Topics in Lit
16 September 2012
Gilgamesh: A Heroes Journey
To a modern American audience a hero should be someone that is easy to relate to. This person should have flaws but also go through everyday struggles so that the reader is able to relate and picture themselves as the hero. Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, is a perfect example of someone who had many flaws and faced many struggles and in the end changed his attitude and became a better person. Joseph Campbell composed a list of seventeen stages that every hero goes through. The stages are grouped into three sections: the departure, the initiation, and the return. This essay will examine how the hero Gilgamesh fits into these three sections and why this makes him a hero.
In the beginning of Gilgamesh, translated by Stephen Mitchell, he is described as doing whatever he wants “…takes the son from his father and crushes him, takes the girl from her mother and uses her, the warrior’s daughter, the young man’s bride, he uses her, no one dares to oppose him” (Mitchell 74). After some prayers were to said to the Gods, a solution was made and that was to create “his second half” someone who would balance Gilgamesh’s character out, and his name was Enkidu. Once Enkidu and Gilgamesh become acquainted this is where the hero’s journey starts. The first step according to Campbell is the “call to adventure” where the hero receives a call to leave his normal life and face adventure. Together these two characters decide to travel to the Cedar Forest and kill Humbaba, the protector of the forest. He makes a speech to the people of Uruk saying “…I will kill Humbaba, the whole world will know how mighty I am (Mitchell 94). At this point in the story Gilgamesh is still very arrogant and has not yet started to change his ways.
Gilgamesh then enters the next step of the hero’s journey which is the crossing of the first threshold which is when he actually leaves the city of Uruk and travels to the Cedar Forest. It is not until Gilgamesh faces Humbaba and enters the belly of the whale stage that his character’s demeanor starts to change. He is face to face with this beast and one of them has to die. The once strong and fearless leader starts to become fearful and intimidated by the monster. He says “I feel haunted. I am too afraid to go on” (Mitchell 123). All people have fears even if they don’t want to admit it. Gilgamesh admits that he is frightened and he acts this way too. At this point readers are able to see that even a strong leader can become frightened and this makes him seem more human-like. This completes stage one, departure, of the hero’s journey.
Now we can move onto the stage two, the initiation, of the Campbell’s hero journey. The road of trails can be described as a series of tests, tasks, or ordeals that the person must undergo to begin the transformation. Gilgamesh and Enkidu fight the Bull of Heaven together. You can see Gilgamesh’s supportive side coming out when he says to Enkidu, “Dear friend, keep fighting, together we are sure to win” (Mitchell 139). Shortly after successfully killing the Bull of Heaven, Gilgamesh’s confident attitude is restored. At this point in the story we have seen this character as greedy and then he showed his fear. He showed his supportive side to his brother and sure enough his confidence comes back as he rides in a chariot down the street with people cheering and shouting. “Gilgamesh said to his singing girls, ‘Tell me: Who is the handsomest of men? Tell me: Who is the bravest of heroes?… We are the victors who in our fury flung the Bull’s thigh in Ishtar’s face, and now in the streets, she has no one to avenge her” (Mitchell 140).
The next big trail that Gilgamesh faces that ultimately transforms his character is Enkidu dying. According to Campbell’s hero journey this is the Apotheosis. He starts to show more emotion to the audience, he says “Beloved, wait, don’t leave me. Dearest of men, don’t die, don’t let them take you from me” (Mitchell 150). He lost his other half and his brother. He is devastated and he is not afraid to show it. As the reader it is easy to relate to losing a loved one. “Let the gods accept these, let them welcome my friend and walk at his side in the underworld, so that Enkidu may not be sick at heart” (Mitchell 158). He acts in a selfless manner when he offers his own personal goods and treasures to the gods of the underworld so that Enkidu is welcomed and taken care of. This marks the end of stage two in the hero’s journey.
The last stage in the hero’s journey is the return. The crossing of the return threshold is the final step in Gilgamesh’s hero journey. Enkidu’s death sent Gilgamesh on an adventure to fight death but he ultimately ended up learning his biggest lesson from Utnapishtim, the man who become immortal. He learns to appreciate life every day and that humans are meant to die. Utnapishtim tells him how fortunate he is to be 2/3 divine and 1/3 human, to be blessed, and to be king (Mitchell 177). He takes this information and starts to appreciate everything about his life and his kingdom. He understands that death is a part of life. This experience changed him for the better. When he returns to Uruk he admires his town and how beautiful it is. He says “This is the wall of Uruk, which no city on earth can equal…examine its brickwork, how masterfully it is built, observe the land it encloses: the palm trees, the gardens, the orchards, the glorious palaces and temples, the shops and marketplaces, the houses, the public squares” (Mitchell 199). He set out on a journey to conquer death and instead came back a better person. He became giving and non selfish and he learned to appreciate the life he had be given because it was a great life.
From the beginning of the story of Gilgamesh to the end you can see a total transformation in this character. The strong and greedy king showed fear and vulnerability. The death of his brother and second half stirred up his restless heart and sent him on a journey to fight and overcome death. The lesson he learned though was to appreciate his life every day until he dies. He learned that death was a part of life. Gilgamesh has obvious flaws and goes through many struggles just as its readers do on a daily basis. Gilgamesh’s vulnerability makes him easy to relate to. Modern American readers want a hero who’s relatable and seems ordinary in their emotions and life. People change in life sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worst. In the case of Gilgamesh he changed for the better and become a better person. Readers should be able to see themselves in the character and you can do that with Gilgamesh.
