The Virtues of Friendship
Despite the passage of time, core values have prevailed as timeless and defining characteristics of human beings. Among them, friendship plays a pivotal part in the development of a person, making it stand out as one of the most valued. Friendship and its transformative role are strongly manifested in The Epic of Gilgamesh through the friendship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu, and in The Iliad through the friendship between Achilles and Patroclus. Friendship teaches Gilgamesh and Achilles to become mature human beings who will not only benefit from their own self-development but also restrain their pride in order to empathically act out of consideration for others. Their experiences in friendship also help us to learn that humans should be responsible for their decisions instead of being overly reliant on the divine’s support.
Friendship teaches human beings to subdue their ego and become more mature, evident in the transformative effect of Enkidu on Gilgamesh. Before the death of Enkidu, readers are surprised at how warlike and audacious Gilgamesh is in his willingness to get involved in unnecessary battles and provoke hostility. He is eager to confront Huwawa, a monster that made the Cedar Forest inaccessible, but did not pose any direct threat to his people. Despite Enkidu’s warning that the beast was unbeatable, Gilgamesh was ready to risk his life against it as long as “[his] fame will be secure” (page 17). Gilgamesh’s recklessness is also illustrated in how he treated the dead body of the Bull of Heaven. While Ishtar and the temple prostitutes were mourning over the death of the Bull, Gilgamesh was celebrating his victory by mistreating its corpse, “cut[ting] off the horns” and hanging them “in the chamber as a trophy” (page 35). This insensitive behavior must have escalated the fury of the gods and further illuminates Gilgamesh’s arrogance. However, Gilgamesh, after the death of Enkidu, has changed for the better. Far from a daring and reckless king who easily accepts mortality in return for reputation, Gilgamesh becomes eager and persistent in the quest of immortality. Judging by how he pleads with the Scorpion Dragon Being to let him enter the tunnel to Utnapishtim’s mountain (page 50, 51), Gilgamesh adjusts himself to be a more composed and patient person who calmly overcomes difficulties. This act is the evidence for the transformation in Gilgamesh’s personality, triggered by Enkidu’s death, which makes Gilgamesh realize that he must die, too. The realization drives Gilgamesh to be self-controlled, mature, and appreciative of life.
In a similar way to Gilgamesh, Achilles also perfectly exemplifies the salutary effect of a friend’s loss. Throughout the Iliad, Achilles emerges as a warrior who is full of himself. Ever since Agamemnon hurt Achilles’ pride by demanding Briseis from him, nobody has been able to convince him to fight. Achilles flatly refuses to return to the war no matter how much Odysseus, Great Ajax and Phoenix beg him to and no matter how imminent the defeat of the Achaean troops is (page 177, 178). His ego is so big that once it is wounded, it prompts Achilles to disregard anything, including the lives of his comrades. However, as soon as the news of Patroclus’ death reaches him, Achilles immediately drops his pride to rejoin the battle and take revenge. He agrees to reconcile with Agamemnon and swallows his pride to lead the Achaean army (page 358). Moreover, although opting for the glorious life of a warrior means that he would die young, he accepts his mortality, claiming, “then I too will lie down in death. But now to win glory” (page 358). Patroclus’ death not only teaches Achilles to swallow his stubborn pride but also empowers him to confront his fate and become the great warrior as he is predestined to. Apparently, the anguish caused by the loss of one’s friend unleashes power within an individual. For Gilgamesh and Achilles, loss catalyzes their maturity and extraordinary endeavors.
Friendship arouses compassion in humans, stimulating them to think and act for the wider community. Before the emergence of Enkidu, Gilgamesh is portrayed as a tyrannical and callous king. He sexually exploits young females regardless of whether they are his warriors’ wives or the noble’s daughters; he also builds the city’s greatest constructions at the expense of his citizens and unjustifiably involves his warriors in bloody battles (page 4). This oppression triggers public outcry in the city of Uruk. However, the journey to find immortality, which is inspired by the death of Enkidu, has totally changed his kingship. The journey turns out to be in vain as he realizes mortality is inevitable to human beings. Nevertheless, based on his pride in the accomplishments and magnificence of Uruk (page 81, 82), it is evident that the journey has enlightened Gilgamesh about the fact that culture and civilization can be immortal. His transformative realization would most likely inspire him to invest in his city and its people. Additionally, the loss of his soul mate might help Gilgamesh understand how excruciating it is to lose someone special and the quest for eternal life might teach Gilgamesh that any other individual also values their life as he does. Aware of this truth, he is most likely to depart from his dictatorial and brutal kingship to be a true shepherd devoted to the well-being of his community.
