The Evolution of the “Highway to Hell” in Classical Mythology Mythology, by denotation, is “a traditional story, especially one concerning the early history of a people or explaining some natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events.” Myths are an entity that evolve through time and through the changing of culture in order to tailor to the people telling the story; as such, we often see a series of different versions develop reflecting a relatively similar story. In this paper, the similarities and differences of the representation of the Underworld in The Epic of Gilgamesh and Virgil’s Aeneis will be analyzed and applied to the culture of the authors. We read these myths thousands of years after they were written in order to gain an understanding of the world’s past, analyze the minds of our progenitors, and ponder the mystery of human origins. In abridgment, The Epic of Gilgamesh, tells the four thousand year old Mesopotamian tale of Gilgamesh, the fifth King of Uruk and demigod. In this myth, the story begins with Gilgamesh and his former enemy and current best friend Enkidu. Together, they kill the Bull of Heaven, a deity sent in revenge by the goddess Ishtar to destroy their crops.
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When Enkidu kills the bull, he angers the gods, prompting them to kill Gilgamesh’s closest friend in retribution. After this traumatic event, Gilgamesh slips in to a state of infatuation with the meanings of life and death. Searching for the meaning of life and a path to eternal life, he sets off on a quest to find a man who lives in the Underworld and is called Utnapishtim; Gilgamesh believes him to be a mortal man who survived a great flood and was rewarded with immortality. On his quest to arrive in the Underworld, Gilgamesh encounters Siduri: the barmaid at the edge of the sea, Urshanabi: the boatman of the Underworld, and finally Utnapishtim: the immortal keeper of the Underworld. Upon meeting Utnapishtim, Gilgamesh coaxes him into revealing the secret to immortality: a flower at the bottom of the sea. This analysis will be focused on Tablet X. The second major work included in this analysis is the Roman, Virgil’s The Aeneid, Book VI. In synopsis, this myth tells the story of Aeneas after the Trojan War and his quest to lead his people. The preluding chapters of The Aeneid describe Aeneas’s adventures after the fall of Troy and in the Underworld portion of the myth, Aeneas seeks the Underworld in order to obtain the advice of his late father. In the Underworld, not only does Aeneas meet his father but also his former lover.
Virgil’s The Aeneid and The Epic of Gilgamesh both portray two heroes on an adventure mission to the Underworld to avenge the past and discover the future; however there are stark differences in these outwardly similar myths. Initially, when comparing these two stories, one must consider the context from which they come. Virgil’s epic poem is one which draws on the Roman culture and was written between 29 and 19 BC while in contrast, The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the oldest known works of literature and is centered around the Mesopotamian culture of the significantly older 2000 BC. Noting this substantial gap in not only geography, but also the time warp is important as we continue in our analysis of these two works. The Romans depicted in The Aeneid held clear beliefs that one who led a good life would reap the benefits in the afterlife whereas the Mesopotamians’ ancient culture seems to have left their ideas starkly vacant towards the concept of death and the afterlife. When Gilgamesh arrived at the first ingress of the Underworld, he met the barmaid Siduri in her tavern at the edge of the sea. She said to him the following: “There has never been a ferry of any kind, Gilgamesh, and nobody from time immemorial has crossed the sea” (Tablet X, p. 433). In a very similar style to The Epic of Gilgamesh, the Sibyl, The Aeneid’s fortune-telling equivalent of Siduri, also meets Aeneas at the edge of the Sea of Death and tells him, “All nights, all days too, dark Dis’s portals lie open. But to recall those steps, to escape to the fresh air above you, There lies the challenge, the labor! A few have succeeded…” (Aeneid, Book 6, line 128-130). After this warning, she gives Aeneas somewhat cryptic instructions on how to collect a golden branch which, if fate allows, will grant him access to the Underworld. In juxtaposing these two quotes from these scenes of the myths, we can get a sense of the archetypes and ideals behind the people who wrote them. As depicted in the quote from The Epic of Gilgamesh, it comes to light that not only does Gilgamesh not know what to expect from the Underworld and the afterlife, but also Siduri doesn’t quite have a tangible notion of what should happen to someone who passes into the underworld and is not dead.
In contrast, the apparently more experienced Sibyl tells Aeneid that it will not be easy, but makes this task sound much more feasible. She has exact instructions for him and quite simply, leaves the verdict of his eligibility to fate. Through this comparison we can begin to notice some of the culture of the respective times which permeates these myths. Gilgamesh’s tale is older and the author was writing from a decidedly more undeveloped mythological perspective; for the people of The Epic of Gilgamesh’s time, death was undefined and impalpable. However, for the people living in the time in which Virgil was writing, death, although intimidating, was something that one who did not commit sins, did not need to fear. Looking a bit more in depth, we can see that these myths give us a glimpse in to the minds of the people who lived in the time in which they were written. In The Aeneid, Aeneas goes to the Underworld to seek counsel from the deceased whereas in contrast, Gilgamesh goes as part of a quest to ultimately avoid the underworld in immortality. We can see a complete lack of fear of death written through the words of Virgil when Aeneid addresses his deceased father in line 698, “…Father, give me your hand! Give it, don’t pull away as I hug and embrace you! Waves of tears washed over his cheeks as he spoke in frustration: Three attempts made to encircle his father’s neck with his outstretched arms yielded three utter failures.” Through this quote, it becomes apparent to us that Aeneid feels no fear for the dead; he feels simply frustration at the fact that he can’t embrace his father. In blunt contrast, in The Epic of Gilgamesh when the Underworld and death is described, it is described as the following: “Nobody sees Death, nobody sees the face of Death, nobody hears the voice of Death, Savage Death just cuts mankind down” (pg 435). This description from the older of the two works lacks the sense of knowing and fate that is seen as a reoccurring theme in The Aeneid; it is an undefined mystery that still has not been conquered. In this ancient text, we are reintroduced to the idea of Gilgamesh fearing the after-life, verses Aeneas facing it and accepting a fate which has been predetermined. In the end, the Underworld experiences of Aeneas and Gilgamesh each bring forth experiences which are similar, yet are each one is molded in its own way to produce something that reflects their corresponding cultures.
Both plotlines tell the account of a demigod hero with a god-invoked tragic past and their path to a quasi-interchangeable Underworld as a means of catharsis. Considering that these two myths, having been from as much as a thousand years apart and two different regions of the world, have so many striking plot similarities, one must marvel at the power of the story passed through the generations. Myths have survived the test of time and changing cultures to create the myriad of memoirs that we still enjoy in the modern age. These myths, although no longer something that we typically consider a part of modern religion, allow us a peek into the past. The history of our development through anthropologic changes and our perpetually morphing understandings of the meaning of life is preserved in the mythological collections of our earliest predecessors. The perspective offered in classic mythology offers us a sense of the concept of life and death as it was viewed by those who lived so long ago.