Gilgamesh & Achilles


Gilgamesh & Achilles

Aristotle, who said that, “…man is incapable of working in common, or in his self-sufficiency has no need of others, is no part of a community, like a beast or a god. I will try to compare the figures of Achilles and Gilgamesh in light of this statement, as well as, the meaning of a hero’s relationship to his community.

First, we have Gilgamesh, who’s 2/3 god and 1// human and who’s epic story is the earliest recorded epic that is often referred to as the “world’s oldest epic hero.” Gilgamesh was born during the time when cuneiform, which is the oldest writing system in the world, was used. Cuneiform is a clay or stone based slab that will have wedge-shaped characters incised into the clay. Gilgamesh is also known to be connected to those of the second and third millenniums BC. Gilgamesh domain of rule was called Uruk, which is now called Iraq, today. The epic of Gilgamesh was lost for over 2000 years until the nineteenth century when it was revived by archeologists. This is just to give an idea of where Gilgamesh came from.

Gilgamesh who is the King of Uruk, which is the modern day Iraq. Gilgamesh, in response to Aristotle’s statement can be applied to Gilgamesh’s rampage throughout his city.

Lording it like a wild bull, his head thrust high. The onslaught of his weapons knew no equal.

That is the description the towns people gave for Gilgamesh as he strode back and forth throughout Uruk. He believed that since he was king and therefore unchallenged and unmatched, he could do as he pleased, with whoever he pleased, and no one would challenge him. Gilgamesh was correct until the cry from the city of Gilgamesh behavior and actions of leaving no son to his father, day and night he rampaged fiercely.

            Then, we have Gilgamesh also leaving no daughter to her mother, nor the warriors daughter, not even the young man’s spouse.

            Finally, the people from Uruk cried out to the gods and the gods in return said to Anu:

You created this headstrong wild bull in ramparted Uruk,

        The onslaught of his weapons has no equal.

        His teammates stand forth by his game stick,

        He is harrying the young men of Uruk beyond reason.

        Gilgamesh leaves no son to his father!

        Day and night he rampages fiercely.

        This is the shepherd of ramparted Uruk,

        This is the people’s shepherd,

        Bold, superb, accomplished, and mature!

        Gilgamesh leaves no girl to her mother!

Now, if we look back at Aristotle’s quote, we can see that Gilgamesh had the status of king but the behavior of a beast, who has no part of his community. Gilgamesh was not apart the community, he felt that he was above it and therefore entitled to all that was enclosed within the walls. A hero would be considered to free the townspeople from bondage of his rampage. From all enemies, far and wide, there was a beast among them with a title to support his actions. Thus far, Gilgamesh does not appear to be self-sufficient, however that will change after the gods respond to the cries of the people of Uruk about Gilgamesh and his rampage amongst the people.

Aruru, heard the cries of the gods and the people and created a being especially for Gilgamesh in order to help tame his restless spirit. To give him the companion he so richly needs to become whole. Enkidu was created, he was as beautiful as Gilgamesh was strong, however he was originally found residing with the gazelles, living as they do, and surviving as they do. Nothing of human origin was of Enkidu, except his stature.

Enkidu and Gilgamesh finally met one another and instantly became attached to one another. They were both proud and tall in stature with mighty strength that was gifted to them from the heavens. Gilgamesh was immediately drawn to Enkidu and vice versa, they were so close that they decided to defeat the forest creature who intimidates everyone. This is where Gilgamesh learns other traits of humanity that he had not displayed before.

Gilgamesh and Enkidu were to fight the creature that is called Humbaba. They fought and defeated the great Humbaba, and were celebrated for their victory. Princess Ishtar who is also a goddess, wanted to marry Gilgamesh after his victory, but he declined the proposal. In response to his denial, the princess requested that her father let her use the Bull of Heaven, so she could kill Gilgamesh for his refusal. Her father agreed to the cries of the princess, his daughter and gave her the Bull of heaven. It was, however, defeated by Enkidu, Gilgamesh, and Shamash marveled at the heart that was ripped out from the Bull of Heaven. Because of the killing of the Bull of Heaven and rejecting the princess, she wished for Enkidu to die so that Gilgamesh would have no one.

During this time, Gilgamesh experienced fear, pain, anguish and lost, all feelings he had never encountered before. Is this a characteristic of a hero? Did Gilgamesh display courage, nobility, sacrifice, fortitude, or grit? Not all at once, and not entirely. But, to his defense, do any of us. A hero overcomes weakness and obstacles set before them. Gilgamesh defeated Humbaba and allowed himself to be attached to another that he had to sincerely care for, like he would care for a woman. When Enkidu died, Gilgamesh went into deep despair he was weeping over Enkidu wondering:

Shall I not die too? Am I not like Enkidu?

