From The Epic of Gilgamesh, assess if Gilgamesh is a hero.

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I think that a strong case can be made that Gilgamesh is a hero.  In being able to develop this argument, Gilgamesh's heroic sensibility lies in both his own sense of strength and austerity, moving him to accomplishments that defy the capacity of what can be done.  At the same time, Gilgamesh is heroic because of the lessons he learns, lessons that show how when insight and truth is absorbed and understood, anyone can be heroic.

When examining how Gilgamesh is heroic, his birth represents a marvel of heroism.  Forged by "Two thirds they made him god and one third man," Gilgamesh is heroic because he is able to do what others could not do.  Part of lies in his killing of Humbaba.  A force of the darkness that few could even consider slaying, Gilgamesh is a hero because he does what others could not do.  

Humbaba’s mouth is fire; his roar the floodwater;

his breath is death. Enlil made him guardian
of the Cedar Forest, to frighten off the mortal

who would venture there. But who would venture

In some regard, heroes are seen as such because of what they do.  While Gilgamesh started "ahead" of most from a genealogical sense, he is heroic because of what he does, something that few others could ever do.   The very idea of "who would venture there" is what makes Gilgamesh heroic. Gilgamesh's condition as a king who is able to undertake and accomplish what few others could do is a part of what makes him heroic. 

Another aspect of Gilgamesh's heroism is that he absorbs the answers to some of the most critical conditions of being.  I think that heroism is evident in how he mourns the death of Enkidu.  Gilgamesh, slayer of Humbaba and great king of Uruk, is not afraid to feel pain and not afraid of experiencing hurt. Gilgamesh is able to feel pain and feel a sense of loss. He does not move away from this hurt.  Gilgamesh does not use his strength, austerity, and sense of power to evade the harsh truth that awaits him:  "The paths going up to and down from the forest of cedars/ All mourn you: the weeping does not end day or night." In the end, Gilgamesh can be seen as heroic because he is not afraid of being human.  Gilgamesh does not escape from pain that is a part of being human.  I think that this makes him heroic because if someone who is as powerful and as "other- worldly" as him is able to experience pain, it gives hope to all of us that pain is not something that cannot be faced and confronted.

Gilgamesh is also heroic in terms of what he does with the harsh condition of truth.  When Gilgamesh asks Utnapishtim about how to deal with the limited nature of consciousness, the truth is brutally honest and direct: "There is no permanence."  Gilgamesh is almost immortal in so much of what he does and is above so much of what others would do.  However, he is limited in what he must experience and is direct in what he has to face.  Gilgamesh is heroic because this condition of transience does not cripple him or make him impotent in the face of such overwhelming conditions.  Rather, it inspires him to action . Gilgamesh is heroic because he recognizes that doing for others and keeping an eye to the maintenance of the social order is where immortality lies. Gilgamesh commits himself to being a good king and in serving others. He acts in the name of "restoring the sanctuaries that the Flood had destroyed."  He creates paths for civil society to develop, and in doing so, Gilgamesh realizes that individuals can live on even past death:

Study the brickwork, study the fortification;
climb the ancient staircase to the terrace;

study how it is made; from the terrace see
the planted and fallow fields, the ponds and orchards.

One league is the inner city, another league 
is orchards; still another the fields beyond;

over there is the precinct of the temple. . . . ,
Three leagues and the temple precinct of Ishtar.”

Measure Uruk, the city of Gilgamesh 

In the final analysis, Gilgamesh is heroic because he understands the finite condition of reality that envelops him.  Gilgamesh is heroic because he acts in the name of others.  Gilgamesh is a hero because he channels his strength and focused energy in order to assist others.  In the end, Gilgamesh is heroic because of what he possesses in terms of both strength and knowledge.  He heroic because he shows individuals that the transformative condition of what can be is able to be realized in our own daily lives.