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The Epic of Gilgamesh

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What makes Gilgamesh from The Epic of Gilgamesh an epic hero?

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Gilgamesh is a hero because of his status as a part-divine king, along with his superhuman attributes and accomplishments. In the ancient world, heroes would not have been expected to fulfill the same moral expectations which modernity ascribes to them, and Gilgamesh himself would fail such a test. Instead, classical heroes were defined primarily by their elevated status and superhuman feats. Gilgamesh, the part-divine king of Uruk, with his extraordinary adventures and achievements, passes that test.

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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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What makes Gilgamesh a hero?

When speaking of the ancient tradition, heroes were understood as larger-than-life personalities who achieved superhuman feats. They were always royalty (or, at the very least, nobility), often with divine parentage, who tend to occupy a status suspended between gods and humans. Just consider the examples of the classical Greek heroes: Heracles, Theseus, Perseus, Odysseus, Achilles, etc. What links them all together is their elevated status and superhuman capability, along with the extraordinary accomplishments that follow.

Gilgamesh certainly fulfills these qualities. At the same time, it should be noted that, in the classical traditions, heroes did not require serving as the moral exemplars we would expect from modernity. Indeed, anyone attempting to laud Gilgamesh on moral grounds must wrestle with his depiction as a tyrant as the story begins, not to mention the killing of the defeated Humbaba as he pleads for mercy. Thus, even if he could be viewed as a hero, I don't think Gilgamesh should be understood as a moral paragon. However, this isn't a rare quality where classical heroes are concerned: the same criticism could apply to Heracles, Odysseus, or Theseus, just to name a few.

Gilgamesh is king of Uruk, described as two-thirds divine. After wrestling with Enkidu, he fought and defeated Humbaba, slew the Bull of Heaven, and pursued the secrets of immortality itself (a quest which ended in failure). It is in these achievements (and the superhuman attributes that allowed him to accomplish them) that is heroic status is assured.

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What makes Gilgamesh a hero?

Gilgamesh exemplifies a traditional epic hero, who possesses extraordinary abilities and is admired for his numerous achievements. Gilgamesh is a demigod, two-thirds god and one-third man, who is considered the strongest person in the world and is the King of Uruk. Gilgamesh is also a brave, accomplished warrior and is an ambitious architect, who constructs massive walls around Uruk and erects magnificent ziggurats. Similar to traditional epic heroes, Gilgamesh embarks on numerous quests to attain glory and cement his legacy with the greatest kings to ever rule the earth. After wrestling Enkidu, Gilgamesh and his friend travel to the Land of Cedars and defeat the seemingly unbeatable monster Humbaba. On his journey back to Uruk, Gilgamesh upsets the goddess Ishtar, who sends the Bull of Heaven to kill him. Gilgamesh once again accomplishes a seemingly impossible feat by killing the Bull of Heaven. After his friend Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh embarks on another quest as he journeys to the ends of the earth to meet Utnapishtim in hopes of attaining immortality. While Gilgamesh discovers that immortality is something only granted to the gods, he realizes that through his legacy his name will last for eternity, he and eventually travels home to have his story recorded. Overall, Gilgamesh's impressive character traits, notable accomplishments, epic quests, and admirable legacy make him a hero.

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What makes Gilgamesh a hero?

Gilgamesh possesses many of the classic characteristics of the hero, which set him apart from ordinary people.

His first heroic characteristic is his ancestry. He is two thirds divine and one third human. Many heroes in ancient epics share this characteristic of partially divine ancestry. He is also a king; most heroes in epics are either kings or nobles. 

Next, he is unusually imposing physically:

A perfect body the gods gave ...

The form of his body no one can match

Eleven cubits high he is, nine spans his chest ...

As well as being larger than most people, he is handsome and extremely strong. The gods are also portrayed as giving him courage. 

His deeds are also heroic, involving defeating monsters by means of his physical prowess and engaging in a quest which requires superhuman physical strength and endurance. He demonstrates great loyalty to his friend Enkidu. The Prologue describes him as having rebuilt the city of Uruk after the flood, making him a contributor to civic life.

Finally, despite his bad behavior at the opening of the epic, through his friendship with Enkidu he develops a moral sense and becomes a wise and just king.

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Why was Gilgamesh chosen as the hero of the epic?

Gilgamesh was actually an historical figure, appearing on the Sumerian king lists as the ruler of Uruk ca. 2600 BC. Although these lists are not absolutely historically accurate—they claim, for example, that Lugalbanda reigned for 1,200 years—there is a genuine kernel of historicity in them. What this means is that although most of the details of the story of Gilgamesh are implausible, the core of the epic is a story praising the great and important rulers of the city of Uruk.

Another reason Gilgamesh's story was culturally important is that the version we find in the epic tells of an age of heroes. Gilgamesh and other heroic characters are quasi-divine, often descended from sexual encounters between gods and mortals. These characters are important because they mediate between the divine and human worlds and provide a foundation story for the Mesopotamian social hierarchy in which the king is assumed to be granted authority by the gods but is also watched over by the gods so that he dispenses justice according to their will.

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