One story I had the opportunity to read this year was The Epic of Gilgamesh. If you weren’t aware, the Epic of Gilgamesh is labeled as the oldest written epic. Originally written in Akkadian — the language spoken in Sumer — then thousands of years later roughly translated into English. Safe to say I wasted money on a book that didn’t understand the translations either.
Anyway, I found an online version of the text, and then when I finished I was pretty impressed with myself having read the oldest recorded story, and also just satisfied since it was a good read. Now, I say all of this to warn you not to make the same mistake I did and buy a bad paper copy. But also to encourage reading older texts outside of the classroom. More important than that, a question that came to mind after I read it was, “Is Gilgamesh a tragic hero?” And it was too good to ignore so, I’m taking you with me through my thinking process because this is a debated topic.
If there’s one thing I love more than ancient texts, It’s tragedies. I went more into depth about the history and meaning of the literary tragedy in my last post, but all you need to know is that a tragedy is a fatal action — either caused or directly done — by the protagonist due to an innate flaw. Specifically, this protagonist should be someone of socio-economic elevation yet made relatable to the audience. This relatability should be strong enough to induce a reaction in themself as the result of the protagonist’s fall from grace.
You may be confused as to why any of this deals with Gilgamesh as it’s universally labeled as “The Epic of Gilgamesh.” Why would it be a tragedy? First, let’s get the definition of an epic out of the way, according to Literary Devices, an epic “is a long narrative poem that is elevated and dignified in theme, tone, and style...an epic celebrates heroic deeds...” From the definition, it’s hard to see the misconceptions. So, let’s quickly explore some texts to compare the two.
In the Odyssey, Odysseus goes through something called the Hero’s Journey. A template for heroes that eventually leads to them returning as a changed person. The difference between Odysseus, and a character like Brutus from Julius Caesar, is that Odysseus survives while Brutus doesn’t. Both of these men have flaws, yet the use of their flaws is different. Brutus is naïve, and his death ultimately comes as the result of his naivety. Odysseus on the other hand is prideful, but eventually, his pride is used to develop him and aid him back home.
Okay, stick with me. We know the story of Daedalus and Icarus is a tragedy, Daedalus has this flaw that eventually gets not himself but his son killed. Daedalus then lives on peacefully to die of old age. The specifics of his life are blurry but we do know that Daedalus ends up dying as a free man.
Now, we already established a solid definition of tragedy before, “the fatal action — either caused or directly done — by the protagonist due to an innate flaw.” Notice how I use the word innate and instead use the term “Fatal action.” Well, this is exactly what Aristotle wrote too, “A tragedy is the imitation of an action that is serious and also, as having magnitude, complete in itself.” According to Aristotle's definition, tragedies are not as linear as you might think. Homer tricked the labeling system by having the son die instead, a fatal action. Brutus killed himself, a fatal action. Odysseus arguably isn’t a tragic hero as he doesn’t lose anything through a fatal action.
So, really, what does any of this have to do with Gilgamesh? Gilgamesh is an epic hero — as in a hero from an epic poem — but he is also a tragic hero as a fatal action happened for him to fall from grace, kinda. Keep in mind we’re dealing with something from the BCE era so allow me a bit of breathing room for interpretation. Gilgamesh, King of Uruk and son of a goddess, is a terrible guy. He treats his people terribly and exhibits unnecessary forms of power. So, the gods see the extortionate rule this guy has and makes him a friend, Enkidu. Unrelated, but these two are — likely — the oldest recorded gay couple in text and honestly we love to see that inclusion. So, Gilgamesh and Enkidu go out and kill a forest demon, a god-sent bull, and chop a tree, and the gods aren’t happy. So, Enkidu has this prophetic dream, dies from some disease, and Gilgamesh is distraught. So distraught he has a whole crisis about life, death, and his mortality. Thus, he drops everything to begin his quest in search of immortality. When I say he dropped everything, I mean everything, he’s described as tearing his clothes and hair and wearing animal skins instead. He eventually makes it to this garden to find Utnapishtim, Sumerian Noah that built an ark, to give him answers to the secret behind immortality. They return to Uruk together so Gilgamesh can show him the city. The ending is kind of unknown, but my book pretty much says that after Gilgamesh shows Uruk around he continues to grieve for Enkidu.
Some major things to take away from that is: Gilgamesh is a king, therefore elevated in status; He experiences a fatal action as a result of something he did (they killed the bull together and the one who dies was a coin flip); He drops all worldly possessions to find the secret to immortality; he returns just as distraught as before, still technically a king. Now, all of those points up until the last one pretty much confirms Gilgamesh as a tragedy. However, the last point of him keeping his status is something to talk about. In all the tragedies I’ve read, the protagonist loses their status somehow, but Gilgamesh continues to be a king.
My counterargument for that: yes, Gilgamesh is still a king but a much different one than before, and also, he’s a literal god that had to be told he can’t escape death. These two things connect as before he was a terrible ruler who had no regard for anything and elevated abilities because of his godhood. Now, the death of Enkidu made him humble and afraid to die. I’ll argue this isn’t a social fall from grace, this is a personal status fall. He was a god that was pretty much invincible and had all the power he could want. After losing his friend, he crumbled because the reality of death fell on him and he just couldn’t handle it.
I didn’t realize before writing this how confusing a genre Tragedy is, so I hope I cleared up some misconceptions of it. Also, this is just my interpretation of Gilgamesh. It is a widely debated topic whether or not the story fits a tragedy so this was just my two cents. And, finally, Gilgamesh as a story has such intense themes of mortality and love, it’s a good read and I fully recommend it for anyone over 15 (fair warning: there is some strangely normalized creepy stuff in it that may be triggering so read reviews first).
is a high school sophomore with aspirations for digital storytelling. She always seemed to understand things better if she could read it, versus videos or lectures, so English and History quickly became her favorite subjects. She volunteers for both Juven and The Meraki Organization to tell stories.