Achilles, Beowulf, Gilgamesh, Samson and Heracles can all be characterized as heroes. However, each of these characters embodies different attributes that earn them the heroic distinction. This paper will seek to show that Beowulf is the “most” heroic figure based on his adherence to the heroic ethos. Also, the character of Gilgamesh will be used as a means of comparison to further showcase the heroic nature of Beowulf.
The heroic ethos is a set of values that prioritize and glorify the valor of an individual. The motivation of the hero is to garner fame and immortality in legend, resulting in feats of excellence. Characteristics of the heroic ethos include service to people in the upper level of the hierarchy (e.g. relationship between lord and thane), a special relationship to god (special does not necessarily mean positive as in the case of Heracles and Hera), greatness in warfare/slaying, loyal, courageous, indispensable, and (almost) invulnerable. For the hero, the highest good is glory and the highest evil is shame.
Beowulf, the son of Ecgtheow and Hygelac’s thane is introduced by Heaney as a valiant warrior. The reader immediately notices that Beowulf is well respected. The tone of the work suggests that even the narrator holds him in high esteem, “the man whose name was known for courage, the Geat Leader” (Heaney, 11) (the chapter is entitled “The Hero comes to Heorot”). Beowulf is introduced with grandeur. He is allowed to mention his own name and goes on to describe some of his feats, “They had seen me boltered in the blood of enemies, when I battled and bound five beasts, raided a troll nest and slaughtered sea – brutes” (Heaney, 13). Before actually seeing him in action, the reader is aware that Beowulf is a great warrior whose father is well respected. From the initial introduction, it is expected that Beowulf will be able to accomplish super human tasks.
Similarly, Gilgamesh is also given a grand introduction. He is described as, “the strongest one of all, the perfect, the terror” (Ferry, 4). However, the overall view of Gilgamesh is not as honorable as Beowulf. The people of Uruk are lamenting to the god Aruru: (Ferry, 5)
“Neither the father’s son nor the wife of the noble is safe in Uruk; neither the mother’s daughter nor the warrior’s bride is safe. The old men say:
Is this the shepherd of the people? Is t...
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...fraid of its magnitude. In Gilgamesh, the Gods are humanized. They succumb to desire (as seem with Ishtar when she is lusting after Gilgamesh) and revenge (the flood). In Gilgamesh, the Gods are directly involved in some of the action. In Beowulf, God is a verbal presence. In both Gilgamesh and Beowulf, the heroes had a relationship with God/Gods. However, as outlined above, these relationships were very different. Beowulf had a direct spiritual connection while Gilgamesh questions the actions and even opposes one of them (Ishtar).
Beowulf and Gilgamesh are both deemed heroes. According to heroic ethos, Beowulf proves to be the more valiant, law abiding one. He embodies the necessary characteristics of the Anglo – Saxon/Germanic hero (courage, loyalty, and greatness in warfare/battle). However, it can also be argued that Gilgamesh is a great hero because of his divergence from the classical heroic model. Many readers are able to connect more with Gilgamesh because of his “humanness”. In the end, he comes to understand that death is a part of life and that one can still live on forever through their accomplishments (for him, it would be through Uruk).