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Elizabeth McKinney

Dr. Pitts
World Literature
Behind Every Epic Hero is an Epic Heroine
The traditional definition of an epic, according to Joseph Campbell, states that it is a
poem that tells the story of a major characters adventures and how other significant characters
drive or direct the plot. These supporting characters tend to be godsat least in ancient epics
so they have great power and are able to control the main character to a certain degree. However,
the women in epic poems have more influence over the main characters than the supporting
characters, and even exert their control over the supporting characters. Their power is evident in
the epic poems The Odyssey and The Epic of Gilgamesh, and, when recognized, can transform a
story from a testosterone-filled adventure into a commentary on the cunning and manipulative
power of women.
In The Odyssey, Odysseus is making his way home to his wife and son. Odysseus is
manipulated, inhibited, and helped by different gods and goddesses throughout the entire story.
Poseidon devotes all of his efforts to preventing Odysseus from returning home, because
Odysseus blinded the Cyclops, who is Poseidons son. Zeus, too, often acts as an enemy towards
Odysseus, because he feels that Odysseus has become too powerful and is a threat to the gods.
Zeus and Poseidon are certainly causing problems for the storys hero, but in the end,
they do not hold the ultimate power in the story. Athena, the daughter of Zeus, is the most
important female in the story, if not the most important character overall. She changes the entire
course of Odysseus journey. She is able to persuade Zeus to help Odysseus escape the island of

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Ogygia and help him return to Ithaca while remaining hidden from Poseidon. She also offers
advice and guidance to Odysseus almost every time he encounters trouble. Furthermore, she
places illusions around him so that the other people he encounters will be more inclined to trust
him, such as in book VI, when Athena made Odysseus head and shoulders/shimmer with
grace (p. 247). She also convinces Zeus, at the end of the poem, that Odysseus is an ally to the
gods and should be rewarded, not shunned or punished.
Additionally, Athena serves as an instrumental ally to Telemachus, Odysseus son. She
tells Zeus she will escort him to Sparta . . . so he can make inquiries about his fathers
return/and win for himself a name among men (p. 180). Although Athena knows where
Odysseus is, she realizes that Telemachus needs to leave home in order to grow into a man.
Telemachus has been living in his fathers shadow for his entire life, and he needs to earn a name
for himself. Without Athenas encouragement and guidance, Telemachus would have stayed at
home and The Odyssey would be missing half of its story. While this may seem insignificant at
first, since readers main focus tends to be on Odysseus, Telemachus keeps the reader rooted in
Odysseus ordinary world while his father is adventuring through the extraordinary world.
Telemachus, as well as Penelope, reminds the reader why Odysseus is returning home, which
gives the backstory the reader needs to be able to make sense of the battle that takes place at the
end of the story.
Although Penelopes role isnt as prevalent or obvious as Athenas, or even Telemachus,
she is still imperative to the movement of the plot. On the surface, Penelope seems
inconsequential, especially when contrasted with Telemachus authoritativeness and
determination throughout the first and second books. She makes herself look weak by failing to
enforce her authority over her household and making suitors leave. She spends her days locked

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in her room, avoiding the suitors as well as her son. The reader may get the impression that she is
indecisive and pitiful, but in a way, Penelope is the entire reason for the poem. She remains loyal
to Odysseus and fends off the suitors with cunning tricks, such as the burial shroud and the
shooting test. And without her, Odysseus would not have a reason to return home, as he tells
Calypso in book V: my heart aches for the day I return to my home . . . Ive suffered and had
my share of sorrows/in war and at sea. I can take more if I have to (p. 235). If Odysseus didnt
have Penelope, he would have stayed on Calypsos island until he died, and the world would
have been left without the epic poem of his journey to Ithaca.
Calypso, too, plays a major role in Odysseus journey. The poem opens with Odysseus
with her, on the island of Ogygia. She has been holding Odysseus captive for seven years by the
time the reader meets them. Calypso has fallen in love with Odysseus and she offers him an
interesting gift. She tells him she can grant him immortality, but only if he will stay with her
forever. Odysseus refuses Calypso, despite her warning about all the pain/[he is] destined to
suffer before getting home (p. 235). His response to her proposition is a result of his love for his
wife: he does not want to live forever if he cannot live with his wife. Through this conversation,
the reader is presented with the reason Odysseus is so determined to return home: a woman.
This, again, reveals how women are like puppeteers, manipulating the males in the story to do
what they desire. Calypso is unable to convince Odysseus to stay with her, but only because he is
already committed to Penelope. If Odysseus did not have Penelope waiting for him, he would
have stayed on Ogygia, continuing his affair with the goddess.
Although The Epic of Gilgamesh has fewer female roles than The Odyssey overall, their
roles are perhaps even more critical to the plot in this poem. Shamhat is one of the first females
introduced. She facilitates the start of the adventure by taming Enkidu and delivering him to

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Gilgamesh. If Shamhat had not seduced Enkidu, he would have remained in the wild and
Gilgamesh would have been left alone to face the challenges presented to him. She returns later
in the story when Enkidu curses her. Shamash, a god, has to remind Enkidu that without
Shamhats affections, he never would have been introduced to Gilgamesh and would not have
experienced the joys and luxuries of being friends with Gilgamesh and living in Uruk.
Ishtar is the next major female character introduced in The Epic of Gilgamesh. After
Gilgamesh kills Humbaba, he feels as powerful as a god. This attracts Ishtar to him, and she
attempts to seduce Gilgamesh. However, because of his new confidence, he rejects and insults
the goddess, calling her whimsical and cursing her (p. 63). His degrading response invokes
Ishtars wrath and she unleashes the Bull of Heaven. After Gilgamesh and Enkidu kill the bull,
Ishtar convinces the council of the gods to kill Enkidu. This decision marks the beginning of
Gilgameshs spiral into despair and his eventual emotional growth.
Siduri is one of the seemingly most insignificant female characters in The Epic of
Gilgamesh, but she is actually the character that Gilgamesh learns the most from. Although she is
a goddess, she has disguised herself as a tavern keeper. When Gilgamesh comes to her seeking
eternal life, she knows that he will not be able to achieve his goal. Despite her reluctance to help
him, she realizes that he wont stop, so she offers him advice. First, she reminds him of the joys
of a mortal life, including night and day play and dance (p. 76). When Gilgamesh doesnt
listen to this, Siduri instructs him on how to complete his journey successfully: he needs to ask
Ur-Shanabi to take him across the sea using the Stone Charms. Instead, Gilgamesh attacks UrShanabi and smashes the stone, thus effectively sealing his destiny to fail in his quest for eternal
life. If he had followed Siduris directions, he would have either been more successful in his

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attempt to gain immortality or he would have had the wisdom and understanding to be able to
accept his mortality and he would have enjoyed his temporary life more fully.
Epics are most commonly viewed as stories with interesting, powerful male characters
and plenty of adventures. This perception does not usually include roles for females, unless they
are being used by the stronger male characterssuch as the servants and concubines that appear
in so many of these types of stories. In The Odyssey and The Epic of Gilgamesh, however, the
female characters may be the most important, because they are able to manipulate the males,
often subtly, and often in positive ways. Behind every epic hero is an equally epic heroine who is
worth paying attention to, because she is more powerful than the reader may expect them to be.
To quote a song by the famous pop artist, Beyonc, who run the world? Girls!