The similarities between these epics begin with their close following of the archetypal hero described by Joseph Campbell’s monomyth. Neither myth follows Campbell’s model entirely in order, but they both cover nearly all the stages of the model at least once. Both Odysseus and Gilgamesh receive unusual calls to action.
Odysseus’ call is in the form of going to war for the Greeks against the Trojans and his desire to return home after nearly a decade of fighting. Gilgamesh’s first call is to encounter and defeat a semi-demonic character named Humbaba who lives in the woods. After slaying Humbaba and believing his heroic journey has concluded, he receives another call to action.
This call is rather a desire to seek immortality, sparked by the death of Enkidu, his close friend. Campbell’s next step in a hero’s journey is to receive some form of supernatural aid. Both Gilgamesh and Odysseus receive supernatural aid throughout their quests. Odysseus, mostly from the goddess Athena, but also from other characters along his way home. Odysseus’ quest almost entirely consists of supernatural beings aiding or working against him and he does not really encounter natural obstacles until he makes it to Ithaca where he must clear his home of suitors.
Gilgamesh’s supernatural aid comes in multiple forms as well, but initially in the form of Enkidu who was created from clay by the goddess Aruru with the intent to discontinue Gilgamesh’s atrocities as king. After Gilgamesh and Enkidu’s fight results in a draw, they become inseparable friends and go behead Humbaba with the help of supernatural weapons such as winds used to subdue him. Campbell’s next stage in the model is a road of trials which Odysseus embarks on following the Trojan war.
Odysseus’ journey home is immediately interfered with by the gods because the Greeks became too prideful after defeating the Trojans. Due to their unappreciative and proud behavior following aid from the gods in battle, the gods decided to blow their ships extremely off course and make their journey home an excruciating one. Gilgamesh too, must endure a road of trials which include walking through leagues of forest and darkness to find Humbaba and Utnapishtim and other trials required to reach his end goal.
The first threshold Odysseus crosses is when the gods initially blow his ships off course which sparks his long journey home. The trials he faces following this threshold are what shape and display Odysseus’ ability to overcome adversity in any form. He encounters multiple creatures, groups of people, and gods that all work against him on his journey home. Gilgamesh’s road of trials begins when him and Enkidu first leave Uruk and venture over the mountains and into the woods.
The woods they are required to walk through, are the first example of Gilgamesh being in the ‘belly of the whale,’ as Campbell would say. Enkidu warns Gilgamesh of Humbaba’s power and ability to hear through sixty leagues of the forest and does not believe his forest is penetrable. Gilgamesh persists, and they continue to cross the first threshold into the dangerous woods Humbaba inhabits. Gilgamesh crossing this first threshold is what eventually leads to another journey with a different goal at hand. Along their road of trials Gilgamesh and Odysseus both encounter goddesses.
Odysseus is met by Athena multiple times along his journey and she even meets with his son Telemachus to tell him his father is alive and to start looking for him. Another character Odysseus receives help from that could be considered meeting with a goddess is Circe, who originally turns his crew into animals but eventually lends help to Odysseus’ return home and turns his crew back to men. Gilgamesh and Enkidu also meet with goddesses multiple times within their journey.
The first of which happens to be Gilgamesh’s mother, Ninsun. Ninsun gives Gilgamesh and Enkidu her blessing before they begin their journey. Campbell’s next stage of a hero’s journey is when they meet with a woman as a temptress. Gilgamesh is confronted by the goddess Ishtar following the slaying of Humbaba and she begs him to be with her in marriage and to have a child together. Gilgamesh refuses but Ishtar does not relent and has her father send a bull to attack him and Enkidu. They quickly kill and begin to dismember the bull when Enkidu decides to hit Ishtar with a piece of it.
This enrages Ishtar and she in turn curses and kills Enkidu. Enkidu’s death is what urges Gilgamesh to go searching for immortality and is his second call to action. Odysseus’ encounter with a woman as a temptress takes place early along his road of trials. He ends up staying on an island with the goddess Calypso for seven years. Calypso trapped him on her island with the intent to make him her immortal husband while he would cry on the shore and long to return home until Zeus finally demanded she allow him to leave.
The stage of Campbell’s model known as ‘atonement with the father’ can be observed in both heroes’ myths even though neither’s actual father appears in their stories. Odysseus’ atonement with the father moment could be when he is stranded on Calypso’s island and he reflects on his journey thus far.
