Friendship and Two Epics

On the archetypal friendships of Gilgamesh & Enkidu and Achilles & Patroclus.

The opening of Gilgamesh states that it is an old story “About a man who loved and lost a friend to death.” This statement also holds true for the Iliad; friendship and its loss represent both a motivating force and an important source for a happy life in both epics. Both Achilles and Gilgamesh lose their respective friends, Patroclus and Enkidu, through actions that they themselves precipitated. And once the heroes lose their soul mates they are victims of despair which cannot be alleviated by other distractions, even women.

Homer begins the Iliad disclosing his subject: “The wrath of Achilles is my theme” which causes so much suffering and death for the Achaeans. Achilles’ pride and indignation at the actions of Agamemnon will not allow him to join his fellow Argives on the battlefield. Agamemnon breaks Achilles’ trust by taking what is rightfully his, Brisies. Achilles, one who obviously holds friendship, and its concomitant values like trust, reacts by withdrawing his support of the Achaean forces, saying, in effect, I’ll show you, like a wounded child. Achilles does, in fact, show Agamemnon his obdurate immaturity by allowing the slaughtering of the Argive army and his own friend Patroclus.

Gilgamesh, a victim of his own pride and inexorable sense to conquer, instigates Enkidu’s demise at the hands of the Bull of Heaven. Even after the many warnings and apprehension of Enkidu, Gilgamesh stubbornly faces Humbaba, incurs the anger of Ishtar, and, in effect, kills Enkidu.

Both Gilgamesh and Achilles show despair at the death of their soul mates and both must vent their fury and frustration. Gilgamesh vows to find an end to death while Achilles becomes Death’s scythe. Gilgamesh has the answer to death in his hand, but, like a fool, he looses this secret. Achilles, vowing to let the vultures and dogs feast on the corpse of Hector, also does not succeed. Yet, both heroes are transformed, enlightened.

Gilgamesh returns to Uruk after having “recognized his loss.” He is at peace with himself having realized that all must feel the hand of death, and realizes the cultural achievements of his society. Within these achievements Gilgamesh can find solace — even if it is just for a moment. Only the culture can truly grant immortality, and, in the case of Gilgamesh and Enkidu, it has.

The bloodthirsty and merciless Achilles wastes the Trojan forces, kills Hector, sacrifices Trojan men on the pyre of Patroclus, and wants the body of Hector to be the food for carrion feeders. His anguish caused by Patroclus’ death is like a spear in Achilles’ side, wounding him and those around him. Yet, Achilles agrees to ransom Hector to Priam — only somewhat compelled by Zeus. Achilles sees the distraught and suffering Priam and “they both broke down.” Achilles returns Hector to Priam and says to the old man, “You must endure and not be broken-hearted. Lamenting for your son will do no good at all.” Achilles then promises to waylay fighting until the Trojans have properly mourned for their dead champion. Atypical for Achilles throughout the Iliad, he finally shows compassion, not to the enemy, but to a fellow human being that has lost someone special. Perhaps Achilles’ own rational statement about lamentation doing no good made him realize that his own sorrow will not bring back Patroclus, and this, in turn, bring out Achilles’ humanity. Seemingly both Achilles and Gilgamesh learned how to be more human from their loses and subsequent trials.

“The Sin,” Franz von Stuck (1893)

Enkidu states, before his eminent death, “Because of her. She made me see / Things as a man, and a man sees death in things. That is what it is to be a man. You’ll know / When you have lost the strength to see / The way you once did.” Compare this to Thetis’ question to Achilles, “Is there no comfort in a woman’s arms — for you, who have so short a time to live and stand already in the shadow of Death and inexorable Destiny?” And Achilles’ statement to Priam, “We men are wretched things, and the gods, who have no cares themselves, have woven sorrow into the very pattern of our lives.” Women and death seem linked in both epics. Enkidu directly blames a woman for showing him death, while Achilles can find no succor in a woman’s touch and sees only sorrow in life. Perhaps Achilles cannot find comfort with a woman because he indirectly blames a woman for his sorrow. It was the abduction of Helen that led to the Argives’ attack of Troy, and it was Agamemnon’s ceasing of Brisies that caused Achilles refusal to fight. Perhaps, then, both Helen and Brisies were the cause of Patroclus’ death in Achilles’ mind.

This might not be as far-fetched as it sounds if the way in which women are treated throughout the Iliad is briefly examined. Firstly, women are viewed as chattel. Agamemnon must return Chyseis to her father and decides that he wants Achilles’ woman, Brisies. The debate is not over the fact that Brisies is a woman with a rational mind and passions, but whether or not Agamemnon has the right as the leader of the Greeks to take her as he might take a sword or a three-legged cauldron. Agamemnon has taken Achilles’ love toy away because his was taken away — seem childish? Yet this is no child’s game.

Helen is the next woman who is very similar to Brisies. She was taken from her husband, Menelaus, by Paris, and married by him in Troy. Helen has nothing to say about this? The reader is never presented with the true thoughts of Helen — what does she feel toward Menelaus? She considers herself a “shameless creature” made for the whims of man. What happens to Helen or Brisies (the former will make an appearance in the Odyssey)? More important is the death of Hector — the wrath of Achilles.

Women are brainless oxen, it seems, in the world of the Greeks, but a little more in Gilgamesh’s world; yet both bring pain and death to the manly heroes, presenting an archetype that has haunted western thought since.

Originally published on October 20, 1997.