gilgamesh is Siduri. She doesn’t accompany Gilgamesh like Sybil does with Aenid. Instead, Siduri only gives him instructions on how to get to Utnapishtim. Two other notable women in the epics are Juno for Aenid, and Ishtar for Gilgamesh. These two embody the quote “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. ” Juno hates the Trojans because Paris chose Venus over her. Her anger leads her to become the main antagonist in Aenid.
She continually causes much trouble for the Trojans because she doesn’t want them to reach Italy. Ishtar, on the other hand, is angry because Gilgamesh spurns her advances. In her fury, she sends the Bull of Heaven to attack Gilgamesh and Enkidu, but her plan fails. But in the later parts of the epic, this gesture would serve as a catalyst for the many disasters that would happen in the life of Gilgamesh. In relation to Juno and Ishtar, it should be noted that the roles of gods and goddesses are very important in these epics. They are either helpers or hindrances in the hero’s quest.
It is noticeable though, that the gods and goddess are more involved in Aenid as compared to the gods and goddesses of Gilgamesh. Another parallelism in both stories is the presence of symbolic rivers and ferrymen. In Aenid, Charon, is in charge of ferrying the dead across the River Styx in order for their souls to rest in peace. In Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh has to cross the Waters of Death whose waters are deadly to the touch. He gets help from Urshanabi to get across. Urshanabi is in the company of stone-giants, unlike Charon who does his work alone. Aenid and Gilgamesh both touch on the topic of life, death and fate.
The journeys of the heroes are journeys towards life. In the case of Aeneas, the establishment of Rome meant a new life for his people and a chance to start over. Gilgamesh also seeks life; specifically, immortality. However, the goal of Gilgamesh is more inclined for self-preservation. The mortality aspects of both epics are more vibrant during the later parts of the epics. In Aeneid, when Aeneas journeys to Hades to visit his father, he also talks to a large number of the warriors that have died in the Trojan War. The death of these warriors shows the mortality of human beings.
In Gilgamesh, the death of Enkidu despairs Gilgamesh at first. But soon, he comes to realize how easily his life, too, can be taken away; making him seek eternal life. Lastly, fate, as we know, is something vital in Greek and Roman mythology. It is a fixed order of events and a fixed outcome. Although the former can, at times, be adjusted by gods and men, the latter is something they cannot change. Of the two epics, Aenid better exemplifies this. Juno continually tries to stop or to distract Aeneaas from reaching Rome, but Jupiter reveals that whatever is destined to happen, will happen.
Aenid, on his part, follows without question because he trusts what fate has destined for him. Now, unlike Aeneas, Gilgamesh tries to cheat death by going to Utnapishtim and asking him the secret to immortal life. But Utnapishtim says that eternal life was granted to him and his wife only, and that it was something that will never be repeated by the gods. The most interesting in terms of the contrast between both epics is probably the development of their protagonists. As mentioned before, Aeneas is described as a mere hero during the first part of Aenid.
He’s a demigod but there doesn’t seem to be something special about him aside from the fact that his mother, Venus always comes to his aid. However, as the story progresses, Aenid now becomes this sort of superhuman being capable of taking down the most skilled of warriors. In contrast, Gilgamesh, in the first tablet, is described as superior in strength and wisdom, and perfect in the physical sense. Towards the end though, after Enkidu’s death, Gilgamesh is dissolved into a being that is very much fearful of his own death. He becomes desperate, pitiful and pathetic.
We see the evolution of character in Aenid while we see the devolution in Gilgamesh. The two epics have many similar points, but it’s their differences in characterization and plot that make me feel that Aenid has more substance. In writing style, I also like Aenid more. I think that the epic of Gilgamesh uses to much repetition that it already becomes annoying, and tempting me to skip some parts. Overall, of the two epics, I have more appreciation for Aenid simply because it’s more fun to read. Sources: “Epic. ” Encyclopedia. com. The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. 2008. 12 Mar. 2011 .