Archetypes In The Epic Of Gilgamesh

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Archetypes in literature serve as basic models or ideal examples of the human thoughts, feelings, and reactions which underlie and determine a vast variety of human experiences (Kluger, 1991, p. 16).  Both, the stories of Gilgamesh and Joseph, are pregnant with rich archetypal imagery.  They allow us perspective on the universal human condition, while also providing personally applicable insight and exploration.

GilgameshThrough Gilgamesh’s adventures, timeless themes of heroism, providence, love, friendship, and immortality are presented in a story of character growth.  “Gilgamesh possesses a potential for greatness that is realized through his friendship with Enkidu and his quests for renown and immortality” (Chastain, 2004, pg. 286). His journey begins in Uruk, where he reigns as a selfish and tyrannical king but ultimately, his journey brings him home to Uruk as a wiser, nobler king.

He is an archetype of flawed heroism – undeniably courageous, but also undeniably imperfect.  Using his famed fighting skills, he exploits the men of his own country and takes their brides at whim.  The people of Uruk become so outraged at this indecency that they implore the gods for help.Anu and the goddess Arurur answer their pleas in the form of a man named Enkidu, who is equipped to rival the strength of Gilgamesh.  Ironically, what the people and gods fashion for Gilgamesh’s demise, becomes his salvation.

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  The gods are, in fact, successful in checking the king’s unbecoming behavior, but in an unexpected means.  This is archetypal providence at work in the divine.Epics 3Endiku doesn’t rise up and defeat the mighty warrior-king in one fatal swoop, instead he ends up befriending him.  Their first meeting typifies their relationship:  Gilgamesh intends to enter a bride’s chamber to defile her, Endiku stands at the doorway to refuse his entrance.  They wrestle fiercely, equally matched.  Endiku manages to derail the king’s unseemly intentions and win his affection in the process.Through their relationship, love typifies itself as a powerful motivator for change.  Both characters evolve and mature through their shared friendship.  Endiku transitions from a wild man into a noble man, who enjoys royalty and battles bravely.  Once, he socialized only with animals, but he soon developed into a devoted man willing to lay his life down for a fellow human being.  Gilgamesh slows his lustful pursuit of women and realizes authentic love through friendship.  His self-centeredness dissipates as he grieves heartily seven days and seven nights over the loss of his dear friend.The untimely demise of Enkidu causes him to face his own vulnerability.  He remembers the horrors of the Underworld as relayed by his friend and suddenly experiences the archetypical fear of death, which leads him to the archetypical quest for immortality.  His bereavement turns into a determined expedition for eternal life.  After ordering the erection of a statue dedicated to his companion, his mission began.After several failed attempts, the story’s hero is unable to beat death; it is inevitable and approaching.  Ultimately, he must learn to content himself with the legacy he’ll leave rather than the escape of an afterlife.  However, all is not lost.  Although, he does not return to Uruk with everlasting life for himself and his people, he does return as a much improved despot.  Each journey he undertook shaped and evolved his character.Epic 4JosephJoseph’s story, according to the biblical Old Testament narrative, is powerfully inspiring.  It is the record of one man’s ascension from pit to palace.  He overcomes obstacles, injustice and hardship with grace and honor.  Ultimately, every wrong is compensated with wildly unexpected success and wealth.Through it all, is the unmistakable mark of divine providence.  There is a “behind-the-scenes presence of One whose Hand guides every event, small or large, from beginning to end” (Westermann, 1996, pg. viii).  This sense of orchestration and heavenly aid lends insight to a very personally involved Deity.  Another striking element in Joseph’s story is the relentless scope of his morality.  He endures temptation after temptation with holy resolve.  Although he suffers harm for the purity of his integrity, he remains loyal to decency nonetheless.Not only was Joseph moral, apparently, he was likeable.  He won the favor of many throughout his lifetime, beginning with his parents.  He was the highly favored son of his father, Jacob, and this bias was not veiled from his brothers.  Their jealousy escalated so remarkably that they sought to kill him.  They threw him into a pit while callously eating their lunch and plotting his murder.  However, through the intervention of an older brother, Reuben, they opted instead to sell him to traveling merchants.Through this cruel betrayal, Joseph landed in Egypt as slave to a wealthy official named Potiphar.  He excelled in his environment and advanced quickly.  “Joseph found favor in his eyes and became his attendant. Potiphar put him in charge of his household, Epics 5and he entrusted to his care everything he owned” (Genesis 39:4, New International Version).  From the moment he was put in charge, God blessed Potiphar’s household for Joseph’s sake.In the midst of favor and excellence, injustice reentered the scene in the form of Potiphar’s wife.  Steadfast in his ethical obligation, Joseph refused the wife’s sexual allurement.  This infuriated the jilted seductress and caused her to lash out vindictively.  She wrongfully accused Joseph of the very act he refused to commit.  Once again, his life changed immediately in the heat of another’s scorn.  He was promptly imprisoned.“But while Joseph was there in the prison, the LORD was with him; He showed him kindness and granted him favor in the eyes of the prison warden” (Genesis 37:19-20).  Whether in a pit or in a prison, Joseph remained tethered to the bigger element of destiny.  Providence used every scenario to nurture his latent aptitude in preparation for his eventual position of elevated authority.  As in the preceding circumstances, Joseph proved himself trustworthy and was given a position of leadership within the prison.  He was faithful and successful in all under his care.  God blessed his labor.Joseph didn’t remain in the king’s dungeon long before divine purpose began drawing him out of injustice a second time.  Trusting God, he interprets the dream of a prisoner under his care.  He predicts that the man will soon be freed to return to the King’s palace as chief cupbearer.  In return for such good news, Joseph asks that the cupbearer remember him and advocate his plight before the king.In gross negligence, the cupbearer forgets Joseph.  It seems that he is the victim of inequality yet once again but two years later, Joseph is remembered.  At the cupbearer’s insistence, Joseph is summoned to interpret the King’s dream.  Giving God credit for any potential achievement, Joseph begins interpretation – a feat which no other man in Pharaoh’s court could manage.  The king was so impressed by Joseph’s answer and demeanor that he immediately bestowed the young thirty-year-old with royal authority:Since God has made all this known to you, there is no one so discerning and wise as you.  You shall be in charge of my palace, and all my people are to submit to your orders. Only with respect to the throne will I be greater than you.  (Genesis 41:39-40)The cycle of discrimination, favor and blessing had repeated itself once again.The two constants in Joseph’s many surprising adventures were the hand of God and tenacious morality.  Even at the pinnacle of his success and power, Joseph chose goodness over vengeful reciprication.  A dire famine in the region set the stage for a climatic final confrontation between Joseph and the brothers who betrayed him so long ago.They came to him in Egypt, unknowingly, pleading for rations.  Joseph’s position of command allowed him many possible reactions –anger, retaliation, intimidation- but he chose forgiveness and generosity.  He reveals himself to his brothers through heavy tears and warm embraces.  Their fateful reunion was complete in perfect absolution.Joseph’s journey from the pit to the palace, taught him dependence on God, the trustworthy, omniscient One.  He remained dedicated to hope and faith and was not disappointed.  In the end, he was able to see purpose in every trial and deific direction in every season.  He was able to say:  “But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good” (Genesis 50:20, King James Version). 

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Archetypes In The Epic Of Gilgamesh
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