The Themes of Heroism in Gilgamesh and Odysseus

June 7, 2022 by Essay Writer

Gilgamesh of Uruk and Odysseus of Ithaca: two heroic characters from two different worlds. Odysseus inherited the right to the throne and ruled Ithaca; complemented by his impartiality, ruthlessness and diplomatic skills. These men lived in two different time frames, yet they both striving to reach one goal: to find the meaning of life. Gilgamesh, a character from The Epic of Gilgamesh, is a demi-god; the son of the goddess Ninsun and the hero Lugalbana. He grew up living a lavish life where any desire he wished to have, he received. His sheltered life transformed him into a powerful and somewhat arrogant person. Gilgamesh craves immortality, an unachievable feat which leads him on the constant chase for fame and power. He throws himself rashly into dangerous circumstances if there is even the slightest possibility it may secure his honor and god-likeness in Uruk forevermore. Odysseus is the main character in Homer’s The Odyssey.

Throughout the epic, Odysseus is depicted as a brave, crafty, and arrogant man who has earned glory through his actions in war. He was significantly admired back in Ithaca, where his subjects and family have been waiting for his return for ten years. Throughout his journey back to Ithaca after the Trojan war, Odysseus is tempted by lust, power, and laziness; causing his journey to becoming longer and longer as he goes. Although all odds seemed to be stacked against both characters in every encounter they have, both always came out stronger. Both leaders struggled with arrogance, but were able to overcome their imperfections by devoting themselves to their crew as well as to the complement of their journeys, thus becoming the best versions of themselves.

Temptations brought upon by toxic arrogance and a need for glory entrap both Gilgamesh and Odysseus; creating thoughtless men from initially wise leaders. Both were defined and regarded as self-confident heroes. Although both of these men were masters of a group of people, sometimes we’re not the master over themselves and their actions. The heroes both insult gods on their respective journeys and have to face the consequences of their actions. Gilgamesh’s strength and high self-esteem are what gave him appeal to the people of Uruk. These citizens believed his power would provide them safety from their enemies; unfortunately, it did the exact opposite. Gilgamesh felt proud and valiant after slaying the God Huwawa. Ishtar, the goddess of love and war, was impressed by Gilgamesh’s actions and asked him for his hand in marriage; Gilgamesh refuses her advances. He replies to her in horribly insulting analogies: ‘you are the door that lets the cold in, you are the fire that goes out…you are the house that falls down’ (Ferry 30). By saying this, Gilgamesh is suggesting that Ishtar is extraordinarily undesirable and has no attractive or redeeming qualities. The fact that Gilgamesh was confident enough to deny and insult a goddess depicts how highly he thought of himself at this moment. Gilgamesh’s hubris upsets the goddess; causing Ishtar to unleash the Bull of Heaven down upon Uruk and indirectly causing the death of Enkidu. Odysseus’s arrogance and wit worked harmoniously and caused trouble in an array of instances; one instance in particular on the island of the Cyclops. Odysseus and his men become entrapped in the cave of a cyclops by the name of Polyphemus, son of Poseidon. Faced with the impending death of being eaten alive, Odysseus uses his cleverness to blind Polyphemus and escape the cave by hiding underneath his sheep. So invigorated by his stealthy escape, Odyseuss cannot stop himself from shouting from his ship, “if ever mortal man inquire how you were put to shame and blinded, tell him Odysseus…took your eye…whose home is on Ithaca”(Homer 160). Enraged Polyphemus curse Odysseus which causes Poseidon to send monsters, bad weather, and death upon Odysseus and all who conspired with him from that point on. If it were not for Odysseus’s desire for recognition for his cleverness, it would not have taken him ten years to return to his family and his city.

Even in the moments where we don’t see their best qualities, Odysseus and Gilgamesh’s fierce loyalty to their friends on their respective journeys never falter. It takes friendship and dedication to be able to withstand such tremendous travels in both epics. Without loyalty, Odysseus and Gilgamesh may not have lived through their journeys. Despite the unfortunate ending for both Odysseus’s crew and Gilgamesh’s companion Enkidu, the two men kept their friends safe and protected for as long as they could. Loyalty is exercised by Odysseus when he and his crew are at the gates of the underworld to see Hades. Here, Odysseus runs into his crew member Elpinor, a man who died at the Island of Circe when he fell off a roof to his death. He pleads Odysseus to ‘Remember…do not abandon me unwept, unburied, to tempt the god’s wrath’ (Homer 187). Odysseus replies, ‘I promise you the barrow and the burial’ (Homer 187).

