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The Epic of Gilgamesh: A Hero’s Journey

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‘The Epic of Gilgamesh’ significantly studied by global scholars since it’s discovery in the ruins of the Library of Ashurbanipal in 1853 (Dalley, 2008). It is the longest written literature in Akkadian cuneiform that regales about the protagonist, Gilgamesh’s adventures. This epic poem from the ancient Mesopotamian civilization, centres around the infamous king of Uruk, who is, at the beginning of the story, unfit to rule his people but through guidance from the heavenly gods, Gilgamesh becomes the wise king that gives this epic poem a hero’s ending (Pruyser and Luke, 1982). The story follows many of Gilgamesh’s immoral adventures with his accomplice, Enkidu, and then later adventures on its own, yet Gilgamesh’s journey of self-discovery and wisdom bestows him with the ‘hero’ title, that is usually given to the main protagonist of many Mesopotamian and other ancient mythological tales. Gilgamesh’s hero status can be corroborated by Joseph Campbell’s cycle, a Hero’s Journey. In Campbell’s book, ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces’, he outlines many specific steps in what is organized into three main stages of the Hero’s Journey. Each of the steps is a key plot that a ‘hero’ or the protagonist usually partakes in, in order to gather the valuable wisdom and life-lessons that allows him to go through such hero’s journey. The three main stages of the Hero’s Journey as follows: Departure, Initiation and Return (Campbell, 2004). When ‘The Epic of Gilgamesh’ is thoroughly examined, it is seen that Gilgamesh does go through the Hero’s Journey as depicted by Campbell, despite what characteristics would morally constitute one as a hero. The term ‘hero’ is given to the character that “…tale takes him to a journey that ultimately transforms the hero forever. This transformation may be physical, social or spiritual” (Kaushal, 2003). This essay will look in-depth into how specific tales from ‘The Epic of Gilgamesh’ falls in line with Joseph Campbell’s analyzation of what every popularized the Hero’s Journey looks like, a concept that was theorized over 4000 years after the historic Gilgamesh supposedly reigned in Uruk (Dalley, 2008).

The first stage in Campbell’s Hero’s Journey is Departure. The hero is our case is Gilgamesh, the reigning king of Uruk and the offspring of a previous king, Lugalbanda and the goddess Ninsun, making the Epic’s hero, two-thirds god and one-third human (Dalley, 2008). Due to his parentage, he poses ‘extraordinary energy’ and uses that against the people of Uruk in order to oppress them (Pruyser and Luke, 1982). According to the Old Babylonian text of the Epic, the heavenly gods create Gilgamesh’s equal, a beastly Enkidu, to confront him about his immoral treatment of his citizens in Uruk (Abusch, 2001). Despite the intentions of the gods, Gilgamesh befriends Enkidu and embarks on an adventure to the Cedar Forest in order to defeat and kill the guardian of the forest, Humwawa (or also known as Humbaba) in a quest for glory (Abusch, 2001). This desire for the hero is interest to defeat the forest guardian is what Campbell would describe as the ‘Call for Adventure’. The hero and the possible company seek out an unexpected undertaking which is a “result of suppressed desires and conflicts and amounts to the opening of a destiny” (Campbell, 2004). This call for adventure that Gilgamesh takes on is due to his feeling the need to showcase his strength and dominance as the all-powerful ruler. It also sparks the beginning of the long journey that Gilgamesh will eventually go through.

The Epic then follows Gilgamesh and Enkidu preparing for their quest to the Cedar Forest, and does so by visiting his goddess mother, Ninsun who blesses the two companions for their adventure and ‘adopts’ Enkidu as her own (Pruyser and Luke, 1982). This portion of the Epic, which can be described by Campbell as the ‘Meeting with the Goddess’. As mentioned in ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces’, “Woman, in the picture language of mythology, represents the totality of what can be known” (Campbell, 2004). Hence, meeting with the goddess Ninsun prior to embarking on his quest signifies that Gilgamesh sought out the one person that can assure him that he is on the right path and being blessed by Ninsun is the assurance he receives.

