Is Gilgamesh a hero? Mythologyis full of individuals who are believed to have had superhuman powers. Whilesome of these people have used their powers for the good of humanity, othershave misused them for their own selfish gains.
Others, however, are documentedas having shown characteristics that are both beneficial to humanity and tothemselves as well, thereby making it difficult to pass judgment as to whether they are heroes or villains. One such mythologythat may seem to offer contradictory viewpoints on a superhuman’scharacteristics is The Epic of Gilgamesh whichis an ancient Mesopotamia poem regarded to be among the earliest literary worksin the world. The poem which dates back to the 2nd or 3rdmillennium BCE gives an account of Gilgamesh, a mythological king of Uruk(Larsen 178). Gilgamesh who is described as partly human and partly godundertakes a series of quests and even seeks to find the source of immortalityfollowing his friend’s death. Studying TheEpic of Gilgamesh is the only way of determining whether Gilgamesh was ahero or not, based on an interpretation of the text. The Epic of Gilgamesh is composed of 12tablets that detail the life and times of Gilgamesh who is considered to havebeen a hero and at the same time a villain.
The epic was originally a Sumerian poemin cuneiform script that was latercompiled in Akkadian. Owing to the numerous translations that the poem hasundergone to date, it cannot be said with certainty that indeed the text thatis in existence today is actually representative of the original events thattook place all those years ago. However, some events could not have been lostin translation and these include the exploits of Gilgamesh which border onboldness and antagonism. Perhaps the best way of determining the heroism or badnessof Gilgamesh is to consider a given passage in the text. In one part of the poem, the following passage stands out andexplains the reason as to why Gilgamesh could be considered to be a hero.Where is the strength? It isGilgamesh who will venture first into the Cedar Forest, and you can followafter, crying out: ‘Go on, go forward, go on, embrace the danger!’ You whohave fought with lions and with wolves, you know what danger is.
Where isyour courage? If I should fall, my name will be secure. ‘It was Gilgameshwho fought against Huwawa! It is Gilgamesh who will venture into theForest and cut down the Cedar down and win the glory. My fame will besecure to all my sons. (Ferry 30). Accordingto the passage, Gilgamesh is described as an individual who is not onlycourageous but also strong enough to face any challenges that come his way. Courageand strength are considered to be among two of the most important virtues thata hero should possess because, in theirabsence, even the smallest of challenges might be too daunting for them.Additionally, a person who expresses any form of cowardice cannot, under anycircumstance, be considered as a hero because this actually is the antithesisof heroism. Secondly,Gilgamesh attains the title of hero because he is not afraid of danger.
He isdescribed in the passage above as being bold enough to venture into the CedarForest and to embrace danger by fighting with ferocious animals such as lionsand wolves. Under ordinary circumstances, this would be a very difficult thingfor a mere mortal to do, but being half god and half man, Gilgamesh seems tohave handled the issue with ease. Never has a story of a hero been told wherethe 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 theymay be.
This notion is reinforced in one of the lines in the passage whenGilgamesh claims that he will fight against Huwawa and establish his name as aglorious fighter among his sons. Of course, the mighty deeds of all warriors ofbefore have been passed down from one generation to another throughout history andseeing as Gilgamesh’s story is still being talked about today, it would onlymean that he too is a hero deserving of recognition centuries after hisexploits. Evidence ofGilgamesh’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 havegone to Mount Mashu and entered into the tunnels alone. According to the text,Gilgamesh: “…felt his blind way through the mountain tunnel, struggling forbreath, through the third league, alone, and companionless through thefourth… and struggling for every breath, to the end of the fifth, in theabsolute dark, nothing behind or before, the weight of the blackness pressingin upon him” (Ferry 51) As mentioned earlier, heroes are supposed to befearless individuals and this is exhibited by Gilgamesh who ventures into thedark tunnel all by himself without even thinking of the dangers that might lurkin the shadows. The fact that he chooses to go without a companion also acts toshow that indeed Gilgamesh was a hero of note. Anindividual must overcome several challenges in order to be called a hero. Accordingto the monomyth introduced by Joseph Campbell, a hero’s journey is composed of12 stages that can be summarized into three parts namely departure, initiationand return.
In Gilgamesh’s case, these three are evident when he is challengedby the death of his friend Enkidu to go on a journey in search of immortality. Afterencountering several travails along the way, Gilgamesh finally findsUtnapishtim who is supposed to give him the answer to eternal life. Gilgameshmanages to retrieve the plant which Utnapishtim tells him has the power torestore youthfulness but as he washes up, a serpent creeps up on him and getsaway 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, Gilgameshcan still be seen to be a hero because he accomplishes the three main stages ofa hero’s journey as espoused in Campbell’s monomyth. On thecontrary, a person may be tempted to conclude that Gilgamesh is not a hero. The Epic of Gilgamesh might containseveral instances where one would be inclined to believe that Gilgamesh was justa lucky human being who happened to receive supernatural powers by virtue ofbeing born to a goddess. According to Joseph Campbell’s 12 stages of a hero’sjourney, a hero is supposed to undergo all if not most of the stages outlinedbut this is not so clear in Gilgamesh’s case.
