Research Proposal: Gilgamesh and Odysseus Different Heroic Ideals

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Gilgamesh and Odysseus: Different Heroic Ideals

The concept of the hero is at least as old as civilization itself, and possibly even older. Virtually all cultures from all periods have stories of their heroes, whether mythological, historical, or both. It can even be difficult to tell the difference between the two at times; even many of the heroes of the American Revolution and other national heroes had taken on mythic status before they were even halfway in the grave. With heroes that are even older, separating mythological tales from historical facts can be even more difficult, yet they shed abundant light on what each various culture idealizes as heroic behaviors and personalities. That is, the qualities of historical figures that find their way into the mythological renderings of these heroes' tales show the qualities they had in life that were most celebrated by the culture after their death. Sometimes-quite often, really -- the qualities celebrated by a given culture change as time wears on, and the myths of that culture and their views of their heroes change, too.

Two very early examples of this phenomenon from ancient cultures are the Epic of Gilgamesh and Homer's the Iliad. Both of these have been translated and updated for modern readers many times over the millennia, but have also existed in their original words for thousands of years. Even these words, however, are not the earliest versions of the stories that they tell. Homer might have written the most famous version of the Iliad, and because of this his text is basically considered the standard version of the mythological history of the Trojan War, but different versions of the tale exist that pre-date Homer's epic. Fairly recent archaeological evidence has shown that there really was a Troy and a long warm including a siege of the city, as described by Homer. The way Homer describes things, then, especially one of the heroes of the epic, Odysseus, reflects not simple fact but his own time's view of heroic ideals.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is even older than the Iliad. Like Homer's epic poem, the Epic of Gilgamesh that we generally think of today is the standardized version of a much older mythological tale concerning the hero Gilgamesh, who was very likely a real king in ancient Sumer, in Mesopotamia. The oldest extant version that we have today is written in Akkadian, a Babylonian language that didn't develop until long after the time of Gilgamesh and the first versions of his myth. This means that the same license that Homer took with the Iliad was taken by the author or authors of the Epic of Gilgamesh as well -- both epic poems tell specific versions of their tales, with specific views about the heroes concerned. In this way, the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Iliad show the different and changing heroic ideals that exist in different times and cultures. The celebrated qualities of heroism change with the needs and priorities of different cultures, and these two texts in comparison with each other -- and in comparison with the historical sources from which they were drawn -- reveal this very clearly.

In the standardized version of the Epic of Glgamesh taken from the twelve Babylonian tablets, Gilgamesh has a dream about a mountain which his friend and companion interprets favorably: "It means we will capture Humbaba, and kill him / and throw his corpse into the wasteland" (Epic, Tablet IV). In the earlier Sumerian version of the same tale, however, the friend is by far the more reluctant of the two. When Gilgamesh revels his plan to go to the mountain and establish renown for himself, Enkidu -- who in this version is referred to as a slave -- preaches caution: "My lord, if today you are going to set off into the mountains, Utu should know about it from us" (George, 1999). These different versions suggest two very different heroes.

In the earlier version of the tale, Gilgamesh is painted as a much more arrogant and self-assured figure, while his friend (or slave) Enkidu is the voice of caution and reason. This relationship is flipped in the telling that appears on the Akkadian tablets, as shown in the two quotes above and in an abundance of other instances. In their pursuit of Huwawa, Gilgamesh urges his companion to "Come on, let's get after him and get a sight of him!'," while Enkidu warns Gilgamesh that "If we go after him, there will be terror! There will be terror. Turn back! There will be blood! There will be blood! Turn back!'" (George, 1999). This suggests that in the earlier version, the arrogance that Gilgamesh portrays was not a rare or accidental thing, but rather a definite part of what made him heroic. Brash "manliness" and fearlessness in the face of danger were obviously seen as heroic in the oldest versions of this mythological tale.

The changing view of heroism that led to the changed depiction of Gilgamesh in the later Babylonian version of the epic that we have come to know today almost certainly reflects changes in the culture that produced this later version of the myth, but exactly what those changes were can be difficult to determine. Though Sumer was one of the earliest advanced civilizations in existence, it had become more advanced and solidified by the time of the Babylonian Empire, when the tablets preserved until modern times were first written in Akkadian. Perhaps the restraint and hesitation that Gilgamesh shows in the later telling reflects the changing needs of the society; a leader that rashly deals with all opposition head on without first considering the consequences is not likely to be beneficial in a complex world with many other civilizations, and instead careful consideration and diplomacy is called for, as shown in the later version.

There are some similarities in the evolution of the hero as seen in the various tellings of the Gilgamesh myth with the changes that the character of Odysseus went through from older written accounts of the Trojan War to Homer's depiction of him in the Iliad. In Homer's version of the Trojan War, Odysseus is presented as a stoic general and a brilliant commander. Like Gilgamesh, he is celebrated for his forthrightness and his "manly" abilities in warfare, but also for his rationality and the righteousness of his attitudes and actions. This is not the more famous Odysseus of Homer's the Odyssey, but a man fully capable of controlling his passions in order to make the right military decisions for each situation he finds himself in.

According to other accounts of the Trojan War, the Greeks were all a very rash bunch. The entire Trojan War occurred because the Greeks felt a need to capture back Helen, who had been carried of by the Prince of Troy. Homer idealizes the Greek heroes of the war, especially admiring Odysseus' heroism and stoicism. The Ancient Greek historian Herodotus, however, came to a very different conclusion when reflecting on the reasons for going to war, as did the Trojans: "Men of sense care nothing for such women [as Helen], since it is plain that without their own consent they would never be forced away" (Herodotus). Homer downplays the motives that the Greek heroes had for entering the war in the first place, but earlier accounts obviously took a more cynical -- and perhaps a more realistic -- view of things. Rather than being celebrated as heroes, the men of the Trojan War were looked as somewhat foolish.

Homer's depiction of the heroes in the Iliad could reflect not only the changing ideals of heroism in the Ancient Greek world, but even the rise of importance of the individual hero. This could actually imply a certain degradation of society during Homer's time,… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Gilgamesh and Odysseus Different Heroic Ideals.  (2009, March 7).  Retrieved May 20, 2019, from

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"Gilgamesh and Odysseus Different Heroic Ideals."  7 March 2009.  Web.  20 May 2019. <>.

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"Gilgamesh and Odysseus Different Heroic Ideals."  March 7, 2009.  Accessed May 20, 2019.