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Conception Of Heroism In Ancient Literature English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1911 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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In Greek mythology, heroes were demigods, whose cult was among the most distinctive features of ancient Greek religion. Later on, the definition of heroism evolved to hero and heroines referring to men and women who showed a great sense of character when faced with danger or who, when in a position of weakness, showed extraordinary courage and sacrifice. In literature, a hero represents courage. Freud reflects on heroism in terms of the audience or reader identification. His definition of a hero thus, is one who elicits in a reader a feeling of security that makes the reader follow him through his adventures. [1] This paper will address the concept of heroism in three books namely; Gilgamesh, Exodus, and Odyssey.

Heroism in Gilgamesh

An epic hero is usually a person of supreme social class, mainly a king, or a great leader. He must be an outstanding athlete and an expert fighter. In addition, an epic hero should have the courage to use these characters. To portray his heroic faculties the hero need to confront some form of predicament, adversity, war, or mission. This kind of epic the hero is best depicted in the character of Gilgamesh. [2] 

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Gilgamesh is the oldest epic story ever written. The story begins with a hero, Gilgamesh, a chronological king who is estranged from his city because of his haughtiness. Initially, Gilgamesh is known as an impatient and uninterested person. He spent most of his time troubling people, interrupting them, and ravishing on their wives and daughters. [3] Enkidu, an untamed creature saved him and together they hit the road to pursue the glory of a warrior which outlive the two.

According to the Gilgamesh tale, the heroic quest in Gilgamesh will cause him to wrestle with the guardian Humbaba, the monster of the sacred forest to accomplish eternal eminence. [4] In spite of strong disapproval from his citizen advisers and the tearful persuasions of his mother, Gilgamesh and his devoted friend sets on journey carrying special arsenal and relying on the promised defense of the sun God. On the sixth day of their journey, Gilgamesh experiences strange dreams but ignores them and moves on with the journey. On realization on the enormity of what they were about to do, his devoted friend wants go back but the Sun God advises them to proceed. Gilgamesh is prone to heed to Humbaba’s pleas for mercy and his offer for him becoming his servant but Somehow Enkidu manages to convince him into slaying Humbaba. [5] 

While cutting wood in the sacred cedar forest, Enkidu suggests they make a door for the chief god to appease him. Later, Gilgamesh is approached by the pretty goddess (Ishtar) who proposes for his hand in marriage. Gilgamesh rejects her since he knows what became of her other lovers. As a result, the two become enemies. The goddess sends the Bull of Heaven down to destroy the city, fortunately Gilgamesh and Enkidu slaughters it. This upset the gods who cause a prolonged painful death for his friend.

Gilgamesh is badly affected by the death of his friend, starts a revolt against the gods and sets to unearth the secret of eternal life to become the only person to have been granted immortality. On his way to this deceitful journey, he meets with extraordinary creatures that warn him of the impossibility of his pursuit, but the fate of his friend’s death drives him until he finds Utanpishtim. Utanpishtim explains that he was granted eternal life because of his obedience to his personal god. Gilgamesh fails to get eternal life and returns back to Uruk a wiser and a more just king. [6] 

Gilgamesh clearly gives us the specific definition of epic heroism. Epic heroes without a doubt are of supreme social class and experts in fighting with enormous courage as well as intelligence. Because of a quest, the hero matures morally. In spite of being at odds with his human and divine society develops a deeper understanding of his duties towards both groups. [7] 

Heroism in Exodus

Exodus is the second book of the Hebrews and Bible in Old Testament. Exodus describes the journey of the Israelites to freedom through the strength of God (Yahweh) who chose Israel as his people. Moses led the Israelites from the oppression of their slavery from Egypt, in close proximity to the Promised Land. Actually, his reputation dictates the entire set of narratives from the book of Exodus through Deuteronomy. The narratives describes how the exodus event, the wanders in the wilderness, the commandments at Mt. Sinai as well as the conquest of land in Transjordan rest under the shadow of his hand. [8] 

