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Gilgamesh

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The Epic Hero stands as more than just the conquerer, but also as a role model and an ideal man, an allegory for the struggle to meet one’s truest potential. Every culture has their own version of the Epic Hero, who occupies a distinct place in the scheme of the society. Separate from his contemporaries, the Epic Hero straddles the line between man and god, unable to fully commit to one realm or another. He must separate himself from the common people, either by choice or by necessity, in order to undertake the tasks that must be completed. Gilgamesh epitomizes the Epic Hero. We see him as the beloved king, the indomitable ruler, occupying a station above all others that is simultaneously ruled over by fickle deities. He concerns himself with tasks beyond the scope of mortal possibilities, ridding the world of evil beings and challenging the permanence of death. The Epic of Gilgamesh is an epic in more than name — King Gilgamesh’s undertaking is ambitious almost to a fault and in his journey, he undergoes intense personal transformation from an irreverent, self-important child to a motivated, intuitive ruler. Motivated by his quest, the Epic Hero moves through the physical world as a sort of outsider whose actions and reactions come from a more direct relationship with the material and preternatural elements of his environment. The Epic Hero reflects the nature of his origin culture by demonstrating the ideal man, an icon that reflects the values and mores of the people. People relate to the Epic Hero because he represents the beliefs that they have been taught to accept and revere. This archetype has influenced more than fictional literature. Alexander the Great, for instance, was indeed a real historical figure, but he has taken on many of the elements of the Epic Hero demonstrated in the Epic of Gilgamesh. Much of the traditional narrative of Alexander reflects the power and prestige associated with the Epic Hero, but the metaphysical aspect of the legend carries other similarities. Alexander’s search for the water of life in later Islamic mythos mirrors that of Gilgamesh, and, like Gilgamesh, Alexander fails in his quest to become immortal (Jastrow). Similarly, themes of divine anger and details reminiscent of Gilgamesh appear extensively in Genesis — so much so that historians believe the Biblical flood story to be heavily influenced its Mesopotamian counterpart (Millard 13). Enraged by the sins of the world, the Semitic god decides to flood the world (Gen. 6.17). Noah, the pious man who assumes the role of the Epic Hero, delivers his family from danger by building a great ark at the insistence of the divine, demonstrating to the reader the importance of following god’s commandments. Although the Mesopotamian version does not incorporate the same level of moral implication, both flood stories demonstrate the continued involvement of the gods in the day-to-day survival of the world. Regardless of the era, deities play a distinct role in the epic narrative. They shape and define the path of the hero, alternately offering aid and raising barriers. Respect is demanded from all participating parties and, as demonstrated by the rampage of the Bull of Heaven, a lack of due respect results in disaster. Irreverence is punished harshly. The hero, who does not quite fit into the mortal realm, often