Gilgamesh

Campbell’s Heroic Pattern of Monomyth can be seen even in the early myths such as Gilgamesh.  The Babylonian tale of Gilgamesh, the king of Uruk and the son of the goddess, Ninsun and a priest, is the first known heroic legend.  The beginning of the story, and Campbell’s first step on ‘Home’ in his pattern, starts out with Enkidu, a man of the wild, being created by the gods as a type of foil for Gilgamaesh, seen almost as a rival.  Gilgamesh ends up befriending Enkidu, who was tamed by a temple woman and not a lowed to return to the world of the beasts.   Gilgamesh and Enkidu then go off and start fighting terrifying monsters such as a demon named Humbaba in a distant cedar forests.  Gilgamesh spurns the goddess of love, Istar, and she has her father send down the Bull of Heaven to punish him, together with Enkidu they slay the bull making the gods furious.  As punishment Enkidu dies leaving Gilgamesh inconsolable.

With that there is Campbell’s ‘Call to Adventure’ where Gilgamesh, who cannot stop grieving, starts wondering about his own death.  This leads him to want to obtain immortality and goes on a journey to find Utnapishtim who was granted eternal life after the great flood.  On his journey Gilgamesh has to cross over the mountains and encounters two scorpions that let him pass after he has begged them.  This is the stage where Gilgamesh now has to cross over the threshold as Campbell calls it.  Gilgamesh has to pass through total darkness, probably symbolic of going to a new ‘higher’ plane, somewhere that mortals are not allowed to go.  He emerges into a beautiful garden by the sea where he meets Siduri, a tavern keeper.  She warns him that immortality is futile but ultimately directs him to the ferryman.  The ferryman takes Gilgamesh across the Waters of Death to where Utnapishtim is.  The story of the flood is related to Gilgamesh by Utnapishtim and how he was rewarded with eternal life.

This is the part where Utnapishtim gives Gilgamesh a test to see if he is worthy of immortality, Gilgamesh has to stay awake for a week.  Gilgamesh fails the test though and Utnapishtim tells him to go back home.  At that moment Utnapishtim’s wife wants him to tell Gilgamesh about the plant that grants youth.  Gilgamesh finds the plant but a snake then steals it.  Gilgamesh has to return empty-handed but he now realizes his own mortality.  He knows that he himself cannot live forever but that does not mean that human kind will not.

The most important thing that Gilgamesh learns about civilization is his own mortality and that of everyone around him.  Yes it was a painful and sorrowing experience for Gilgamesh when Enkidu died but that is part of the cycle of life and he had to go on his journey to find that it is an inevitable part of human life. His quest was really to try and find himself, find out who he was.  He wanted to stay alive forever because Enkidu could not and he did not want to experience death.  On his journey he realized exactly what life meant and mortality.  He also has learned that all the achievements he has made for the city and the reputation that it has will continue on even after he is gone.  Even if his is not physically still there something that he has done will remain and will be saved throughout time.  History in essence is immortality.

Gilgamesh does not seem to hold up to all of the high standards set for a classical Greek hero.  He was not a noble man when he started out, he was a cruel king and would go around raping any woman he wanted to, a policy that does not embody the Homeric type of hero in the least.  Gilgamesh does have the fighting nature in him seen by Greek heroes but he also knows his own limits and lets the show of emotion play out when Enkidu dies.  The death of his friend is what really started Gilgamesh on his quests and unlike other Greek heroes, Gilgamesh is never thrown out of his city, he leaves by his own free will.  He does fight mythical beasts with Enkidu helping him out but the majority of his battles took place before his big adventure even started.

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~ by wolfangel87 on November 18, 2010.

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