While the changes in Achilles’ attitudes and personality do not speak to a geographical community, they illustrate his relationship with the grand community of humanity itself. As much as it ignites heroism in Achilles, the death of Patroclus also offers Achilles a chance to step back and be more empathetic towards others. In the Iliad, Achilles is mostly driven by rage and bloodlust. For example, the moment Agamemnon asks Achilles to surrender Briseis, Achilles is so infuriated that he could have given his commander a deadly blow without Athena’s intervention (page 230). Furthermore, in the revenge for Patroclus, he channels his indignation into the massacre of Trojan soldiers (page 403) and eventually the fatal stab through Hector’s throat (page 432). Achilles even let the other Greeks “stab their spears into [Hector], smirking”, “pierced the tendons above the heels and cinched them with leather things” and “[let] Hector’s head drag” from his chariot (page 435). These actions speak volumes about Achilles’ mercilessness and make readers think that any compromise from this ruthless man is out of the question. However, surprisingly, Achilles gives in at Priam’s plea for his son’s body. Achilles “rose from his chair and lifted the old man by his hand, pitying his white hair and beard” (page 483). For the very first time in the Iliad, Achilles expresses sympathy, and more importantly, not for the father of his sworn enemy but for a fellow human being who has lost someone special. He finds himself in Priam’s mourning over his son, for Achilles himself is also in deep sorrow at his soul mate’s death. This pang of empathy for another’s loss of his family member is so great that it melts Achilles’ iron heart and lets him forgo his hostility. He finally agrees to give Hector’s body back and even allows a ceasefire for Hector’s mourning and burial (page 485, 488). This detail reveals the key role Patroclus’ death plays in transforming Achilles into a humane and compassionate person.
Experiences in friendship also teach humans to be independent of the god’s help and be responsible for their own actions. Shamash, the god of the sun, is an immense source of divine support for Gilgamesh and Enkidu throughout the epic. As Gilgamesh is petrified by Huwawa’s power and says his desperate prayer to Shamash, Shamash creates thirteen storms to annihilate Huwawa, making it easy for Gilgamesh to slay the monster (page 27). Gilgamesh and Enkidu face punishment from the gods for killing Huwawa and the Bull of Heaven, again, Shamash tries to defend them; nevertheless, for this time, the other gods stand their ground and Shamash’s effort comes to naught for this time, leading to the death of Enkidu (page 37). This account gives Gilgamesh in particular and humankind in general a salutary lesson: gods can offer a person tremendous help in some cases, but they are not there to excuse him for every sin he commits or walk him through every step of his life; each individual has to be in charge of his own destiny, considering and being responsible for his choices.
Another lesson about humanity’s relationship to the divine is drawn from the friendship between Achilles and Patroclus. Once insulted by Agamemnon, Achilles is furious and immediately withdraws from the Achaean army. Achilles even takes advantage of his mother’s connection with Zeus, the king of the gods, to turn the war against the Achaeans (page 13). In this short-sighted and immature behavior, Achilles simply wants to vent his anger and satisfy his selfish ego without contemplating the consequences. With the Greeks losing the battle as Zeus carries out Achilles’ wish, Patroclus, who is deeply concerned for his fellow Achaeans, joins the war and loses his life (page 306, 331). In other words, Achilles’ rash decision and misuse of divine support has backfired on him and inadvertently caused the death of his soul mate. This detail aims to get an important message across to humankind: a person should always be mindful of his decisions before reaching out for the god’s help, for abusing this source of support can lead to his suffering.
In conclusion, the dynamics between the principle characters of The Iliad and The Epic of Gilgamesh are outlined under the theme of friendship. Thanks to friendship, Gilgamesh and Achilles has transformed themselves through self-betterment towards maturity and through care for others, with Gilgamesh being a true king of his Uruk community and Achilles embracing the community of humanity and compassion. to become mature human beings who will not only benefit from their own self-development but also restrain their pride in order to empathically act out of consideration for others. Also, hidden in their stories is a powerful message about human’s independence and mindfulness of divine intervention. Set in a historical context of the Antiquity, The Epic of Gilgamesh and The Iliad still resonate well with today, offering countless generations of readers profound insights into human core values and fundamental issues.
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