by Theresa Buscemi
When we hear the term hero, names such as Ghandi, Mother Teresa, and Malala come to mind; we most often think of the greatest and most influential people in all of history due to the word’s association with attributes such as courage, selflessness, and righteousness. But does a person have to be just in order to be considered a hero? The ancient hero Gilgamesh proves that this is certainly not the case. Gilgamesh, the powerful warrior king of the ancient city of Uruk, is honored as a hero and is revered for his sovereignty, bravery, and strength; the citizens of Uruk describe him as a “fortress”, a “protector of the people”, and a “raging flood that destroys all defenses” (Mitchell 71). However, Gilgamesh is not a virtuous ruler for the beginning of his reign: his immoral actions make him make him not only a corrupt king, but even render him a criminal by present day standards! Nevertheless, he is ultimately venerated as a hero in spite of his immorality because of a change of heart that occurs later on in his lifetime. Through the initial period of his kingship Gilgamesh’s poor treatment of his citizens, tendency toward selfish pleasures, and prioritization of glory bring to light the reality that possessing an intrinsic moral compass is not a requirement of a hero.
Although Gilgamesh is a well-respected ruler, the citizens of Uruk suffer for his recklessness. At the beginning of his reign, Gilgamesh disrespects his people so relentlessly that the citizens of Uruk feel that “the city is [Gilgamesh’s] possession, he struts through it, arrogant, his head raised high, trampling its citizens like a wild bull” (Mitchell 72). Though Gilgamesh’s people respect him as king and honor him as a heroic leader, they fear him as people fear a bull who will destroy anything in its path. Suffering from Gilgamesh’s brutality, they cry out to the god Anu: “Is this how you want your king to rule? Should a shepherd savage his own flock?” (Mitchell 73). Gilgamesh’s people praise and respect him, but this respect comes from a place of inner trepidation; the people are afraid of the consequences of Gilgamesh’s malfeasances and the effects his actions will have on them. They voice to Anu their longing for Gilgamesh to act as a shepherd over them; they desire guidance and leadership from their king, in contrast to the dominance and power Gilgamesh exudes through his self-indulgences. The citizens believe that respect for a king should come from a mutual desire for prosperity between a ruler and his citizens, not from fear. However, in spite of his brutality and carelessness, Gilgamesh is considered one of the greatest heroes of his time, which conveys that heroism is not defined by morality.
In addition to maltreating his people for the initial period of his rule, Gilgamesh also conveys his immorality in his tendency toward selfish pleasures. Gilgamesh’s power as king grants him permission from the gods to get whatever will make him happy, regardless of its ethical implications or the consequences it may impose on others. For example, by the will of the gods, Gilgamesh ritually has sex with newlywed virgin brides before their husbands do; it is described by a man of the city that “the bridegroom will step aside, and the virgin will wait in the marriage bed for Gilgamesh . . . after he is done, the bridegroom follows” (Mitchell 87). Although this tradition is imposed by the gods and is considered a blessing on the marriage, its immorality is prominent nonetheless. This truth of the immorality of this action is exposed when Enkidu, a man who originally lives among the animals and away from civilization, becomes domesticated, relocates to the city of Uruk, and learns of Gilgamesh’s actions. Enkidu understands the innate corruption of this tradition, and he is outraged by the fact that Gilgamesh precedes the groom in the marriage bed, whereas the citizens see nothing wrong with it. This reality conveys that the action is inherently immoral, but the culture of ancient civilization ‒ to which Enkidu has not become accustomed ‒ accepts it. Therefore, Gilgamesh’s manipulation and abuse of his people is corrupt, though not perceived as such by himself or by his people. The hero’s impurity is not altered by the people’s perception; injustice is injustice. Though permitted and oftentimes encouraged by the gods, Gilgamesh’s actions certainly demonstrate that he values self-indulgence over righteousness, further proving that heroes can indeed be unjust.
Another means by which Gilgamesh reveals his depravity is his ego. Gilgamesh discloses that the intention behind his primary heroic deeds is fame; he is more concerned with creating a legacy for himself than with ensuring the well-being of his people. We see this reality in full effect when Gilgamesh resolves to kill the deadly monster Humbaba in the Cedar Forest. Humbaba is notorious for demolishing every creature it encounters, but Gilgamesh’s ego incites him to fight the monster in spite of the risk of losing his life. Gilgamesh’s family, his friends, and the people of Uruk warn him against confronting the beast, reminding him of its power and deadliness, but Gilgamesh seems to focus only on the glory that would come with defeating it.
Despite the persuasion from his loved ones, Gilgamesh resolves to confront the monster, saying, “I will kill Humbaba, the whole world will know how mighty I am. I will make a lasting name for myself, I will stamp my fame on men’s minds forever” (Mitchell 94). Gilgamesh makes it clear that his purpose in his mission is to create a legacy for himself. Not only does Gilgamesh prioritize his own glory over his citizens’ safety, but he also fails to consider the effect this battle may have on those around him: if Gilgamesh fails, it would not only leave his parents without a son and his best friend without a companion, but it would also leave his people without a ruler! Gilgamesh’s selfishness repeatedly blinds him to the implications of his actions, and his prioritization of legacy over the needs of the people serves as yet another characteristic which makes him a morally corrupt hero.
Gilgamesh’s actions certainly convey that, at least for the beginning of his kingship, Gilgamesh is a very immoral and inconsiderate ruler; however, he is still labeled a hero This is due to his change of heart, which converts him into a morally upright ruler who values friendship over self-indulgence. Gilgamesh’s conversion from brute authoritarian to humble human occurs when he suffers and grieves over the death of Enkidu, who, despite their initial disagreements, ultimately becomes his dearest friend. This change of heart is exactly what defines Gilgamesh as a hero: he sees the error of his ways and converts to a life of humility and selflessness after he loses his best friend, and for this, he is praised as a hero, in spite of his initial immoral nature.
For the same reason that many of the saints of the Catholic Church are venerated for abandoning a life of sin, Gilgamesh is praised for changing his mindset and becoming a shepherd for his people and a merciful king. Therefore, despite Gilgamesh’s oppressive actions at the beginning of his reign, he is still considered a hero, because of his conversion to a life of selflessness and mercy.
At the start of his rule, Gilgamesh portrays himself as a leader whose selfishness and carelessness categorize him in the modern day as more of a villain than a hero. Although his actions are oftentimes excused by the gods and accepted by ancient culture, his immorality is still apparent. Gilgamesh can certainly be categorized as one of the greatest warriors of his time, but his people suffer from his tyranny. This reality ultimately changes when Gilgamesh realizes the error of his ways after Enkidu’s death, and resolves to be a considerate and noble king for his people; for this, he is venerated as an eternal hero. In the beginning of his reign, Gilgamesh demonstrates his immoral nature by ruling recklessly, prioritizing self-indulgence and pleasure, and placing more value on his glory than on the prosperity of his citizens. However, in spite of his initial corruption, it is his conversion from injustice into righteousness that makes him a true hero and shows that heroes can indeed be unjust people, at least for a portion of their lifetimes.
Mitchell, Stephen. Gilgamesh. Free Press, 2004.