According to a Jewish historian in the first century of Christian era, Moses performed various marvelous heroic deeds in the battlefield. When Moses found an Egyptian harshly beating a Jew he killed him and buried him in the sand despite the fact it was a violation of both Jewish and Egyptian law. [9] Later on He met other two Hebrews fighting and inquired why they were fighting ,one of them asked who made him a ruler over them and if he wanted to kill them just like the other Egyptian. Moses thought that it what he had done had been revealed fled to the wilderness (Median). [10] 

Moses’ flight to Median was relevant since it was preparing him for the great vocation. In Midian, Moses gets to marry one of the Midian’s daughters named Zippporah daughter of a Medians priest. Moses takes care of the sheep of Jethro (Midian priest) his father in law. It is here that he sees a burning bush and heroically moves closer to know why the fire was not burning the bush. He removes sandals and gets closer to face God who is a supreme being. The God he encounters is a God who has been active over years in the concern for his people. [11] 

Moses is not only a hero but also a prophet who mediated between God and Israelites. God used him to convey any message to the Israelites .Moses on the other hand, pleaded on behalf of the Israelites when they hungered in wilderness or whenever they sinned. [12] 

The Concept of Heroism in the Odyssey

Odyssey is an epic Greek poem, which centers mainly on Odyssey and the delays and obstacles that he heroically overcome in order to return home from Trojan War. It takes Odysseus ten years before he gets back to Ithaca following the ten years Trojan War. Due to this prolonged absence, Odysseus is believed to be dead where his wife Penelope and their son Telemachus have to deal with a group of boisterous suitors competing for Penelope’s hand in marriage. Penelope’s loyalty and prudence is what brings her to the state of being a hero. Just like her husband, she is sharp, holding off suitors through repetition weaving of shroud by day, and unpicking it by night, instead of agreeing to get married to any one of them. She loyally waits for her husband’s, Odysseus, to return. Such steadfastness in the face of adversity depicts unquestionable heroism, as she struggles in the name of love.

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Odysseus and his men were trapped in Polyphemos’ cave due to his carelessness. Initially, Odysseus suggests that he and his men should go with the crew of one ship to inquire about the Polyphemos. Unlike other episodes such as adventure of Sirens and Scylla for which he used to be cautioned, he did not foresee the danger lurking because of curiosity. He prepares himself by drinking wine. Though he gets an unexpected intuition of danger, he ignores it and sets out onn his adventure. In the cave, he rescues his men by blinding Polyphomes; he does so by claiming his name as nobody, and therefore, when Polyphemos screams nobody is attacking him he is not rescued by the Cyclopes. As an epic hero, Odysseus rescues his people using the power of his intelligence. [13] 

Comparison of Odyssey, Gilgamesh, and Moses’ Heroic Actions

The three stories feature long journeys to exotic places coupled with adventure in which the main characters are tested and from which they learn important lessons that inform the rest of their journeys. The heroes of Odyssey and Gilgamesh are different people by the end of the story. They set out to the wilderness, which represents in itself great hardship, where they get in contact with divine powers. From these encounters with divine powers, they learn the power of restraint. In the journey of exodus is a continuous test of the human spirit in harsh conditions and the need for man to adjust their lives to fit the realities of the divine. [14] 

One point of difference between the three stories is that in exodus, it’s a story of a common experience of a people and emphasis is what they learn together whereas the stories of Odyssey and Gilgamesh emphasis the extraordinary lone hero who show extraordinary human conduct in face of challenges. Another point of comparison is that the story of exodus is about going to a home that does not already exist while that of Odyssey and Gilgamesh is about going back home after the heroes learn the importance of their community. [15] 

Heroes are people who display extraordinary courage, intelligence, and perseverance when confronted with suffering, predicaments, or nature of distress. Though most heroes undertake different journeys, the desire is usually the pursuit of greatness to either help them or deliver their society from which they identify themselves. In the three stories, these heroes travel through the wilderness, which symbolize hardship, interact with a divine being and come back victorious after they learn the importance of cohesion in the community. These are stories of transformation.


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