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The Problem of Friendship in The Epic of Gilgamesh

A characteristic feature of classic literature is its concentration on the eternal questions that always remain actual because they are rooted in the human nature. The Epic of Gilgamesh provides one of the most ancient literary considerations concerning the problems of friendship and inevitable death. Among the central motives of this epic is the contradictory essence of the main character, the Babylonian king Gilgamesh, who consists of the divine and the mortal parts, but who understands his own mortality only after his friend Enkidu’s death. Gilgamesh can not continue his life after Enkidu is dead because he both misses the best friend and is afraid of that he will experience the same destiny. Both the feelings of grief and fear make Gilgamesh weak, and, as a result, when his mortal part overcomes him, Gilgamesh loses his chance to become fully immortal. This example from classic literature allows to understand the mutually excluding connection between the divinity and friendship. It is obvious that mortal and immortal beings can not be friends. At the same time, the reason why Gilgamesh can not be divine is his friendship with Enkidu. If Gilgamesh is so worried about friendship, how is the role of being a God still a top priority?

By his nature, Gilgamesh belongs to both the world of mortal men and immortal gods because two-thirds of his body are those of an immortal being and one-third of it is that of a mortal man. Thus, his superiority over average people is indisputable: he speaks with gods, struggles against monsters, makes journeys to those lands where most of people have never been, and performs other feats of strength. At the same time, his human part of the body makes him mortal as other common humans. When his friend Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh seeks for Ut-napishtim, who knows the secret of the eternal life. For this reason, he walks through the lands where no person has never been. Besides, when he meets Ut-napishtim, he can not pass the tests because of the weaknesses of his partly mortal body. For example, Ut-napishtim says that those who do not sleep for six days and seven nights may become immortal, but Gilgamesh falls asleep. Gilgamesh also fails another test, and, as a result, he returns to his home to wait for his death.

To provide a correct interpretation of the issue of friendship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu, it is important to understand why Enkidu died, and what exactly caused his death. The needless destruction of life in earth repeats… the unnecessary slaying of Humbaba when Gilgamesh listens to the ill-judged advice of Enkidu. Enkidu helps Gilgamesh to kill the creature guarding the Cedar Forest and the Bull of Heaven. For those actions, gods punish Enkidu and kill him, while Gilgamesh remains alive. Consequently, it is clear that Gilgamesh is to blame for Enkidu’s death because he, as a superior being, did not stop Enkidu from helping him. Instead, Gilgamesh promoted Enkidu’s mistaken behavior. Such a finale of a hero’s and a mortal’s friendship and love is symptomatic, because heroes usually survive their friends due to their natural superiority. For example, Damrosch underlines similar parallels between some characters from the Bible, Homer’s work, and other classic literature works. Ziolkowski, in his turn, claims that love and friendship contradict to the hero’s way of life; thus, a hero has only two alternatives: to forsake destiny and lose immortality or to be alone. Sedlacek, whose prism is more inclusive, implies that all people (not only heroes like Gilgamesh) always exist between these opposites, and while one leads an individual to the productive self-realization, the second one helps him or her to overcome loneliness. Sedlacek’s conclusion is quite positive and humane because he claims that people should seek for some another way of self-realization as the aforementioned one does not allow one to realize himself or herself in the field of interpersonal relationships.

In addition, Enkidu’s death is the illustration of Gilgamesh’s future. It is clear that Gilgamesh never perceived anyone as an equal person because he always was superior to other people. Besides, Enkidu, created by the gods to kill Gilgamesh, appears as the only person who can be equal to Gilgamesh. Thus, Endiku is similar to Gilgamesh’s twin; but, at the same time, they are quite different. Endiku has no divinity, but he is almost as powerful as Gilgamesh. Consequently, Enkidu is the only person whose death could be so important and impressive to Gilgamesh that the latter understands his own mortality through it. The reason of Enkidu’s appearance in the world illustrates the superiority of gods even over heroes. Gods created Enkidu as a warrior who could fight against Gilgamesh and defeat him, but then Gilgamesh became his friend, and Enkidu could not oppose him. All of the abovementioned issues demonstrate unequal friendship as a punishment sent by gods to those they can not or do not want to kill directly. Thus, it is evident that being someone’s twin can be almost the worst nightmare. Consequently, the features Enkidu and Gilgamesh have in common (their superiority over others) as well as their differences (Gilgamesh’s superiority over Enkidu) are the two factors that paradoxically transform their friendship and lead to Enkidu’s death.

The problem in friendship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu is in Gilgamesh’s superiority that determines the natural inequality between them. Divinity and friendship with the people with evident superiority exclude each other because friendship presupposes equality between friends and the ties that limit each of the friends. Besides, immortal and powerful gods can not be limited by a mortal individual, and, in the same way, a person who is superior to a friend should choose between superiority and friendship. For example, many outstanding people, such as artists, composers, writers, etc., can not find equal friends and, at the same time, avoid relationships with unequal people. As a result, they tend to stay alone. Thus, even though Gilgamesh cares about friendship, his immortality and destiny are still his top priorities.

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