Reading through the Epic of Gilgamesh, similarities with the Iliad spring to mind, especially regarding their main characters: Achilles and Gilgamesh. The first versions of Gilgamesh’s tale were written down in Sumerian towards the end of the third millennium BCE, making it one of the oldest epic poems that we know. In the following centuries, Mesopotamian scribes translated, adapted, and changed the story continuously until it reached its final state in the form of the so-called Standard Babylonian Version (SBV) at the end of the second millennium BCE. A few hundred years later, most likely around 700 BCE, though we don’t know precisely when, the Iliad and Odyssey were composed, presumably by poet Homer, somewhere in Greece or along the Ionian coast.
Despite these considerable differences in time, place, and language, many scholars believe that there must be some kind of connection between the two texts. The similarities range from comparable themes, motifs, and story patterns to more distinct similarities on a textual level within certain scenes. In the following article, we shall go through some of the most striking similarities between the two heroes and atheir adventurous journeys and briefly discuss how these similarities might have developed.
1. Gilgamesh and Achilles’ Origins: Divine Mothers and Mortal Fathers
Let us begin with their families. Both heroes can trace their origin back to an encounter between a goddess and a mortal man. Gilgamesh is described at the beginning of the epic as two-thirds god and one-third human (SBV tablet I, 48). His father Lugalbanda, the mythological king of Uruk, was a human even though he was deified later for his deeds. The mother of Gilgamesh is the mother-goddess Ninsun.
On the other hand, Achilles is the son of the sea-nymph Thetis and the mortal king Peleus. As such, Achilles is not really a god, but because of his mother, some divine blood runs through his veins, granting him beauty, strength, and swiftness beyond human capabilities.
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Interestingly, both characters share a very intimate relationship with their mothers. Thetis intervenes time and again in front of the gods on behalf of her son (Il. I, 503-511; XVIII, 428-461), and likewise, Ninsun helps Gilgamesh throughout the epic by interpreting his dreams and convincing the sun-god Shamash to protect her son (SBV tablet I 245-293 and tablet III 47-116). Their divine origin allows them to perform supernatural deeds and exceed all mortal men in strength, appearance, and performance on the battlefield. However, despite their divine origin, both heroes are mortal.
2. Character: Reckless Warrior and Foolish King
At the beginning of their journey, both heroes come across as rather arrogant, brutal, and irresponsible characters who do not care about others and take what they want just because they can. Achilles is a men-slaying killing machine whose only concern seems to be his glory and honor. After Agamemnon takes the young slave Briseis from him, Achilles refuses to join the battle. In doing so, Achilles jeopardizes the whole Greek army, bringing it to the brink of extinction while he is sitting idle in his tent, playing the lyre and enjoying himself (Il. I).
Gilgamesh, likewise is first described as a rather foolish and selfish young man. As the king of Uruk, he is utterly unfit to rule the city and guide its people. Instead, he spends his days tormenting the population of Uruk, demanding newly-wed women for himself. This seems to be the first mention in literature of the so-called ius primae noctis or droit du seigneur (SBV tablet I 63-93).
3. Friendship and Loss: Patroklos and Enkidu
The most striking similarity between Achilles and Gilgamesh is their relationship with their companions. The only person Achilles really cares about is his friend and brother in arms Patroklos. He was sent to the court of Achilles’s father as a child because he had slain one of his playmates in a fit of anger (Il. XXIII, 85).
The two young boys spent most of their childhood together and become close friends. When the Greeks sail to Troy, Achilles joins the Greek army, eager to gain glory and honor on the battlefield, and Patroklos follows him as his squire. During Achilles’ quarrels with Agamemnon, Patroklos stays away from the battlefield too.
Gilgamesh, on the other hand, finds his friend Enkidu through divine intervention. After the people of Uruk started to implore the gods to relieve them from Gilgamesh’s harsh rule, the gods create Enkidu, a savage man living with wild animals in the steppe. After being introduced to the human way of living by a huntsman and the prostitute Shamhat, Enkidu enters the city of Uruk to face Gilgamesh. A ferocious fight between the two follows, but neither of them can subdue the other. In the end, they recognize each other as equals and become friends (SBV tablet I-II).
