Or perhaps a more terrifying insight is

Or perhaps a more terrifying insight is revealed. Maybe these heroes, in being given the opportunity to see who they really ought to be, are faced with the fact that their “actual selves” are in fact in direct opposition to their “true selves” i.e., the selves they could and should be.
As each of these episodes plays out, however, the reader is confronted with the question of whether or not these moments of breakthrough are ultimately fruitful. In other words, do the heroes, in fact, learn anything? In order to address this problem, it is necessary to grapple a bit with the tension between the potency of fate versus that of free will in these tales. Are these characters even able to learn? Are they able to make free choices regarding the unfolding of their lives? Or are they predestined to follow the classic path of the tragic hero? Is there any such thing as “the Choice of Achilles”?
What does all this say about the human condition, not just in literature but for ordinary, everyday human beings? Do we have any control over the type of persons we become? Is there a fixed destiny in store for all of us? Some combination of the two? Before these larger questions can be addressed, it is necessary to begin with the texts before us. And in order to learn something about the significance of these moments of vulnerability and breakthrough for these heroes, it is important to establish the respective contexts from which they arise.
The immediate cause for Gilgamesh’s being brought low is the death of his companion, Enkidu. “Seven days and seven nights he wept for Enkidu,” we are told “until the worm fastened on him.” (p. 96) Utterly lost without his companion in destruction, he commits to a certain mourning ritual. “I will let my hair grow long for your sake, I will wander through the wilderness in the skin of a lion.” (96) These are rather poignant words. At first glance, the reader is even tempted toward sympathy for the person of Gilgamesh. Rarely is such a profound testament of friendship given. This, the reader may think, is a truly noble man. When we step back and take a longer view, however, we are led to different conclusions.
It must be remembered that Enkidu’s death comes on the heals of the slaying of Humbaba, keeper of the forest also known as “the land of the living.” In this one, intentionally destructive act, Gilgamesh and Enkidu defy the underlying force of life and connectedness that was so essential for the ancient Sumerians. They scoff at the powers of Fate. And as soon as they do this, they begin to pay the price.
Humbaba is of great symbolic importance in this epic. For the Sumerians who relied so heavily on the resources of forests for the lumber necessary to develop their architecture and therefore civilization, this direct attack on the protector of “the land of the living” is to be seen as an attack on the common good. The petty arrogance and whimsical pride of Gilgamesh and Enkidu are obvious moments of placing higher value on individual pleasure and gain at the expense of the good of the broader community. It is, in a sense, the Sumerian equivalent of the “Choice of Achilles.” And it is in the context of this choice that the reader is faced with the questions of the “true” character of Gilgamesh.
What is to be made of Gilgamesh’s subsequent breakdown following Enkidu’s death? There seem to be rather mixed messages regarding this moment of vulnerability. There is certainly no direct evidence in the text that would lead one to conclude that this is a moment of remorse for Gilgamesh. Nothing in his words indicate the realization of his terrible actions in destroying Humbaba and therefore attacking life itself. A phrase like, “O my God, what have I done?” certainly never passes his lips. There is no indication that this moment will lead this character to go immediately to repent of his destructive ways. Or is there?
All that is offered at this time is the rather self-indulgent melancholy announcing to the counselors of Uruk, “I weep for Enkidu, my friend,/ Bitterly moaning like a woman mourning.” At this point, there seems to be nothing more going on in the character of Gilgamesh than the simple activity of feeling sorry for oneself. In attempting to decipher whether or not this hero has learned anything as a result of his actions and this period of pathetic weeping, it is necessary to look at what he proceeds to do upon “snapping out of” this particular low-point.
Gilgamesh begins to wander “with despair in his heart.” When asked the source of this despair by Siduri, he responds, “Because of my brother I am afraid of death.” (101) Having made his attack on life as represented by Humbaba and being confronted for the first time with the prospect of mortality in the death of Enkidu, Gilgamesh is afraid for the first time. He fears his own death. Having defied death, he is soon taught the depth of its power. So begins the final chapter of his epic adventure.
Initially, at least, this final quest is negative by definition. It is not so much the case that Gilgamesh has gone through a full conversion. The entirety of his character is not transformed as a result of that moment of weakness in mourning Enkidu’s death. What seems to be going on here is something more like staving off loneliness and oblivion. What Gilgamesh seeks is not so much life as it is simply not death. He has been frightened. He has not been transformed.
This still begs the question, as a result of that seeming turning point in his epic adventure i.e., the moment of being overwhelmed by tears: has this character learned anything? It seems clear that he now knows, as a consequence of his friend’s demise, that death is a possibility and an undesirable one at that. But has he learned that this consequence is a direct result of his own actions? That is to say, has he learned that what he has done is wrong? Has there been anything resembling a moral conversion going on here? Does Gilgamesh experience, at any time in this epic, remorse?
Upon meeting Utnapishtim, Gilgamesh is greatly disappointed. This man who was said to be the one to possess the solution to his problem of probable death, appears to Gilgamesh to be one of the more weak and unimpressive figures he has come across. This man, who has been granted eternal life, who, in some sense, represents life itself, is repugnant to our epic hero. It seems that we have our answer.
