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A Voyage of Classical Literature and the Self through the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Odyssey, the Aeneid and the Golden Ass

Updated on January 26, 2017

The Epic of Gilgamesh

Journey- the movement over considerable distance from one place to another.

This definition not only defines a physical journey, but also of the journey of the mind and spirit. The journey can take on any shape or form, and is best summed up with the word change. Indeed, there can be no journey without some sort of change. Man has known inherently about "journey" since the beginning of time. This fact is evident throughout history, and is prominent in even the earliest of writings. Through an examination of ancient literature such as The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Odyssey, The Aeneid and The Golden Ass one can see that "journey" is the basis for all of man's wisdom.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is the search for immortality. The character of Gilgamesh develops mentally from a spoiled brat to a wise elder through his journey. Gilgamesh is afraid to die, and stops at nothing to find a way to cheat death. He travels to the ends of the earth in search of such an answer.

This search however, is just the big picture for within this quest there are two other journeys worthy of attention. The first is the journey of Enkidu. Enkidu's journey addresses the question of whether happiness can be obtained through ignorance. His life starts in the wilderness living with the animals and being accepted by them because of his purity. While the story never dives into the workings of his mind, one is left with the impression that Enkidu is content and happy with his lot in life. He lives off the land with the animals and runs with them in the wilderness. He knows nothing of war, lying or even death as man knows it.

Enkidu is discovered by man, and through man's interference is made impure. He no longer can run with the animals and they now shy away from him. Enkidu is forced to live in the city and he learns all the harsh lessons of life. While he finds some solace in friendship and glory, it is not certain that he is better off? The answer is never spelled out for the reader, and the question is left hanging there. However, based off the example of the quest for immortality, it appears that although wisdom has a price it is better to have the knowledge than to be ignorant of it.

The second journey worthy of attention is that of the maturity of Gilgamesh. When the story starts, Gilgamesh is a brash, impetuous man. He takes what he wants regardless of how anyone else feels. Through his various adventures and his relationship with Enkidu, Gilgamesh grows and gains wisdom. His character by the end of the story is more disciplined, and less spoiled as he has made peace with the issues that plagued his personality in the beginning.

It is clear through these two journeys that while in the story all of the quests were physical the real change was internal. Both men went through complete 180-degree changes during their respective journeys and both men were the better for it because change is the most important factor in life.

The Odyssey

No one knows this fact better than the character of Odysseus. While in his journey he never personally changes, for he must remain Greek, his journey itself is a demonstration of change. Throughout Homer's Odyssey, the character of Odysseus is faced with many challenges and choices. Odysseus consistently demonstrates his wisdom by choosing the path of change. This consistency and wisdom is best displayed in his relationship with Circe and in his relationship with Kalypso. In both relationships he was offered immortality if he were to remain with them, but both times Odysseus chose to remain mortal. Instead, he chose to continue on with his journey, and to face what life would present.

Why Odysseus chose this path is simple, and is the underlying principle to human existence: humans need change. Humans cannot have victory without defeat; they cannot have love without hate, peace without war and immortality without death. For a human to become immortal, he must become stagnant. Thus causing the individual to lose his ability to change and adapt. Odysseus chose change over stagnation and rose to greatness through his wisdom and strength. There are not many people in this world that would have the same wisdom and strength to choose the same path as Odysseus.

The Aeneid

Choosing the right path is no easy task in life, and sometimes is chosen for us. The journey of Aeneid is just such a story. Aeneid was thrust into a journey that he didn't want, but in the end he makes the right decision and chooses the right path, creating one of the greatest empires known to man. It is common knowledge that Aeneas' journey is one of becoming Roman by shedding his Trojan past, but there is another question addressed through his journey that is of more importance. It is the question of whether man decides his own fate or whether it is all planned out in some sort of cosmic drama.

While this question can never be truly answered factually, it is important for an individual to form "right opinion" regarding this question. If mankind were to decide that everything was already laid out for them then there would be no motivation to do anything. Again, through this example the importance of change is demonstrated. As seen with the example of Odysseus, without change there is stagnation. Man needs change, and it is only through making choices that changes are possible. If all things are planned out and man resigns himself to take everything as it comes there can be no growth. While Aeneas did follow the will of the gods eventually, it was still his choice. At any time he could have told the gods to leave him alone, but instead he chose to found the Roman Empire.

The Golden Ass

The Roman Empire is one of the greatest Empires in the history of man, but it was also one of the raunchiest. The Romans had a love for the profane, and it is through this love that literary works such as The Golden Ass were created. How else can one bring about spirituality in a culture such as this but through the use of a story about a man turning into a donkey? With a character like this it is obvious that there's going to be a sex scene.

Lucius' journey is one toward spirituality. The lessons that Lucius was taught along the way of his journey are the exact lessons he needs to condition his mind for the initiation. He must keep his oaths, he must not live as a hypocrite and he must understand the power of truth. It was only through hardship that the gods could truly create these changes in Lucius and make them stick. Lucius has been through a true metamorphosis.

Life's Lessons

This article, while being a study of "journey" in literature is also somewhat of a journey itself. On the surface it is a journey of the acquisition of knowledge, but at the same time, internally, it is one of affirmation. There are certain truths in life, and individuals have a responsibility to learn and utilize them in their own lives. However, what often winds up happening is that once one of these truths is learned it is soon forgotten in the process of acquiring the next truth. This article serves as a reminder of some of the lessons life has to teach each one of us.

The Epic of Gilgamesh = Wisdom should be attained by any means necessary, but when that wisdom has been acquired it is important to reconcile it was one's perspective and character.

The Aeneid = Individuals make their own choices. Man has the ability to make his life whatever he wants to be. Influence comes from all sides, but the final decision always rests with the individual.

The Odyssey = Change is a necessary constant in life. Stagnation should be avoided at all costs.

The Golden Ass = Spirituality (religion) is a personal thing, and man should leave it to the individuals of this world to find their own truths about it.

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