Gilgamesh: A Heroes Journey

Ana Fleisher

Professor Benander

Topics in Lit

16 September 2012

Gilgamesh: A Heroes Journey

To a modern American audience a hero should be someone that is easy to relate to. This person should have flaws but also go through everyday struggles so that the reader is able to relate and picture themselves as the hero. Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, is a perfect example of someone who had many flaws and faced many struggles and in the end changed his attitude and became a better person.  Joseph Campbell composed a list of seventeen stages that every hero goes through. The stages are grouped into three sections: the departure, the initiation, and the return. This essay will examine how the hero Gilgamesh fits into these three sections and why this makes him a hero.

In the beginning of Gilgamesh, translated by Stephen Mitchell, he is described as doing whatever he wants “…takes the son from his father and crushes him, takes the girl from her mother and uses her, the warrior’s daughter, the young man’s bride, he uses her, no one dares to oppose him” (Mitchell 74). After some prayers were to said to the Gods, a solution was made and that was to create “his second half” someone who would balance Gilgamesh’s character out, and his name was Enkidu. Once Enkidu and Gilgamesh become acquainted this is where the hero’s journey starts. The first step according to Campbell is the “call to adventure” where the hero receives a call to leave his normal life and face adventure. Together these two characters decide to travel to the Cedar Forest and kill Humbaba, the protector of the forest. He makes a speech to the people of Uruk saying “…I will kill Humbaba, the whole world will know how mighty I am (Mitchell 94).  At this point in the story Gilgamesh is still very arrogant and has not yet started to change his ways.

Gilgamesh then enters the next step of the hero’s journey which is the crossing of the first threshold which is when he actually leaves the city of Uruk and travels to the Cedar Forest. It is not until Gilgamesh faces Humbaba and enters the belly of the whale stage that his character’s demeanor starts to change. He is face to face with this beast and one of them has to die. The once strong and fearless leader starts to become fearful and intimidated by the monster. He says “I feel haunted. I am too afraid to go on” (Mitchell 123). All people have fears even if they don’t want to admit it. Gilgamesh admits that he is frightened and he acts this way too. At this point readers are able to see that even a strong leader can become frightened and this makes him seem more human-like. This completes stage one, departure, of the hero’s journey.

Now we can move onto the stage two, the initiation, of the Campbell’s hero journey. The road of trails can be described as a series of tests, tasks, or ordeals that the person must undergo to begin the transformation. Gilgamesh and Enkidu fight the Bull of Heaven together. You can see Gilgamesh’s supportive side coming out when he says to Enkidu, “Dear friend, keep fighting, together we are sure to win” (Mitchell 139). Shortly after successfully killing the Bull of Heaven, Gilgamesh’s confident attitude is restored. At this point in the story we have seen this character as greedy and then he showed his fear. He showed his supportive side to his brother and sure enough his confidence comes back as he rides in a chariot down the street with people cheering and shouting. “Gilgamesh said to his singing girls, ‘Tell me: Who is the handsomest of men? Tell me: Who is the bravest of heroes?… We are the victors who in our fury flung the Bull’s thigh in Ishtar’s face, and now in the streets, she has no one to avenge her” (Mitchell 140).

The next big trail that Gilgamesh faces that ultimately transforms his character is Enkidu dying. According to Campbell’s hero journey this is the Apotheosis. He starts to show more emotion to the audience, he says “Beloved, wait, don’t leave me. Dearest of men, don’t die, don’t let them take you from me” (Mitchell 150). He lost his other half and his brother. He is devastated and he is not afraid to show it. As the reader it is easy to relate to losing a loved one. “Let the gods accept these, let them welcome my friend and walk at his side in the underworld, so that Enkidu may not be sick at heart” (Mitchell 158). He acts in a selfless manner when he offers his own personal goods and treasures to the gods of the underworld so that Enkidu is welcomed and taken care of. This marks the end of stage two in the hero’s journey.

The last stage in the hero’s journey is the return. The crossing of the return threshold is the final step in Gilgamesh’s hero journey. Enkidu’s death sent Gilgamesh on an adventure to fight death but he ultimately ended up learning his biggest lesson from Utnapishtim, the man who become immortal.  He learns to appreciate life every day and that humans are meant to die. Utnapishtim tells him how fortunate he is to be 2/3 divine and 1/3 human, to be blessed, and to be king (Mitchell 177). He takes this information and starts to appreciate everything about his life and his kingdom. He understands that death is a part of life. This experience changed him for the better. When he returns to Uruk he admires his town and how beautiful it is. He says “This is the wall of Uruk, which no city on earth can equal…examine its brickwork, how masterfully it is built, observe the land it encloses: the palm trees, the gardens, the orchards, the glorious palaces and temples, the shops and marketplaces, the houses, the public squares” (Mitchell 199). He set out on a journey to conquer death and instead came back a better person. He became giving and non selfish and he learned to appreciate the life he had be given because it was a great life.

From the beginning of the story of Gilgamesh to the end you can see a total transformation in this character. The strong and greedy king showed fear and vulnerability. The death of his brother and second half stirred up his restless heart and sent him on a journey to fight and overcome death. The lesson he learned though was to appreciate his life every day until he dies. He learned that death was a part of life. Gilgamesh has obvious flaws and goes through many struggles just as its readers do on a daily basis. Gilgamesh’s vulnerability makes him easy to relate to. Modern American readers want a hero who’s relatable and seems ordinary in their emotions and life. People change in life sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worst. In the case of Gilgamesh he changed for the better and become a better person. Readers should be able to see themselves in the character and you can do that with Gilgamesh.

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