Martyrdom is described as an act by a person or group, who willingly suffers death for their beliefs or principles. In today’s society, death is an uncomfortable subject, where the acts of martyrdom would be seen as particularly shocking and unusual. This notion contrasts the idea of historical sources, with self-sacrifice often would be applauded for their bravery, such as an end to an epic battle. In medieval literary studies, an act of martyr is praised in the attributes of an epic hero, as a noble and righteous way to die. An epic hero is usually a person with a status that’s close or equal to a king. This characteristic is portrayed in most epics’ narratives, including epics such as Beowulf and The Epic of Gilgamesh. These two epics have their similarities and differences, especially in their idea of death. This paper will discuss the characteristic of epic heroes during their life, and also how they chose their death. This paper will also focus on criticism of the honorability of their heroic death, and the different contexts that their death holds as characteristic of an epic hero.
In the epic of Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh is described as the strongest of humans and a representation of all their virtues. He is portrayed as a brave warrior, and courageous of all creators. The epic opens with a proclamation of all of Gilgamesh's accomplishments. The fact that Gilgamesh is a two-thirds god and one-third man, would provide a foreshadowing to all of his accomplishments and adventures. However, it also displayed his only weakness as he must face his mortality and die as a human. This brought on an important theme “Life without death would not offer the meaning it does” (Williamsen, 1997). In the epic, when Gilgamesh’s loyal friend Enkidu was put to death, he began to become bothered by this fact, as he would also has to face his biggest fear, which is death. His realization comes as his weakness is the one thing that will defeat him. “To all mortals are destined to die, but only heroic men of action can live on through the glory of their deeds” (Williamsen, 1997). This notion parallels Gilgamesh’s idea of living, while also contrasting the ideas of epic heroes, as their death symbolized an ending of a heroic legacy. From the use of Boyarin’s statement, Gilgamesh would believe that death is an act of “provoke martyrdom”, with no assurance that his death would be befitting to an epic hero death, which in his beliefs, is that he should never die. This idea diminished his attributes as an epic hero and a half-god, turning Gilgamesh into an actual human being.
This paper is written to discuss any questions about the criteria of heroic death, and whether one’s death can be seen as honorable. During the period of the Renaissance, an honorable way of death is portrayed in the samurai’s voluntary martyrdom. Seppuku is a form of ritual suicide that’s deemed as an honorable way to die, rather than to be killed at the hands of the enemy. The egregious act is described to involved “stabbing oneself in the belly with a short sword, slicing open the stomach, and then turning the blade upwards to ensure a fatal wound” (Andrews, 2016). This ritual would end with the help of another person, who would perform the execution by using a katana to finish off the ceremony. The criticism for this shocking act would be portrayed in the fact that the final death blow is made by someone else, and not by the person meant to die, which questions the practice of its honorability. Another egregious acts that are portrayed as sacrificial death are suicide terrorism, with the dead being portrayed as martyrs, exploiting their cultural belief for their advantage. These acts question the meaning behind martyr, as death is portrayed in a different light and context, with its action being caused by the beliefs of those influenced by a cult-like mindset. These acts of wrongful beliefs instill bias in the context of martyrdom and the ideal of noble death. In today’s society, Martyrdom is portrayed through the death of individuals and groups, with the intention of wanting to hurt others. This notion is portrayed through the practice of beliefs that would normally portray good morality in people, however, its practice is used to instill fear and hatred in others, based on their cultural beliefs. This mindset is the cause of the disruption of harmony towards people and their culture.
Being epic heroes, they are described as brave, courageous, and honorable in the way they live, as well as in the way that they die. For epic heroes, their death symbolized they're courageous to give their life away for their beliefs, and above all, for their people and country. This notion is true for Gilgamesh, as his fear of death would diminish his attributes as an epic hero, ultimately turning him into a normal human being. These two comparisons of epic heroes depict death as an attribute of the legacy that they had left behind, and the notion that with life, comes death.