The Epic of Gilgamesh:
Gilgamesh is a bad king, and the opposite of a hero. I think it’s interesting when heroes start like this because it makes them more human. I tend to think of anti-heroes as a more modern interest in storytelling, but this epic is so old that maybe it’s more common than I thought.
He’s also a demigod, but he’s mortal. Gilgamesh’s struggle with his mortality is a particularly compelling theme because it’s something that humans of all ages wrestle with. It also brings a lot of thought to the question about what makes a hero. If a hero can’t live forever, then what is the point of heroism?
I’ve always been a fan of very close friend pairs or trios in storytelling, and I can see that aspect in Gilgamesh’s relationship with Enkidu. There’s also the trope that those who will end up being friends must first fight in order to prove that they’re evenly matched.
Gilgamesh has very debilitating flaws and failings because he is always limited by his humanity and mortality. I think it’s sad that he fails his ultimate quest, but I also like that the final theme is that humans should focus on living a good life, not on pursuing an eternal one.
Rama and the Ramayana:
Rama is another hero-king, and he is connected to a god, like Gilgamesh. It’s interesting that heroes so often have divine power backing them up or royal blood.
The stringing of Shiva’s bow reminds me of other tests of a hero’s worthiness, like picking up Thor’s hammer in Marvel stories. Not only does Rama string the bow, but he also snaps the bow because he is so strong and worthy of heroism.
Rama gets exiled with his brother, which is always a compelling story because it’s like his family has betrayed him, and now he has to work to return.
I think Rama’s alliance with the Monkey Kingdom points again to his worthiness as a ruler, warrior, and hero because it symbolizes nature approving of him. Ravana, the demon, is a representation of wrongness and chaos, but nature is balanced, and Rama has that on his side.
Galahad, Perceval, and the Holy Grail:
The Holy Grail represents the ultimate goal of all heroes, but it’s also ethereal and unattainable. It never takes the form that the hero would think; it doesn’t give anything material, like wealth, power, or immortality. Instead, it gives wisdom and knowledge, and most of that isn’t gained by coming into contact with the Grail but through the questing for it. I think that’s a highly symbolic and poignant thing.
Crash Course Myth Epics and Heroes. Web source.
Image 1: Sir Galahad’s Quest for the Holy Grail. Source – Wikipedia.
Image 2: The Holy Grail. Source – Flickr.