The mighty warrior/hero is confronted with the way to eternal life. The answer is to sit down, to reflect and to savor. What this figure, who has wrought so much destruction in his life, must do to gain everlasting life is to stop the destruction. Rather than continuing to contribute to the noise of the universe, he is being invited to simply be quiet and enjoy the harmony of the life that has always been around him but to which he had never paid any attention.
Of course, after a brief amount of time deliberating about this new insight, Gilgamesh is unable to respond. This new way of being is simply an impossibility as far as he is concerned. It flies directly in the face of everything he has ever assumed about what it means to be himself. This rather passive mode of living which Utnapishtim embodies is far too radical a departure from the character of our hero.
All is not lost, though. What Gilgamesh does do is to go back to his people and commission somebody to record his adventures. In the very creation of this narrative, an ambiguity is raised. In the immediate account of Gilgamesh’s life, it appears that the hero has learned nothing. There is no true transformation that has occurred. We have no evidence that Gilgamesh changes his ways. It seems to be an epic with purely tragic consequences. But in the ordering of the story to be told, can the reader not take some hope? In becoming, albeit indirectly, the poet, the transformation of Gilgamesh takes place.
Yes, it appears as though Gilgamesh has learned nothing, but perhaps he has learned just enough to teach something to those who follow. Perhaps this is a case of the blind man being turned ever so gently as to be led in an entirely new direction, as Flannery O’Connor describes in “Parker’s Back.” Maybe Gilgamesh proves to be a hopeless character, but perhaps he provides just enough hope to those who come after him in the revealing of his flaws and his refusal or inability to attain the secret of eternal life.
The character of Achilles offers a slightly different perspective on this idea of the mighty warrior/hero who is humbled in a moment of grief. The actual moments of grief or vulnerability for these two heroes seem rather similar at first glance but what Achilles “does” with his experience consequently, takes quite a divergent path from that of Gilgamesh.
In Book XVIII of The Iliad, Achilles finds himself in much the same sort of circumstance as that which has been described concerning Gilgamesh. His closest friend has died. It is a tragedy which is almost too much for Achilles to bear. Again it is a moment which is truly gripping for the reader. Such pain and grief described as it is by Homer is a literary moment to be savored by the reader even if it does mark a bitter event. Upon hearing of the death of his friend Patroklos, “…the black cloud of sorrow closed on Achilleus.” (18.22)
Up until this point much of the emotion which the reader is able to witness concerning Achilles is that of pure rage. It is a rage rooted in his pride which has been wounded by the way Agamemnon has treated him. His anger is directed at most of his fellow Achaians who are struggling in battle but who have not yet come begging in humility for his help. Now, though, there is a different look at Achilles. It is an unparalleled grief and a moment which proves to be a real turning point in the epic.
Again, it is vital to go to the text to get a feel for the quality of emotion here:
In both hands he caught up the grimy dust, and poured it
over his head and face, and fouled his handsome countenance,
and the black ashes were scattered over his immortal tunic.
We get here a hint of the downfall of this great hero which is to come. This figure, who is born partially in divinity, signals his own humanity and ultimate demise in scattering the morbid symbol of ashes over his “immortal tunic.” This marks the beginning of the end for this hero who has always stood apart in terms of looks, speed and strength.
The reader gets the sense of a kind of paralysis which sets in on the character of Achilles which harkens back to that of Gilgamesh. It is truly a pathetic scene in which we imagine the great Achilles writhing and very much intermingled with the earth, a sign of his own encroaching mortality. The only difference here is that Achilles is not alone in this grief, though clearly his is the greatest of those around him:
And he himself, mightily in his might, in the dust lay
at length, and took and tore at his hair with his hands, and defiled it.
And the handmaidens Achilleus and Patroklos had taken
captive, stricken at heart cried out aloud, and came running
out of doors about valiant Achilleus, and all of them
beat their breasts with their hands, and the limbs went slack in each of
The depth of this grief would almost lead one to believe that there will be no emerging from it. But of course Homer understands and articulates the resilience of the human condition. Achilles, like Gilgamesh, is able to “snap out of it.” But he is certainly changed. Something happens which alters the vision of the hero as a result of this tragic loss of his friend. Again, though, like Gilgamesh, it is difficult to put one’s finger on just what exactly does happen to the character of the hero as a result of this experience of grief and vulnerability.
Though the pride of Achilles is still strong enough to prevent him from making an outright and humble admission of guilt about this tragedy, the reader does get the impression that he, at least on some level, acknowledges his role in and even responsibility for the death of Patroklos. It is even more obvious in Achilles’ case as compared to Gilgamesh and Enkidu. It is, after all, Achilles who sent Patroklos out into battle wearing his own armor and thereby drawing particular attention to himself, increasing the likelihood of becoming a particular target for the Trojans.
The reader, of course, is able to recognize what this event represents and forecasts. We are given a harbinger of what is to come for Achilles. Just as Enkidu’s death served as a kind of mirror experience for Gilgamesh in being made able to see the errors of his own ways, Patroklos serves a similar purpose for Achilles. Being confronted with the deaths of their respective friends (and also with their respective responsibilities for those deaths) creates that possibility whereby these characters are able to gain some kind of clarity or insight as to their own selves and the nature of their lives thus far.
