Undoubtedly, our first impression of Gilgamesh is that he’s an arrogant jerk, but he has a deeper side to him than we don’t see at first. Gilgamesh, who is our leading hero in The Epic of Gilgamesh, is often seen as a hero as he chases after glory in tumultuous quests with his part-animal brother-in-arms Enkidu but begins to change along the way. Initially the guy only thinks of himself and how he can use the next move to benefit him. In other words, he sees everyone as pawns. Until he realizes that he’s a pawn in this game of chess just like everybody else. Even though he’s only one-third human, Gilgamesh begins to display emotions and thoughts which leads him to (at least spiritually) become a full-fledged human by the end of the book.
As the title suggests, the book is about Gilgamesh and his epic journeys, but his reasons for going on such journeys are not as…epic. Enkidu is scared to go into the Cedar Forest to kill its monstrous protector, Humbaba, but Gilgamesh encourages him to go on, saying “to forget death/ we will make a lasting name for ourselves/ we will stamp our fame on men’s minds forever” (Mitchell 121). As this proof demonstrates, Gilgamesh is greedy to a point where it’s almost self-destructive as we see him more than willing to put not just his life on the line but Enkidu’s as well. Unquestionably, being selfish is a quite common human trait, and no matter how hard we try all of us are subconsciously selfish. Bear in mind that Gilgamesh decides to kill Humbaba completely unprovoked and insists on doing it even when Enkidu begged him not to. Yes, he kills Humbaba, and the quest is a success but it’s not worth it because Enkidu’s cursed death eats both him and Gilgamesh up inside. If only Gilgamesh didn’t go on that quest, if only he didn’t drag Enkidu with him, if only he didn’t kill Humbaba. Indeed, he wouldn’t have become a righteous hero but at least he would’ve been happy.
Moreover, heroes are often expected to lead an outstanding life and die a glorious death. Yet, with Gilgamesh that’s not the case. We see him go on to live a simple life after going on spectacular adventures. Wolff notes that this change in personality is the key difference between Gilgamesh and the renowned Achilles: “Gilgamesh loses all his unthinking self-satisfaction and becomes a raging, questioning Achilles; and yet suffers no tragic or glorious end, but returns quietly home, defeated in his demand for a better life” (Wolff 392). Hence, by comparing Gilgamesh to Achilles, who is a famous Greek hero, we see both a striking difference and resemblance in how they spent their lives. Of course, Achilles dies a tragic death, but we see that like Gilgamesh his self-absorbed actions cost him his beloved best friend. Why then do we praise Achilles but shun Gilgamesh? They both used their power to benefit themselves: Achilles to hold a grudge and Gilgamesh to justify sleeping with countless women. It’s because Achilles used his superhuman abilities in honor of his late friend, while Gilgamesh soberly went on to reflect on his life and his past actions. All humans react differently to death: some desire revenge as consolation while others accept the solemn fact quietly and try to understand how to keep surviving. We see a demonstration of this here with Achilles and Gilgamesh.
In the beginning, Gilgamesh is determined to go down in his lifetime as a great hero and a great king, but he soon realizes that no matter what route he takes in life he’ll meet the same fate. Abusch mentions that this sort of epiphany occurs during Gilgamesh’s Forest excursion stating “and [Gilgamesh] is as deeply committed to his own personal absolutes as is Achilles, but there is moral growth…wandering which [symbolized his growth] both reflect and elicit changes in the hero” (Abusch 616). At first Gilgamesh is very protective of his reputation not only as a man but as a warrior, similarly to Achilles. As time goes on and Gilgamesh contemplates his actions and his purpose in life, he finally registers that there is no escape from death, and after one last trying quest, he accepts this ugly truth. And to not understand one’s purpose in life and to have trouble accepting that this life must end, is once again a very human emotion.
The moment that Gilgamesh fully becomes a good person is the moment he admits to being afraid, because that’s the moment he became human. As Gilgamesh grieves Enkidu’s death in the forest, he wonders how such a powerful man could be gone so quickly and in turn this makes him wonder “Must I die too? Must I be as lifeless as Enkidu? How can I bear this sorrow/ that gnaws at my belly this fear of death/ that restlessly drives me onward” (Mitchell 159). Understandably we can tell that Gilgamesh is scared here and perhaps even scared for the first time in his life. And so not knowing how to deal with this emotion he does the thing he knows how to do best which is to go on quests. For example, a lot of people use drinking to drown out their problems or grief and Gilgamesh is doing the same thing here.
Gilgamesh goes through a lot of pain over Enkidu’s death and all this heartache is what changes him and allows him to appreciate his life. When Gilgamesh goes on this final quest to ease his grief, the gatekeeper asks him what is wrong. He answers saying “for six days, I would not let him [Enkidu] be buried, thinking ‘if my grief is violent enough, he will come back to life’ (Mitchell 167). Surely, we can see how much Gilgamesh is genuinely hurting here, and funnily enough, grief is a very human emotion. It’s not because Enkidu is the one that died that Gilgamesh shows all these emotions, it’s because Enkidu changed him. Without a doubt pre-Enkidu Gilgamesh would have suppressed his emotions and put up this stoic hero front. Yet now he accepts them and wears his heart on his sleeve.
To sum it up, Gilgamesh may not have been the best person or the best hero, but he became a better person than he once was, he became human. Gilgamesh was only a hero to serve himself and his desires, not to serve the people. But, when Enkidu dies, he starts to think back on his past actions as he wanders. He eventually grows to acknowledge his true purpose in life, which is to live it. Gilgamesh may have been a hero in the eyes of others, but in the end the only person it mattered to was gone. The takeaway here is that people can be corrupted by power and strength to a point where that’s all they can see, but when bad people are treated with love and basic respect they can change. Although in the end nobody is perfect. There is no simple black and white, but a gray area too.
Abusch, Tzvi. “The Development and Meaning of the Epic of Gilgamesh: An Interpretive Essay.” Journal of the American Oriental Society, vol. 121, no. 4, 2001, pp. 614–22.
Mitchell, Stephen. Gilgamesh: A new English version. Simon & Schuster Inc., 2004.
Wolff, Hope Nash. “Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Heroic Life.” Journal of the American Oriental Society, vol. 89, no. 2, 1969, pp. 392–98.