Although men are the Epic characters of Gilgamesh and The Odyssey, women also play a very important role in both stories. In general, these two stories portray women as being overly sexual, deceptive, and having a power over men. Women use their sexuality to hold control over men, to confuse and deceive them.
One example of a female character using her sexuality to control a male character is Shamhat in her relations with Enkidu in Tablet I of Gilgamesh. Shamhat is a harlot sent from Uruk by Gilgamesh to assist a hunter to stop Endiku from keeping the animals from the hunter. Shamhat goes to the forest with the hunter and does as Gilgamesh ordered. She uses her sexuality to deter the man, Endiku, and in doing so the animals no longer trust him. Shamhat lays naked before Enkidu and he cannot help but to be drawn to her. Shamhat takes Enkidu’s “vitality” and they continue this for six days and seven nights. At this point in the tale, it is said that Shamhat “treated him, a human, to woman’s work” (line 192). This line shows how women were thought of in these times, as servants to men, that men could use them sexually. But also, shows that a woman, on her own accord, can use this same sexuality to control a man.
As a mother, Ninsun is depicted in a different light in Gilgamesh. Ninsun, mother of Gilgamesh, is called “the wild cow”, knowing and wise, who understands everything (lines 259-262). She is held accountable for the strength and perfection of Gilgamesh. She, in her knowledge, is able to explain to Gilgamesh the meaning of his dreams, and he trusts all that she tells him. This relationship shows the respect of a son to his mother, and is quite different then a man’s relationships with other women.
In The Odyssey, women are shown in a similar light as in Gilgamesh. To start, the goddess Athena has great power as shown in how her father, Zeus, listens to her and does as she wishes in regards to Odysseus. In Book V, when Athena requests that Zeus and the other gods be more kind to Odysseus, even though it is not what she initially wanted, Zeus and the gods abide by her wishes. Because of Athena, Odysseus shall sail “home to his native country unharmed” (Book V, line 30). At this, Zeus sends Hermes to tell Calypso she is to let Odysseus go, and allow him to return home.
The nymph, Calypso, is a prime example of the use of sexuality by women in this story. Calypso has Odysseus held captive on her island, and attempts to make him stay there and become immortal, to be her mate. Calypso is looked upon negatively by the gods for having slept with a mortal man, but Calypso wishes for Odysseus to be made immortal by the gods and to stay with her on the island, as was done for Dawn. Calypso is a nymph, described as lustrous and queenly. Since she has kept him captive, Odysseus won’t believe her at first when she tells him he is being let go to journey home. She has kept him on her island, and in her bed, and kept him from the wife he loves. And even before he leaves the island, she makes him sleep with her one last time.
Penelope is a mortal woman, the wife of Odysseus. In speaking with Calypso, Odysseus describes Penelope: “Look at my wise Penelope. She falls far short of you, your beauty, stature. She is mortal after all and you, you never age or die…Nevertheless I long-I pine, all my days-to travel home and see the dawn of my return” (Book V, lines 239-243). Odysseus is aware of all that a goddess could offer him, but still longs to be reunited with his mortal wife, the woman he loves, and mother of his child. Even the sexual appeals of the nymph could not deter Odysseus from his wife.
Another female figure in Book V of The Odyssey is Ino. Ino was a mortal woman who was pursued by an insane husband and so she had leaped into the sea with her baby and was made immortal by the gods. Ino is “esteemed by all the gods, as she deserves” (Book V, line 369). She is kind, and when she sees that Odysseus is in trouble on the sea due to Poseidon, she helps him. Ino gives Odysseus her immortal scarf to assist him is making it to shore, after which he will return the scarf to the sea. Ino, being a mother-figure, shows compassion and kindness to Odysseus.
In The Odyssey and Gilgamesh there are many similar female characters, mortal and immortal. One example is a comparison of Calypso and Shamhat. Both of these women use their sexuality and use deceit to keep control over men, Odysseus and Enkidu. Although Calypso was an immortal and Shamhat mortal, they share many of the same qualities in their beauty and personality traits. Another comparison can be made of Ninsun and Ino. Both of these women, one mortal and the other immortal, are mothers. They are both depicted as kind, wise and compassionate women who devote themselves to their sons. A respect is shown to these women as mother-figures, and they are shown in a much different light, lacking of sexuality, than the other women in these stories.
The roles of women in Gilgamesh and The Odyssey were imperative to the stories, as they had great influences on the Epic characters throughout. The way these women were depicted shows, in some way, how women were thought of and treated at the times the stories were written. Overall, it seems that men believed women to be deceitful and sexual in nature. Women, other than mothers, could only be trusted with great caution, and their sexuality was something that could weaken a man and distract him from his tasks.