• Category: Philosophy
  • Words: 635
  • Grade: 100
Thus muses Achilles, one of epic poetry's greatest heroes. Epic poetry, one of the earliest forms of literature, began as an oral narration describing a series of mythical or historic events. Eventually, these stories were written down and read aloud to an audience. Although the Epic of Gilgamesh was composed approximately fifteen hundred years prior to the Iliad, the heroes of both epics possess strikingly similar characteristics. Indeed, Gilgamesh and Achilles, as epic heroes, exemplify godlike qualities, great personal power, and fierce pride and loyalty.
In Gilgamesh, we find a hero who is created by the gods; yet he is part human. "Two thirds they made him god and one third man" (14).He seeks the protection of the gods and draws upon their wise counsel. Achilles is also of mortal-immortal heritage. Although he is often referred to as "son of Peleus" (a mortal), his mother, the sea nymph Thetis, had dipped him as a child in the River Styx causing him to be immortal everywhere except the heel by which she held him. Not unlike Gilgamesh, Achilles seeks the wise counsel of the gods and entreats his mother to use her diplomatic skills to gain favor with the other gods. He attempts this when he tells Thetis, "Go to Olympus, plead with Zeus/ if you ever warmed his heart with a word or any action" (I, 468-69).
In addition to the gods' influence, Gilgamesh and Achilles are protected by their own superhuman strength. Gilgamesh, especially, has a reputation for being "strong as a savage bull" (14). His friend Enkidu expresses this when he states, "Your strength surpasses the strength of men." Achilles, on the other hand, is a famous warrior, feared by many, who the Achaians depend on to win the war. Even his enemy, Agamemnon, recognizes Achilles' strength when he declares,"That man is worth an entire army,/ the fighter Zeus holds dear with all his heart --" (IX, 141-42).
Although they are each strong, courageous and "favorite sons" of the gods, Gilgamesh and Achilles share the same tragic flaw: overweening pride. Gilgamesh must prove his strength and superiority by being first with the women and by physically overpowering the men. The elders of his kingdom suggest that he is unbearable when they mutter, "His arrogance has no bounds by day or night" (14). And Achilles' anger at Agamemnon and his hurt pride only serve to escalate the conflict during the Trojan War. Due to Agamemnon's mistreatment of him, Achilles refuses to fight stating, "I swear, a yearning for Achilles will strike/ Achaea's sons and all your armies! . . . Then-- / then you will tear your heart out, desperate, raging/ that you disgraced the best of the Achaeans" (I, 281-87).
Another quality that the two heroes share -- and that softens their strong characters -- is loyalty to a friend. Gilgamesh is so embittered by the death of his friend Enkidu that he risks his life "crossing over the waters of death" in an attempt to bring Enkidu back. Achilles' agony over the death of his warrior-companion, Patroclus, is no less strong as he risks his life and reenters the war in order to avenge his friend's death. He tells his mother,Thetis, "I've lost the will to live,/ to take my stand in the world of men -- unless,/ before all else, Hector's battered down by my spear" (XVIII, 105-07).
Notwithstanding the fact that The Epic of Gilgamesh is a myth and the Iliad is based upon historic events, the protagonists portrayed here perpetuate the idea that man has always chosen for his super-heroes the qualities which he desires for himself: power, near-perfection, pride and loyalty. We celebrate theism so-called heroic qualities in the twentieth century. Will there ever be different qualities, qualities that might preserve a civilization longer than the civilizations that created these two brutal epics?
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