Study Guide

The Epic of Gilgamesh Friendship

By Sinleqqiunninni

Friendship

Chapter 1, Tablet 1

You loved him and embraced him as a wife;
and it is he who will repeatedly save you.
Your dream is good and propitious! (1.249-254)

Whoa, there, Ninsun: here, Gilgamesh's mother puts a positive spin on her son's weird dream about embracing a massive meteorite, which is cool, but what about that whole bit about how Gilgamesh "loved him and embraced him as a wife"? Doesn't that sound a bit closer than just being friends? Do you think the relationship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu shades just a bit into something more romantic? If so, you wouldn't be the first reader of Gilgamesh to get this impression.

Becoming aware of himself, he sought a friend. (1.194-204)

Enkidu's desire for a friend is an important stage in his transition from the wild-man life to ordinary human life. After all, can it really be coincidence that Enkidu experiences this desire right after becoming "aware of himself"—something that we normally think of only humans as doing?

Chapter 2, Tablet 2

Gilgamesh bent his knees, with his other foot on the ground,
his anger abated and he turned his chest away.
[…]
They kissed each other and became friends. (2.103-109, 129)

Fight over. As you may recall, Enkidu's plan has been to give Gilgamesh a royal thumping and show him who's boss. As it turns out, Gilgamesh is the one who administers the royal thumping (which makes sense, him being a king and all) … but Enkidu doesn't seem to mind. In fact, the two of them end up becoming the best of friends. Is it just a coincidence that they fight before becoming friends? Or could it be that the close fight creates a baseline feeling of respect between them, and thus makes their friendship possible?

Chapter 3, Tablet 3

"Let Enkidu go ahead of you;
he knows the road to the Cedar Forest,
he has seen fighting, has experienced battle.
Enkidu will protect the friend, will keep the comrade safe." (3.1-9)

With these words, the elders of Uruk show that friendship isn't all fun and games: there's a practical side to it as well. Two people together can accomplish much more than one person alone. But, as the last line of this passage hints, maybe if those two people are friends, it's the best of both worlds, and ensures that they will be looking out for each other. Think about that next time you send a Facebook friend request.

Enkidu

Enkidu spoke to Gilgamesh saying:
"My friend, turn back! ...
The road …" (3.242-248)

Here, Enkidu is really taking the friendship-as-protecting thing seriously, by telling Gilgamesh that he shouldn't go on the quest at all. The tablet unfortunately breaks off at this point, but we can probably catch the general drift of what Enkidu is about to say: the quest is going to be extremely dangerous, and pointless. But here's the question: is Enkidu acting like a true friend here in telling Gilgamesh to turn back? Or should Enkidu just keep his mouth shut and go along on Gilgamesh's quest?

Chapter 4, Tablet 4
Gilgamesh

"'One alone cannot …'

'A slippery path is not feared by two people who help each other.'
'Twice three times …'
'A three-ply rope cannot be cut.'
'The mighty lion—two cubs can roll him over.'" (Old Babylonian Supplement at 4.239)

In other words, two heads are better than one. It sounds like the Babylonians had clichés of their own, because these words, all spoken by Gilgamesh to Enkidu, echo the proverbs spoken by the elders of Uruk in Tablet 3, before they set out on their quest. These proverbs emphasize the practical side of friendship: when people work together, they can accomplish things that individuals cannot.

Take my hand, my friend, we will go on together.
Your heart should burn to do battle
—pay no heed to death, do not lose heart! (4.273-283)

Bring out the tissues again, because this is basically the, "I can't carry it for you, Mr. Frodo, but I can carry you" of ancient Mesopotamia.

Chapter 7, Tablet 7
Shamash

"Now Gilgamesh is your beloved brother-friend!
He will have you lie on a grand couch,
and will have you lie in the seat of ease, the seat at his left,
so that the princes of the world kiss your feet.
He will have the people of Uruk go into mourning and moaning over you,
and fill the happy people with woe over you.
And after you he will let his body bear a filthy mat of hair,
will don the skin of a lion and roam the wilderness." (7.124-137)

Here, Shamash is telling Enkidu to wash out his filthy mouth and stop cursing the trapper and Shamhat because they were the ones who brought him out of the wilderness—thus unleashing the chain of events that ultimately led to him being struck by the gods with a mysterious illness. But what do you think of Shamash's argument? Is having even just one great friendship a good trade-off for dying young?

Chapter 10, Tablet 10
Gilgamesh

"Should my heart not be wretched, my features not haggard?
Should there not be sadness deep within me? …

My friend, whom I love deeply, who went through every hardship with me,
Enkidu, whom I love deeply, who went through every hardship with me,
the fate of mankind has overtaken him." (10.47-48, 52-63)

This is Gilgamesh to Siduri, the underworld innkeeper in the underworld who has just locked Gilgamesh out of her tavern because he looks a total mess. But Gilgamesh defends himself: his friend has just died, so should he really look any different? It's a form of respect to mourn deeply for your friends.

"How can I stay silent, how can I be still?
My friend whom I love has turned to clay;
Enkidu, my friend whom I love, has turned to clay!
Am I not like him? Will I lie down never to get up again?" (10.233-242)

Here, Gilgamesh focuses on how bad losing Enkidu makes him feel about himself. Seeing his friend die makes Gilgamesh all too aware that he, himself, will one day die. Doesn't this raise some questions about friendship? Like, if Gilgamesh is truly devoted to Enkidu, why is he thinking so much about himself? Or is there always an element of selfishness in friendship—because we hang out with people who make us feel good about ourselves?

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