The Epic of Gilgamesh is probably one of the oldest written poems in literature that is still surviving to the present day in its original form. The protagonist of this poem is Gilgamesh – a warrior who is actually part man and part God. The poem eulogizes and praises Gilgamesh while also describing his exploits and adventures. This paper will examine if Gilgamesh fits into the mold of an epic hero.
An Epic Hero – Definition
In order to understand if Gilgamesh fits the mold of an epic hero, it becomes imperative for this paper to define an epic hero and then compare and contrast against that frame. In his work on the subject, Nicholas Newell identifies the characteristics of epic heroes from Greek poems such as the Odyssey, the Aeneid and the Illiad. (Newell 5)
In this context, an epic hero is someone who is valiant, selfless, courageous and determined to gain victory against all odds. To that extent, an epic hero would also display a certain set of Ethics in particular situations. In some cases, such heroes may or may not have been aware of their powers. Therefore, certain instances in their life stand out as an example of their bravery and chivalry. In case of Gilgamesh, therefore, one sees that certain instances from the poem lends credence to the assertion that he could possibly be regarded as an epic hero. This paper will now review some of the key exploits in the life of Gilgamesh in order to understand if he fits this framework.
Victory over the beast Humbaba
Gilgamesh displayed exemplary valor when he fought and routed the monster Humbaba. This giant creature that lived in the Cedar Forest frightened everyone who lived in the vicinity and refused access to anyone wishing to pass through the forest. The public in Urok - Gilgamesh's home town - urged him not to fight the monster. (Foster) They were apprehensive that the battle would ultimately lead to Gilgamesh's death. However, Gilgamesh deftly tricked Humbaba by offering his sisters to be the beast's mistresses and wife. At this time, the creature did not expect an attack from Gilgamesh. The beast was thus captured by Gilgamesh and later beheaded. Gilgamesh's shrewdness and resolve allowed him to kill Humbaba and save his townsfolk from harassment. In this context, one can view Gilgamesh as a hero because he performed an act that others before him had either failed or did not have the resolve to perform. In other words, as an epic hero, he succeeded where others had failed, albeit by guile.
Climbing of Mount Mashu
The expedition to the top of Mount Mashu is a glaring instance of Gilgamesh's fortitude and valor. The cliff was precipitous, treacherous and touted to be impossible for mortals to ascend. A scorpion guard lived at the top of Mount Mashu and watched over the steep cliff, but allowed access to Gilgamesh because the guard was stunned by Gilgamesh's courage, dexterity, power and rock-climbing skills. (Foster) As a result, he allowed Gilgamesh to pass through the gate at the pinnacle of the mountain. The scorpion guard wished Gilgamesh well on his future journeys and hoped the gods would be with him. In this case, Gilgamesh emerged a hero because he wasn't afraid to face unbeatable situations.
Killing the Bull of Heaven
Gilgamesh used extreme self-control when the beautiful Ishtar - the Queen of Heaven, tried to manipulate him. (Foster) The goddess was taken by Gilgamesh's appearance and tried to tempt him into a sexual liaison. However, Gilgamesh was revolted by her egotistic attempts and rejected her advances. Therefore, as a reprisal, she sent a Bull of Heaven to destroy and devour Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh and his best friend Enkidu fought and killed the creature with a sword and ripped out its heart. (Foster) In the process, Gilgamesh gave the highest sacrifice by losing his friend Enkidu as per the will of God. (Freeman) This instance shows Gilgamesh's heroism in not only defeating the Bull, but in proving his honor when tempted by Ishtar. It also shows that Gilgamesh gives up his closest and dearest friend as a sacrifice for standing on the ethical path.
Gilgamesh – Hero or Not?
The three instances mentioned above display unique facets of Gilgamesh’s character. Gilgamesh comes across as a person who is valorous, strong, and who possesses a steel like character. In such a case, he does not mind giving major sacrifices, even his own life, in order to remain on the path of scruples and honesty. The tavern keeper Shiduri implores Gilgamesh near the Sea of Death to give up his quest for eternal life: “Humans are born, they live, then they die, this is the order that the gods have decreed.” (Foster) However, he does not give up and continues on his journey despite knowing well the dangers that might befall him.
On an almost repeated basis, the poem gives accounts of Gilgamesh’s strength of character, his bravery, determination combined with the guile of a warrior that keeps him alive in situations where the bravest have died. This, in itself, is a commendable feat and one that requires Gilgamesh to be recognized as an epic hero of proportions no less than his Roman and Greek counterparts. It is no doubt that Philip Freeman states that most people who study these subjects remember Gilgamesh over his Greek and Roman epic hero counterparts. (Freeman) There cannot be a better testimony to the fact that Gilgamesh is an epic hero in his own right since his tale is more striking and interesting.
One can conclude from this paper that the feats performed by Gilgamesh, his extraordinary strength of character, his Godly nature, and his ability to win the most difficult battles make him a well-deserved candidate for being slotted as an epic hero. He easily fits the framework and, in some cases, exceeds the specifications laid down by various Greek and Roman texts on the concept of an epic hero. This is the reason why most of us are more likely to remember this particular epic over other Greek and Roman epics.
Hence, in conclusion, this paper settles the debate and views Gilgamesh as an epic hero.
Newell, Nicholas. “A reception history of Gilgamesh as a Myth.” Georgia State University Publishing (Theses Division). 2013. Print.
Foster, Benjamin, (Trans). The Epic of Gilgamesh. New York, NY: W.W Norton Publishers, 2001. Print.
Freeman, Philip. “Lessons from a Demigod.” National Endowment for Humanities. Aug 2012. Web. 31 Jan 2016.