Gilgamesh and Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth Essay
Updated: Jul 1st, 2020
Every great story requires a hero or heroes. The success of any story depends on how well the readers can align and relate to the story’s hero/heroes. Some stories create heroes that progress from the mythical world into the real world. One of the stories that feature an ancient hero who is still popular today is “The Epic of Gilgamesh”.
This Mesopotamian epic features a number of heroes including King Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh, the ancient Mesopotamian King is on a quest of immortality. The type of hero epitomized by Gilgamesh can be analyzed using Joseph Campbell’s “monomyth”.
Campbell discusses heroism in his book “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”. According to Campbell, there are three main stages in a hero’s journey. These stages include separation, initiation, and return. All these stages in a hero’s journey have sub categories.
For instance, the separation stage encompasses a “call to adventure, refusal to heed the call, and a crossing of the first threshold” (Campbell 34). Gilgamesh as a hero can be analyzed using definitions from Campbell’s book. Gilgamesh’s journey of heroism coincides with Campbell’s monomyth.
According to Campbell, a hero’s journey begins with a departure from something or somewhere. This departure involves a call to adventure. At first, the hero refuses the call but eventually he crosses the threshold. In Gilgamesh’s case, the call to adventure begins when a trapper asks for his help. The trapper requests Gilgamesh to help him deal with “a fellow who comes from the mountain” (Kovacs 8).
Through this initial call, Gilgamesh is introduced to a world of nature that he finds hard to understand. Campbell notes that after this initial call to adventure, a hero will often refuse to accept the request. Gilgamesh exemplifies this refusal when his compatriot Enkidu tells him not to go on the quest.
Although Gilgamesh’s initial refusal lasts for a very short time, it is still signifies initial hesitation. After this initial refusal, both Enkidu and Gilgamesh eventually agree to face Humbaba in a quest that takes part inside the cedar forest.
Campbell asserts that after a hero accepts the call to adventure, he is then likely to acquire supernatural help. This help often comes from a “protective figure that represents destiny’s power” (Campbell 70). Gilgamesh receives this power from Shamash the sun god.
The supernatural power in this case is requested by Ninsun, Gilgamesh’s mother. Before she addresses Shamash, Ninsun “washes herself with the purity plant, dons a worthy robe, and puts on her crown” (Kovacs 17). She does this in order to get the attention of the revered sun god.
The intervention of this supernatural power gives Gilgamesh the bravery to face the fierce Humbaba. Shamash is able to defeat Humbaba with his fire spitting mouth using his thirteen winds. The only difference between Gilgamesh’s heroism and Campbell’s definition is that the hero in this story does not refuse to accept supernatural help.
Campbell asserts that heroes often possess a “hardened heart” and they are initially reluctant to accept help from supernatural beings. Gilgamesh does not align with this mode of heroism because he is eager to enlist Shamash’s help in his quest against Humbaba.
Before an ordinary human being can be fully transformed to a hero, he has to cross a threshold that opens up his life to danger and darkness (Campbell 77). This threshold is often protected by a larger than life entity. In Gilgamesh’s case, this happens when he enters the cedar forest that is protected by Humbaba the terrible.
Campbell states that a hero has to cross the threshold and enter a world of “darkness and unknown danger”. Gilgamesh’s transition is preempted when the author writes that Gilgamesh and Enkidu “stood at the edge of the forest…gazing at the entrance to the forest” (Kovacs 41).
According to Campbell, the hero is initiated after being separated. This initiation stage is characterized by the hero’s metamorphosis. During this stage, the hero has to undergo various trials and tribulations before achieving an exalted form.
For Gilgamesh, these trials are exemplified through his “journey through the; scorpion beings, road to the sun, garden of jewels, waters of death, and eventually to Utanapishtim’s home” (Kovacs 93). After all these trials, Gilgamesh has almost achieved a new life form.
The last part of a hero’s journey according to Campbell is the Hero’s return. Once a hero has overcome all his trials, he must contemplate a return. In addition, the hero has to return with a significant victory. Sometimes the hero refuses to return at first but he eventually agrees. At the end of his journey, Gilgamesh does not show any strong reservations towards returning to Uruk.
However, in one instance he asks Utanapishtim what he should do. After agreeing to return, the hero often discovers a way to shorten his return journey according to Campbell’s monomyth. This does not happen to Gilgamesh because the epic does not include a quick return scheme for the hero.
The “Epic of Gilgamesh” is a story about the heroic exploits of an ancient king named Gilgamesh. The hero of this story is modeled in accordance with Joseph Campbell’s monomyth. However, there are few disparities between Campbell’s definition and Gilgamesh’s heroism.
Gilgamesh accepts his call to action and then goes through trials to reach to the end of his quest. At the end of the story, he has to return to his kingdom in Uruk. Therefore, his journey as a hero coincides with Campbell’s monomyth.
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Princeton, NJ: Princeton U Press, 1990. Print.
Kovacs, Maureen. The Epic of Gilgamesh, Stanford, CA: Stanford U Press, 2007. Print.
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