Gilgamesh and The Hero’s Journey
Jordan is the host of The Peaceful Way Podcast, in which he explores the concepts, ideas, and strategies behind making a more peaceful and nonviolent world.
Once familiar with Joseph Campbells “Monomyth,” and how to analyze narratives by it, it can be identified in the oldest recorded stories. The Epic of Gilgamesh, written around 1800 BCE, chronicles the adventures of the part-God, part-man, Gilgamesh King of Uruk, and his companion of supernatural origin, Enkidu. The parallels between the Epic and the monomyth lend some credence to Campbell’s thesis of the presence of a single myth across all cultures.
The story begins with Gilgamesh as the womanizing ruler of the city Uruk, taking the soon-to-be wives of the men of the city and sleeping with them. To end his oppression, the Sumerian deities create a powerful and wild man, Enkidu, to challenge Gilgamesh. Though Enkidu fails to best Gilgamesh in battle, the King is so impressed by his foe that he befriends him and the pair develop an inseparable bond with one another. Enkidu is therefore the first occurrence of the Ally archetype in literature. A similar companion motif is repeated in many famous “monomythic” fictions such as Frodo and Sam, Harry Potter and Ron Weasley, Batman and Robin, Han and Chewie and so on.
After consulting a council of eldars and Gilgamesh’s divine mother, Ninsun, the pair embark on their first adventure in search of fame and renown by leaving Uruk to find and harvest the wood of the mythical “Cedar Forest”, this marks the “crossing the first threshold” and The “meeting the mentor” sections of the Hero’s Journey. The magical forest they are looking for is guarded by the animal-like Demon, Humbaba. This monster can perhaps be labeled as The Shadow archetype who must be overcome by the hero. He is the “Villain” of this epic. The magical boon that Gilgamesh and Enkidu receive after slaying the beast is the building of a temple to their God out of the cedars of the forest. They then build a raft from the trees and sail back to Uruk, completing The Return to the New Normal component of the Monomyth.
In the next section of the Epic, Gilgamesh is tempted by the Goddess Ishtar. Temptation of course is a major part of the Monomyth; Luke is tempted by the Dark Side, Eve is tempted by the serpant, and so forth. The stalwart Gilgamesh resists Ishtar’s sexual advances, which greatly angered the deity who sends The “Bull of Heaven”, Gugalanna, to destroy the kingdom. The monomyth cycle repeats as Gilgamesh and Enkidu pass The True Test component and defeat the monstrous bull.
When the Gods learn of the deaths of Gugalanna and Humbaba, they become enraged and demand retribution. They place a curse upon Enkidu, he falls ill, and after 12 days, he dies. With the death of his friend and companion, Gilgamesh is devastated and is thrust into a period of intense mourning. The Hero pulls out his hair, dresses in animal skins, and wanders the wilderness.
In his wandering and grief, Gilgamesh meditates intensely on life and death, plotting how he can overcome his mortal fate. Through a series of perils he discovers a man by the name of Utnapishtim, and his unnamed wife. Utnapishtim is a Noah-like figure who had survived a great flood and built a boat with animals to survive the ordeal, he is also the reappearance of “The Guide” in the story. The God’s rewarded Utnapishtim with immortality, a gift which Gilgamesh desperately longed for. At first the immortal told the Gilgamesh that eternal life was a gift that only the Gods could grant and that man’s fate was death, however, Utnapishtim’s anonymous wife felt pity for the grieving wanderer and told him of a magical plant at the bottom of the sea which can turn old men young.
After Gilgamesh finds the plant, or “boon” according to the monomyth, he begins to make his return to Uruk. On the way home, he decides to take a bath, only to have his magical item stolen by a serpent while he was not looking. This causes Gilgamesh to weep bitterly, realizing that death is inevitable and attempts at immortality are futile. At this point the Hero returns to his homeland, however it is unclear what the final conclusion of the story is due to the tablets on which it was written being badly damaged.
Though the epic is not a precise representation of the monomyth, it does share a larger, three act structure that is common among legends in antiquity as well as more modern iterations of myth, like the Star Wars saga. It begins with act one: the departure, where Gilgamesh and Enkidu leave Uruk for the Cedar forest and defeat the Demon Humbaba (hoom-baba). Act two: The initiation, when the heroic duo have to face temptation, defeat the bull of heaven, and the tragic death of Enkidu. And act Three: The Return, as we follow the Hero on his quest for eternal life, even though he ultimately fails, he makes his way home to Uruk, where it all began. Furthermore, within each act of the epic, there is a three part play, forming the story into a trilogy. This form of storytelling can be easily repeated ad-nauseum, as seen in numerous hollywood films, employing a three act structure within a larger narrative.