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Both Gilgamesh and Odysseus are epic heroes whose deeds have inspired millions of people throughout history. But not all heroes are created equal. In both the Odyssey and the Iliad, Homer paints a much more vivid picture of the ingenious Odysseus. His exploits are much more significant than those of Gilgamesh who in the end is not an especially interesting character in what remains of the texts about him. Odysseus is much more an embodiment of heroic ideals than Gilgamesh. In this essay I will forcefully argue that Odysseus is more of a hero than Gilgamesh, more respectful of his friends, and more loving to his wife.

Why Odysseus is More of a Hero Than Gilgamesh

Many people believe that both the Iliad and Odyssey are the two great sources for all other Western literature (J. A. K. Thomson, 45). Even in his own day, Homer was seen as a hero admired long after his death in many Greek cities (Morgan, 30). The fact that his stories have had such a long life and have been classics for so many centuries is a testament to how they evoke an amazing time and place. It is an interesting statement about history that there are sometimes intermediaries who bring to life whole eras from the past to the people of the future, without themselves having lived through the period. To begin with, both the Iliad and the Odyssey (books in which Odysseus appears) are full of heroes. Indeed even as Homer tells the story of both the Greeks and the Trojans, it is clear that the Iliad is more a tableaux about heroism than a morality play involving good guys and bad guys (Thomson, 85). Both sides of the conflict have their villains and heroes and indeed some heroes are more heroic than others. The two most immediate heroic figures that leap from the pages are Achilles, on the Greek side, and Hector, on the Trojan side. However, there is someone in the story of the Iliad who is more heroic if less prominent: Odysseus. He is the person who is inspired enough to come up with the idea of the Trojan Horse, which effectively ends the Trojan war, saving many lives and bringing victory to the Greeks (Homer, The Iliad, Book IV). In the Odyssey, his genius is even more in evidence. He is a leader. He is imaginative. He is willing to sacrifice. Throughout both of these stories, the great man saves lies, slays monsters (like the Cyclops) [Homer, Book IX], and seeks out his heroine (Book XVI). Indeed, in all of the work of Homer, Odysseus is beyond reproach.

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He faces his greatest challenge on the voyage back from Troy to Ithaca. This is the sacrifice test that all true heroes must endure. For fifteen years, beset by troubles he seeks a way home. He is imprisoned by Circe (Book X), he is attacked by jealous and angry gods (Book X), he watches many of his men die. Part of his challenge is restoring his fortunes. This is an important aspect of heroism—and one that Achilles, for example, might have learnt—that misfortune should make you more noble and that in trying to regain your good luck and possessions after a defeat you should do so honorably and not through trickery. While Gilgamesh too learns this lesson throughout his epic, Odysseus takes the lesson more to heart and is made stronger by it. In many ways this is an important question for heroes as they rarely go from one victory to another. That wouldn’t be very interesting.

Gilgamesh on the other hand never really comes to life on the page. He appears as a cardboard cut out. He definitely has strong physical stamina and courageous—that is proven by the arduousness of his journey, the fact he built to walls of his city, and that so many people respect him. However, in the course of his story, it seems he is often overshadowed Enkidu, who comes across as a much kinder and more interesting person. Gilgamesh’s ego is unpleasant and uninteresting (Epic of Gilgamesh, Book I). He lacks the canniness and brains of Odysseus who is always looking to escape from the situation and is not afraid to be ruthless in order to do so. One imagines that if the two men ever met, Odysseus would be able to easily win in a fight by outsmarting the much slower and vainer Gilgamesh. While he may possess many of the essential qualities of a hero such as courage and strength, these are not vividly portrayed to the reader. Gilgamesh in the end remains a bit of a mystery. Odysseus, however, in his full heroism is very colourfully portrayed by the poet Homer.

