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Numerous ancient myths have had a major impact on modern life. Many of these tales usually have common themes. However, each often provides differing responses and perspectives on various questions and circumstances. Some of the most common themes revolve around family relationships, especially those between parents and their children. This paper would explore the relationships between mother and son, which are addressed in both The Odyssey and The Epic of Gilgamesh, despite the fact that their plots and stories vary.
A mother's relationship with her son is usually as deep as steel. Two distinct relationships in The Gilgamesh and The Odyssey highlight this. There is Ninsun who always looks after her son, Gilgamesh and devoted Penelope who worries about Telemachus. From the time a son is born all the way into his adult years, the boy nurtures a deep-rooted bond with his mother. Through this relationship, the child connects with his mother and this relationship influences his overall development. This could explain why Gilgamesh has such an ego, his mother could have inflated him and in the story, his mother was always his safety net with looking after him and sending up his prayers. Telemachus is a bit more complicated, his mother seemed to be more off-hands approach where she did not really do anything, but worried. Penelope stepping back into Telemachus life (in terms of punishment) probably pushed Telemachus to become a man and order his mother around.
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In the Epic of the Gilgamesh, Ninsun keeps looking out for Gilgamesh through his adventures. Mother tends to know her son best, that’s why she also counsels in interpreting his dreams. Gilgamesh also reciprocates the love to Ninsun when he asks for her counsel. Even if Ninsun fails to agree with what Gilgamesh wants to do, she still supports and assists him with his quest, which might sound a little bit spoiled. For example, she gives a word to Shamash about Gilgamesh’s and Enkidu’s wishes to slay Humbaba. Ninsun doesn’t want Gilgamesh to fight Humbaba, but he wants to do it anyway. If Ninsun did not ask for Shamash’s help, Gilgamesh most likely would have failed. Ninsun was also the person who stopped the fight between Gilgamesh and Enkidu when they first met, explaining that Enkidu will become a loyal friend. Gilgamesh trusts his mother so much with her word that they will become friends that the fight was stopped completely; they make up and become lifelong friends. Ninsun also treats Enkidu as her son and later in the story she adopts him. Taking another son under her wing showed how much of a caring mother she was. Ninsun was a very active mother in Gilgamesh’s life. She prays to Shamash for the defeat of Humbaba, she interrupts his dreams, and she gives him Enkidu.
In contrast, the relationship between Penelope and Telemachus was a bit more strained. It was almost as if they were in their own world. Penelope was grieving believing she might be a widow for most of the story while Telemachus was worried about the suitors interfering with his inheritance. It seemed like both had their own lives to worry about it. Once Telemachus learns that his father (Odysseus) might be alive, he leaves Penelope to find him. Penelope already lost her husband, now she is losing her son, so it can be understood the worry Penelope will have for Telemachus. However, Telemachus does not soothe that worry, instead he tells her to keep busy with her duties that in fact he is the master of the household. Towards the end of the story when Odysseus comes back into their lives, Penelope does not quickly jump back into Odysseus’ arms. Telemachus scorns her for saying that her heart was hard as stone. It was interesting to see that Telemachus uses the phrase “but your heart always was as hard as a stone” (Homer, 256), because even though Penelope was not involved in his life as she should have been, she was not openly mean to him. Telemachus also did not have a father figure growing up which also could have affected his relationship with his mother. Every time Telemachus stepped out of line with Penelope, Odysseus could have punished him and made him show respect for his mother. Telemachus saw Penelope as a frail woman who needed to step up to the suitors. Telemachus could have an underlying resentment towards his mother for not stepping up and getting rid of the suitors. The suitors lived in their homes, ate their food, used their supplies which was all part of Telemachus rightful inheritance.
Penelope and Ninsun could not have been more different in their approaches of raising their sons. Ninsun was very much involved in Gilgamesh’s life while Penelope tended to be distant to Telemachus as she grieved about Odysseus. A huge difference existing between the women is that Penelope was a mortal and Ninsun was a goddess. It is also worth considering that Ninsun had a lot more resources at hand to help Gilgamesh when he needed it than Penelope with Telemachus. Ninsun had powers of her own being a goddess and if her powers were insufficient to what Gilgamesh wanted/needed, she could always go to Gods for assistance. Penelope had no power because she was a “widow” and a woman in her culture. The biggest strain between Penelope and Telemachus seemed to be the suitors that invaded their home for forty years. Penelope could not even go anywhere without witnesses to make sure she stayed pure much less ask the suitors to leave. Penelope lacked the strength and family protection that would have helped her to remove them from the estate, especially when Telemachus did not have the maturity or strength himself to do it.
It is evident in both stories that a strong commitment exists between mothers and their sons. Despite the statuses of both mothers in the books, with Ninsun being a goddess and Penelope being a mortal, both women showed great devotion to their sons. Despite of the very different situations that both mothers are in, Ninsun provides critical support to Gilgamesh throughout his life while Penelope shows sentiments of a caring and loving mother towards Telemachus. In essence, the paper accentuates the relevance of the roles that mothers play in the lives of their sons.
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Gilgamesh. Trans. Benjamin R. Foster. The Norton Anthology of World Literature. Shorter Third Edition. Vol. 1. Ed. Martin Puchner et al. New York: Norton, 2013. 33-88. Print.
Homer. The Odyssey. Trans. Stanley Lombardo. The Norton Anthology of World Literature. Shorter Third Edition. Vol. 1. Ed. Martin Puchner et al. New York: Norton, 2013. 178-466. Print.
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