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The Impact of Geography on Ancient Mythology

Capricious Gods Symbolize Inhospitable Lands

The Odyssey and the Epic of Gilgamesh are mythic tales that appeared in different regions of the world in different times, but the two stories both convey a feeling of humanity struggling to survive in a chaotic world. I believe that this mood comes from the fact that both ancient Greek and ancient Middle Eastern cultures both were forced to deal with a geographical region that was difficult to live in compared to other regions.

Ancient Mesopotamia

Ancient Mesopotamia

Mesoamerican Deity Quetzalcoatl (The Feathered Serpent)

Mesoamerican Deity Quetzalcoatl (The Feathered Serpent)

According to Meyer's Aesthetic Formations: Media, Religion, and the Senses, social cohesion depends on “shared collective representations of the sacred.” Religion and mythology are necessary to facilitate the establishment of a group identity. Today, science fulfills some religious and mythological roles. Science allows us to form opinions on how the world came to be and helps us develop models of understanding human nature. The ancients used myths instead of science to tell their stories about the world and human nature. Many of the classic myths featured the appearance of one or more deities. Many valuable insights about a culture can be gleaned from studying the way that ancient sacred gods manifest themselves in a myth.

An Artist's Depiction of a Weary Looking Odysseus

An Artist's Depiction of a Weary Looking Odysseus

Beware of Poseidon's Wrath

The protagonists in both the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Odyssey encounter gods that are moody and destructive. In the case of the Odyssey, Odysseus survives the attack of a giant cyclops and blinds it through clever means only to find out that his actions had angered the powerful sea god Poseidon. As it turns out, the cyclops was Polyphemus, Poseidon’s son. Even though Polyphemus attacked Odysseus and ate several of his men, Poseidon becomes extremely angry that Odysseus retaliated and struck back. What angers Poseidon the most, though, was the fact that Odysseus taunted Polyphemus when Odysseus was escaping. Poseidon decides to punish Odysseus with turbulent seas, just because he defended himself and his men against a violent monster. The fact that the angry god Poseidon is the god of the sea is no accident. The ocean is random and at times violent. Ancient Greeks had to deal with it, and this struggle manifested itself in the personality of Poseidon.

The Gods Collaborated to Wipe Out Humanity

Gilgamesh also encounters moody gods indirectly, through a story told by Utnapishtim. Gilgamesh meets Utnapishtim at the end of his quest to discover the secret of eternal life. When Gilgamesh asks Utnapishtim how he was able to obtain eternal life, he relates the story of the flood. In this story the gods Anu, Enlil, Ninurta, Ennugi and Ea are all getting sick of the noise humans are making on earth, so they collectively decide to wash away the entire population with a great flood. Utnapishtim was spared and granted eternal life because Enlil felt regret about the decision to massacre the human race. Much like the Greek gods, Middle Eastern gods were not kind. They were irritable and prone to destructive acts of rampage. The nature of the Middle Eastern gods is probably due to the fact that Tigris and the Euphrates were unstable and would flood apparently at random. When the rivers flooded, entire crops were wiped out and people died from starvation.

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Both Odysseus and Gilgamesh had to deal with cruel, powerful gods. Gods often serve as metaphors for a people’s opinion on nature, which can also be powerful and cruel in tough environments. Ancient peoples did not have advanced technology and therefore lacked the ability to control nature or harness natural forces and apply them in constructive ways. Ancient Greek and Middle Eastern people were particularly exposed to the destructive side of nature due to their geographical position on the planet and as a result their cultural myths reflect the challenging conditions posed by natural forces.


Alex Munkachy (author) from Honolulu, Hawaii on May 06, 2013:

I like to wonder what technology and the future will bring, making our time seem ancient. I'm glad you enjoyed my hub, and thanks for the feedback poetvix.

poetvix from Gone from Texas but still in the south. Surrounded by God's country. on May 06, 2013:

It's a very interesting idea. I have always found Mythology captivating. One of the reasons is the repetition of themes seen throughout the world at different times by different cultures. I have to wonder what people will say about our own time's mythology eons from now. Thank you for a most thought provoking read.

Alex Munkachy (author) from Honolulu, Hawaii on March 16, 2013:

Thanks for the comment. I haven't read all there is to read as far as mythology goes, but I did notice that mythology from areas like India have a different feel compared to Middle Eastern and Grecian myths, which were areas where the climate was much harsher. Rama actually gets some assistance from nature during his adventure-- sometimes he's hanging out with monkeys, etc. It's mostly other human beings that oppose Rama. Odysseus and Gilgamesh, on the other hand, can't seem to ever catch a break stormy seas, floods, etc.

Dan Harmon from Boise, Idaho on March 12, 2013:

I don't know that I would put so much emphasis on the specific location; nearly every place on earth has had natural disasters to contend with.

It does make sense, though, that that is the reason for such destructive, cruel gods. Nature is equally uncaring and cruel, and it is very often through nature that the gods have acted out their displeasure on poor man. Floods, volcanoes, hurricanes, ice ages; nature is always a terrible opponent in the struggle to survive

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