For instance, there is no placein The Epic of Gilgamesh where theprotagonist 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 threateningsituation. In Gilgamesh’s case, however, this is not evident because ratherthan respond to a call of adventure because of a problem that is faced by awhole community, Gilgamesh embarks on a journey because he is afraid of death. Basedon this assessment, one would have no choice but to take it that Gilgamesh isnot a hero but a self-centered mythological being who is actually afraid ofdying. Secondly,Gilgamesh fails to be identified as a hero because he was more concerned withfame than anything else. As it is commonly known, heroes are supposed to beselfless individuals who embark on quests that could even be life-threateningfor the sake of protecting the human race. As a result, it would be expectedthat a hero would take on a dangerous mission, not in order to gain fame but toprove that they are truly the defenders of the human race. Gilgamesh, accordingto Larsen, fails to show this characteristic in the fight with Humbaba and intravailing through Mount Mashu.
In fact, before engaging in battle with Humbaba,Gilgamesh claims, according to the passage under consideration in this essay, thathe would remain famous among his sons if he was to win the fight. This is intotal contradiction to the requisite actions of heroes and thus one would beforgiven for believing that Gilgamesh is not a real hero but an assumed one. Asmentioned earlier, a hero is supposed to protect his people at all costs andnot to turn on them. Gilgamesh however, des the complete opposite.
At one pointin the essay, questions are raised in regards to the manner in which Gilgameshbehaves. The poem points out, according to Ferry, that: “No son is left withhis father, for Gilgamesh takes them all; and is this the king, the shepherd ofhis people? His lust leaves no virgin to her lover, neither the warrior’s daughternor the wife of the noble.” The implication of this passage is that neither thesons of the inhabitants of Uruk nor the wives of the men there are spared fromGilgamesh’s fury and lust. They even question why the gods had to give them Gilgameshas their king because rather than protect them and ensure that no harm comes tothem, Gilgamesh is busy oppressing his subjects. This is perhaps out of theknowledge that they are weak creatures and thus cannot do anything inretaliation.
It isimportant to note also that in as much as Gilgamesh seemed to portray behaviorthat was uncharacteristic of heroes, he was parthuman and probably not immune to human behavior that may be errant at times. Thepoint here is that even heroes may at times behave in a manner that may not beviewed as pleasant but this should not be used as an excuse to demonize them. Earlieron in this essay, Gilgamesh is described as being a self-centered individualwho is out to look for nothing else but fame (Ferry 50).
It is also noted thatGilgamesh has embarked on a journey in order to solve an individual problemrather than a communal one. However, an inspection of the text in the laterstages 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 ofit. I will carry the thorny plant back to my city. I will give some of theplant to the elders there, to shareamong them, telling them it is called How-the-Old-Man-Once-Again-Becomes-A-Young-Man”(Ferry 80). From this passage, it becomes evident that Gilgamesh isnot that selfish after all seeing as he intends to use the powers ofimmortality with his subjects in Uruk.
In The Epic of Gilgamesh, the protagonistis presented as an individual who has a penchant for fame and all therecognition that comes with it. Ferry notes that Gilgamesh’s fame will besecured because of his heroic deeds. Under normal circumstances, this couldpass for just another case of chest thumping but when the context under which thistakes place is considered, one might have to rethink their position. Of course,heroes were supposed to undertake various challenges some of which were fraughtwith danger, with some requiring that the hero goes alone (Ferry 51). And so,the question arises of who was to tell about the heroes exploits after asuccessful adventure rather than the heroes themselves? And so, it remains tobe seen that even though Gilgamesh may have boasted a little more than heshould, he deservedly had to because if he did not offer his account of ahero’s journey, then chances are his epic would not have been documented andthe world would not have known about such an individual. The Epic of Gilgamesh also outlines howhuman beings are greatly concerned with the concept of mortality and ho. Justlike Gilgamesh, most people dread the idea of having to lose their lives and ifit was up to them, they would choose to live for all eternity. In the same waythat Gilgamesh is left distraught by the death of his friend, Enkidu, humanbeings are usually devastated also whenever they learn that they have lost afriend or a close relative.
Due to the devastation caused by death, manyscientists the world over have embarked on studies to try and come up with waysof prolonging life; an idea that is much welcome among all members of thecommunity. However, achieving this objective is not easy because of thelimitation of mankind in terms of knowledge creation and interpretation. Humanbeings, therefore, just like Gilgamesh also have the potential to acquire thetag of hero or villain depending on the success or failure of the activities engagedin that can be measured by their impact on fellow human beings. Inconclusion, there is a very fine line between heroism and antagonism.
Evidence of this is found The Epic of Gilgamesh where the maincharacter Gilgamesh is described through both lenses. On one hand, Gilgamesh isconsidered to be a hero because he sets out to find a cure for death for thehuman race but on the other hand, he also displays carelessness by taking thewives of human beings. As the king of Uruk, it would be expected that Gilgameshwould show respect to his constituents and that he protects them but this isnot always the case. Instead, Gilgamesh only strives to build his fame so thathe 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 thoseof human beings who usually go to great extent to prove a certain point. Ofcourse, such actions have may have negative or positive repercussions, and itis thus the impact on humanity as a whole that would be the best indicator ofthe appropriateness or not of the action and the doer.
Gilgamesh, therefore, mighthave had some flaws that would render him a villain but when it is consideredthat he had a human side as well, it becomes justifiable to label him as ahero.