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The Impact of Geography on Ancient Mythology
Capricious Gods Symbolize Inhospitable Lands
The Odyssey and the Epic of Gilgamesh are mythic tales that appeared in different regions of the world in different times, but the two stories both convey a feeling of humanity struggling to survive in a chaotic world. I believe that this mood comes from the fact that both ancient Greek and ancient Middle Eastern cultures both were forced to deal with a geographical region that was difficult to live in compared to other regions.
Gleaning Insight Into a Culture Through Its Popular Stories
According to Meyer's Aesthetic Formations: Media, Religion, and the Senses, social cohesion depends on “shared collective representations of the sacred.” Religion and mythology are necessary to facilitate the establishment of a group identity. Today, science fulfills some religious and mythological roles. Science allows us to form opinions on how the world came to be and helps us develop models of understanding human nature. The ancients used myths instead of science to tell their stories about the world and human nature. Many of the classic myths featured the appearance of one or more deities. Many valuable insights about a culture can be gleaned from studying the way that ancient sacred gods manifest themselves in a myth.
Beware of Poseidon's Wrath
The protagonists in both the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Odyssey encounter gods that are moody and destructive. In the case of the Odyssey, Odysseus survives the attack of a giant cyclops and blinds it through clever means only to find out that his actions had angered the powerful sea god Poseidon. As it turns out, the cyclops was Polyphemus, Poseidon’s son. Even though Polyphemus attacked Odysseus and ate several of his men, Poseidon becomes extremely angry that Odysseus retaliated and struck back. What angers Poseidon the most, though, was the fact that Odysseus taunted Polyphemus when Odysseus was escaping. Poseidon decides to punish Odysseus with turbulent seas, just because he defended himself and his men against a violent monster. The fact that the angry god Poseidon is the god of the sea is no accident. The ocean is random and at times violent. Ancient Greeks had to deal with it, and this struggle manifested itself in the personality of Poseidon.
The Gods Collaborated to Wipe Out Humanity
Gilgamesh also encounters moody gods indirectly, through a story told by Utnapishtim. Gilgamesh meets Utnapishtim at the end of his quest to discover the secret of eternal life. When Gilgamesh asks Utnapishtim how he was able to obtain eternal life, he relates the story of the flood. In this story the gods Anu, Enlil, Ninurta, Ennugi and Ea are all getting sick of the noise humans are making on earth, so they collectively decide to wash away the entire population with a great flood. Utnapishtim was spared and granted eternal life because Enlil felt regret about the decision to massacre the human race. Much like the Greek gods, Middle Eastern gods were not kind. They were irritable and prone to destructive acts of rampage. The nature of the Middle Eastern gods is probably due to the fact that Tigris and the Euphrates were unstable and would flood apparently at random. When the rivers flooded, entire crops were wiped out and people died from starvation.
Both Odysseus and Gilgamesh had to deal with cruel, powerful gods. Gods often serve as metaphors for a people’s opinion on nature, which can also be powerful and cruel in tough environments. Ancient peoples did not have advanced technology and therefore lacked the ability to control nature or harness natural forces and apply them in constructive ways. Ancient Greek and Middle Eastern people were particularly exposed to the destructive side of nature due to their geographical position on the planet and as a result their cultural myths reflect the challenging conditions posed by natural forces.