In an epic and any novel the hero is trying to either protect their home, get home, or make a new home for themselves. Most of the time these three situations will include the use of walls or the building of walls, because of their significance. Walls are used as defense, in most texts and in the real world. When a person or hero is inside their own walls they feel secure, at home, and protected. In the classic epic like, The Epic of Gilgamesh and The Iliad, the use of walls is symbolically significant through actual walls, representations of walls, and the functionality of both kinds of walls in the epics.
The Epic of Gilgamesh, draws the reader to the hero, Gilgamesh, and his friend’s epic journey that they embark on. As said by Nicole Brisch of the University of Copenhagen, The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the oldest Mesopotamian epics found to this day and continues to facilitate debates (Brisch 275). The debates that the epic produces include what the symbolism of the walls in the epic mean, if anything at all. Walls come up in tablet one of the epic when the narrator speaks of how divine Gilgamesh is and how he built the walls himself. When the walls are introduced in the epic, they represent the journey that this hero has already been on and explains why he is the king and looked up to by the dwellers of the city.
With the description of the walls, symbolism comes in and shows that the walls are the protection of Uruk and shows how Gilgamesh used the walls to protect his people from harm. In tablet twelve, the same walls come up again. Gilgamesh shows off the walls, he built, to the boatman with pride. Although at this point in the epic Gilgamesh is weak and broken from losing the youthful flower to a snake and losing Enkidu, he shows pride in the walls and his accomplishment. The walls in The Epic of Gilgamesh are used functionally and symbolically.
The walls In the Epic of Gilgamesh are functional through the protection that they provide the city of Uruk. Whereas the walls are symbolic through Gilgamesh, showing his divine qualities and the true reason why he is was already a hero before his journey to the Forest of the Cedars. The city dwellers in Uruk knew before his journey with Enkidu that he was a true hero, but Gilgamesh was unable to see it. They considered him a hero because of the great length that he went to in order to protect his community, through the building of the walls around Uruk.
The Iliad however, uses the functionality and symbolic uses of walls much more freely and frequently. In the beginning of The Iliad, the epic begins with Briseis being taken from Achilles, and then moves on to Agamemnon being influenced through the gods. During the influences of the gods, Zeus goes to Agamemnon and tells him that if he launches a full assault on the Trojan walls he could take the city. Although Zeus told Agamemnon those things under false pretenses, the walls are symbolically significant as protection and as the foundation of Troy. Zeus implies though his comment that if Agamemnon were to take the city walls that the city of Troy would ideally crumble, and Agamemnon knows that if the city walls were to crumble, that he would win the war without a doubt.
Later in the epic walls come up again when introducing Hector’s character. The protection of walls is also used again, when Andromache tells Hector that if he leaves he will return dead. While the war continued with Hector advancing daily, Patroclus begs Achilles to wear his armor to battle. According to James A. Francis, Achilles’ armor is one of the first examples of ekphrasis (Francis 8). I agree to what Francis has said about Achilles’ armor; I also think that Achilles’ armor is a metaphorical symbol for walls. Although his armor is not actual standing walls, Achilles’ armor acts as his own personal walls. Achilles’ armor was extraordinarily made by the god Hephaestus, and because of the maker of the armor, Achilles could not be harmed through his armor but only through its weak spots.
Achilles’ armor acts as his own walls, it is something that he feels safe in, and is something that protects him from others. Achilles does not have the faith in the walls that Hector does, so his armor easily became his substitute for real belief in walls. When the battle begins to turn, Hector and Achilles meet on the battlefield, where Achilles has the clear upper hand. When Hector took Achilles first set of armor, off of Patroclus’ dead body, he thought his wife to be wrong. Hector believed that after he obtained the magnificent armor set he would not be killed. He was sadly wrong because Achilles knew where the armor’s weak spots were and where exactly to strike Hector. Achilles spent ten years in his armor fighting, they were his walls that protected him for all of those years, and he had the upper hand for any situation if he had his armor. Hector had just obtained the armor set and did not know where the weak spots where, if it had any at all, or even where to try to defeat an exact replica.
Throughout The Iliad walls, whether functional or symbolic, are important in the epic journey of the heroes. Whether Hector or Achilles, the walls in this epic provided the audience with a sense of humanization. Hector thinks of his city walls as a place where no harm could occur, and a place of protection. Achilles however, does not believe in the city walls and realizes the possibility of their crumble. He does however use his armor as his protection from harm and shows the audience the reason for his confidence in war while wearing it.
This statue, from the DIA, shows a few of the aspects of visual rhetoric that are also seen in the text with the walls. One of the aspects of visual rhetoric that this statue portrays is the human body. This statue shows control, strength, and proportion, all things that the walls show in The Epic of Gilgamesh. These three characteristics are also seen in Achilles and Hector, from The Iliad. This statue is a warrior riding without his noble horse. The action is more prominent in this statue than the apparel, but both have function. The apparel of this statue shows that he is a warrior ready for battle, ready for a fight, and ready for a win. This statues facial expressions shows that he is very unaffected by the thought of a battle going wrong, and that he is not at all afriad. Another visual rhetoric aspect that this statue employs is message. The human body and message of this statue work hand in hand, and with that they become foils of each other. The message of this statue is heroism, this can easily be seen through his masculinity and facial expressions.
