Death is an inevitable vice that humans cannot wrap their heads around, and to be honest most of them are not ready to die when their time does come. What makes a life worth living? This serious, but relevant question will never have a definitive answer. Is death about being infamous to everyone’s knowledge, but never truly touching anyone, or is it centered around the relationship with close family and friends? Based on am individuals personal desires comes a hero that follows the path they hope they will pave. Ancient civilizations created epics that surpass any modern day super hero.
From the ancient Sumerian culture came the tale of Gilgamesh, and from the Greeks came a man by the name of Odysseus. These heroes were people set on a journey, they do not have any super powers, and they solely rely on faith in their God (or gods). What makes these stories truly special is that although they are strikingly similar, the pursuits of these characters stem from selfishness and selflessness. This not only reflects the cultural origin of these epics, but shows diversity in what defines heroism. Gilgamesh’s heroism is driven by personal ramification.
He does not fear death in the beginning, he only hopes when he passes his name will be infamous. This clouds his judgment allowing him and Enkidu to embark on a journey to destroy Humbaba, a horrific beast that stands guard at the entrance of a large cedar forest. “I will set my hand to cutting a cedar An eternal name I will make for myself (Gilgamesh 111 line 211-212)! ” Gilgamesh’s personality is egotistical, so instead of making choices based on circumstance and consequence; he made a decision to destroy Humbaba solely to feed the amortization of himself through the hands of his people.
However, Gilgamesh received the response that he was young, foolish, and most definitely not invincible. This advice from his country of Uruk did not stop him. After he gained justification from the Gods, Gilgamesh and Enkidu did in fact destroy the beast, but a curse was set in place. As punishment. Enkidu was sent to death by the gods. “He touched his heart but it was not beating” (Gilgamesh 133 line 52). This very moment is when Gilgamesh sets on a voyage for immortality. When confronting Utanapishtim, Gilgamesh is told of the flood, but more importantly about a plant that will restore his youth.
This progression of selfishness does shed a light of selflessness as Gilgamesh lost the plant but gained self- recognition. He and the Boat man then return to Uruk, where Gilgamesh proudly displays the beauty of the city he built. This ending proves that what made Gilgamesh physically heroic was his bravery to go on a journey, even though it was driven by immortal desire. Gilgamesh is mentally named a hero within himself as it was never about his travels, but him accepting that he is only human. Odysseus is a man with virtue and character.
The story of a man leading his men home after being victorious in the Trojan war. Culturally this can be connected to how Greek men would risk it all if it meant protection for their country and the end of plight for their people. There are many experiences that show Odysseus’s skill he attained from being trained in the war. There are also experiences that show he has some learning to do. Through all of these folly’s one thing is for sure, he is determined to succeed. The trip home is an unexpected tale that shows there is a difference between being a hero, and being a leader.
Odysseus went through many victories saving his men from their demise; however, his lack of communication and over investment in pleasing his curiosity is what got him and his men in those situations in the first place. One pertinent example is when Odysseus had to feed his hunger of curiosity and lay eyes on the cyclops Polyphemus. “I want to find out what those men are like, Wild savages with no sense of right or wrong” (Homer 429 line 169-170) If only he would have turned back and sailed on as he should have, two of his men would have lived. What makes Odysseus a hero is his cunning use of rhetoric, as well as his bravery.
Without being brave, his men would have cowered at the first sign of a dangerous situation. His heroism resided in the fact that he saved more men from perishing in this particular event with these words “They call me Noman—”(Homer 434 line 365). Once Polyphemus was asleep he and his remaining men stabbed him in the eye, blinding him, and the cyclops could only shout out “Noman is killing me by some kind of trick! ” (Homer 435 line 407). This curiosity eventually killed all of his men on his journey home, as a curse was placed on his men by the cyclops.
In each way you can compare these epics, there is also a ontrast between their situations. Both stories are based on a journey home in one sense or another. Odysseus always had known that Ithaca was his home, while Gilgamesh had to take some self-exploration before he realized the greatness of his country and all that he had built. These two heroes’ also felt a sense of pride in wanting to please their homeland. Odysseus’s success in war was based on pride and protection for his people, while Gilgamesh’s reason for defeating Humbaba had a selfish tone underlying.
Another contrast is that although these are based on a journey, Odysseus had a crew of people with him, showing that it was not just about him getting home, but all of them getting home. Although all of Odysseus’s men eventually perish, I believe that Odysseus had good intentions. Gilgamesh’s journey was self-inflicted, he was only in it for himself and gaining immortality. Odysseus could have had it all in the eyes of Gilgamesh, as he was offered immortality during his journey “But if you had any idea of all the pain You’re destined to suffer before getting home, You’d stay here with me, deathless—”(Homer 390 line 205-207).
From the words of a temptress this is one example that shows Odysseus’s strength through his many follies. He comes back to tell the Goddess he knows Penelope is only mortal, but he wishes to return home, and longs to be back where he came from, with his wife. There is much to say about these epics that pertain to the culture of these civilizations as well. It is said the Odyssey was a collaboration of multiple poets who put their stories together once a form of literacy was placed in the Greek culture (World Literature A:227).
The Odyssey also reflects the polytheism that existed during that time, the idea that multiple gods were to be worshipped. With being a ruler Gilgamesh had no human above him, and everyone below him. This puts a lot of pressure on a person, and I feel that although his actions were sometimes foolish Gilgamesh most likely did not know any better. Growing up on top of everything is what started his sense of invincibility, and when his people did not reciprocate feelings of love for Gilgamesh he tried everything to earn their respect.
This is where the Sumerian culture differs from most civilization today. It also shows that there can be consequences when living in a society that has one person in a seat of power. As death may be perceived in many ways, I would say these epics pertain to two types of people. The ones who want to be remembered by the ones they love, and the ones who lost the ones they loved while trying to be infamous in the eyes of many. Both of these stories have taught a great lesson on love, loss, and not feeding your curiosity out of selfish desire.
The reason these epics are as famous as they are is because it shows that being a leader and being a hero are two different things. To obtain both of these qualities in one person would be the definition of perfection in that age of time. It shows that we are only human, and even the greatest of heroes will have points of struggle. These two epics are timeless, and will continue to be timeless. Because what it takes to be a great hero will never be a universal definition, and who is to say we cannot all be heroes in our own way?