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The Epic of Gilgamesh

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What aspects of friendship are seen in The Epic of Gilgamesh and how do we see them reflected in Sumerian culture?

The epic of Gilgamesh is a story about the importance of friendship. The friendship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu echoes across from the ancient world to the modern reader in a way that is very tangible to the modern reader. Gilgamesh was a terrible ruler because he had no equal. Even when he went on adventures, he had to use his people as pawns. When Enkidu came into his life, they became friends because they were equals and neither could defeat each other. This gave Gilgamesh new purpose in life, and changed the lives of both him and his people for the better. Then, fate took Enkidu away from Gilgamesh by making him die.

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The friendship between Enkidu and Gilgamesh inThe Epic of Gilgamesh reveals much about the role of friendship in Sumerian society: a true friend is a most precious commodity and is even more precious than the relationship between a man and a woman. The problem Gilgamesh faces at the beginning...

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The friendship between Enkidu and Gilgamesh in The Epic of Gilgamesh reveals much about the role of friendship in Sumerian society: a true friend is a most precious commodity and is even more precious than the relationship between a man and a woman. The problem Gilgamesh faces at the beginning of the story is that he has no equal. There is no one to share his energy, strength, and adventures with who can keep up with him, so he is a terrible ruler, working and adventuring his people to death. Then he meets Enkidu, who is his physical equal. Like in many great stories, they become friends by first fighting and then, when neither can win, they become friends. This friendship becomes all encompassing for Gilgamesh. I am not so sure the friendship changes his moral values; he still wants adventures and glory, but he no longer has to use his people as pawns, because he has a partner in Gilgamesh. This fact makes life much easier for the People of Uruk.

The friendship with Enkidu is important enough to Gilgamesh that he refuses the marriage proposal of Ishtar as being less valuable than his relationship with Enkidu. This refusal brings on the tragic events that lead to Enkidu's death. Gilgamesh's radical actions to try and save Enkidu and his extreme mourning at Enkidu's death also portray the importance of this friendship.

As Gilgamesh goes on his quest to find immortality, he does make other friends, most notably Urshanabi the boatman. Now Ushanabi is not the equal of Gilgamesh and their friendship is not the same, but it is important because it is now that Gilgamesh really realizes that men who are not his equal have value too. This lesser friendship truly shows more moral growth in Gilgamesh than the great friendship with Enkidu.

Overall, the story shows the importance of friendship in Sumerian society and the friendship of Gilgamesh and Enkidu echos across from the ancient world to the modern reader in a way that is very tangible to the modern reader.

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From what is implied in the text, it could be said that Sumerian culture viewed friendship as a stabilizing, civilizing force. Before he meets Enkidu, Gilgamesh is a bully and a tyrant. Before Enkidu meets Gilgamesh, he is a lonely wild man alienated from his animal friends after being initiated into society by Shamat the sacred prostitute. After they meet, they become a powerful pair of warriors, going on adventures and sharing in their mutual joy. They are open with each other emotionally. They are so close that when Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh takes it as though a part of himself has died along with his friend.

Notice how Enkidu does not become friends with Shamat or, indeed, any other woman. In fact, the relations between men and women in Gilgamesh are never that of friendship: women are either maternal figures or sexual partners. So this suggests that in Sumerian culture, friendship is a homosocial phenomenon which never bridges gender.

(In fact, the bond between Enkidu and Gilgamesh is often close to romantic love; as Ninsun observes, Gilgamesh loves Enkidu like a man loves his wife. However, whether their love is romantic or if this is a case of a modern audience imposing its own cultural ideas onto an older one is up for debate.)

In summary, Sumerian friendship as illustrated by The Epic of Gilgamesh is emotionally intense and open, to the point where a modern American audience might compare it to a marital union. Friendship also makes people nobler, inspiring the best parts of themselves.

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The friendship between Enkidu and Gilgamesh is central to the plot of the anonymous Sumerian poem The Epic of Gilgamesh. It does reveal many elements of Sumerian society.

The first characteristic of friendship in Gilgamesh is that it is homosocial. Men are friends with other men; their relationships with women are seen as primarily sexual. This exemplifies a society with strong gender role distinctions and clear demarcations between the occupations and social lives of men and women.

Next, Enkidu is provided as a friend for Gilgamesh by the gods to improve his moral nature. This suggests that friendship is seen as a moral and civilizing influence.

Another characteristic of friendship is that it has a great degree of emotional intensity. Gilgamesh's mourning for his friend is intense and public. This suggests that a level of emotional expressivity was common in ancient Sumer that would general not be accepted among modern American men.

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