Why is Gilgamesh an epic hero?

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The Epic of Gilgamesh

The Epic of Gilgamesh was written by unknown authors, presumably a group of Sumerian people, intended for members of the Sumerian culture from all socio-economic and political backgrounds.

It was written in the Sumerian city of Uruk, Mesopotamia, with its oldest surviving documentation through cuneiform tablets dating from around 2100 BCE. It was during this time period that an increasing number of city-states was being formed in Mesopotamia, along with further development of Sumerian writing, religion, politics, and society. The former two factors, writing and religion, were then put together to create the Epic of Gilgamesh. (McKay 39)

As this primary source is titled ‘the Epic of Gilgamesh’, it is an epic poem about Gilgamesh, who was a part real-part mythological king of Uruk, and his quest to achieve immortality. Despite his desperation to possess everlasting life, Gilgamesh fails to make use of the two opportunities presented to him by Utnapishtim to do so, therefore being unable to achieve immortality in the end. This narration of Gilgamesh’s failure also embodies the Sumerian people’s conception of Sumeria’s past. (Epic of Gilgamesh)

The reason this source is historically significant is due to the fact that it was one of the earliest existing pieces of literature, as well as its depiction of how the Sumerians did not believe in the afterlife. The Sumerians were historically acknowledged as the first literate civilization with their invention of “cuneiform”, which was the oldest known human writing, and as the writing system became increasingly complicated, scribal schools were formed in order to train and educate students so they could become professional scribals. Thus, opportunities for both learning and teaching were created, and scribal school graduates could then continue on to aid kings and nobles in record-keeping for their property and taxes, eventually paving the way for writing to be used to record religious stories and speech. (McKay 40)

In the Epic of Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh was overcome with his desire to escape death, and truly believed it was possible. However, contrary to how Utnapishtim and his wife were granted eternal life by the gods, Gilgamesh was unsuccessful and was consequently taught a lesson on accepting his destiny by Utnapishtim. While Gilgamesh had failed as he was destined for kingship, not everlasting life, he had been blessed by Enlil and would eventually achieve immortality through stories, as long as he remained a just and fair king. Therefore, it can be concluded that although the Sumerians did not believe in the afterlife, they firmly believed in destiny and how it cannot be changed. (Epic of Gilgamesh)

Works Cited

1. McKay, John P., Bennett D. Hill, John Buckler, Roger B. Beck, Clare Haru Crowston, Patricia Buckley Ebrey, and Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks. “The Rise of the State in Southwest Asia and the Nile Valley.” A History of World Societies. 9th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2011. 34-41. Print.
2. Anonymous and Sanders, N. K., Epic of Gilgamesh. 3rd ed. Print.

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