Oh woe has entered my vitals!

I have grown afraid of death, so I roam the steppe.

It was the friendship, love, death, and loss that allowed Gilgamesh to grown and look for his reason for being and quest for immortality.

            Achilles, who was also a mortal son born to a goddess, named Thetis. Achilles is king of the Myrmidons, who fiercely fight battles and are victorious constantly. Achilles is a favorite of the gods, and that is the issue that dwells within the Iliad. In contrast to Gilgamesh, Achilles had a rival with another king Agamemnon. This rival was over, a gift of honor, referred to as geras, named Briseis. Geras are awarded to the warriors after battle to show respect. The issue with Agamemnon was because Agamemnon had to return his geras back to her father, as ordered by the gods. Due to his anger, he felt that Achilles should not be happy either. Have you heard the saying misery loves company? That seemed to be the case here.

            Achilles was a warrior that commanded an army of ruthless warriors who were always primed for battle at the behest of their leader Achilles. It was during the battle of Troy that this dispute took place. Achilles had grown to feel and love Briseis, therefore he was a softer person. It was not until Agamemnon ordered his men to go a fetch Briseis from Achilles: 

“Go to the hut of Achilles, son of Peleus;

Bring back the girl, fair-cheeked Briseis.

If he won’t give her up, I’ll come myself

With my men and take her—and freeze his heart cold.”

This, of course, causes Achilles to retreat from battle as he believes that no matter how hard he fights and wins, he will not be awarded or respected. So, he decided that he should leave and the Greeks fight Toy on their own. After losing Briseis, Achilles lost his drive to fight. As long as the Myrmidons were fighting, the Greeks were winning. After, Achilles and his army pulled from the battle the tide began to turn in favor of Troy. Achilles was still feeling betrayed and disrespected for the loss of Briseis. He was still pouting and throwing a bit of a tantrum, while Greeks were dying by the hundreds.

Agamemnon offered his daughter as a bride for Achilles as a substitute to Briseis and to get him and his army to return to battle. Going back to Aristotle’s claim in our first paragraph, if we look at Achilles in respects to a hero. As far as his army was concerned, he was, very much, a hero who faithfully demonstrated courage, sacrifice, and grit. Achilles is a being that acts on his own accord, even when he is surrounded by his army or others, he still stands alone and apart from the rest. This is what makes his so special, besides being a favorite of the gods.

After Achilles refuses unmercifully, the Greeks begin to lose ground in the Trojan war and Agamemnon is now wounded and the best friend and companion of Achilles, Patroclus has died at the hands of the prince of Troy, Hector, the Greeks enemy.
            One thing that is clear is that Gilgamesh found love and was not so restless after he was able to experience love and lost. Achilles on the other hand has rage, and he holds on to it. Achilles is promised a short life and is full of bloodshed and strife, however he will become immortal and be spoken about for generations, but it comes at a cost.

It seems that love is the cure to defeat the beast within us. We all deal with some sort of demon or unsavory trait within ourselves that we are constantly trying to purge. But once we know and understand what it feels like to be loved, it seems to makes us all more human.

So, when Aristotle says;

 that there is no place for a man who in incapable of working in common, or who is in his self-suffiency has no need for others, is no part of a community, like a beast or a god

            we know that he can apply it to Gilgamesh and Achilles because they both have godlike lives and due to their, supposed divinity, they will always be separate from the community. Not necessarily like a beast or a god, but maybe both. There is a little bit of both that resides in all of us.

Works Cited

Nortwick, Thomas Van. Somewhere I Have Never Travelled: The Second Self and the Hero’s Journey in Ancient Epic. Print ed. New York: Oxford UP, 1996. Print.

Puchner, Martin. “The Epic of Gilgamesh.” The Norton Anthology of World Literature. 3rd ed. Vol. A. New York: W.W. Norton, 2012. A99-151. Print.

Puchner, Martin. “Introduction to The Epic of Gilgamesh.” The Norton Anthology of World Literature. 3rd ed. Vol. A. New York: W.W. Norton, 2012. A3-6. Print.

Clarke, Michael. “Manhood and Heroism.” Ed. Robert Fowler. The Cambridge Companion to Homer. Cambridge UP, 2004. 74-90.

Muellner, Leonard Charles. The Anger of Achilles: Mēnis in Greek Epic. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1996.

Burgess, Celeste. Gilgamesh & Achilles. DBU, 2017, pp. 1–7, Gilgamesh & Achilles.

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