Several times this column has briefly mentioned what is often called the world’s first novel, The Epic of Gilgamesh, and this month I’ll tell the story about the friendship of these two studs.
The ancient Sumerians and Akkadians created several versions, undoubtedly based on even earlier traditions. Their account of a great flood is thought to be the source of the tale of Noah in the Bible. The story of Gilgamesh was related in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and appears today in many translations and retellings, the best of which may be Gilgamesh by Stephen Mitchell.
One early scene taught me about friendship with the power of spiritual myth. I’ll explain, but first the ancient tale.
King Gilgamesh brings the arts of civilization to the city of Uruk, whose people, at first grateful, then pray for relief from his braggadocio and insistence on deflowering maidens on their wedding night. To challenge the arrogance of Gilgamesh, who thinks he has no equal, the gods create Enkidu, half-man, half–beast, in the fields. He is “tamed” by a sacred prostitute. He follows her to the city where he determines to challenge Gilgamesh.
As Mitchell summarizes, “The battle is as silly as a schoolyard fight, yet there is something beautiful about its energy [with> a deeply erotic element.”
Gilgamesh’s mother had told her son he would meet a mighty and beautiful hero whom he would take into his arms and embrace the way a man caresses his wife.
But Gilgamesh is outraged by the challenge. The two men wrestle to the point of mutual exhaustion — and respect. The opponents are able to say to each other, “I know who you are” in the most intimate way. They become the very best of friends.
After one of their adventures, a goddess seeks to seduce Gilgamesh. When he spurns her, she makes Enkidu sick. Gilgamesh, full of grief, seeing the death of the man he loves as himself, laments in a wail so powerful that it echoes through the millennia to us today.
Finally he realizes that he, too, may die, and seeks the secret of immortality from him who survived the Flood. Braving incomparable dangers, Gilgamesh follows the instructions to obtain a plant which restores youth. Before he can eat it, a serpent swallows it.
Now understanding that even he, like others, cannot escape death, he returns to Uruk, resolved to live each remaining moment fully, compassionately. Immortality can be achieved only in doing good for others.
I came to understood this story, or at least part of it, because of a transcendent experience when I was in theological school. As president of the student association, I welcomed the incoming students, one of whom was especially congenial. We quickly became pals. One evening somehow the conversation turned from our studies and rock music to how we felt about each other. We made a startling discovery: we were actually intensely competitive with each other. We heatedly enumerated our rivalry in many ways.
All of a sudden, without any forethought, we found ourselves on the floor, wrestling with each other . . . to the point of mutual exhaustion. We were thrown into a different state of consciousness. Our aggression was extinguished, our admiration heightened. When at last I was able to speak, the spontaneous word from my chest recognizing him was “Enkidu,” and he called me “Gilgamesh.” If you had entered the room and asked which of us was Vern and which Brad, neither one of us would have responded. In mythic awareness, we were Gilgamesh and Enkidu. We knew the myth from the inside.
Thirty-five years later, our letters to each other still begin with those names.
The Rev Vern Barnet, DMn., does consulting, teaching and writing for religious and educational organizations here. His Kansas City Star column appears each Wednesday. Vern can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org