What Made Gilgamesh an Epic Hero?
Mythology is full of individuals who are believed to have had superhuman powers. While some of these people have used their powers for the good of humanity, others have misused them for their own selfish gains. Others, however, are documented as having shown characteristics that are both beneficial to humanity and to themselves as well, thereby making it difficult to pass judgment as to whether they are heroes or villains. One such mythology that may seem to offer contradictory viewpoints on a superhuman’s characteristics is The Epic of Gilgamesh which is an ancient Mesopotamia poem regarded to be among the earliest literary works in the world. The poem which dates back to the 2nd or 3rd millennium BCE gives an account of Gilgamesh, a mythological king of Uruk. Gilgamesh who is described as partly human and partly god undertakes a series of quests and even seeks to find the source of immortality following his friend’s death. Studying The Epic of Gilgamesh is the only way of determining whether Gilgamesh was a hero or not, based on an interpretation of the text.
The Epic of Gilgamesh is composed of 12 tablets that detail the life and times of Gilgamesh who is considered to have been a hero and at the same time a villain. The epic was originally a Sumerian poem in cuneiform script that was later compiled in Akkadian. Owing to the numerous translations that the poem has undergone to date, it cannot be said with certainty that indeed the text that is in existence today is actually representative of the original events that took place all those years ago. However, some events could not have been lost in translation and these include the exploits of Gilgamesh which border on boldness and antagonism.
Perhaps the best way of determining the heroism or badness of Gilgamesh is to consider a given passage in the text. In one part of the poem, the following passage stands out and explains the reason as to why Gilgamesh could be considered to be a hero. Where is the strength? It is Gilgameshwho will venture first into the Cedar Forest, and you can follow after, crying out:’Go on, go forward, go on, embrace the danger!’ You who have fought with lions and with wolves,you know what danger is. Where is your courage? If I should fall, my name will be secure.’It was Gilgamesh who fought against Huwawa! It is Gilgamesh who will venture into the Forestand cut down the Cedar down and win the glory. My fame will be secure to all my sons.
According to the passage, Gilgamesh is described as an individual who is not only courageous but also strong enough to face any challenges that come his way. Courage and strength are considered to be among two of the most important virtues that a hero should possess because, in their absence, even the smallest of challenges might be too daunting for them. Additionally, a person who expresses any form of cowardice cannot, under any circumstance, be considered as a hero because this actually is the antithesis of heroism.
Secondly, Gilgamesh attains the title of hero because he is not afraid of danger. He is described in the passage above as being bold enough to venture into the Cedar Forest and to embrace danger by fighting with ferocious animals such as lions and wolves. Under ordinary circumstances, this would be a very difficult thing for a mere mortal to do, but being half god and half man, Gilgamesh seems to have handled the issue with ease. Never has a story of a hero been told where the hero is shown to be afraid of danger, and even in the event that they are, they always get over their fear to face an enemy no matter how adversarial they may be.
This notion is reinforced in one of the lines in the passage when Gilgamesh claims that he will fight against Huwawa and establish his name as a glorious fighter among his sons. Of course, the mighty deeds of all warriors of before have been passed down from one generation to another throughout history and seeing as Gilgamesh’s story is still being talked about today, it would only mean that he too is a hero deserving of recognition centuries after his exploits.
Evidence of Gilgamesh’s heroism can also be found in several other passages in the text. After having spoken to the Scorpion Dragon Being, Gilgamesh is said to have gone to Mount Mashu and entered into the tunnels alone. According to the text, Gilgamesh: “…felt his blind way through the mountain tunnel, struggling for breath, through the third league, alone,and companionless through the fourth… and struggling for every breath, to the end of the fifth,in the absolute dark, nothing behind or before, the weight of the blackness pressing in upon him’. As mentioned earlier, heroes are supposed to be fearless individuals and this is exhibited by Gilgamesh who ventures into the dark tunnel all by himself without even thinking of the dangers that might lurk in the shadows. The fact that he chooses to go without a companion also acts to show that indeed Gilgamesh was a hero of note.
An individual must overcome several challenges in order to be called a hero. According to the monomyth introduced by Joseph Campbell, a hero’s journey is composed of 12 stages that can be summarized into three parts namely departure, initiation and return. In Gilgamesh’s case, these three are evident when he is challenged by the death of his friend Enkidu to go on a journey in search of immortality. After encountering several travails along the way, Gilgamesh finally finds Utnapishtim who is supposed to give him the answer to eternal life. Gilgamesh manages to retrieve the plant which Utnapishtim tells him has the power to restore youthfulness but as he washes up, a serpent creeps up on him and gets away with it forcing a dejected Gilgamesh to go back to Uruk empty-handed. Despite the fact that he fails to fulfill the quest for immortality, Gilgamesh can still be seen to be a hero because he accomplishes the three main stages of a hero’s journey as espoused in Campbell’s monomyth.
On the contrary, a person may be tempted to conclude that Gilgamesh is not a hero. The Epic of Gilgamesh might contain several instances where one would be inclined to believe that Gilgamesh was just a lucky human being who happened to receive supernatural powers by virtue of being born to a goddess. According to Joseph Campbell’s 12 stages of a hero’s journey, a hero is supposed to undergo all if not most of the stages outlined but this is not so clear in Gilgamesh’s case. For instance, there is no place in The Epic of Gilgamesh where the protagonist is called to adventure. In this second stage, of a hero’s journey, a hero is supposed to respond to a call of urgency in response to a threatening situation. In Gilgamesh’s case, however, this is not evident because rather than respond to a call of adventure because of a problem that is faced by a whole community, Gilgamesh embarks on a journey because he is afraid of death. Based on this assessment, one would have no choice but to take it that Gilgamesh is not a hero but a self-centered mythological being who is actually afraid of dying.
