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The Hero’s Journey: A Comparison Between the Odyssey and Gilgamesh

Despite its ancient origin, the archetypal journey of the hero remains one of the most enduring and captivating stories known to civilization. The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Iliad, and The Odyssey depicts two very different types of heroes – Gilgamesh and Odysseus – however, both heroes encounter the theme of death and immortality in the course of their respective journeys. Critical scholarship typically views Homer’s works The Iliad and The Odyssey as the genesis of the heroic journey in the tradition of Western Literature. This essay compares The Epic of Gilgamesh with The Iliad and The Odyssey in the areas of characterization and plot and contrasts both heroes’ experiences with death and immortality.

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This essay will offer the perspective that the story of Gilgamesh represents the starting point of the archetypal hero’s’ journey. Odysseus resembles an accidental hero. His circuitous journey home following the conclusion of the Trojan War depicts a man who yearns for the stability of his former life in Ithaca and the return to the simple pleasures of family, old age, and death, and his heroism is rooted in his desire to get back home. The emphasis placed on The Iliad and The Odyssey over The Epic of Gilgamesh colors the hero’s journey to be one in which the hero accepts his mortal human fate and finds the beauty and serenity in death by living a full and self-actualized life. Were The Epic of Gilgamesh to replace The Iliad and The Odyssey in the canon of literature, however, the main difference we would recognize would be the emphasis placed on immortality and the desire to escape death as evidenced by Gilgamesh’s search for Utnapishtim. In The Epic of Gilgamesh, we witness the extent to which “the possibility of physical immortality charms the heart of man” (Campbell 161).

The archetypal journey of the hero adheres to a structure that we see repeated in both The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Iliad, and The Odyssey. Initially, some event precipitates the hero’s call to action: in Gilgamesh’s case, the death of Enkidu launches him onto his quest for eternal life; for Odysseus, the call to action involves the success of his Trojan Horse ruse which finally ends the Trojan War and signals his return home. Joseph Campbell understands the heroic journey essentially as a spiritual quest. The trials and tribulations that the hero faces in pursuit of his quest Campbell liken to “the agony of breaking through personal limitations… [into] the agony of spiritual growth.

Art, literature, myth and cult, philosophy and ascetic disciplines are instruments to help the individual past his limiting horizons into spheres of ever-increasing realization” (Campbell 163). As the hero traverses “threshold after threshold, conquering dragon after dragon, the stature of the divinity that he summons to his highest wish increases until it subsumes the cosmos” (Campbell 163). In the hero’s journey, the hero aspires to the domain of the gods – immortality – only to acquire through hardship, loss, and failure an “a realization transcending all the experiences of form – all symbolizations, all divinities: a realization of the ineluctable void” (Campbell 163). The hero’s journey essentially charts the human being’s recognition of his or her humanity, in all its failings and magnificence.

Once launched on the heroic journey, the hero enlists the help or favor of a god or otherworldly escort to help him gain access through a shadowy and dangerous world to achieve his end. For Gilgamesh, this guide is Urshanabi, the ferryman, and for Odysseus, this guide is the Greek goddess of war Athena. Numerous tests create obstacles for both heroes, however, in the case of Gilgamesh, his struggle remains largely with himself. Gilgamesh’s rash temper and propensity for quick and unrestrained violence are truly epic and as such he tends to kill, destroy, and maim first and ask questions later. An example occurs in the section of The Epic of Gilgamesh after Gilgamesh destroys the stone statues and then arrogantly introduces himself as “the king of great walled Uruk. I have traveled here across the high mountains, I have traveled here on the hidden road, through the underworld, where the sun comes forth” and demands that Urshanabi “show me the way to Utnapishtim, ” whereupon Urshanabi calmly informs Gilgamesh that “your own hands have prevented the crossing” (Mitchell 171).

A boy in a man’s body, Gilgamesh resembles a man of action, and though he remains brash and abrasive and quicker to act than to think, Gilgamesh retains enough charm throughout the epic to garner and use the support and aid of some key figures, namely Urshanabi and Utnapishtim’s wife. In the case of Gilgamesh, the hero’s failings seem to endear to him to other characters that are in the position to help him achieve his goals. This endearing quality prompts Utnapishtim’s wife to convince her husband to provide the warrior king with directions to locate the plant that gives eternal life. Once Gilgamesh retrieves the plant from the lake bed, another “failure” – this time thoughtlessly leaving the plant beside the pool while he swims – loses him the plant. “A snake smelled its fragrance, stealthily it crawled up and carried the plant away [and] when Gilgamesh saw what the snake had done, he sat down and wept” (Mitchell 197). This moment in the epic represents the hero coming face to face with failure and the loss of his dream, to the extent that he allows his despair to unman him, having lost the key to eternal life to such a lowly creature as a snake bruises the king’s ego sorely.