Odysseus could have ignored Elpinors plea and continued with his long journey, but instead, he went back to the island to retrieve the remains of his crew member. Elpenor symbolizes the ties to Odysseus’s past concerning Circe and his present duties that he possesses to his crew. By taking the time to honor his fallen crewmember, Odysseus exhibits the qualities of an exemplary leader. Enkidu had a tremendous impact on the life of Gilgamesh. The two companions brought out the best in each other and stood by each other side no matter what obstacle they faced. Gilgamesh expressed his loyalty to Enkidu when he fell sick. With Enkidu on the brink of death, Gilgamesh exclaims, ‘Gilgamesh the king will build a statue to celebrate the fame of Enkidu. When you are gone, then Gilgamesh will wear the skins of beasts and hairy-bodied wanderer grieving in the wilderness for you’ (Ferry 40). By building statues and wearing skins of beasts, Gilgamesh is solidifying Enkidu’s legacy living on even after death.

In the beginning, both kings believed they were in charge of their destinies, and that nothing could get in the way of them achieving their desired goals. However, they learn that no matter how badly one wants something, how hard one works to achieve a goal, the drive cannot see them through every situation. In The Epic of Gilgamesh after Gilgamesh’s soulmate Enkidu dies, he comes face to face with his mortality. To stop the same fate of Enkidu to occur to him, Gilgamesh sets off on a journey to find immortality and build a legacy for himself. Every time immortality is just within reach, a sharp turn of events takes the opportunity away. An instance of this is when Gilgamesh retrieves a thorny magic plant from the ocean that conceals the power to turn old into young once more. While enjoying a refreshing swim in a pool, a snake smelled the sweet essence of the plant, stole it away, and disappeared into the reeds. Gilgamesh, utterly broken by this occurrence, cries out, ‘this journey has gone for nothing…the serpent had taken away the plant…what I found was a sign telling me to abandon my journey and what I sought for’ (Ferry 81). Gilgamesh finally realizes that immortality is unattainable for a mortal such as he. Immortality is merely for the gods. This quest does not lead to the prevention of death; instead, it teaches Gilgamesh the lesson that death is an inescapable phenomenon. One should not live to prepare for death, but to rejoice the life you have. He learns to take pleasure and pride in the life he can live rather than worrying about things one cannot change. When setting off on a successful exit from Troy, Odysseus believed he was invincible; that he, a valiant war-hero, could do and say whatever he wished without any repercussions.

Odysseus received a rude awakening when his trip home takes ten years, riddled with unforeseen obstacles entirely out of his control. Odysseus tries to be the strong, fearless leader that everyone believes he is. Unfortunately, he makes careless mistakes such as losing all his men, destroying twelve ships, and angering Poseidon to the point that the god makes it his mission for Odysseus never to return home. When finally able to leave Calypso’s island after seven years, Odysseus cries out in joy and says, ‘Each day I long for home, long for the sight of home. If any god has marked me out again for the shipwreck, my tough heart can undergo it. What hardship have I not long since endured at sea’ (Homer 87)? In facing this, and other punishments given by Poseidon and Kalypso, Odysseus learns the lesson that he is indeed not a god. His share of human weaknesses promoted the factors that led to revenge inflicted by the divine, causing countless postponements home. His lack of sympathy and morals to other people translate to lack of compassion against himself. Trials and tribulations in that end prove his loyalty to his family. We never see Odysseus straying from his goal of returning to Ithaca and his family. His journey helps him to become a more developed character. Odysseus has sacrificed for his end, and suffered for his desire to return home; in doing so, he makes the best of his mortal life accepting his fate as well as possible death for his family and Ithaca.

A theme of heroism is presented within both characters. These men are examples of the incredible strength of mind as well as physical strength which makes them superior to the normal man. In Uruk and Ithaca, Gilgamesh and Odysseus assumed the roles of Lugal, king, and Wanax, Military leader as well as tribal king. In their respective societies. These leaders both aiding their and confronting issues that arise. These two leaders embark on journeys wherein they face death. They show bravery and honor, which leads to self-actualization and the ability to find peace with themselves and their lives at the end of each epic. Their journeys have led them to make better decisions and thus become better leaders of their people. In the end, Odysseus and Gilgamesh realize that their lives are mostly out of their control and that no matter how divine-like one may be, there are limits to the powers and strengths one possesses; the only ones that can control their fate are the gods.


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