Achilles’ and Gilgamesh’s love for their companions becomes particularly evident when their friends die. Patroklos is slain by Hektor, after he led a counterattack in a moment of great peril for the Greek army, wearing Achilles’ armor (Il. XVI). Enkidu, on the other hand, dies less heroically. The gods decide to let him fall ill and die as a punishment for aiding Gilgamesh in his sacrilegious deed of killing Humbaba —- the warden of the Lebanese cedar forest — and the Bull of Heaven (SBV tablet IV-VI).
The scenes in which the two heroes mourn for their dead friends bear astonishing resemblances on a thematic but also textual level. Both heroes are taken by a deep sadness over their companions’ death. Gilgamesh is unwilling to let Enkidu go, afraid of losing him forever, and he refuses to perform the adequate funeral rites.
“[for six days and seven nights I wept over him [Enkidu.]
[I did not give him up for burial,]
[until a maggot fell from his nostril.]
[Then I was afraid …] … […,]
[I grew fearful of death…]”
SBV tablet X, 56-62
Likewise, Achilles does not want the body of his dear friend to be burned and instead holds on to his corpse until he manages to avenge him.
“I will not bury you, till I have brought
hither the head and armour of mighty Hektor who has slain you.
(…) till I have done so you shall lie as you are by the
Il. XVIII, 330-340
Even the way how they mourn for their friends is described in similar terms. In his grief, Gilgamesh is compared to a restless lioness whose cubs have been taken away from her.
“He covered (his) friend, (veiling) his face like a bride,
circling around him like an eagle.
Like a lioness who is deprived of her cubs,
he kept turning about, this way and that.”
SBV tablet VIII, 59-62
The same simile is applied in the Iliad, comparing Achilles to a lion, who is grieving because a huntsman has taken his cubs.
“He laid his murderous hands upon the breast of his comrade,
groaning again and again as a bearded lion
when a man who was chasing deer
has robbed him of his cubs
in some dense forest…”
Il. XVIII, 317-320
As remarkable as the use of the same simile might seem, it has been pointed out that it is quite likely that the hero of an epic poem is compared to the fiercest predator in the wilderness, thus not necessarily indicating in this case dependencies between the texts. However, the death of their loved ones leaves both heroes utterly devastated. But at the same time marks a turning point for Gilgamesh and Achilles that sets in motion a chain of events, allowing them to become truly heroic figures, aside from heroic deeds on the battlefield or other supernatural feats of strength.
Driven by the desire to avenge his fallen companion, Achilles decides to put aside his anger towards Agamemnon, and he joins the battle again. With this, Achilles’ aristeia begins a seemingly endless carnage, in which Achilles cuts through the Trojan army and defeats Hektor.
Blinded by his anger and sadness, he mutilates Hektor’s body and drags him behind his chariot to the Greek camp (Il. XX-XXII). During his aristeia, Achilles resembles in his fury and grief increasingly a wild beast. This is emphasized by the extensive use of similes comparing him to terrifying natural disasters and wild animals. (Il. XX, 490-499; XXI, 12-16; XXI 251-253; XXII 139-143; XXII, 188-193).
The death of Enkidu, on the other hand, makes Gilgamesh realize that he himself is a mere mortal. Afraid of his mortality, Gilgamesh sets out on a quest to find eternal life. He leaves the city of Uruk to look for Uta-napishti, the only human to whom the gods ever granted immortality and who is believed to reside at the end of the world. Gilgamesh leaves the “civilized” world represented by the city and its cultural achievements, to enter the “uncivilized” world of the wild steppe and the distant mountain regions, where the laws of men do not apply.
Over the course of his journey to the end of the world, Gilgamesh — like Achilles in his aristeia — leaves his human existence behind and becomes “uncivilized” in his desperate search for eternal life, as he roams the wilderness hungry and afraid, clad in the skins of lions (SBV tablet IX and X).
Both heroes are pushed by the death of their loved ones into a situation of crisis. While their responses might differ — Achilles answers with violence and rage, Gilgamesh is terrified and lost — the outcome is the same. Both heroes alienate themselves from the human world and are more and more caught in a web of anger, violence, and fear in their attempts to cope with their losses.
Even though the central theme of both epics is different — the Epic of Gilgamesh is mainly concerned with the question of death and immortality, whereas the Iliad deals primarily with the mēnis (divine wrath/ rage) of Achilles — from a more abstract point of view, both epics deal with two (mortal) heroic figures challenging the divine order of things: Gilgamesh wants to become immortal, Achilles is causing unspeakable suffering amongst the Greeks and the Trojans alike.
