Who is the Hero in Gilgamesh?

What is considered heroic? What does it really mean to be a hero? A hero would be described as someone who saves the day or someone who puts themselves at risk to help others or it can even be someone doing a simple act of kindness. For most people, a hero is someone who is admired and looked up to for their actions. The most well known trait of a hero is bravery. A person who is willing to go through extreme measures to survive or to help others is what it means to be a hero. While everyone is entitled to have their own definition of what it means to be heroic or a hero, the act of being selfless for the well-being of others is the most recognizable definition of a hero. What is considered to be heroic in the epic poem, The Epic of Gilgamesh, is very similar to that of what most believe to be heroic; someone who focuses on the needs of others before themselves. Exhibiting the traits of bravery, selflessness, and in most stories, superhuman abilities also accompany the characteristics of a hero. Although both Gilgamesh and Enkidu display heroic attributes, Gilgamesh provides the readers with more heroic traits and characteristics.

In The Epic of Gilgamesh, both Gilgamesh and Enkidu hold the title of a hero, but it is Gilgamesh that better suits what it means to be heroic in the story. In many ways, one would not think of Gilgamesh as a hero because of how he is first introduced in the story. It is not until halfway through the story when the audience begins to see Gilgamesh as a hero. A potential hero goes through hardships and obstacles which sequentially leads them to become the ultimate hero. To gain fame and to be liked by all people of Uruk, Gilgamesh’s first obstacle was killing Humbaba. Killing the beast will only feed Gilgamesh’s ego and give him the fame he so desperately wants. Gilgamesh expressed, Now we must travel to the Cedar Forest, where the fierce monster Humbaba lives. We must kill him and drive evil from the world (91). After killing the monster and getting over this obstacle, Gilgamesh thrives on the attention and fame which only allows his ego to get bigger. The second obstacle Gilgamesh endured was the Bull of Heaven. The Bull of Heaven was sent from the goddess Ishtar by her father Anu out of anger because Gilgamesh turned down her offer of marriage. There was no choice but to conquer and defeat the bull in order to save himself and Enkidu. Unlike the first obstacle, this was not one he chose to encounter to feed his ego, but still uses it to continue his fame. Tell me: Who is the handsomest of men?… Gilgamesh- he is the handsomest of men (140). Gilgamesh’s third obstacle is when the audience begins to see him morphing into this potential hero. With the death of his dear friend and brother/equal, he overcomes this hardship by searching for answers about immortality. He eventually learns about the general meaning life from Utnapishtim, the God who was granted immortality, although Gilgamesh did not obtain immortality. He learns, a man’s life is short, at any moment it can be snapped, like a reed in a canebrake (177). Gilgamesh realizes life does not last forever, so he needs to focus on the important things in life which are living and loving. Now that he understands the meaning of love/compassion, the meaning of lost/growing old, and the meaning of morality, he is no longer egotistical nor just strictly cares about his own personal gain. He goes back to his city as a selfless king and a hero after conquering the ultimate battle within himself and overcoming his darkness by learning about the beauty of life.

Gilgamesh has Enkidu to thank for this awakening. He would have never discovered the beauty of life without Enkidu. This is why Enkidu is also viewed as a hero within the epic. Enkidu’s character serves as somewhat of a sidekick or supernatural aid because he helps Gilgamesh turn into an overall better person as well as king. Although Enkidu is said to be Gilgamesh’s equal, his purpose was to balance Gilgamesh out in order for Gilgamesh to find balance within himself. Create a new hero, let them balance each other perfectly, so that Uruk has peace (74). With each obstacle Gilgamesh was faced with, Enkidu tends to rationalize each situation. Before battling Humbaba, Enkidu said, We must not go on this journey, we must not fight this creature Who among men or gods could defeat him?… We are not gods, we cannot ascend to heaven. No, we are mortal men (92). While this may sound like discouragement, Enkidu says such things to make Gilgamesh take the time to think about the negative outcomes and consequences that are possible. The only reason Gilgamesh takes the title of more heroic is mainly because Enkidu dies halfway through the story. This allows Gilgamesh to set out on his quest to learn the lesson he needed; ultimately making him an epic hero. In other words, Enkidu saved Gilgamesh from becoming a villain.

As the story unfolds, the audience starts to see a change in Gilgamesh’s ways with Enkidu by his side. Enkidu was created because the people of Uruk were very indignant with Gilgamesh and his selfish ways. Is this how you want your king to rule? Should a shepherd savage his own flock? Father do something, quickly before the people overwhelm heaven with heartrending cries (73). With each obstacle, there are noticeable changes in Gilgamesh’s ego when he has Enkidu to find reason for each event. The fight with Humbaba was to gain fame, however, the battle with the Bull Of Heaven was to fight with and protect someone other than himself, resulting in him sharing his fame and not getting the full spotlight. Tell me: Who is the bravest of heroes?… Enkidu, he is the bravest of heroes.

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