Secondly, Gilgamesh fails to be identified as a hero because he was more concerned with fame than anything else. As it is commonly known, heroes are supposed to be selfless individuals who embark on quests that could even be life-threatening for the sake of protecting the human race. As a result, it would be expected that a hero would take on a dangerous mission, not in order to gain fame but to prove that they are truly the defenders of the human race. Gilgamesh, according to Larsen, fails to show this characteristic in the fight with Humbaba and in travailing through Mount Mashu. In fact, before engaging in battle with Humbaba, Gilgamesh claims, according to the passage under consideration in this essay, that he would remain famous among his sons if he was to win the fight. This is in total contradiction to the requisite actions of heroes and thus one would be forgiven for believing that Gilgamesh is not a real hero but an assumed one.
As mentioned earlier, a hero is supposed to protect his people at all costs and not to turn on them. Gilgamesh however, des the complete opposite. At one point in the essay, questions are raised in regards to the manner in which Gilgamesh behaves. The poem points out, according to Ferry, that: “No son is left with his father, for Gilgamesh takes them all; and is this the king, the shepherd of his people? His lust leaves no virgin to her lover, neither the warrior’s daughter nor the wife of the noble.”
The implication of this passage is that neither the sons of the inhabitants of Uruk nor the wives of the men there are spared from Gilgamesh’s fury and lust. They even question why the gods had to give them Gilgamesh as their king because rather than protect them and ensure that no harm comes to them, Gilgamesh is busy oppressing his subjects. This is perhaps out of the knowledge that they are weak creatures and thus cannot do anything in retaliation.
It is important to note also that in as much as Gilgamesh seemed to portray behavior that was uncharacteristic of heroes, he was part human and probably not immune to human behavior that may be errant at times. The point here is that even heroes may at times behave in a manner that may not be viewed as pleasant but this should not be used as an excuse to demonize them. Earlier on in this essay, Gilgamesh is described as being a self-centered individual who is out to look for nothing else but fame. It is also noted that Gilgamesh has embarked on a journey in order to solve an individual problem rather than a communal one.
However, an inspection of the text in the later stages of the poem would suggest otherwise. At some point in the poem, Gilgamesh explains his plan to a boatman by the name Urshanabi and says that: Urshanabi, this plant is a wonderful plant. New life may be obtained by means of it.I will carry the thorny plant back to my city. I will give some of the plant to the elders there,to share among them, telling them it is called How-the-Old-Man-Once-Again-Becomes-A-Young-Man”. From this passage, it becomes evident that Gilgamesh is not that selfish after all seeing as he intends to use the powers of immortality with his subjects in Uruk.
In The Epic of Gilgamesh, the protagonist is presented as an individual who has a penchant for fame and all the recognition that comes with it. Ferry notes that Gilgamesh’s fame will be secured because of his heroic deeds. Under normal circumstances, this could pass for just another case of chest thumping but when the context under which this takes place is considered, one might have to rethink their position.
Of course, heroes were supposed to undertake various challenges some of which were fraught with danger, with some requiring that the hero goes alone. And so, the question arises of who was to tell about the heroes exploits after a successful adventure rather than the heroes themselves? And so, it remains to be seen that even though Gilgamesh may have boasted a little more than he should, he deservedly had to because if he did not offer his account of a hero’s journey, then chances are his epic would not have been documented and the world would not have known about such an individual.
The Epic of Gilgamesh also outlines how human beings are greatly concerned with the concept of mortality and ho. Just like Gilgamesh, most people dread the idea of having to lose their lives and if it was up to them, they would choose to live for all eternity. In the same way that Gilgamesh is left distraught by the death of his friend, Enkidu, human beings are usually devastated also whenever they learn that they have lost a friend or a close relative.
Due to the devastation caused by death, many scientists the world over have embarked on studies to try and come up with ways of prolonging life; an idea that is much welcome among all members of the community. However, achieving this objective is not easy because of the limitation of mankind in terms of knowledge creation and interpretation. Human beings, therefore, just like Gilgamesh also have the potential to acquire the tag of hero or villain depending on the success or failure of the activities engaged in that can be measured by their impact on fellow human beings.
In conclusion, there is a very fine line between heroism and antagonism. Evidence of this is found The Epic of Gilgamesh where the main character Gilgamesh is described through both lenses. On one hand, Gilgamesh is considered to be a hero because he sets out to find a cure for death for the human race but on the other hand, he also displays carelessness by taking the wives of human beings. As the king of Uruk, it would be expected that Gilgamesh would show respect to his constituents and that he protects them but this is not always the case.
Instead, Gilgamesh only strives to build his fame so that he could be remembered for ages to come; something he does manage to attain. Gilgamesh’s actions whether heroic or antagonistic are very much similar to those of human beings who usually go to great extent to prove a certain point. Of course, such actions have may have negative or positive repercussions, and it is thus the impact on humanity as a whole that would be the best indicator of the appropriateness or not of the action and the doer. Gilgamesh, therefore, might have had some flaws that would render him a villain but when it is considered that he had a human side as well, it becomes justifiable to label him as a hero.
- Campbell, Joseph.The historical development of mythology. Joseph Campbell Foundation, 2017.
- Ferry, David. “Gilgamesh: A New Rendering in English Verse.” Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. 1993.
- Larsen, Kristine. ‘The Hero’s Quest and the Cycles of Nature: An Ecological Interpretation of World Mythology.’Mythlore35.2 (2017): 178-185.
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