Comparing the Hero in Epic of Gilgamesh and Homer's Iliad
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The Hero in Epic of Gilgamesh and the Iliad
'One and the same lot for the man who hangs back
and the man who battles hard. The same honor waits
for the coward and the brave. They both go down to Death,
the fighter who shirks, the one who works to exhaustion.' (IX,385-88)
Thus muses Achilles, one of epic poetry's greatest heroes. Epic poetry, one of the earliest forms of literature, began as an oral narration describing a series of mythical or historic events. Eventually, these stories were written down and read aloud to an audience. Although the Epic of Gilgamesh was composed approximately fifteen hundred years prior to the Iliad, the heroes of both epics possess strikingly similar characteristics. Indeed, Gilgamesh and Achilles, as epic heroes, exemplify godlike qualities, great personal power, and fierce pride and loyalty.
In Gilgamesh, we find a hero who is created by the gods; yet he is part human: "Two thirds they made him god and one third man" (14). He seeks the protection of the gods and draws upon their wise counsel. Achilles is also of mortal-immortal heritage. Although he is often referred to as "son of Peleus" (a mortal), his mother, the sea nymph Thetis, had dipped him as a child in the River Styx causing him to be immortal everywhere except the heel by which she held him (?Achilles? par 2). Not unlike Gilgamesh, Achilles seeks the wise counsel of the gods and entreats his mother to use her diplomatic skills to gain favor with the other gods. He attempts this when he tells Thetis, "Go to Olympus, plead with Zeus/ if you ever warmed his heart with a word or any action" (I, 468-69).
In addition to the gods' influence, Gilgamesh and Achilles are protected...
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... based upon historic events, the protagonists portrayed here perpetuate the idea that man has always chosen for his super-heroes the qualities which he desires for himself: power, near-perfection, pride and loyalty. We celebrate theism as heroic qualities in the twentieth century. Will there ever be different qualities, qualities that might preserve a civilization longer than the civilizations that created these two brutal epics?
"Achilles." Gods, Heroes and Myth: Mythologies of Many lands. 10 June 2003. Internet. 23 June 2003.
The Epic of Gilgamesh. Trans. N.K. Sanders. London, England: Penguin Books, 1972.
Homer. The Illiad. The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces: Expanded Edition?Volume I. ed. by Maynard Mack. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1995.