The most significant plot in the Departure stage is receiving the ‘Supernatural Aid’. Gilgamesh undergoes this step of a Hero’s Journey, by receiving aid from the Sun God, Shamash, which later helps him to defeat the forest guardian Humwawa (Abusch, 2001). As Campbell explains, “… a protective figure, who provides the adventurer with amulets against the dragon forces he is about to pass”. With his blessing from the mother goddess and supernatural aid from the protective figure, Gilgamesh arrives at the mouth of the forest, where Enkidu tries to “prevent him from penetrating the (mountain) abode”, which signifies as the ‘Refusal of the Call’ for Adventure, yet Gilgamesh marches ahead, with his desire for glory in mind, thus Crossing the Threshold (Pruyser and Luke, 1982). Upon entering the first threshold, Gilgamesh is making his way into the “… darkness, the unknown and danger, which gives him every reason to fear so much as the first step into the unexplored” (Campbell, 2004). Crossing the Threshold signifies that there is no return from this point in the Epic without facing what is ahead to come. With the arrival of the Gilgamesh and Enkidu in the Cedar Forest, they encounter the forest guardian, Humwawa, and defeats him with aid from the Sun God Shamash (Abusch, 2001). Therefore, the Epic reaches the final step, the ‘Belly of the Whale’, in the Departure stage of a Hero’s Journey. The killing of Humwawa is the what initiates the next set of events in the Epic. ‘The Epic of Gilgamesh’ highlights the key steps like the sudden call for adventure and meeting with the goddess, in the first stage of the Hero’s Journey, that can be seen depicted in many hero stories, suggesting that Gilgamesh can indeed be considered a hero and his tale heroic, despite the circumstances of his actions.

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The second stage of Campbell’s Hero’s Journey is Initiation. The Epic now continues with the tales that lead to the main moral of Gilgamesh’s story, the journey to find wisdom about life and death. In this stage, the hero, Gilgamesh and his beloved companion, Enkidu return to Uruk from their previous adventure of defeating the Cedar Forest guardian, Humwawa. Once there, they encounter the goddess Ishtar, who comes to Gilgamesh with a proposal for marriage. This is where the hero is faced with the Women as the Temptress step, which Campbell describes as source of causing the hero to deviate from his intended journey (Campbell, 2004). “The seeker of the life beyond life must press beyond (the woman), surpass the temptations of her call, and soar to the immaculate ether beyond”, which is done so by Gilgamesh by rejecting her proposal of marriage (Campbell, 2004). With the rejection, the goddess Ishtar also faces humiliation as Gilgamesh discloses the many flaws of the goddess, which provokes Ishtar’s rage and her call upon the ‘Bull of Heaven’ “to retaliate for her injured vanity” (Pruyser and Luke, 1982). Enkidu comes to Gilgamesh’s aid by striking down on the ‘Bull of Heaven’ with his sword and slays the bull. This results in a chain reaction, which sees the sacrifice of Enkidu “… as a punishment of that (Bull of Heaven) killing” (Abusch, 2001). Here, the hero is forced to endure with the Apotheosis step of his tale, the most significant step in the Initiation stage in the hero’s journey. In this stage in the Epic, Gilgamesh has a realization moment and is faced to question life and death and is forced to accept that no matter one’s glory and achievements in life, humankind is mortal.

The Initiation stage starts to come to an end with Gilgamesh finding his ‘Ultimate Boon’, which Campbell describes as the search for the ultimate goal of the hero’s journey (Campbell, 2004). ‘The Epic of Gilgamesh’ eludes to the search for immortality from the beginning, and Gilgamesh has finally come to the realization that he is required to find the secret to immortality since being devasted by the death of his dear friend Enkidu (Abusch, 2001).With his ultimate boon in mind, Gilgamesh sets about on one of his final adventures in the Epic, in search of Utnapishtim, who is the only survivor of the flood brought down by the heavenly gods and was awarded immortality (Pruyser and Luke, 1982). Lastly, Gilgamesh must face the ‘Road of Trials’, the final step in the initiation stage in order to reach Utnapishtim and demonstrate his merit to him, for the reward of immortality. Gilgamesh is required to sail across a sea to reach Utnapishtim, and it requires the hero to make poles to sail safely cross the dangerous waters. Upon reaching across the sea, Utnapishtim tasks him to not sleep for six days and seven nights, to further prove his worth yet Gilgamesh was unsuccessful (Abusch, 2001). This falls in line with what Campbell describes as the ‘Road of Trials’ that eventually, if successful, allows the hero to reach their ultimate goal (boon). The many substages of the initiation stage like coming across a temptress, apotheosis and the road of trials are the significant plotlines in many heroic stories since it shows the many barriers that come in different forms and are faced by the hero on their journey.

