Gilgamesh: a Hero’s Journey
Gilgamesh: a Hero’s Journey
Gilgamesh, written by David Ferry, illustrates a story about a man who knows everything, but continues to try and learn more. Although Gilgamesh may be arrogant, he still remains a great ruler and commander of Uruk. Throughout the book, the adventures of Gilgamesh fit Joseph Campbell’s idea of the hero’s journey. After analyzing the pieces to the hero’s journey, Gilgamesh is proven to be a true hero because his journey parallels that of the hero’s journey described by Campbell.
The latter part of this paper will prove Gilgamesh is a hero using Campbell’s model, by analyzing the pieces of the hero’s journey: separation or departure, the initiation, and the return. The first element of the hero’s journey is separation or departure. This first piece is comprised of a call to adventure, acceptance of the call, supernatural aid, and the cross of the threshold. Campbell explains in a hero’s journey, a herald calls the hero to come on a journey. This component is described in Gilgamesh when Enkidu comes to get Gilgamesh to go on a quest.
Enkidu tells Gilgamesh about Huwawa, the guardian of the Cedar Forest, who is frightening everybody. After hearing about Huwawa, Gilgamesh accepts the call to adventure and says, “It is Gilgamesh who will venture into the Forest/and cut the Cedar down and win the glory” (Ferry 17). Both the call to adventure and acceptance are represented in the beginning of the book. The next component that falls under the same category of separation or departure is a supernatural aid. Gilgamesh receives supernatural aid from Shamash, the god of heaven.
Ninsun, Gilgamesh’s mother, asks the god to help protect her son and Enkidu while they are on their quest. “When Shamash sees him setting out on the road,/or in the mountain passes, or entering the Forest, may Shamash guard and keep him safe. / And may the stars, the watchmen of the night,/watch over Gilgamesh and the companion” (Ferry 20). Later on, when Gilgamesh and Enkidu struggle to fight Huwawa, Shamash does help by creating winds and earthquakes. This supernatural aid continues to prove Gilgamesh is in fact a hero. Crossing the threshold is the last component of separation or departure.
Campbell explains this as leaving a world you know and entering a world that is unknown. In the book, Gilgamesh and Enkidu leave Uruk after visiting Rimat-Ninsun. “Then from the Seven-Bolt Gate the two departed,/hearing the warnings and blessings of the city” (Ferry 20). As the two companions leave the city they know so well and begin their journey into the land they are unfamiliar with, they cross their threshold. Since all of the elements of separation or departure are met in the beginning of the story, Gilgamesh continues to meet the criteria to be a hero.
The second piece needed for a hero’s journey is initiation, which includes the roads of trials, the belly of the whale, meetings, attonement with the father, and the ultimate boon. Gilgamesh’s fight against Huwawa was one of many challenges he had during his journey. “Then Gilgamesh was afraid, and Enkidu/was afraid, and they entered into the Forest, afraid” (Ferry 26). Just as a hero would act, Gilgamesh didn’t let his fears get the best of him, but instead he entered the Forest to fight Huwawa. Another challenge Gilgamesh faces later in the story is fighting the Twin Dragon Scorpion Beings.
When he came to the mountain and saw the monster, fear spread through his body, but he didn’t let it stop him from his goal. “Terror in the body of Gilgamesh/seized hold of him from within and held him there/in terror. But then, in terror, he went forward” (Ferry 50). These two monsters are just two of the challenges Gilgamesh needs to overcome during his journey. Enemies and tragedies are also components of initiation. Campbell describes enemies as something out to get you, and sometimes trying to kill you. An enemy that Gilgamesh encounters is Ishtar.
Ishtar wants Gilgamesh to be with her, but he denies her request and devalues her. Humiliation and anger lead Ishtar to her father and asks him for the Bull of Heaven. “Give me the Bull of Heaven that I may punish/Gilgamesh the king, who has found out/and told about the foulness of the goddess. /Give me the Bull of Heaven with which to kill him” (Ferry 32). Enemies are part of the hero’s journey to teach the heroes a lesson. Gilgamesh learns actions have consequences and to respect sacred places. Kings don’t always think things through before they act, and their ego gets them into trouble.
Gilgamesh’s companion dies as a way to teach Gilgamesh that death is more powerful than anything else, and even a king can’t save him. Through the tragedy of Enkidu’s death, the hero, Gilgamesh, grows and becomes a different self. Another element of initiation is the belly of the whale. It shows a hero is serious and willing to die. The hero is a new person, who is focused after been through hell and back. After Gilgamesh’s companion dies, he becomes very depressed. “He made his way, companionless, to the end/of the second league. Utterly lightless, black. /There was nothing behind or before, nothing at all” (Ferry 51).
Gilgamesh is in a serious state of depression. The word choice of complete darkness is powerful because there is always a light somewhere, and it is never completely dark. Complete darkness is the underworld. This is Gilgamesh’s dying part of his journey. He needs to go through this and when he comes out on the other end he becomes a different individual. He becomes a new person from being through hell and coming out. The next component to initiation is meetings. Campbell describes this as either meetings with the gods or meeting a temptress. Gilgamesh encountered temptress during his journey.
Veiled Siduri is a tavern keeper who wants Gilgamesh to live it up, have fun, and stay with her. She tells him, “The life of man is short. Only the gods/can live forever. Therefore put on new clothes,/ a clean robe and a cloak tied with a sash,/ and wash the filth of the journey from your body. / Eat and drink your fill of the food and drink/men eat drink your fill of the food and drink/men eat and drink. Let there be pleasure and dancing”(Ferry 57). Siduri tries to distract Gilgamesh from completing his journey, but fortunately Gilgamesh resisted. Attonement with the father is yet another element of initiation in the hero’s journey.
This is the moment in their life when they realize they need to let their old self go and understand how to become their own self. Campbell uses the term “rebirth” to describe this element. During Gilgamesh’s lonesome journey, he changed completely from how he used to be. He was always described as arrogant and oppressive to his people, but he matures during the events in his journey. When Gilgamesh speaks to Utnapishtim he says, “Tell me then, father, how it came about/that you were admitted to the company/of gods, who granted you eternal life”(Ferry 65).
Gilgamesh never normally listens to anyone, but after maturing, he now thinks he can learn from Utnapishtim. It is rare for Gilgamesh to ever listen to anyone else because he thinks he knows everything the best, but attonement with the father provides an explanation for why Gilgamesh changed. The last component of the initiation step to the hero’s journey is the ultimate boon. This is when a hero will end up getting what he wanted if he made the right decisions. Ultimately, Gilgamesh did not get what he was looking for at the end of his journey, but it was the journey nd lesson that was meaningful, not necessarily something tangible.
When he finally got the plant, it was stolen from him almost immediately. The lesson he learned was that no matter how hard a person works for something, it may be unattainable. He also realized that there is no way to avoid death. Since all of the components of initiation match up to Gilgamesh’s journey, the evidence that he is a hero becomes stronger. The third and final step of the hero’s journey is the return. Uruk may not have changed while Gilgamesh was away, but he now sees the city in a different light.
He accepts he will not have eternal life, but if he rules the city of Uruk well, it will continue to grow and live on after him. Although there can be some discrepancy on whether Gilgamesh is truly a hero, the answer can be found by comparing Gilgamesh to the difference pieces of the hero’s journey. After analyzing every component of separation or departure, initiation, and the return, it is clear that Gilgamesh is proven to be a hero. Every step of Gilgamesh’s journey follows this model almost exactly, which provides strong evidence for this conclusion.
University/College: University of California
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 4 January 2017
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