Epic poetry, one of the earliest forms of literature, beganas an oral narration describing a series of mythical or historic events. Eventually, these stories were written down and read aloud to an audience. Although the Epic of Gilgamesh was composed approximately fifteen hundred years prior to the Iliad, the heroes of both epics possess strikingly similar characteristics. Indeed, Gilgamesh and Achilles, as epic heroes, exemplify godlike qualities, great personal power, and fierce pride and loyalty.
The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the greatest pieces of literature from the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia known to modern scholars. It was found among ruins in Ninevah in the form of twelve large tablets, dating from 2,000 B.C. This heroic poem is named for its hero, Gilgamesh, a tyrannical Babylonian king who ruled the city of Uruk.
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According to the myth, the gods responded to prayers and sent a wild brutish man, Enkidu, to challenge Gilgamesh to a wrestling match. When the contest ends, neither is victorious and the two become friends. They journey together and share many adventures. On an expedition to the west, they confront an evil monster, Humbaba.
Enkidu slays Humbaba and in return, the gods take Enkidu’s life. Gilgamesh the mighty hero has then transformed into Gilgamesh the broken mortal. The pursuit of immortality leads Gilgamesh into further adventures. The most famous is his encounter with Utnapishtim, an ancient hero who had survived a tragic flood. His tale, recounted in the epic, bears many resemblances to the biblical story of the flood. Gilgamesh, following Utnapishtim’s advice, finds a plant capable of rendering him immortal, only to have it stolen by a snake while he sleeps, exhausted from his quest.
On this note, the epic ends. Gilgamesh’s search for immortality ends in vain, however, his accounts were written on the walls of his great city. The tale of Gilgamesh is interesting because it addresses many of humanity’s eternal questions, including the meaning of friendship and the desire to be immortal.
In Gilgamesh, we find a hero who is created by the gods; yet he is part human. “Two thirds they made him a god and one-third man” (14). He seeks the protection of the gods and draws upon their wise counsel. Achilles is also of mortal-immortal heritage. Although he is often referred to as “son of Peleus” (a mortal), his mother, the sea nymph Thetis, had dipped him as a child in the River Styx causing him to be immortal everywhere except the heel by which she held him.
Not unlike Gilgamesh, Achilles seeks the wise counsel of the gods and entreats his mother to use her diplomatic skills to gain favour with the other gods. He attempts this when he tells Thetis, “Go to Olympus, plead with Zeus/if you ever warmed his heart with a word or any action” (I, 468-69).
In addition to the gods’ influence, Gilgamesh and Achilles are protected by their own superhuman strength. Gilgamesh, especially, has a reputation for being “strong as a savage bull” (14). His friend Enkidu expresses this when he states, “Your strength surpasses the strength of men.” Achilles, on the other hand, is a famous warrior, feared by many, whom the Achaians depend on to win the war. Even his enemy, Agamemnon, recognizes Achilles’ strength when he declares, “That man is worth an entire army,/the fighter Zeus holds dear with all his heart–” (IX, 141-42).
Although they are each strong, courageous and “favourite sons” of the gods, Gilgamesh and Achilles share the same tragic flaw: overweening pride. Gilgamesh must prove his strength and superiority by being first with the women and bgy physically overpowering the men. The elders of his kingdom suggest that he is unbearable when they mutter, “His arrogance has no bounds by day or night” (14).
And Achilles’ anger at Agamemnon and his hurt pride only serve to escalate the conflict during the Trojan War. Due to Agamemnon’s mistreatment of him, Achilles refuses to fight to state, “I swear, a yearning for Achilles will strike Achaea’s sons and all your armies!…Then – then you will tear your heart out, desperate, raging that you disgraced the best of the Achaeans” (I, 281-87).
Another quality that the two heroes share, and that softens their strong characters, is loyalty to a friend. Gilgamesh is so embittered by the death of his friend Enkidu that he risks his life “crossing over the waters of death” in an attempt to bring Enkidu back. Achilles’ agony over the death of his warrior-companion, Patroclus, is no less strong as he risks his life and reenters the war in order to avenge his friend’s death. He tells his mother Thetis, “I’ve lost the will to live,/to take my stand in the world of men–unless, before all else, Hektor’s battered down by my spear” (XVIII, 105-07).
Notwithstanding the fact that The Epic of Gilgamesh is a myth and the Iliad is based upon historic events, the protagonists portrayed here perpetuate the idea that man has always chosen for his super-heroes the qualities which he desires for himself: power, near-perfection, pride and loyalty. We celebrate these so-called heroic qualities in the twentieth century, Will there ever be different qualities, qualities that might preserve a civilization longer than the civilizations that created these two brutal epics?