Both Gilgamesh and Achilles are given these opportunities for clarity, and though it does seem to have some degree of impact on them as individuals, it also appears that both of them fail to appropriate the respective lessons fully. As has been said, Gilgamesh, as a response to Enkidu’s death, chooses to act out of fear, initially. He fears the death he has just encountered and resolves, after his time of grief, to do what he can to avoid that same death for himself. Achilles, however, seems to take a rather different path.
Thetis, in attempting to help her son overcome his grief, reminds him that his prayers have recently been answered. In asking for the defeat of his fellow Achaians, Achilles had hoped that they would then be forced to come to him in humiliation and shame, begging for his help in battle. Indeed, the Trojans had just inflicted numerous defeats on Achilles’ countrymen and, no doubt, Agamemnon would soon come crawling back seeking the unsurpassed skill in warfare of this hero. But in the light of his recent loss, Achilles has come to realize the irrelevance of his prior desires. In fact, he even articulates a certain absurdity about life itself. Achilles responds to his mother’s encouraging words saying, “My mother, all these things defeat of the Achaians the Olympian brought to accomplishment. But what pleasure is this to me, since my dear companion has perished, Patroklos, whom I loved beyond all other companions, as well as my own life.”
In this moment, it appears that, at the very least, Achilles has been forced beyond his own petty desires for honor and glory among his countrymen. At the same time, though, he appears to be led into an even more harmful temptation. From this point on, the “wrath of Achilles” is to be put into full effect. Achilles, spurred on by the loss of Patroklos, now chooses to let blind rage overtake him. It is important to note that this rage will not be directed toward any particular end or good. It is purely and simply rage for its own sake. Such is the manner in which Achilles responds to his experience of grief and vulnerability. Though there is a sense in which he evidently learns something, i.e. the futility of seeking glory and honor among his men, he simultaneously chooses to numb the pain he has experienced rather than allowing what has transpired to transform him into a somehow “truer self.”
The picture becomes more clear later, however. In The Odyssey, as Odysseus seeks to find his way home, he meets up with Achilles. It is not until this time, in a completely different epic, that the transformation of Achilles from warrior to poet becomes complete. In telling his story to Odysseus, Achilles is able to speak with greater clarity and insight about his own life and foibles. In The Iliad, this was impossible for him to do as he was still in the grip of his own wrath. Now, with a bit of distance from the events of his life and a bit of solitude and opportunity to reflect, Achilles is able to become the poet and transcend his limited role as warrior.
So how is the reader to take all of this? If great literature such as the two works being dealt with here are great and lasting because they say something true about the human condition, then what are we to learn about our own selves having read about the victories and foibles, the joys and the sorrows of these two heroes, Gilgamesh and Achilles? Can we see anything of ourselves or our tendencies in them? Are our lives at all reflected in them? Or, more precisely, do the author of The Epic of Gilgamesh and Homer speak at all to the human condition not only in their own respective cultures and historical eras, but also to our own? What is it that they have to say to us? What are we being warned against? Should we go forward in hope or despair? Is life a comedy or a tragedy?
In both instances, it is reasonable to argue that neither hero learns what he ought to learn. Though they are changed in some degree as a result of the pain they experience and the state of vulnerability in which they find themselves, it seems that they do not go through that complete transformation of character that is necessary for them to discover and become “the true self.” As a response to his loss, Gilgamesh acts out of fear and seeks to discover the secret to eternal life so that he may never have to go through what Enkidu did. Ultimately, like the rich young man of the Gospels, he goes away sad upon learning the secret for he is unable to simply join in on the harmony of life, exemplified by the character of Utnapishtim. One can say that Gilgamesh learns, but chooses not to appropriate the learning.
Achilles fails as well, but in a different way. Having endured the agony of losing and being responsible for the loss of his friend Patroklos, while acknowledging the fruitlessness of the life of glory which he has chosen, reacts only out of anger. Rather than allowing the pain he has experienced to transform him, he chooses to go out and afflict that same pain upon any who cross his path and thereby reject any possibility of happiness or fulfillment or some form of lasting life and joy.
It seems, then, that both of these heroes signify little else than failure and cause for despair. Is this the message to be taken away by the ancient Sumerian, Greek or contemporary American reader? Even when given the gift of an opportunity of insight and clarity concerning the nature of life and happiness, the human person is not capable of taking these insights to heart. Is that what Homer and the author of The Epic of Gilgamesh have to say? It seems that the answer is yes but only partially so.
If these heroes are to be taken as the total allegorical embodiment of the human person, then there is not much good news in store for any of us. But when the narrative accounts of these characters are taken as one glimpse into a process which is continually being unfolded, namely that of human history and the development of human consciousness, perhaps the reader can take heart. No, neither Gilgamesh nor Achilles learn what they need to learn. But their stories are told. The authors perform an act of hope in writing at all. Though they have much to teach us of the weaknesses and flaws of the human person, the narratives do go on.