Many legendary stories are told of heroes, ancient cultures, menacing gods, and strange worlds unlike anything we know of in todays modern world. We create fictional movies and fantasy books to entertain ourselves such as the popular fictional epics The Golden Compass or The Lord of the Rings. However, perhaps the most fundamental epics are those that are from history, legends that were very real in their time. 2 of these historical epics are Beowulf and Gilgamesh. Beowulf is a Nordic tale from northern Europe, dating back over 1,000 years. Gilgamesh on the other hand, is an ancient Babylonian legend from over 4,000 years ago. Both of these epics set the basic ideals of legendary quests, heroes and gods, all while maintaining their real life cultures and mindsets. Although both are old legends, the themes between them vary significantly. It is important to compare their societies, relationships with Gods and demons, and heroic ideals.
Both Beowulfs and Gilgameshs society were made up of independent cities with one king or ruler. All the people in the cities were united against other warring kingdoms and the dangerous natural world found outside the city walls. The natural world was inhabited by dangerous beasts and gods. In both stories, Gilgamesh and Beowulf set out to conquer threatening gods outside their city. Beowulf defeats Grendal, a monster who was constantly killing members of Heorot. Gilgamesh kills Humbaba, an evil spirit of nature far in the cedar woods. Another similarity was the revenge from the gods. In Beowulf, Grendals mother seeks to destroy Beowulf for killing her son Grendal. In Gilgamesh, the gods send the Bull from Heaven to punish the humans for killing Humbaba. Both characters go on dangerous journeys through water, mountains, and forests to defeat the evil gods and monsters.
Beowulf and Gilgamesh depict different beliefs in divinity or God. In Gilgamesh, there are sacrifices, festivals, dream interpretation, sex, and shamanic magic. Gilgamesh is guided by information from his mothers dream interpretations and by the protection that is beckoned from the gods. In Beowulf there is a kind of fate known as Wyrd. Beowulf says I am equipped to defeat Grendal, if Wyrd allows it. Wyrd was the energy that made all things happen the way they did, supporting that everything happened for a reason. The afterlife is not a major concern in Beowulf or Gilgamesh, but rather the things that are achieved in life. For instance, when Beowulf is dying he says that his heart is: restless and ripe for death the doom was immeasurably near. He is at peace with dying and realizes it is his ultimately his fate.
Another theme that is important to compare between Beowulf and Gilgamesh is their ideas on heroism and good deeds. In both stories the heroes defeat threatening monsters and gods for the protection of their people. They go on long quests through unknown danger to achieve great things. However, there are differences when it comes to the description of a hero in their differing societies. In Beowulf, a mans reputation was based off the heroic deeds of his father and ancestors, and on his successful quests during his lifetime. Beowulf was chosen to defeat Grendal because of his achievement in a long and difficult swimming race. After Beowulf defeats Grendal, Grendals mother, and the dragon he becomes famous for these accomplishments. When Beowulf dies, he asks for a monument with all his treasure to be erected so that people will remember him for his epic accomplishments. Many times in Beowulf, a minstrel sings songs of other great heroes accomplishments. On the other hand, Gilgamesh depicts a much different view on heroism and reputation. Gilgamesh is an omnipotent king only because of his immortality as a half-god half-human. He works his people very hard to build giant stone walls around the city. People in ancient Babylonia tended not to remember people for their deeds like in Beowulf, but rather who they were in the moment. Despite Gilgameshs friend Enkidus strength in defeating Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven, people forget his name soon after his death. Gilgamesh seeks to find immortality from a God, but later realizes that people wont always remember a hero for his good deeds. Beowulf and Gilgamesh receive respect as heroes temporarily, but are soon forgotten. Even though Beowulf had given his men so much treasure he had acquired, they failed to protect him from the dragon.
Beowulf and Gilgamesh depict 2 very different ancient worlds. They have different societies, relationships with Gods and fate, and view heroism in different ways. Both Beowulf and Gilgamesh did wonderful things for their society, and sought to be the best heroes they could. Although people respected them in their time, they were soon forgotten. Both epics support the idea that what you achieve for the world in life is most important, not your reputation. Beowulf and Gilgamesh sought immortality for their names, but realized that that is not what is truly important or realistic. The stories point rather to the idea that a person may not be renowned for whom they are in life, but that the accomplishments one makes in a lifetime are what is truly timeless and important in history. The positive things that are accomplished in history create the positive things that exist today. That is true immortality.