The Evolution of Heroism: From Ancient Epics to Modern Icons

Categories: Epic of Gilgamesh

Across history, individuals have sought to define the idea of a "hero" since the beginning of humanity. It is important to recognize that heroes can take on various shapes, from iconic characters like King Gilgamesh in The Epic of Gilgamesh to everyday people who dedicate themselves to their country or education, like teachers. Heroes may see changes in how they are perceived over time; for instance, Adolf Hitler and Osama bin Laden were seen as heroes by some followers during their lifetimes.

Heroes can take many forms, whether it's someone we deeply respect (like a father, mother, or teacher), a legendary character such as Odysseus in The Odyssey, or even an individual who positively impacts our lives without direct interaction. They may exhibit qualities like bravery, courage, honesty, or deceit and come from any gender or race. Despite these differences, heroes have the power to inspire and give purpose to those who believe in them, guiding them towards their goals even when the future is uncertain.

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In this essay, I will delve into what makes a hero and examine the characteristics of an epic hero based on my own perspective. By analyzing epic heroes from The Epic of Gilgamesh and The Odyssey, I will share my interpretation of heroism.

Defining what makes a hero is a complex task, as perceptions of heroism differ among individuals. Mere status or abilities alone do not make someone a hero; it is the combination of various heroic qualities that truly define a hero. The Epic of Gilgamesh illustrates this idea through Gilgamesh's demonstration of skills, intelligence, willingness to sacrifice for his goals, awe-inspiring nature, and relatability.

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These traits are evident throughout his journey in The Epic of Gilgamesh; "He knew the ways, was wise in all things" (1.4).

From the beginning, there is a sense of wonder and fascination with this character's wisdom and understanding, qualities that are commonly linked to the concept of a hero. Reflecting on the analogy of a hero as a teacher, many of us remember a teacher from our childhood whom we perceived as knowing everything. We relied on them to provide answers to any questions we had. Similar to the armies that followed Gilgamesh, we were young and easily influenced, but simply being followed did not automatically make him a hero.

Just like the legendary hero Gilgamesh, modern heroes also demonstrate exceptional abilities that distinguish them from others. In The Epic of Gilgamesh, it is mentioned that Gilgamesh possessed extraordinary skills such as "opening passes in the mountains, Digging wells at the highlands' verge, Traversing the ocean, the vast sea, to the suns rising," (1.39-41). Today's military members are often viewed as heroes embarking on their own journeys, leaving behind loved ones and encountering life-threatening situations. Similar to Gilgamesh, they undergo significant transformations due to the challenges they confront and the sacrifices they make.

Both modern heroes and the epic hero Gilgamesh share a strong belief in their cause and a willingness to make sacrifices for it. Gilgamesh, like present-day public servants such as policemen and firemen, demonstrates a readiness to give his life for something greater than himself. The Epic of Gilgamesh illustrates this sentiment with the line, "Your heart should be urging you to battle. Forget about death, He who marches first, protects himself," (IV. 182-184). This can be likened to the courageous first responders of 9-11 who fearlessly entered burning buildings to rescue others without concern for their own safety. Just as Gilgamesh faced the dangers of Humbaba without hesitation, those individuals carried out their mission on that tragic day motivated by bravery and resolve.

Both Gilgamesh and Odysseus display characteristics that are seen in contemporary heroes. Gilgamesh is depicted as having supernatural abilities, while Homer's The Odyssey portrays Odysseus as a brave fighter, skilled tactician, and athlete. Although Odysseus does not possess the same exceptional strength and talents as Gilgamesh, he shows incredible determination by using his intelligence and cleverness to overcome obstacles on his return journey to Ithaca.

Both Odysseus and General Norman Schwarzkopf showcased their strategic abilities by using deception. Odysseus famously used the Trojan Horse in the Trojan war as a clever tactic, while General Schwarzkopf employed propaganda to deceive the Iraqi army in a modern military conflict. Their successes were built on strategic thinking and creative tactics (Connelly 2012).

While many may see professional athletes as heroes, I view them more as role models. However, I believe an athlete can become a hero through off-field actions that show heroic traits. Odysseus, a renowned ancient athlete, exemplifies this idea in Homer's The Odyssey. When provoked by Euryalus, Odysseus showcases his athletic skill with humility and modesty, avoiding unnecessary boasting. In contrast to modern athletes who crave attention and praise, Odysseus is a "quiet professional" whose demeanor should be followed by today's athletes.

Both epic heroes and modern day heroes exhibit a willingness to take risks for a noble purpose. In Book Nine of The Odyssey, Odysseus demonstrates this characteristic by facing off against Cyclops to protect his men within the cave. Likewise, contemporary hero Chesley Sullenberger bravely landed a faulty plane in the Hudson River, saving 155 people. Both Odysseus and Sullenberger were willing to take chances for the benefit of others, showing their selflessness.

Ultimately, the concept of a hero is subjective and can vary based on personal viewpoints. Heroes can take on different roles, whether as partners, companions, teachers, or firefighters who demonstrate bravery by putting their lives at risk. The characteristics that set apart legendary heroes from ancient times are still evident in modern-day heroes. Whether it be the god-like traits of Gilgamesh in The Epic of Gilgamesh or the cleverness and protective instincts of Odysseus in The Odyssey, these qualities continue to embody the spirit of heroism.

Ultimately, both ancient epic heroes and modern heroes share human qualities as they face emotional battles, undergo transformations, and embark on diverse quests. Whether it is completing a college education or running a marathon, facing formidable foes like Humbaba or embarking on a decade-long journey to reunite with a loved one, individuals have the capacity to embody heroism based on various interpretations.

Updated: Feb 21, 2024
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The Evolution of Heroism: From Ancient Epics to Modern Icons. (2016, Sep 12). Retrieved from

The Evolution of Heroism: From Ancient Epics to Modern Icons essay
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