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Qualities of the Hero, Essay Example

Pages: 4

Words: 1161

Essay

Qualities of the Hero: Comparing Gilgamesh and Odysseus

We usually take a hero to be, above all things, good. A hero can start out bad but should end up good, either through a change in heart or a change in circumstances that brings out the good that was always there or always available to be created. But an anti-hero can do the reverse: start out good and then become bad due to a change in circumstances — think of a good family-man who kills the killer of his family. An anti-hero can also be a bad guy who becomes less bad. My thesis is that, at least compared to hero Odysseus, Gilgamesh is an anti-hero at best.

Gilgamesh is a bad guy from the start. The gods create Enkidu to stop Gilgamesh from oppressing his own people. Enkidu succeeds only to the extent of making Gilgamesh less bad by dying after becoming his friend. Like Odysseus, Gilgamesh goes on a long journey of discovery to the underworld.  Gilgamesh returns to his kingdom sadder but wiser and even sort of good. By contrast, Odysseus was always a good guy, in spite of his first trying (by pretending to be crazy) to get out of his oath to defend Menelaus’ marriage rights to Helen (Hunter, 2005). He stays in character throughout and at the end restores peace to his household. This is pure hero stuff.

The two each encounter monsters, but for very different reasons (although both involve a long journey and some negotiating with various gods). Gilgamesh as usual wants to steal, in this case the cedar trees guarded by the monster Humbaba, for the sheer vainglory of it: “If I should fall, my name will have stablish’d (for ever). Gilgamish ’twas, who fought with Humbaba, the Fierce!” (Sacred-Texts.com). To accomplish this he first gains support from his mother by telling her that he wants to kill Humbaba too. Gilgamesh and Enkidu succeed with the help of Shamash the sun god, who hates Humbaba because he represents darkness, the opposite of Shamash’s light. Still, Gilgamesh does not have to steal the trees. It is entirely his idea. But Odysseus has no choice in his confrontation with Polyphemus, the Cyclops giant and eater of human flesh. Odysseus and his crew had just landed on the Cyclopes’ island seeking shelter on their trip back to Greece from Troy. Odysseus does not boast of any coming conquest of the Cyclopes: “So [Cyclops] spoke, and in our breasts our spirit was broken for terror of his deep voice and monstrous self . . . yet even so I made answer and spoke to him, saying . . . ‘we on our part, thus visiting thee, have come as suppliants to thy knees . . .’ ”  (Atsma, 2011).  The contrast can hardly be greater. Clearly, Odysseus is the good guy and Gilgamesh is not. Does this say anything important about the Mesopotamian and Greek cultures? Yes and maybe.

One obvious point is is that both worshipped lots of gods, and those gods were limited in their power. The divine Sumerian creation, Enkidu, was unable to fulfill his mission of destroying Gilgamesh or at least directly limiting his oppression of his people. As for the Greek gods, they are hopeless. Zeus cannot really control his own gods nor his mortals. He seems more like a harrased and distracted school principal than an infallible force. But worshiping a lot of gods with limited powers does have one benefit: it explains the existence of evil on earth. Modern-day believers in one all-powerful, all-knowing, all-wise, just God still wrestle with this dilemma. Basically the idea is this: how can God be just when He permits evil to happen to innocent people? Today, relatives of those innocent people gather every day in churches and puzzle over this question. No really satisfactory answer has ever been heard. The ancients did not even have to bother to ask. There was evil in the world because their gods were not all powerful, all knowing, all wise, and just. Even sober they could be weak, ignorant, stupid, and spiteful.

Gilgamesh is a lot older than the story of Odysseus. Maybe the Mesopotamian culture was a lot cruder than the Greeks’. If so it might be natural enough that the earlier people would want a violent and tyrannical monster as the star of their story. It would reflect the more primitive state of their culture. But that doesn’t quite wash as a theory. Actually the Sumerians were highly advanced and developed some of the first cities (Guisepi, 2007). They had writing and a legal system and sent at least some of their children to school to learn to read and write. Gilgamesh the demigod was based on what historians now think was a historical king (although little actual information about him exists). But there is maybe one point that can be made: Gilgamesh in the story is not fully human yet is the star. Odysseus is human and is the star of the Odyssey. It might be true that this difference represents a cultural progress over time. But maybe not. Maybe Gilgamesh was seen as the equivalent of one of today’s costumed superheroes. We can only wonder what the Sumerians would have thought of Odysseus, compared to Gilgamesh.

To see how these two stories relate to “current cultural ideals and expectations that shape modern notions about role models and heroes”, we need only imagine whether Hollywood could do a story about Gilgamesh. Or more to the point, would enough people with their own ticket-money want to watch it to recoup the investment? Probably only the worst sort of Boko Haram types (young and old) would enjoy the violence of Gilgamesh as grounds for viewing him as a hero, not anti-hero. That is, they would not care to see him change from bad to what most people would view as good.  As an unreformed Gilgamesh, he would already be good. But Odysseus could easily be made by Hollywood for a mass American audience. He is already a hero.

But maybe Gilgamesh does reform a little bit, just enough to qualify him as a movie hero. Gilgamesh, briefly, has just enough pity on Humbaba for Enkidu to warn: “[Of the rede which] Humbaba [Maketh to thee] thou darest in nowise offer acceptance. (Aye, for) Humbaba [must] not [remain alive] . . . .” That kind of reminds me of an old Benny Hill skit I saw on TV once. Hill plays Karate fighter Bruce Lee, pitching a story to a movie producer. “I play a sympathetic character. I go into a house and kill everyone and then destroy everything.” [Producer]: How does that make you a sympathetic character?” [Hill]: “On the way out, I pat the dog.”

References

Atsma, A. (2011). Theoi.com. Retrieved from Homer, Odyssey 9: http://www.theoi.com/Text/HomerOdyssey9.html

Guisepi, R. (2007). Ancient Sumeria. Retrieved from History-World.org: http://history-world.org/sumerian_culture.htm

Hunter, J. (2005, October 31). Odysseus. Retrieved from Encyclopedia Mythica: http://www.pantheon.org/articles/o/odysseus.html

Sacred-Texts.com. (n.d.). The Third Tablet. Retrieved from The Epic of Gilgamesh: http://www.sacred-texts.com/ane/eog/eog05.htm

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