As the world’s earliest known “hero tale,” the Epic of Gilgamesh established the literary tradition of the hero that today pervades our cultural perspective and self-image. This socio-cultural construct is present in folklore, books, movies and even in high-tech media, such as video games and computer programs. In recent years, the 9/11 attacks and the conflicts that followed in its wake have produced a modern hero image that we have come to idealize, a crusader who ignores grave danger to protect the vulnerable and innocent. Gilgamesh is the epitome of this brave protector who, through courage, persistence and physical strength seeks to overcome daunting challenges in order to restore peace and security. In fact, Gilgamesh embodies many of the virtues we ascribe to the firemen and police officers who strove to save lives in the twin towers and the volunteers who have battled Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
Yet there is greater dimension to Gilgamesh, whose seeking after glory, of special power and of knowledge that belonged to the gods reflects an ancient hero image. Gilgamesh is “super,” but he is not our “Superman,” an innately virtuous being whose sole purpose is to preserve “truth, justice and the American way.” In tablet one of the epic, he is an oppressor, a
tyrant who uses his power for his own gain. As a king who claimed his right to newly married brides, his is quite different from our image of the selfless American soldier or safety volunteer that we have come to revere. Yet in 7th century Mesopotamia, a man powerful enough to bend others to his will was “great,” at least in the sense that he was the strongest, the bravest, the wealthiest, and so forth. When the people of Uruk implore the gods to intervene on their behalf, the epic takes a literary turn that would be reinforced in The Odyssey, The Iliad and countless other epic tales. Divine intervention guides events and leads the hero down a purer path.
The notion of divine supremacy and of redemption through divine intervention is one that modern man still finds compelling. Americans are accustomed to believing in a kind of divine justification for Democracy and American cultural values. Indeed, the remarkable courage of the 9/11 volunteers and the hard-won success of American troops in the Middle East is still seen by many as proof of the old adage that “God is on our side.” In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the gods intervene for reasons both good and bad. Their influence has the effect of moving Gilgamesh toward heroic behavior, impacted as he is by the imposition of Enkidu, with whom he sets out to destroy Humbaba, the monstrous guardian of the Cedar Forest (Mitchell 34). Later, after Gilgamesh spurns Ishtar’s advances, he and Enkidu must again fight to subdue a deadly enemy, the Bull of Heaven, which has devastated the land (Ibid). It is not difficult to see American soldiers, who have battled down deadly and oppressive enemies on foreign shores, in the same light as Gilgamesh and Enkidu.
In The Odyssey, Homer gives us the archetypal hero Odysseus, a worthy successor to
Gilgamesh in that both are heroic representations from ages during which the term “hero” had a somewhat different meaning. Odysseus is undeniably brave but he is a gambler, a man with nerves of steel and an unshakeable confidence in his native cleverness. His wits and intelligence are what make him a hero and are qualities the ancient Greeks would have most admired. It is a conceit of our modern era that heroes such as those who defeated the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks did so in a blaze of gunfire, facing a cornered Osama bin Laden “high noon” style. American military intelligence services may have laid the groundwork for bin Laden’s demise, outfoxing Pakistani authorities and Al Qaeda in finding bin Laden and discovering when he would be most vulnerable. From a psychological standpoint, it is important to our modern sensibility that he should fall in a face-to-face confrontation with avenging American soldiers.
In Heroes and Heroines, Antonia Fraser speaks of Odysseus and our love affair with him as a kind of illicit pleasure. We admire him for his intrepidity and daring, but part of us can’t help but admit that there is an element of the back-stabber in his cunning. “We admire him with a sneaking feeling of guilt at doing so, and in this ambiguity which his character raises one can see the genesis of the eternal anti-hero” (Fraser 13). Ambiguity is a fascinating aspect of heroism, though one we are today reluctant to credit. We may privately relish a deception that results in the capturing or killing of an arch-villain such as bin Laden, but we don’t necessarily commemorate it or erect monuments in honor of resourcefulness. For us, heroism has to do with blood and guts, not guile and subterfuge.
Nevertheless, Odysseus’ machinations are aimed at one undeniably noble and easily relatable goal: the return to his wife and family and the reclamation of his life and kingdom.
There have been countless memorable images in the news, but the most poignant surely must be
the fear and sadness evinced by the spouses and children of men and women departing for Afghanistan or Iraq. It is powerful because we can imagine what it must feel like to experience that sense of uncertainty and loss. This is the timeless appeal of Homer’s great epic. If there is one facet of Odysseus’ legend that we can consider truly heroic, it is this: not the will of Poseidon, the menace of Polyphemus, the seduction of Circe nor the voraciousness of the Lestrygonians can keep him from finding his way back to Ithaca (Homer xv). Over the past decade, a great many Americans have felt the desire of Odysseus to be reunited with family and friends.
