People have been attempting to define the word “hero” for as long has man has existed on this planet. To define a hero one must first appreciate that there are many different types of hero’s. For example, a hero could be an epic hero such as King Gilgamesh, in The Epic of Gilgamesh, or a hero may a simple individual that serves his/her country or even a school teacher that devotes his/her life to the development of the youth. Hero’s come and hero’s go. Some hero’s even lose “hero status” over time; Adolf Hitler and Osama bin Laden were hero’s to followers during their lifetime.
Hero’s come in many forms, a hero can be someone we look up to (father, mother, teacher). They can be a unique character passed down for thousands of years such as Odysseus, in The Odyssey. They can be someone we’ve never interacted with or someone by our side every day. They might be brave, courageous, truthful or dishonest. A hero could be male or female, black or white. A hero may be someone that simply affected a life in a positive way. One thing hero’s all have in common is that they provide drive and purpose for those the believe in them, they help some focus on dreams and they might provide a path when no path exists. In this paper will be defining a hero and the qualities an epic hero has with my definition. I will be using epic hero’s in, The Epic of Gilgamesh and The Odyssey to help shape my explanation.
As noted before, there is no easy way to define what a hero truly is, as hero’s are often defined in the eyes of the beholder. Being a king or someone of status alone does not make a hero; nor does intellect, strength, or bravery. In short, a hero (as well as an epic hero) connect multiple heroic qualities . The Epic of Gilgamesh accurately defines this definition of a hero as he has numerous heroic traits. Gilgamesh is portrayed as a true hero through his abilities, intelligence, willingness to die for his quest, admiration, and his human qualities. We see examples of all of these attributes throughout this quest; starting with the introduction of Gilgamesh in The Epic of Gilgamesh; “He knew the ways, was wise in all things” (1.4).
From the start one is awed and intrigued with this character as being “wise” and knowing the “ways”, these are attributes often associated with many people’s view/definition of a hero. Reverting back to the (hero) teacher analogy; as a child most of us had a teacher that we believed knew everything there was to know. We looked up to that person to answer any question we might have. We were young and impressible, not unlike the armies that followed Gilgamesh, but that alone did not make him a hero.
A hero of today, like an “epic” hero, must also have abilities that appear super human. Hero’s can do things that others cant or wont attempt. The epic hero Gilgamesh had this trait as well, as noted in The Epic of Gilgamesh, “opening passes in the mountains, Digging wells at the highlands’ verge, Traversing the ocean, the vast sea, to the suns rising,” (1.39-41). It is this final line that one can compare a hero of today to an “epic” hero from long ago. In today’s war time climate members of the military are often portrayed as hero’s. These individuals “traverse the ocean” on a quest of their own. They leave family members behind, they face life and death, and like Gilgamesh, are often changed forever by the loss of a close friend.
The comparisons of a hero today and the epic hero Gilgamesh continue. A hero utterly believes in what he/she is doing and is willing to die for that cause. Gilgamesh, like a public servant (policemen, firemen) of today is willing to die for a cause that is greater than himself. We again see an example of this in The Epic of Gilgamesh, “Your heart should be urging you to battle. Forget about death, He who marches first, protects himself,” (IV. 182-184). I compare these lines to the first responders of 9-11. These brave men and women, with no regard for their own safety, “marched” into burning buildings with the sole purpose of protecting others. They were on a quest of their own, and just like Gilgamesh, ignoring the dangers of the beast Humbaba, first responders of 9-11 ignored the fact the buildings were doomed. Responders of 9-11 followed their hearts into a battle of another kind altogether.
Gilgamesh is not the only epic hero that shares attributes of the modern day hero. Odysseus in Homers The Odyssey, shared some of the qualities used to define a hero’s of today as well. Odysseus might not have the super human vigor, endurance, and powers as written about Gilgamesh, but Odysseus was a courageous and knowledgeable warrior as well a master strategist and athlete. His persistence was unmatched as Odysseus schemed, lied, cheated, and talked his way out of trouble for over ten years in his quest to return home.
We know Odysseus was a master strategist by the skillful design and deception that his Trojan Horse played in the Trojan war. This sly act, which became Odysseus’ trademark, was born from Odysseus’ clever imagination. I compare this with a modern day hero, the late General Norman Schwarzkopf, who used deception and propaganda into fooling the Iraqi army into thinking the United States would be invading from the sea, forcing Saddam Hussein to move large numbers of his forces to protect southern Iraq (Connelly 2012).
Right, wrong, or indifferent, many people today view professional athletes as hero’s. While I personally believe professional athletes to be role models and not hero’s, I also feel that an athlete can be a hero as long as his/her off field actions communicative heroic traits. Odysseus was a world class athlete but did not need to boast about it. He only showcased his skill after being challenged and provoked by Euryalus. Homer writes of Odysseus athletic capability in The Odyssey, “He jumped up, cloak still on, and grabbed a discus, Larger than the others…As the discus zoomed overhead and finally landed, Far beyond the other marks…” (VIII.205-213). Odysseus would never perform feats so bold unless it suited his purpose or cause. Unlike athletes of today, Odysseus was not one to brag, or show off in away; again as written in The Odyssey, “…I am not like The immortals, either in build or looks. I am completely human…” (VII. 221-223) This “quiet professional” trait is something the modern day athlete “hero” should be taught to emulate.
Epic hero’s as well as modern day hero’s must take risks for a greater purpose. Odysseus was a risk taker in every sense of the word. A power example of this is during Odysseus encounter with Cyclops in Book Nine of The Odyssey, Homer writes , “We got to the cave quickly. he was out, Tending his flocks in the rich pastureland.” (IX.207-208). Odysseus risked everything by going into that cave. In his mind the risk was better than the alternative. His men needed food and taking the risk was worth the likelihood in confronting Cyclops. This event reminds me of a modern day hero named Chesley Sullenberger. This hero saved the lives of 155 people by landing a fully loaded, disabled plane into the Hudson river (Bomkamp 2010). Sullenberger was willing to take a risk for the greater good, and like the epic hero Odysseus, saved lives because he was willing to give his own life for a chance at saving his passengers.
In conclusion, the definition of a hero will be different for everybody. Hero’s can be your wife, a friend, a teacher, or a fireman that chooses to walk into a building with total disregard for his/her own safety. Epic hero’s from a thousand years ago had many of the same characteristics that still define hero’s of today. We see examples of this in the text; whether that is the god like qualities as written of Gilgamesh in The Epic of Gilgamesh, “Surpassing all kings, for his stature renowned,” (I. 30), or the cunning and intelligent protector of his men Odysseus, as described by Homer in The Odyssey , “All right, Eurylochus, you stay here by the ship….I’m going, though. We’re in a really tight spot.” (X. 291-293).
In the end, epic hero’s of the past and hero’s of today all share the quality that everyone of us has; in the end they have human qualities. Hero’s battle emotions, hero’s change over time, and all hero’s are on a quest of some sort. A quest can be as simple as finishing a college education , completing a marathon, or attending a AA meeting. A Quest can be as challenging as battling the fierce monster Humbaba, or traveling ten years to return to a loved one. Everyone has the potential to be a hero, it just depends on the definition that is being used.