However, Gilgamesh returns to Uruk a changed man. Though he forfeited eternal life to the snake, he did gain a new friend in Urshanabi, and through thwarted in his quest, the epic ends with Gilgamesh benefiting from this new voice in his life, since Urshanabi aptly clarifies the folly of Gilgamesh’s immortal aspirations: “what have you achieved but to bring yourself one day nearer to the end of your days? At night the moon travels across the sky, the gods of heaven stay awake and watch us, unsleeping, undying. This is the way the world is established, from ancient times. Yes, the gods took Enkidu’s life. But man’s life is short, at any moment it can be snapped, like a reed in a canebrake…death destroys us, all of us, old or young. And yet we build houses make contracts, brothers divide their inheritance, conflicts occur – as though this human life lasted forever” (Mitchell 178). With Urshanabi’s guidance, Gilgamesh can return to his throne as a more stable and patient individual, chastised and humbled, not to mention a less harsh and tyrannical ruler. Though disappointed in his quest Gilgamesh returns home a richer man – richer in friendship and given the gift of a more stable and firm grasp on the reality of the human condition.

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Gilgamesh and Odysseus view death from opposing poles, mainly because they represent opposites in their characterization. Gilgamesh exemplifies the warrior king; the celebrated warrior who predates the appearance and establishment of an organized civilized state which centralizes and institutionalizes power in the shape of a governing body. As a warrior king, Gilgamesh embodies the physical might required to maintain order and trounce whatever enemy may threaten that order. The Epic of Gilgamesh and Gilgamesh himself perceive the hero as an extension of war. The greatest honor available to a hero of Gilgamesh’s ilk would be to die on the battlefield. In this sense, he echoes Achilles from The Iliad (Homer 13). Warriors, essentially, remain good for one purpose: war. When the perspective of battle shifts to a time of peace, the warrior hero may struggle, as in the case of Gilgamesh, to live viably in the human world during the time after the war has been fought in won.

Heroes such as Gilgamesh depict the discrepancy between “the values of power and war and those of the present moment, and they explore the inevitable conflict that the new circumstances call forth. These circumstances may be the requirement that one return to a peaceful occupation and pursue a normal life or that one submit to the discipline of the state and become a warrior or king and leader in its service” (Abusch 614). For a character such as Gilgamesh, self-identified as a warrior king and programmed by his nature to solve all problems through violence, the choice to “remain a traditional hero…is often a meditation upon and an exploration of the inevitable conflict between, on the one hand, the forces represented by the absolute commitment of the powerful and heroic male to energy and battle and, on the other, the forces that represent some newly emerging situations and value systems”(Abusch 614). In The Epic of Gilgamesh, the hero returns home to embrace his humanity and learns to value the ephemeral nature of human life.

Odysseus represents a different type of hero than Gilgamesh; though no less of a warrior, Odysseus is much more cerebral, and his interests remain decidedly human. He wants to return home; he misses his wife and son, and he is tired of war. In this sense, Odysseus seems more of an anti-hero. He remains “the only Achaean hero of importance who is described…[both] in the Odyssey and Iliad…as using the ‘unheroic’ bow rather than the spear, that standard weapon of the other heroes” (Finkelberg 2). Odysseus, unlike Gilgamesh, is a wily, cunning individual who prefers to stay behind the scenes. Odysseus is the only hero of the Homeric tradition who is described in both The Iliad and The Odyssey as “much-enduring” (Finkelberg 1). Odysseus is also far more willing to apply any means necessary to save his own life, even if it means “passing through compromise and humiliation” (Finkelberg 1). Other Greek heroes such as Ajax and Achilles, not to mention Gilgamesh, would certainly never stoop to the majority of Odysseus’ humiliations, such as “his three adventures in beggar’s disguise…[and] his ignominious escape from the Cyclops’ cave by hanging under a ram’s belly’ (Finkelberg 2).

While Gilgamesh spends his time seeking eternal life, Odysseus seems more interested in living the life that he has. Odysseus’ hero journey exemplifies “how one ought to live. Earthy and prosaic as he is, Odysseus manages to pass through all the tests that life puts before him: to contrive the escape from the Cyclops’ cave, to abstain from eating the flesh of the sacred cattle of Helios, and to endure the crowning humiliation of living as a beggar in his own house” (Finkelberg 2). The contrast between the two heroes – Odysseus being the reluctant hero while Gilgamesh resembles the conscious hero – plays out in how each man values life. While Gilgamesh appears unsatisfied with life’s terms and views the hero’s journey as a means to get something more – namely, immortality – Odysseus views the hero’s journey as a means to get home and get on with it. Salty Odysseus epitomizes the survivor, and in essence, he survives a hero’s journey that would have killed most “because [he is] earthy and prosaic… after all, nothing else than…human” (Finkelberg 2). We see the strongest evidence for this when Calypso offers Odysseus eternal life and he chooses instead to remain as he is (Homer 37). Had Gilgamesh been offered immortality, he would surely have taken it, and missed the magic of humanity in the process. Odysseus accepts the brevity and unpredictability of human life and understands its value.

Works Cited

Abusch, Tzvi. “The Development and Meaning of the Epic of Gilgamesh: An Interpretive Essay.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 121.4 (2001): 614-622. Web.

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. 3rd ed. Novato, California: New World Library, 2008. Print.

Finkelberg, Margalit. “Odysseus and the Genus Hero.” Greece & Rome 42.1 (1995): 1-12. Web.

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Homer. The Odyssey. Trans. Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998. Print.

Mitchell, Stephen. Gilgamesh: A New English Version. New York: Free Press, 2004. Print.

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