American scholar, mythologist and writer Joseph Campbell is famous for his monomyth “Hero’s Journey” — a narrative structure that has existed in and influenced just about every culture in the world. Campbell described a mythical quest in a very straightforward way:
“A hero ventures forth from the world of the common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won; the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”
He argued that many heroic tales, regardless of the related culture or period in history, follow the same basic story structure. According to him, the stages of the Hero’s Journey are woven into each and every quest — whether in fiction or life.
We come across Campbell’s monomythic journey structure in legends and folklore, in books and movies, and even in news stories and our own lives. The Hero’s Journey is, undoubtedly, one of the most popular and loved storytelling formats.
Are you a fan of Bilbo Baggins? I am. His story follows the storyline of Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. What about Star Wars? It’s also a representation of Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. You know… the list is endless.
A good story, like a catchy song, sticks in our minds. Stories connect us with other human beings. Our brains are wired for stories. We learn through stories. We find meaning by telling, hearing and internalizing stories. And we also connect through stories — especially when we are able to identify ourselves with its hero or heroine.
Think Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, Bilbo Baggins from The Hobbit, or Neo from the movie trilogy Matrix. As a watcher, listener or reader, it’s at the moment when we identify with the hero that we lose ourselves in the story, connect with its message, and both witness and co-experience the hero’s quest and transformation.
Each time a hero sets out to follow their calling, whether it is about an inner or outer quest, they go through the same stages: a starting place, an ordinary world that is somehow deficient or inadequate; a call to action; first steps on the journey; the encounter with a mentor; the crisis; a reward; and, ultimately, a return with the result or a prize that corrects the deficiency or inadequacy that initiated the quest.
But not all journeys include all of the stages of Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. Sometimes a few of the stages are combined or take place simultaneously. And most of the time, the steps follow a certain sequence — but not always.
Now, let us take a closer look at all 12 steps of Campbell’s monomyth. Here is how Christopher Vogler, the author of the book The Writer’s Journey, summarizes the twelve steps of Campbell’s classic narrative structure:
1. THE ORDINARY WORLD
The hero, uneasy, uncomfortable or unaware, is introduced sympathetically so the audience can identify with the situation or dilemma. The hero is shown against a background of environment, heredity, and personal history. Some kind of polarity in the hero’s life is pulling in different directions and causing stress.
2. THE CALL TO ADVENTURE
Something shakes up the situation, either from external pressures or from something rising up from deep within, so the hero must face the beginnings of change.
3. REFUSAL OF THE CALL
The hero feels the fear of the unknown and tries to turn away from the adventure, however briefly. Alternately, another character may express the uncertainty and danger ahead.
4. MEETING WITH THE MENTOR
The hero comes across a seasoned traveler of the worlds who gives him or her training, equipment, or advice that will help on the journey. Or the hero reaches within to a source of courage and wisdom.
5. CROSSING THE THRESHOLD
At the end of Act One, the hero commits to leaving the Ordinary World and entering a new region or condition with unfamiliar rules and values.
6. TESTS, ALLIES, AND ENEMIES
The hero is tested and sorts out allegiances in the Special World.
The hero and newfound allies prepare for the major challenge in the Special World.
8. THE ORDEAL
Near the middle of the story, the hero enters a central space in the Special World and confronts death or faces his or her greatest fear. Out of the moment of death comes a new life.
9. THE REWARD
The hero takes possession of the treasure won by facing death. There may be celebration, but there is also danger of losing the treasure again.
10. THE ROAD BACK
About three-fourths of the way through the story, the hero is driven to complete the adventure, leaving the Special World to be sure the treasure is brought home. Often a chase scene signals the urgency and danger of the mission.
11. THE RESURRECTION
At the climax, the hero is severely tested once more on the threshold of home. He or she is purified by a last sacrifice, another moment of death and rebirth, but on a higher and more complete level. By the hero’s action, the polarities that were in conflict at the beginning are finally resolved.
12. RETURN WITH THE ELIXIR
The hero returns home or continues the journey, bearing some element of the treasure that has the power to transform the world as the hero has been transformed.
Your Writing Prompt:
Write about a quest — your quest. You can decide to look at your entire life or pick a specific period or milestone. Think of a challenge you tackled and the way you came out of it changed. Then, write about that time in your life using the 12-step structure of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. And describe the twelve stages of your quest:
- The Ordinary World
- The Call to Adventure
- Refusal of the Call
- Meeting with the Mentor
- Crossing the Threshold
- Tests, Allies, Enemies
- Approach to the Innermost Cave
- The Ordeal
- The Reward (Seizing the Sword)
- The Road Back
- The Resurrection
- Return with the Elixir
What is your Hero’s or Heroine’s Journey? How did it begin? How did it evolve? What was the purpose of your quest? Was it an inner or an outer one? How was it related to your calling? What stages have already taken place? What is next? What was the elixir you were searching for? What did you need to be able to return with it?
You can also write about the quest of a family member or close friend whose quest and story you witnessed. And when you finish writing, come back here and share your piece in the comments below. I’d love to read it!
“A journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.”
~ JOHN STEINBECK, Travels with Charley: In Search of America
Filed Under: Writing Prompts