Being considered the cradle of civilization, Mesopotamia has always been an interest for many historians due to it being the focal point for many historical figures and advancements. Written language, in the form of ancient cuneiform, was first developed in Mesopotamia and was used by scribes to write on tablets for various things such as transactions and even stories that give us some kind of idea of what Mesopotamian culture was like. The Epic of Gilgamesh from when it was rediscovered and reconstructed around the late nineteenth century, has been recognized by scholars and historians as one of the first comprehensive works of literature in the world. As the title implies, the epic focuses on the titular demigod king Gilgamesh, who is regarded as the first “hero” in fiction, and his encounters with outlandish creatures and gods throughout his adventures with his companion Enkidu. The relationship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu adds an interesting dynamic to the epic which is lacking in overall character development (understandable considering the time period it was written). At first, it may seem like a typical master-and-servant relationship, however, it is much deeper than that and reveals a lot about how masculinity and the ideal man were perceived in Mesopotamian culture. Since the epic presents not the reality but the ideals of the culture from which it comes, Gilgamesh and Enkidu are the embodiment of the values that this culture holds dear. A closer examination of the actions of Gilgamesh and Enkidu along with the latter’s death reveals that the bonds between men are equal, more akin to being brothers and that men should be strong and not be swayed by emotion.
Unlike today, strength meant a lot in ancient Mesopotamia since it was how men could place themselves on the social ladder. The prologue of the epic describes a great hero who cares for and protects his people, a warrior who “a man all could trust when he brought up the rear” (Tablet I, 3), however, this description is of a more mature Gilgamesh after the story when he has gone through his ordeals and is the exact opposite of what we see at the beginning of the epic. Instead of caring for and protecting his people, he abuses them and “harries all of the young men in Uruk… leaves no daughter at home with her mother… leaves no bride to her bridegroom” (Tablet I, 5). At first, Gilgamesh is a tyrannical ruler and much of this arrogant attitude stems from him being so “tall, magnificent, terrifying” (Tablet I, 4) with no man equal to his power. It was not until the people of Uruk complained to the gods that they decided to create Enkidu, who would act as Gilgamesh’s equal. Enkidu begins his life as a wild man in nature and his life was the opposite of Gilgamesh, who lived very lavishly. Though Enkidu is very powerful, he doesn’t abuse his power the way Gilgamesh does but instead fights to protect others due to his chivalrous nature and takes up arms to fight for the oppressed people by traveling to Uruk where he loses to Gilgamesh. Their anger subsides and Enkidu pledges himself to Gilgamesh’s service and then “they kissed each other, sealing their friendship” (Tablet II, 14). Both of them are extremely strong, almost peerless; no match for anyone, but for the other. This brief conflict was meant to be a display of strength and both are in it for victory. This seems to imply that Mesopotamian men often used these encounters as a way to show off certain male attributes and to defend their honor. Gilgamesh’s power was being challenged and he showed his worth to everyone around him through violence. It’s satisfying to feel powerful and losing that feeling could’ve had social repercussions for Mesopotamian men. After so much time being unchallenged, Gilgamesh becomes overjoyed and even praises Enkidu by proclaiming “he is the strongest man in the country, like a rock from the sky” (Tablet II, 14). This praise demonstrates that Mesopotamian men respected each other through feats of strength and bonded over battles, which were common since city-states were constantly at war with each other and men could distinguish themselves in the battle to please their various war gods and earn the respect and admiration of others, however, this wasn’t always achieved alone.
For the first time in his life, Gilgamesh found someone that he can call his equal in every regard and this is why he values Enkidu so much. Gilgamesh never had someone to connect or bond with due to his divinity and supposed flawlessness. Loneliness is a terrible feeling for everyone and for Gilgamesh to deal with this, he indulged in his lust and greed, it isn’t until Enkidu comes into his life that Gilgamesh has someone that he can care for. Before Gilgamesh can understand how to treat his people, he must learn how to relate to an individual. When Enkidu realized that he has no family and begins crying, “the two men held each other… Gilgamesh thought, and then said to Enkidu: ‘I know what we can do, Enkidu. Humbaba… Let’s kill him’” (Tablet II, 15). By offering to kill Humbaba and embracing him, Gilgamesh is trying to cheer up Enkidu by pursuing glory, which can be seen as an example of brotherly affection, and gets his mother, the goddess Ninsun, to adopt him into their family. The two often demonstrate their intimacy by kissing, embracing, and holding hands. Gilgamesh, being divine, has his feet kissed by his people out of respect, but he doesn’t do anything like that for others until he befriends Enkidu, and the latter returning the same affection really demonstrates how equally they value and care for one another, even if they come from opposite backgrounds. The way that Gilgamesh and Enkidu alternately lose heart and encourage each other suggests that Mesopotamians believed that friendship is essential to a man’s success and it isn’t shameful to get help from your companions as shown when the pair managed to kill Humbaba together, which was a feat Gilgamesh would not have been able to accomplish by himself.
At first, Enkidu is pretty much just Gilgamesh’s sidekick, but through their journey to kill Humbaba, he becomes Gilgamesh’s soul mate, equal, and even his conscience. He advises Gilgamesh on his actions and helps him with the affairs of Uruk to slowly point him in the direction of being the perfect leader. Gilgamesh, in turn, valued and loved Enkidu so much to the point that when the latter passed away he “unsealed his treasury… These he provided for his friend, along with many minas of gold… ivory” (Tablet VII, 52). To make sure that Enkidu would not be lonely in his journey to the underworld, Gilgamesh made many offerings to various deities and requested “may he/she welcome my friend and walk at his side” (Tablet VIII, 52). His love and adoration for Enkidu were so intense that he wanted his corpse to be laid in his same bed as a “place of honor” (Tablet VIII, 52). Clearly, the focus of Gilgamesh's mourning for Enkidu demonstrates how much respect and care Mesopotamians had for their family in death. As a Mesopotamian ritual, deceased family members were buried near the home as a way to stay close and to demonstrate the strong bond they shared.