The third and last stage of a Hero’s Journey is the Return stage. In this stage of the Epic, the hero, Gilgamesh has faced many trials in order to achieve his ultimate goal of immortality and has failed the last task, given to him by Utnapishtim. Despite being unsuccessful, Utnapishtim’s wife bestows upon the knowledge of the plant of immortality and sets him off to find the plant (Pruyser and Luke, 1982). Upon finding the plant of immortality, the plant is stolen from Gilgamesh by a snake, whom “…carries it off, eating it as he goes”, while Gilgamesh is kept busy showering (Pruyser and Luke, 1982). Despite not actually achieving his ultimate boon, Gilgamesh learns from his consecutive failures to gain immortality. He has matured from the immoral king from the beginning of the Epic and returns home to Uruk, having accepted that he is to live life as a common man (Abusch, 2001).

The Epic ends with the last step where Gilgamesh have become the ‘Master of the Two Worlds’ (the mortal and part of the immortal world) and achieved the ‘Freedom to Live’. Gilgamesh was able to master the mortal world by running into its limitations with the use of his ‘extraordinary energy’ bestowed upon him due to his demi-god status. He lived his mortal life to the fullest of his desires, even if his desire were to oppress his people under terrible reign and defeating the Cedar Forest guardian. The Epic’s hero was able to master the immortal world, despite not achieving immortality. This is due to the hero having failed many times to achieve his various evolving goals, yet Gilgamesh lived through each of his failures, unlike his beloved companion Enkidu. At the end of the Epic, Gilgamesh has accepted that he was destined to live life “…as a normal man of the royal class, who can hope for no more than achievements and descendants” (Abusch, 2001). As a result, Gilgamesh has achieved his unknown goal, the ‘Freedom to Live’ as the reigning king of Uruk, which will eventually come to an end but not for the time being.

‘The Epic of Gilgamesh’ follows the demi-god king of Uruk, Gilgamesh on his many adventures. These adventures consist of oppressing the citizens of Uruk, killing a forest guardian, demeaning the goddess Ishtar, and going out of one’s way to find a source of immortality for selfish reason to name a few. Yet Gilgamesh is Mesopotamian mythology’s most famous hero figure. When analyzing the Epic based on Joseph Campbell’s concept of a Hero’s Journey, the tales do fall in line to show that throughout the epic, Gilgamesh underwent a hero’s journey. “… he hero wanders for years, for eons in wilderness; in deep forests… suspended between two poles of life and death; in the grip of fate and destiny. After several trials and ordeals, he is allowed to make the crossover, and pass on to the other world” (Kaushal, 2003). This is exactly how Gilgamesh is seen throughout the entire Epic. He is in a single continuous journey through the many adventures, that lead him to the realization of his mortal limitations and coming to the eventual acceptance of these limitations. Hence despite the what modern-day morals and characteristics are associated with a hero figure, ‘The Epic of Gilgamesh’ is tale depicting a hero’s journey.

Citations

  1. Abusch, T. (2001). The Development and Meaning of the Epic of Gilgamesh: An Interpretive Essay. Journal of the American Oriental Society, 121(4), 614-622. doi:10.2307/606502
  2. Campbell, J. (2004). The hero with a thousand faces. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  3. Dalley, S. (2008). Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  4. Kaushal, M. (2003). Crossing Seven Seas: The hero’s quest in oral narratives. India International Centre Quarterly, 30(3/4), 57-72. Retrieved from www.jstor.org/stable/23006124
  5. Pruyser, P., & Luke, J. (1982). The Epic of Gilgamesh. American Imago, 39(2), 73-93. Retrieved from www.jstor.org/stable/26303754

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The Epic of Gilgamesh: A Hero’s Journey. (2022, September 01). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 4, 2023, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/the-epic-of-gilgamesh-a-heros-journey/
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The Epic of Gilgamesh: A Hero’s Journey. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/the-epic-of-gilgamesh-a-heros-journey/> [Accessed 4 Feb. 2023].
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