Here, he realizes many of his wrongdoings and longs for nothing more than to return home to his family and the gods notice this. From this point on, many gods put forth an effort in assisting Odysseus in his journey home. Gilgamesh’s atonement with the father could be seen as when he and Enkidu encounter and overcome Humbaba, who can be viewed as an overbearing, negative father figure.
The apotheosis in a hero’s journey is a high point within their road of trials that makes it no longer a taxing experience and they have reached the climax of their development. Odysseus’ apotheosis is when he floats ashore the island of Scheria or also known as the land of the Phaeaians, after his ship wrecks. For the first time in years, Odysseus is treated with human hospitality and is even offered the princess in marriage from the king. Odysseus declines and tells the Phaeaians his entire story up to this point. The king is so impressed by Odysseus’ tale that he grants him a ship set to sail back to Ithaca the next day.
Gilgamesh’s apotheosis takes place after meeting with Utnapishtim and he is about to receive his ultimate boon. He initially fails Utnapishtim’s test to stay awake for six days and nights because he reached him only after walking through ten leagues of darkness. Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh that he cannot earn immortality the way he did but informs him of a plant that will keep him youthful. Gilgamesh is now rested and knows what he must do to receive his boon and is at the peak of his development along his road of trials.
Odysseus and Gilgamesh have very different end goals of their journeys. Odysseus, rather than searching for a physical item, just wants to make it home. His ultimate boon is attained only once he returns home, fights off all the suitors in his home, and reveals himself to his wife Penelope. Unlike Odysseus, Gilgamesh was in search of a physical boon with more selfish intentions.
Gilgamesh’s goal was to become immortal and he travelled far and wide in order to find the information he needed to achieve this. Utnapishtim and his wife were the lone survivors of a great flood that killed all the people in the world. Gilgamesh first goes to him in search of answers but fails his test and is told that Utnapishtim’s means of obtaining immortality were unattainable.
After pleading with him, Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh about a plant that offers rejuvenation and that will keep him youthful. Gilgamesh then tracks it down and using rocks on his feet to reach the bottom, recovers it from a deep body of water. Gilgamesh’s time with his boon was very short lived. He decided to bring the plant back to Uruk before consuming it and on his way home it is stolen by a snake while Gilgamesh stopped to bathe.
According to Campbell’s model, after receiving a boon, a hero will refuse to return to their original, known world. This refusal to return is not present in either Gilgamesh’s or Odysseus’ myths. Gilgamesh realizes after losing the key to immortality that he should return and become a good king so that at least his legacy can live on forever. In Odysseus’ quest, his end goal was nothing but to return home and there was not really a time he ever changed his mind. After refusing to return, it is typical within Campbell’s model that a hero takes a magic flight before crossing the return threshold.
Again, this stage does not apply well in either of these myths. The closest thing to magic flight within Odysseus’ journey would have to be the god’s assistance in getting him off Calypso’s island and back on path to return home. A magic flight does not appear in Gilgamesh’s journey either. He simply decides to change his ways when he returns to being king in Uruk.
The end of Odysseus’ journey is when he crosses the return threshold, receives his ultimate boon, and receives the freedom to live a good life. This is unique within hero myths because usually all those stages are surpassed at different events rather than all being tied into one.
Gilgamesh crosses the return threshold after he loses his boon in route back to Uruk and he decides to change his ways. He realizes that he too will die one day and there is nothing he can do about it, so becoming a better person grants him the freedom to live a good life (Abusch 614). Following this decision and making it back to Uruk, now as a good king, marks his final stage of the hero’s journey with the freedom to live.
Although composed by completely different cultures in different eras and locations, both Gilgamesh and Odysseus seem to be driven and destructed by similar forces. The forces that drive and discourage these heroes are much more relatable than those that appear in contemporary ‘hero’ stories.
In the contemporary use of the word ‘hero,’ it is expected that one will always take the moral high ground. This makes them less relatable because they are not susceptible to the human downfalls that we all know so well. At many points along both Gilgamesh and Odysseus’s journeys, their pride and desire to exceed human limits harm them greatly.
Odysseus’ prideful downfalls such as his need to earn credit for escaping Polyphemus’ cave, tack on numerous years to his journey home. Gilgamesh’s pride and lack of respect is what originally made him a terrible king but also allowed him to stand up to and defeat much stronger adversaries. Even though they both fail to selfish desires throughout their journeys, the fact that they overcome them in the end and continue to live a better life is what makes them heroes.