“A slippery path is not feared by two people who help each other.”–The Epic of Gilgamesh, Tablet IV.
On our journey to understanding purpose and friendship, we reach back to one of the earliest civilizations for what is perhaps the oldest story known to us, The Epic of Gilgamesh. This heroic epic of ancient Mesopotamia concerns Gilgamesh who was king of Uruk circa 2700 BCE. While the tale is full of adventures with monsters, seductions, and angry Gods, the central concerns of the story are ones hauntingly familiar to us today such as loneliness, love, and loss. However by far the two dominant themes are friendship and human mortality.
The story goes like this: after the incredibly strong and handsome king, Gilgamesh, overworks his people building walls around Uruk, the gods punish him by creating a rival wild man of incredible strength, Enkidu, to confront and fight him. In their struggle, Gilgamesh prevails, Enkidu submits, and thereafter they become the closest and most devoted of friends. For the first time in their lives they conquer loneliness and experience true companionship. Together they challenge and kill the evil guardian of the Cedar Forest, Humbaba, but only after Enkidu quells Gilgamesh’s nightmares and Gilgamesh helps Enkidu overcome his cowardice. Enkidu is cursed by Humbaba, and after further adventures together, he dies a slow and horrific death with Gilgamesh in constant attendance. Gilgamesh constructs a gold statue to his memory and in his grief journeys alone on a futile quest to achieve immortality.1
The takeaway for us as to purpose and friendship are multiple. First Enkidu is created as Gilgamesh’s adversary, but instead becomes his close friend which suggests friendship is not contrived but good fortune. You can almost hear a maxim: “Always be open to friendship as even your current enemy may turn out being your best friend.” Second friendship is not superficial nor possible with everyone, but deep, singular, and a relationship of equals (in this case near equals). Loneliness may be a universal experience, but finding true companionship is often novel and unexpected. Third, close friends act as one and each for the other. This involves sensitivity to the fears and troubles of the friend, supporting and learning from each other, and perhaps most vitally helping the friend stay on a course of virtue and honor. Last friendship is perpetual – one purpose of friendship is to be there for each other no matter what until death and to remember and mourn them when they are gone.
Gilgamesh sums it up eloquently in his words to Enkidu: “Take my hand, my friend, we will go on together.”