The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the most remarkable writings of the Babylonian ancient literature. Its main theme is the condition of man on earth as a mortal being. There are two very important myths incorporated in the epic: one is the quest for immortality and story of the flood, related to Gilgamesh by its very survivor, Utanapishtim. In the context of the symbolic meanings of the text, the relationship between the two friends, Gilgamesh and Enkidu is very important. First of all, their friendship seems to be an epitome for human relationships and brotherhood: Gilgamesh and Enkidu are at the same time friends, brothers, comrades in their heroic feats, and almost lovers in the feelings they have for each other. When Enkidu dies as the gods will it, Gilgamesh, who at first seems to accept his friend’s death as part of the normal course of mankind, becomes very dejected and starts on a journey to find immortality. The sudden preoccupation that Gilgamesh has for his own fate and for the fate of mankind in general when he sees the death of his best friend means that, for him, the relationship with Enkidu is actually a part of his initiation. Enkidu is thus more than a brother and a friend for Gilgamesh; he is an actual mirror for him, a second self and Gilgamesh sees his own fate as a human being in him.
Thus, in the first place, the relationship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu represents a very special and complete connection between two people. The two friends love each other with a deep brotherly love, which often has sexual undertones as well. When Gilgamesh’s mother interprets his dreams that foresee the coming of Enkidu, the two already appear to be united by a strong bond that seems to be a peak of human friendship: “There will come to you a mighty man, a comrade who saves his friend—“(I.249) All the other events in the story point to the unusual powerful relationship between the two. However, it is obvious that their relation means more than just human friendship and love. There are many important indications of the other meaning of their relationship. First of all, Enkidu was sent to Gilgamesh by the gods so as he might have a companion, an equal in strength and heroism. This fact already hints that that Enkidu is more like a second self for Gilgamesh rather than a mere companion, as the gods have created someone who is as similar as possible to him: “How the youth resembles Gilgamesh–/tall in stature, towering up to the battlements over the wall…”(II. 46-47) Also, for Enkidu himself Gilgamesh is a more than a friend since he seeks for a friend precisely when he “becomes aware of himself”, that is when he becomes conscious of his status as a human being and leaves the wilderness and the company of the animals: “Becoming aware of himself, he sought a friend.”(I. 194) Thus, for both friends the relationship between them is, in a way, a mirror for their own selves and for their own humanity.
Also, Gilgamesh’s dreams about the arrival of Enkidu are very significant: he dreams about him as a meteorite and as an axe, the first symbol being clearly related to the idea of destiny: “…and some kind of meteorite(?) of Anu fell next to me./ I tried to lift it but it was too mighty for me,/ I tried to turn it over but I could not budge it.”(I. 230) Thus, Enkidu seems to arrive as a part of Gilgamesh’s destiny. The sexual undertones of the relationship between the two are also very important. Gilgamesh dreams about Enkidu as if he were his wife and not merely his friend: “I loved it and embraced it as a wife./ I laid it down at your feet,/ and you made it compete with me.”(I. 237-238) Also, Gilgamesh and Enkidu meet and confront each other in a symbolic situation: Gilgamesh participates in a wedding and wants to go into the bride’s marital chamber before the husband, but Enkidu confronts him and eventually defeats him. In fact, Enkidu is sent into the world precisely as a companion for Gilgamesh and a means of stopping him from his sexual adventures with the women in Uruk. Thus, the husband and wife union that seems to unite the two men, indicates that they are together in much more than friendly relationship. They are in fact one and the same being, as the husband and wife are supposed to be for each other. The relationship between them is complete, that is, they are friends, brothers, comrades and lovers at the same time.
The journey of initiation that Gilgamesh and Enkidu make to kill the giant Humbaba that guards the Cedar Forest is also very significant. The two friends go together to confront death and to gain immortality through fame: “It is I who will establish fame for eternity!”(II. 246) Gilgamesh is the one who prompts Enkidu into taking this journey since the latter is afraid of death: “Now you are afraid of death–/what has become of your bold strength!”(II. 233) Thus, the two go together in a journey in the attempt to conquer death and achieve eternal fame. Enkidu saves Gilgamesh when the giant tries to delude the latter and to convince him to let him live. Nevertheless, the gods will that Enkidu must die, and he indeed dies after a few days of illness. The extremely difficult separation between the two indicates that what it is indeed hard to accept about death for them is the fact that they can no longer be together: “O brother, dear brother, why are they absolving me instead of/ my brother)”/Then Enkidu said:) “So now must I become a ghost,/ to sit with the ghosts of the dead, to see my dear brother/ nevermore!”(VII. 14) The common lamentation of the two friends suggests that they find life meaningless if there are not together. What is even more relevant is the fact that, although Gilgamesh seems to accept the death of his friend at first and tries to console him by telling him of the honors he will bring to him after he dies, when this actually happens the hero seems to be awaken to the understanding of the human fate in general. His desperate quest for immortality is the best indication that Enkidu had been like a second self for him. It is clear that if he finds immortality he will not be joined with his friend again. Gilgamesh mourns desperately for his friend and make the whole city mourn for him also: “He will seat you in the seat of ease, the seat at his left,/ so that the princes of the world kiss your feet./ He will have the people of Uruk go into mourning and moaning over you…”(VII.131) The cries of pain that he utters for his friend and the honors he brings him, such as the gold monument that he erects for him all point to the real significance of the event: Enkidu had been much more than a friend to Gilgamesh, he has been almost a part of him: “Hear me, O Elders of Uruk, hear me, O men!/ I mourn for Enkidu, my friend,/ I shriek in anguish like a mourner.”(VIII.31-32) The wedding images persist even after Enkidu’s death, and Gilgamesh still thinks about him as if he had been his wife: “He covered his friend’s face like a bride,/ swooping down over him like an eagle/ and like a lioness deprived of her cubs/ he keeps pacing to and fro.”(VIII. 46) Thus, the outburst of pain that that Gilgamesh has is clearly justified by the strong relationship that unites them. However, his anxiety about his own death that follows, means that he regarded Enkidu as a mirror for himself, an alter ego and not just a friend. For Gilgamesh, Enkidu’s death is both an example of what is going to happen to himself, and a remainder of his own mortality. It is obvious that Gilgamesh’s desperate quest for eternal life comes after the realization that he is just like Enkidu and that means he is going to die as well in the same way: “I am going to die!–am I not like Enkidu?!(IX.2)
Thus, in The Epic of Gilgamesh, the relationship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu is at the same time an example of human friendship and communion, and a symbol of the fact that all human life has the same destiny. Enkidu is a mirror for Gilgamesh, and the pain at his death teaches him that he himself must die eventually.
Kovacs, M. G. tr. 1989. The Epic of Gilgamesh. Stanford: Stanford University Press.