Much like Achilles, the bronze statuette of a rider, also wears armor that acts as his walls. Although the rider is missing his steed, the rider shows just as much nobleness and masculinity as a rider with a horse. The way that the human body and the rider’s armor function in this piece tell the entire story of the rider and his actions. His actions show that his armor acts in the same way that Achilles’ does. The rider’s armor are his walls, and those are the walls that protect him from the outside and any enemies that he came in contact with. The artist of statue is unknown, but it can be assumed that the artist is from the Greek era. Not only does it have the same ideals of walls that The Iliad does, it also shows the more humanistic and naturalistic ideas of the Greek.
The use of walls in epics can symbolize multiple things, and can be metaphorically symbolized by other things. If you take a look back to Sumerian time, like in The Epic of Gilgamesh, and the Greek polis era, The Iliad, there was a great difference in the wall construction and methodology they used. The ancient Sumerians took pride in the construction and sustainability of their walls. In the following figures the one on the right is an ancient Sumerian city, which stills stand today. As you can see the city walls are in the general shape of a square, so that the dwellers of the city had clear advantage of the surrounding area. The walls surrounding the city were built so that the protectors of the city could walk atop them guarding from any danger that could occur.
Ancient Sumerians also believed in the idea of doing something right the first time so it would last for however long they needed it. You can see this in the structural build of the walls. The walls were built with perfect fitting stones that they manipulated themselves, using other stones. The walls that the Sumerians built fit so perfectly that they had few gaps making them extremely sturdy and sustainable. Uruk, the city in The Epic of Gilgamesh, is a great example of the ideals that the Sumerians had. Uruk is one of the oldest known cities to be built and is impressively still standing today. Many ancient Sumerian cities are still standing today and most of the original walls still stand along with the rest of the city.
When comparing the Sumerian walls to those of ancient Greek poleis, the walls of Greek poleis are much different. The ancient Greeks built walls for their protection, but what they took pride in was their armies. When the ancient Greeks built walls around their poleis they were often built in a circular shape. The Greeks did not worry about having perfect fitting walls, they just wanted some stone in the way of an enemy army. When the walls were built for Greek poleis they were not fitted they were simply stacked on top of one another to build the walls height. The ancient Greeks used their walls as a stopping force for opposing armies, not as a lookout like the Sumerians. They instead used the acropolis inside the walls as their lookout point, in the case of any enemies.
Some ancient Greek poleis are still standing today along with their walls. The difference between the Greek polies and the Sumerian cities, is that the Greek polies are beginning to fall apart. Today some of the Greek polies are caving in and weathering badly. One example of how the Greek structures are weathering today are the cities of Troy and Athens, seen in the above figure. Troy is now referred to as a city of ruins, and Athens has been mostly rebuilt. One of the original remaining structures is the Parthenon, which does have some weathering damage that has caused some parts of the temple to crumble. The Greeks did have gaps in their walls from not fitting them perfectly, making them more susceptible to weather and things of that nature.
Although the Greek and the Sumerians have different ideas of the functionality of walls they agreed upon their protection. The Greek focused more on the functionality of the walls then their sustainability, while the Sumerians focused of sustainability and functionality. This idea can also be seen in the epics that were discussed earlier. The Epic of Gilgamesh shows how the functionality and the sustainability of the walls are both important. This is shown when Gilgamesh is showing off the walls to the boatman, because a few years earlier, in the beginning of the epic, it is told how he divinely built them. While in The Iliad, it is easily seen how only the functionalism is truly important to them. This can especially be seen through Achilles, and also when Agamemnon was contemplating attacking the walls of Troy.
Heroism and walls may not directly correlate, but in some way they do relate. Heroes are often strong in mind or physically, and very tough or durable. In the case of heroes interacting with walls, this can be seen throughout both The Epic of Gilgamesh and The Iliad. As previously stated Achilles, Hector, and Gilgamesh all interact with walls. The difference between these three heroes is how they interact with walls or symbolic walls. The differences between the three heroes and their way of acting towards walls, makes them much more relatable and human to an audience. This also allows for the audience to connect with the character on how they believe that the walls are important.
Walls do not make a hero but they do play a role in the life of a hero and their journey. Walls can be summed up in epics as a symbolic meaning of home, protection, and hope. They can also be seen functionally in epics and in real life. The idea of a wall being a place to feel safe, comes from the idea of home. Which is an idea that will always stay true to meaning and will always be seen in future novels, epics, and even in film.
James A. Francis. "Metal Maidens, Achilles' Shield, and Pandora: The Beginnings of
"Ekphrasis"." American Journal of Philology 130.1 (2009): 1-23.
Nicole Brisch. "Gilgamesh Among Us: Modern Encounters with the Ancient Epic by Theodore
Ziolkowski (review)." Classical World 107.2 (2014): 274-275.