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The Epic of Gilgamesh

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What made Gilgamesh, from The Epic of Gilgamesh, such an epic hero?

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The difficulty in answering this question is that it can almost be asked in the reverse. Gilgamesh is, arguably, the original epic hero in world literature. He was the king of Uruk, an ancient Mesopotamian city famous for its impressive walls, and is regarded as being two-thirds god and one-third man. His connection to the gods (being two-thirds god and also denying the advances of the goddess Ishtar and eventually slaying her monstrous bull) and the pure scale of his strength and achievements help to put him on the level of the epic hero.

He also undergoes an epic quest—perhaps the first epic quest ever recorded. Following the death of his best friend Enkidu, Gilgamesh seeks immortality. In the style of a true epic quest, such as the search for the Holy Grail or Odysseus’s voyage homeward, he faces many monsters and overcomes many challenges—both internal and external. Though he ultimately fails to find immortality, he returns to Uruk as a wiser man and a nobler king than he was at the beginning of his tale.

In a way, Gilgamesh did achieve immortality through the pure epic scale of his story, which has been passed down through the millennia and is still being told today. It is not so much that Gilgamesh fits the mold of an epic hero; rather, every other epic hero fits the mold of Gilgamesh.

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Gilgamesh possesses several qualities of an epic hero, which is a character admired for their strength and personal achievements. Gilgamesh is the powerful king of Uruk, who is two-thirds god and one-third human. He is known as the strongest man in the world, he embodies masculinity, and he is admired for his courage. Throughout the epic, Gilgamesh performs extraordinary feats and attains a lasting legacy.

Gilgamesh initially demonstrates his strength and courage by defeating the powerful Enkidu. Gilgamesh then becomes close friends with Enkidu after their historic fight, and they decide to travel to the Forest of Cedar to fight the demon-monster, Humbaba. With the help of the sun god, Shamash, Gilgamesh and Enkidu end up killing Humbaba, which is an extraordinary feat. On their journey back to Uruk, Gilgamesh spurns the goddess Ishtar, who sends the Bull of Heaven to attack them. Once again, Gilgamesh and Enkidu perform a seemingly impossible feat by killing the Bull of Heaven.

Following their victory over the Bull of Heaven, Enkidu dies, and Gilgamesh is heartbroken. Gilgamesh then does the impossible by traveling to the ends of the earth, across the Waters of Death, to meet Utnapishtim in hopes of gaining the secret to immortality. Even though Utnapishtim tells him that immortality is only reserved for the gods, he gives Gilgamesh a magic plant that restores youth before he leaves for home. Unfortunately, a snake steals the magic plant and Gilgamesh returns home without the power to become immortal. However, Gilgamesh does cement his legacy, which is written on the magnificent gates of Ishtar surrounding the city of Uruk. Overall, Gilgamesh is considred an epic hero because of his extradordinary strength, courage, and accomplisments.

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Epic heroes possess very specific characteristics which define them as epic heroes. Epic heroes must possess the following characteristics:

-Complete long and dangerous journeys (which typically contains a descent into the underworld).

-Desire to gain fame and fortune.

-Compete in epic battles which illustrate his (or her) aristeria and arete (greatness and supremacy in battle). 

-Understanding that death can come at any time. 

In regards to The Epic of Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh possesses all of the characteristics defined above. He goes on a journey to find Utnapishtim, enters into the underworld (where he passes through twelve levels of darkness), wishes to possess the answer to an eternal question (secret to life) and gain fame, competes epic battles (Humbaba, Bull of Heaven, and Enkidu), and earns immortality in order to overcome the possibility of death coming. 

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One reason that Gilgamesh is such an epic hero would reside in his mere birth.  Gilgamesh was described as ""Two thirds they made him god and one third man."  This enables him to be perceived as more than a man, but not quite an immortal.  The next best thing would be an epic hero, someone who is capable of great feats and inspiring actions.  In this, one sees how Gilgamesh is an epic hero.  Feats such as defeating Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven immortalize him.  These actions are what contributes to Gilgamesh's condition of being an epic hero.

At the same time, Gilgamesh's condition is one in which he comes to understand truths about what it means to be human.  He experiences pain, misunderstanding, and the all too construction of mortality.  Gilgamesh is such an epic hero for while he does that which reminds us of the greatest of immortals, his grasp of what it means to be human is where he acquires a knowledge that enables us to relate to him.  His stature does not subsume his human nature, and it is this element where he becomes such an epic hero.  

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