After his violent excess, Achilles returns with the corpse of Hektor to the Greek camp and buries Patroklos. Still grieving, Achilles continues to abuse Hektor’s body, dragging him one day after the other around the tomb of Patroklos. On one of the following nights, the old Trojan king, Priam, makes his way secretly to Achilles’ tent to beg for the body of his son. Moved by the old man’s request and reminded of his own father, Achilles agrees to return Hektor’s corpse (Il. XXIV). With this, Achilles’ struggle comes to an end, remarkably not through an act of violence but through an act of love and compassion. He is no longer driven by his rage and sadness but has become a man who could let go of his anger and grief and find peace by forgiving his enemy.
At the end of the world, Gilgamesh finally finds the wise Uta-napishti. After learning about Gilgamesh’s desire to become immortal, Uta-napishti tells him the story of how he was granted eternal life by the gods because he had survived the great flood.
However, he advises Gilgamesh that he should not seek immortality, for it is an exhausting and futile endeavor that can never be completed. To prove his point, Uta-napishti asks Gilgamesh to stay awake for seven nights and seven days. As Gilgamesh immediately falls asleep, he understands that his quest for immortality is a hopeless undertaking, and he decides to return to Uruk.
Before Gilgamesh leaves, Uta-napishti tells him of a plant that can be found on the bottom of the sea and can make an old man young again. Gilgamesh finds the plant, but in a moment of negligence, a serpent steals the plant. When he finally comes back home to Uruk and beholds the city lying in front of him, it seems somehow that he has found new hope as he proudly praises the mighty walls, temples, and orchards of Uruk. This can be interpreted as Gilgamesh finding comfort in the powerful and presumably everlasting city of Uruk and accepting his fate as king of this great city (SBV tablet XI).
In both epics, the heroes become truly heroic figures not through the accomplishment of some sort of supernatural deed but rather through acting human and accepting their place in the world. Both heroes realize the futility of their striving for immortality and endless revenge, respectively. Gilgamesh simply returns home and accepts his mortality and role as a king, and Achilles shows love and compassion towards his enemy, thus triumphing over his rage and grief.
In that sense, the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Iliad have very similar messages for the reader, exemplified through the development of their main characters. In the end, even the mighty heroes, Achilles and Gilgamesh, have to accept their fate as human beings. Gilgamesh cannot escape death, and Achilles cannot rage on forever because, after all, they are humans, not gods.
Ultimately, both heroes struggle with reconciling their divine nature with their mortal selves. Challenging what it means to be human, they are questioning the limits of their human existence, but, in the end, they are reminded of their mortal exitance and constraints. In that sense, the two epics are cautionary tales about the hubris of men, what it means to be human, and where our limits lie. This gives the two epics the universal quality that makes them worth reading even thousands of years later.
From East to West, From Gilgamesh to Achilles
Besides the similarities presented above, a great number of additional parallels between other Homeric Epics and the Epic of Gilgamesh can be found. Further, it has been stated convincingly by Walter Burkert that the Ancient Near East has massively influenced the development of Greek cultural traditions. This has led to a near consensus that the Mesopotamian Gilgamesh tradition has in some way inspired the poet ascribed with the creation of the Homeric Epics. However, the question of how this exchange might have taken place exactly is still vividly debated.
In general, two conceivable routes of transmission have been identified. First, Greek poets might have learned about Gilgamesh via the Hittite empire. This is supported by the finding of an Akkadian version and Hittite and Hurrian translations of the epic in Hattuša, the capital of the Hittite empire. Second, stories of Gilgamesh could have reached Greece and the Ionian coast via the Levante, Cyprus, and the Greek islands in the Aegean Sea. Archaeological evidence suggests extensive trade relations between Greece and the Eastern Mediterranean region from around 1.600 BCE onwards.
Therefore, it seems plausible that apart from pottery, raw materials, and other commodities, certain literary themes, motifs, and text passages might have traveled from East to West as well. As stated by Andrew George, Ancient Near Eastern literary traditions often re-used already existing motifs and basic themes to create new stories or adapt already existing ones. These story patterns might have been imported to Greece or encountered and consequently adapted and woven into their own heroic tales and tragic stories by traveling Greek-speaking poets, thus explaining the similarities between Achilles and Gilgamesh.