Achilles and Gilgamesh: Epic Heroes, Loss, and Mortality
Recent studies have begun to see the Homeric epics in the light of other epic traditions, notably epics from Mesopotamia, and have begun to look at striking similarities. There is a supposed lineage that can be seen connecting the Homeric epics most directly with the world of Akkadian epics (Gresseth 2). The connections run from similarities in methods of transmission, namely the oral traditions, to themes, characters and formal structural components. The epic of Gilgamesh, the king of Uruk, and the Iliad, with its focus on the menis of Achilles, provide a look at heroic life and its relationship with death and immortality. The hero Gilgamesh is occupied with fear of death throughout the epic (George XIII). Achilles likewise is concerned with his metaphoric immortality, which can only exist after the death of his mortal heroic self. Both of the main heroes share many similar characteristics, including a dynamic outlook on life and death centered on the death of their heroic comrades, Patroclus and Enkidu, respectively. The two semi-divine heroes have many corresponding life-events and characteristics, and are also both very concerned with their own mortalities, but not quite in the same way. Their comrades, Enkidu and Patroclus are outwardly similar, but the critical differences between Achilles’ and Gilgamesh’s view of mortality may ultimately lie in the finer details distinguishing the two sidemen.
Comparisons between various characters abound in near-eastern Mesopotamian epic and Homeric epics. Many scholars see Gilgamesh as similar to both Odysseus and Achilles (Gresseth 5). He is a character who in some of the earliest epics is involved in martial settings as well as wanderings throughout the mythological worlds and to semi-divine mortals. The events in the character’s life do indeed cover a broad range of heroic epic encounters; however it is the character and psychological or emotional development of Gilgamesh that can lend light most on ancient heroic perspectives of death and mortality, especially when compared with Achilles. The hero Gilgamesh has existed throughout several phases of Mesopotamian civilization, although he generally has many of the same attributes. The earliest Gilgamesh stories seem to come from Sumerian texts which most likely reflect the crystallization of earlier epic traditions, and was probably one of the most well-known and influential poems available (West 65). The stories concerning Gilgamesh in Sumerian are short and episodic and present no unifying theme, but in the Akkadian versions it appears that the poet has unified these traditional stories into one larger eleven or twelve tablet epic with more unified themes (West 65, Noegel 240). This unified epic, where the several episodes are linked together, provides a picture of a heroic king who undergoes development and comes to some sort of understanding of the world where he lives. It is the Standard, or Old Babylonian, version of the hero Gilgamesh to whom the character of Achilles may best be compared. Wolff has noted, by looking at the development of characters in Gilgamesh, that where Gilgamesh changes and his nature is affected by the presence and loss of his comrade Enkidu, Enkidu’s nature is static (Wolff 1). The nature of Achilles follows a similar pattern based around the presence and loss of his comrade Patroclus.
To begin, Achilles and Gilgamesh have some very basic similarities of their positions in life. Each is the son of a goddess and a mortal man, a king, who happens to be far away from the action in the epic. Gilgamesh is described as two-thirds god and one-third human, which marks him out as a special kind of character who exists in relationship with both the divine world and the mortal world (Gilgamesh 1.145) The king of Uruk is not apparently present in the story of Gilgamesh, and Peleus is far away from Troy at Phthia. Achilles as the son of Thetis...
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