Comparisons of Achilles vs Gilgamesh
“The man who is incapable of working in the common, or in his self sufficiency has no need for others, is not a part of the community like a beast of or a god;” quoted from Artistotle, this statement bears a resemblance to the epic heroes Gilgamesh and Achilles in the light of fate are in their respective characters.
An epic hero is normally of superior social station, often a king or leader in his own right. He is usually tall, handsome and muscular. He must be preeminent, or nearly so, in athletic and fighting skills. This latter ability implies not just physical skill, but also the courage to utilize it. The epic hero is sometimes outstanding in intelligence. Yet there seems to be more to the heroic character than is conveyed by such simple prescriptions. To display his heroic abilities the epic hero needs some form of crisis or war or quest. The nature of this crisis and the hero’s response, especially his relationship with his community, are the heart of the matter (Wurtzel, 2003).
The poem in the Epic of Gilgamesh, dating in its earliest versions from Ancient Sumeria between 2750 and 2500 BCE, starts with its hero, Gilgamesh, alienated from his city because of his arrogance (Carnahan, 2001). Here we have a hero who, to put it bluntly, has too little work of a heroic nature to do. He passes time ravishing the daughters and wives of his subject city, Uruk. Enkidu, a feral creature, saves him. The two set off in pursuit of warrior’s glory, a glory which will outlive their lives. The heroic impulse drives Gilgamesh to fight the monster of the cedar forest, to kill a heaven-sent boar, and to log the cedar forest. But his selfish pursuit of glory alienates the gods. They cause the death of Gilgamesh’s most loved friend, Enkidu. After a long period of grieving and fruitless wandering in the pursuit of literal immortality, even to the land of the dead itself, Gilgamesh gains some sort of a comprehension of his nature and of his own mortality. He returns to Uruk and becomes, in some versions at any rate, a reformed ruler (Hooker, 1999).
One very simple reading of Gilgamesh goes like this. At first the hero is at odds with his community. Personal tragedy, brought on by a lack of respect for the gods and his companions, and subsequently accompanied by long wandering, allows him to gain a deeper understanding of his own nature. Having becomes the possessor of such qualities of loyalty, patience, endurance, empathy and a proper sense of shame before his community and his gods, the hero returns to his people where he occupies his rightful place. The process depicted in the Gilgamesh story can be read as one of personal moral growth (Lawall and Mack, 2002).
On the other hand, Greek heroes are provided two options, either to die honorably as a hero or to have a disgraceful death, the same options which can be observed in the case of Achilles. “Twofold fates are bearing me toward the doom of death, if I abide here and play my part in the siege of Troy, then lost is my home-return but my renown shall be imperishable but if I return home to my dear native land, lost then is my glorious renown yet shall my life long endure” (Parada, 1997). Despite his values, the choice of how to die is never easy, for the warrior loves life and believes that death will be eternally dull existence. Moreover, his decision inevitable involves the welfare of his community, whether in the form of his companions on the battlefield or the people of the city he is defending. Sometimes he must choose between his loyalty and responsibility to the individuals he loves most and the loyalty and responsibility he owes the larger community. By accepting death and the fate which was given to him by the gods, the hero receives dignity and honor which would last for eternity.
The principal focus of The Iliad is on the consequences of a quarrel between Agamemnon, the commander of all Greek forces, and Achilles, his greatest warrior. In a very human but very juvenile, arrogant and callous act, Agamemnon publicly humiliates Achilles by taking away his prize of honor. Achilles retaliates by withdrawing from battle. His decision cripples the Greek forces and results in needless suffering and death among the Greeks, eventually including the death of his best friend, Patroclus. The Illiad demonstrates how the great hero causes great harm to their community, the army, when he thinks only of himself.
Achilles, a demi-god (son of the goddess Thetis and the mortal Peleus) personifies both the best and worst in the nature of humans (Hunter, 2005). As he moves from one crisis to another, he is at his best when he stands apart from his warrior society and questions the values by which he and they live. In addition to this, it can be said that Achilles is at his best nature when he understands his condition or situation through comfort and sympathy. On the contrary, Achilles is at his worst nature when he unleashes brute force through childish and selfish behavior. With striking psychological realism, Achilles nature as they exist in the human personality, are like two sides of one coin.
Uncompromising self-respect would seem to require the straight dealing preferred by Achilles, Aristotle observes that great-souled men count it a matter of pride to move without circumspection, presumably because they trust their first feelings. To those who are habituated to generous feeling, frankness and courage, second thoughts may seem meanly calculating. In any case, because the great-souled possess confidence in their own merit, they feel no need to round off edges by careful, oblique speaking. So Achilless detests any form of indirectness. When he says he hates, he hates “the doorways of death,” the man who says one thing and hides another in his heart, he is speaking to Oddysseus at a moment when Odysseus happens to be practicing some indirection upon him (Lawall and Mack, 2002).
Gilgamesh and Achilles allows us to make more precise the tentative definition of an epic hero and through this an understanding of the inherent ambiguity of the heroic impulse. An epic hero will indeed be of superior social station and physique, he will be preeminent in fighting, courage and maybe even in intelligence. But, perhaps as a result of a quest, this hero will undergo some form of moral maturation. After being initially at odds with his human and divine community (misusing the heroic impulse) he will develop a deeper understanding of his duties towards both groups.
Carnahan, T. R. (2001, August 20, 2006). Epic of Gilgamesh. Retrieved March 21, 2008, from http://www.ancienttexts.org/library/mesopotamian/gilgamesh/
Hooker, R. (1996, June 6, 1999). Gilgamesh Summary. Retrieved March 21, 2008, from http://www.wsu.edu/~dee/MESO/GILG.HTM
Hunter, J. (2005, November 30, 2005). Achilles. Encyclopedia Mythica Retrieved March 21, 2008, from www.pantheon.org/articles/a/achilles.html
Lawall, S. N., & Mack, M. (2002). The Norton Anthology of World Literature: Norton.
Parada, C. (1997, March 23, 2007). Achilles: Greek Mythology Link. Retrieved March 21, 2008, from http://homepage.mac.com/cparada/GML/Achilles.html
Wurtzel, L. (2003, August 9, 2004). Elements of the Epic Hero. Retrieved March 21, 2008, from http://www.tcnj.edu/~graham/Wurtzel.html