It is interesting to note that, to the Romans, Ulysses was not a hero, at least not in the sense that Achilles or Hector were considered heroic, though tragic, figures. For the Romans, who considered themselves the descendants of Trojan Aeneas, cunning and the art of deception were not necessarily desirable qualities. In fact, The Aeneid, the epic poem describing Aeneas’ flight from Troy to Italy, refers to him as “false Odysseus” (Virgil 28). In fact, one could make the argument that for the Romans, Odysseus embodied qualities they considered uniquely Greek and, by definition, decidedly un-Roman (in other words deceptive, even effeminate).
Virgil’s great tale solidified Odysseus’ status as a cultural flashpoint, a line of departure between the national characters of the Greeks and Romans. “Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey portrayed Odysseus as a culture hero, but the Romans, who believed themselves the scions of Prince Aeneas of Troy, considered him a villainous falsifier” (Larson 26). If the Romans have
bequeathed to the West and, specifically, to America, a respect for virile conflict and the manly pursuit of glory in battle, then one may well consider Odysseus to be a less than ideal hero figure to compare to the heroes of 9/11 and American soldiers in the Middle East. It is, after all, no accident that the U.S. Marine motto, Semper Fidelis, is a Latin phrase meaning “ever faithful.”
As discussed, the concept of hero can be a complex one, with definitions that may alter slightly depending on the time and place in which it is used. One of the most complex and enduring representations of the hero is found in Greek tragedy, specifically in Sophocles’ Oedipus, a noble yet doomed figure undone by fate. Aristotle assigned characteristics that define a tragic hero, using Oedipus as his ideal. Aristotle wrote that the tragic hero is a noble figure but becomes the architect of his own downfall; is the victim of an undeserved fate; and suffers an unduly harsh punishment (Sophocles and Mulroy xxxv). Aristotle noted that one reason Oedipus stands out in the annals of literary tragedy is the remarkable quality of healing he imparts through his suffering. The heroes who braved death to save others gave hope to Americans on 9/11 and in the following months, exhibiting grace and courage in the face of impossible circumstances and, in many cases, almost certain death.
Oedipus’ nobility is to be found not only in his station and in the circumstances of his royalty, but in his loyalty and faithful determination to save the Thebans and protect the house of Laius. Public service and the welfare of others is clear in his mind, and he acts throughout with high-minded intentions, though it all comes to no more than a doomed gesture, Oedipus having set in motion the events that prove his undoing. His steadfastness is characteristic of a noble
spirit, even when frustrated and dismayed by the actions of others, such as Teiresias’ refusal to act with conviction in spite of crisis. “Oedipus makes a gesture only the truly great are capable of: he proposes that “‘all of us,’ himself explicitly included, become supplicants and kneel in humbleness before Teiresias” (Bloom 36). Confronted by adversity, he remains stoic despite not comprehending the events that are unfolding or the inaction of key individuals, such as Teiresias. Oedipus has the courage of a great soul not easily daunted by adversity. This is the same kind of courage displayed by the men and women who ignored danger to rescue others during the events of 9/11. However, courage and nobility of spirit were not enough to alter the course of his life, or give him the wisdom to respond wisely to the Delphic oracle.
Oedipus’ actions – his choices – are made of his own free will. The oracle places a number of choices before Oedipus, which he acts upon, thus setting in motion that series of events that leads to his downfall. Though many have claimed that Oedipus was a powerless dupe, a hapless victim of the gods and of fate, it must be remembered that oracles do not of themselves fulfill destinies, but rather are open to interpretation by the hearer who has it in his power to react according to his own understanding and intellect. Though it seems cruel, the fact that Oedipus should misunderstand the oracle is his own fault. He makes fatal assumptions about the oracle, one being that the oracle did not reveal who his true parents were. The forces that can be assumed to have determined the course of Oedipus’ destiny did not actually predetermine it. It was up to Oedipus all along to determine what course of action to follow.
Bloom, Harold. Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. New York: Infobase Publishing, 2007.
Fraser, Antonia. Heroes and Heroines. Naperville, IL: A&W Publishers, 1980.
Homer. The Odyssey of Homer Done Into English Prose. New York: MacMillan and Company,
Larson, Jennifer. Ancient Greek Cults: A Guide. New York: Routledge, 2007.
Mitchell, Stephen. Gilgamesh: A New English Version. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004.
Sophocles, Mulroy, David. Oedipus Rex. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2011.
Virgil. The Aeneid. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1917.