Heroes' Mortality

The greatest question that faces all heroes is mortality. Although they are the strongest in their class they are not invincible (even if they are part God, like Achilles or Gilgamesh). They are tempted to use their great strength to do good for themselves or their cause, but they have limitations that they may not know. In this way the heroes of epic stories tell us something about ourselves: although human beings are the strongest species on the planet we can often harm ourselves through our hubris. Hubris and Nemesis are issues that all heroes must face often on a huge and dramatic scale. In the Iliad, as Gregory Nagy writes,

The human condition of mortality, with all its ordeals, defines heroic life itself. The certainty that one day you will die makes you human, distinct from animals who are unaware of their future death and from the immortal gods… (Nagy)

Odysseus, however, deals with it much better than Gilgamesh. He is even able to journey to the Underworld and return alive (Book XI).

Heroes' Mortality

This also relates to the question of friendship. Odysseus is more heroic because he has no friends, no one who can weaken him or who relies on. He is an almost solitary figure, untied to this life. That makes him more independent: a key quality of a hero. Gilgamesh, on the other hand, relies more on others. He has many social ties that he cares about and is woven deeply into the fabric of this life. This makes him more ordinary and more vulnerable to mortality. For when someone he loves dies, he dies a little too (unlike Odysseus). And Gilgamesh is deeply affected by the mortality he sees around him (where Odysseus remains largely unmoved). For example, when Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh goes almost crazy.

He began to rage like a lion, like a lioness robbed of her whelps. This way and that he paced round the bed, he tore out his hair and strewed it around. He dragged of his splendid robes and flung them down as though they were abominations (Book III)

He begins to search for eternal life (Book IV). This is a bit of fool’s errand and shows just how weakened Gilgamesh has become by sentimentality. Odysseus would never go wild with grief: he would get the job done. While Gilgamesh gives up almost everything upon the death of Enkidu (Book III), Odysseus is willing to work hard for 20 years to be with his good wife Penelope. He never gives up or pulls out his hair. And when he does return, he ruthlessly kills all who doubt him, slaying Penelope’s suitors with his bow and arrow (Book XVI). When the time comes to act, Odysseus does—Gilgamesh mostly mopes around (Book V).

Heroes' Temptation

Another issue that tests the mettle of true heroes is temptation. Temptation is a powerful force that can make us turn our backs on the values we hold closest to our heart. This is a lesson from the Bible, when Jesus is tempted by Satan (Matthew 4:1-11), but it also a lesson that again and again comes up in the Odyssey. When Odysseus spends time with Circe he begins to forget those he truly loves, he is caught in her spell and the temptation of an easy life that she offers (Book X). Also, when Odysseus approaches the Sirens (Book XII), he is likewise tempted, but this time has taken precautions, asking his men to tie him to the mast to prevent him jumping into the sea to get close to the Sirens and their song, which would mean he would never see his wife or children again:

They sang these words most musically, and as I longed to hear them further I made by frowning to my men that they should set me free; but they quickened their stroke, and Eurylochus and Perimedes bound me with still stronger bonds till we had got out of hearing of the Sirens' voices. Then my men took the wax from their ears and unbound me. (Book XII)

Gilgamesh is never truly tempted, and so it is harder to say he is more of hero than Odysseus, who is often tempted.

There are many qualities of heroism depicted in both Homer’s work and in the Epic of Gilgamesh. We see powerful people set against a very dramatic, epic background where history is being made. Indeed, few stories about heroes happen in someone’s apartment on a Sunday afternoon—they usually happen in the midst of battle that shows the true mettle of a hero. One of the main questions such scenes reveal to us is how a hero must deal with his own limitations or his own mortality. Throughout it all, it is clear that Odysseus is more of a hero that Gilgamesh.

References

  1. Homer. The Odyssey. New York: KayDreams, 1969.
  2. Nagy, Gregory. “Heroes and the Homeric Iliad.” Introduction to Homer. University of Houston site. http://www.uh.edu/~cldue/texts/introductiontohomer.html
  3. Morgan, Llewelyn. Patterns of Redemption in Virgil's Georgics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 30.
  4. Thomson, J. A. K. The Katharsis of Homer. London: Clarendon Press, 1915.

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