Often in myth, the audience will watch a character undergo a miraculous series of challenges or events in a “quest” like fashion. This is known as a hero quest myth. These hero quest myths however, no matter the date they were written, or culture from which they came, hero quest myths often have parallel underlying themes, or steps in their plot. The Monomyth also known as “The Hero’s Journey” is a theory brought to the table by a man named Joseph Campbell which states just that.
Mr. Campbell believes that every hero quest myth can by summarized with the same eleven steps: birth, call to adventure, amulet, crossing the threshold, tests, helpers, climax/final battle, flight, return, elixir, and home. This idea of parallelism is a testament to the fact that humans throughout time have always possessed similar trains of thought, and ideas about the elements that make up a well told hero quest story. The hero quest myth contained in the Epic of Gilgameshis no different as it closely resembles the eleven steps outlined by Campbell however, it still deviates in some areas of the story.
The first stage of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth is a miraculous birth. Depending on the creation story you look at, the birth of Gilgamesh was just that. While he is fully grown when the story begins, we’re told that he was made by the creation goddess Belit-ili. The story also goes into great depth of the miraculous creation of his right hand man, Enkidu, created to humble Gilgamesh and make him righteous once more. After battling and defeating Gilgamesh in his journey to Uruk, Enkidu’s role in the story is that of a side kick to Gilgamesh, exemplifying the “call to adventure” stage.
Enkidu’s presence in Gilgamesh’s life has driven him to desire to do something greater, shifting him from his deplorable monarchal past, into a brighter more promising future. This directly ties in to the next stage “crossing the threshold”. “This is the point where the person actually crosses into the field of adventure, leaving the known limits of his or her world and venturing into an unknown and dangerous realm where the rules and limits are not known.” Once Gilgamesh decides to accept this greater calling, he is in a sense reborn, with Enkidu by his side, decides to embark on the quest before them leaving the “everyday world” behind them.
Parallel with Campbell’s structure, Gilgamesh and Enkidu go on to encounter “tests” together as well. A perfect example of this is when the two successfully slew Humbaba the protector of the Cedar Forest, and returned to Uruk, clutching the monsters severed head. In helping Gilgamesh accomplish this task, Enkidu successfully filled his role as a “helper”, the next stage. A helper is one who accompanies the hero on a journey and “assists in the series of tests and generally serves as a loyal companion.”
While Enkidu is the main helper in this epic, Gilgamesh receives help from Shamash the sun god in defeating Humbaba as well. Another example of a “test” is when Ishtar and her father Anu send down the bull of heaven because of Ishtar’s rage towards Gilgamesh for not sleeping with her. The two again, slay the bull of heaven, however this time, an element of arrogance and pride accompanies their success and they suffer because of it.
After slaying the bull, Enkidu severs its hind quarters and throws them at Ishtar mocking her failed attempt to destroy them. Because of this, Enkidu is cursed, falls ill, and dies. This can serve as the “climax/final battle” stage because this is when the hero is often at his lowest point. Gilgamesh loved his friend Enkidu and at this point is mourning his death. He undergoes a “flight” as he decides to return to his normal life. On his way back however, he comes to the realization that he will only ever gain immortality through leaving a legacy as a great king.
He travels to see Utnapishtim to learn how to become immortal. After undergoing a series of tests, by Utnapishtim, he fails and is unable gain immortality. He undergoes a very brief “return” stage where he again decides to return to normal life, before Utnapishtim’s wife tells him of a plant in the sea which can bring him restored youth, and while not as good as immortality it’s still worth a shot. Here, the “elixir” stage is fulfilled because while he does not return with a literal physical elixir (the plant), because a snake ate it (aetiology for snakes shedding their skins). This stage can also represent the use or expression of knowledge or wisdom gained throughout the quest. He realizes that his cultural achievements will be his legacy, returns to Uruk, and leads his nation as king once more.