The Mythological Roots of Friendships between Men

Especially on historic days is it important to keep in mind that no tree is without its roots, no mountain without its base, and no building without its foundation. In a brief concession to the genius temporis, we will consider five mythological friendships, between men and men and gods, which cleared the way for the path America continues down today. And though this article will focus on the relationships between men and men and gods, its lessons could just as easily be generalized to relationships between other genders, regardless of their constituent parts. The point of this article, and friendship, has been said best by Aristotle:

“After what we have said, a discussion of friendship would naturally follow, since it is a virtue or implies virtue, and is besides most necessary with a view to living. For without friends no one would choose to live, though he had all other goods; even rich men and those in possession of office and of dominating power are thought to need friends most of all; for what is the use of such prosperity without the opportunity of beneficence, which is exercised chiefly and in its most laudable form towards friends? Or how can prosperity be guarded and preserved without friends? The greater it is, the more exposed is it to risk. And in poverty and in other misfortunes men think friends are the only refuge. It helps the young, too, to keep from error; it aids older people by ministering to their needs and supplementing the activities that are failing from weakness; those in the prime of life it stimulates to noble actions-‘two going together’-for with friends men are more able both to think and to act. ” (Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics BK VIII 1155a 1-8)

We will begin the day’s article with the deep and close bond between Enkidu and Gilgamesh from Ancient Sumeria’s Epic of Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh was himself a man who was two-thirds divine and one-third human–so powerful and strong that he required no sleep at night and was granted the divine right of primae noctis. No natural man could tame the appetites of Gilgamesh–so the Sumerian gods (Aruru in particular) created him a “second self, a man who equals his strength and courage, a man who equals his stormy heart.” (Gilgamesh, Book/Plate I, P. 73, Mitchell tr.). Their relationship was like none before–two peerless and divine men–who learned the ways of the earth, men, and themselves through their relationship with each other.

Even their manner of becoming acquainted had a physical and almost animal basis: “…they grappled each other, limbs intertwined, each huge body straining to break free from the other’s embrace. Finally, Gilgamesh threw the wild man and with his right knee pinned him to the ground. His anger left him. He turned away. The contest was over…they embraced and kissed. They held hands like brothers. They walked side by side and became true friends.” Through fighting each other they came to know each other in a way only they two could know. For any wrestler or grappler, this is a truth well-known–only in physical combat, does one learn another and how he relates to him fully. The two men, as best-friends, would go on to kill Humbaba, a forest-giant, and the Bull of Heaven after Gilgamesh scorned the Love Goddess Ishtar. And only through Enkidu dying did Gilgamesh learn the limits of mortality and the destiny which all men, even semi-divine men, must face. Truly, their friendship was one that led to a deeper understanding of each other, themselves, and the human condition–which, as Aristotle suggests above, are a few of the major benefits of friendship.

The next major friendship hails from a closer mythological tradition–Archaic Greece, or smiling Hellas: the ultimate warrior Achilleus and his noble, and older friend, Patroklos. We find the fullest account of the two friends in Homer’ Iliad, where no force was strong enough to bend the “Hades-like” will of Achilleus except for love of his friend and companion, Patroklos. Though Aeschylus is his play Myrmidons has a cruder portrayal of the relationship between the two, one learns in Homer’s Iliad that the two grew up together. Achilleus was always the superior, and that upon the two leaving for Troy Patroklos’ father, Menoitios, advised him always to counsel Achilleus, his superior in strength and rank, and to temper his vicious emotions as only an older and more temperate friend could. Does not this relationship resonate with every reader?

During the Iliad, as Achilleus sat out sullen and grieving for his own lost honor, Patroklos implored him to return to battle–to help their friends. Finally, while crying, Patroklos demanded that he be allowed to wear the armor of Achilleus and go fight in Achilleus’ stead. Achilleus granted his wish, and Patroklos, man that he was, pushed the Trojans back from the ships to their walls and was only stopped by the hand of Apollo, the spear of Euphorbos, and the final and finishing blow of Hektor. Patroklos, though, left the earth with a death-speech as powerful, manly, and ominous as has ever been captured in words:

“Now is your time for big words, Hektor. Yours is the victory given by Kronos’ son, Zeus, and Apollo, who have subdued me easily, since they themselves stripped the arms from my shoulders. Even though twenty such as you had come in against me, they would all have been broken beneath my spear, and have perished. No, deadly destiny, with the son of Leto, has killed me, and of men it was Euphorbos; you are only my third slayer. And put away in your heart this other thing I tell you. You yourself are not one who shall live long, but now already death and powerful destiny are standing beside you, to go down under the hands of Aiakos’ great son, Achilleus.” (Homer’s Iliad Bk XVI 844-854)

To die in such a bold and manly way is the ideal of many men. And to have one’s death be the catalyst which brings the single greatest human killing-force to have ever existed back into the battle (Achilleus had sacked 23 cities previously) both gave great meaning to Patroklos’ death and brought Achilleus back, in a way, to his humanity. Only through being stricken in such a personal way, losing his closest companion, does Achilleus re-enter the war, kill Hektor, and live-out his destiny as strongest and most glorious fighter ever to have lived. Without Patroklos, the “noble actions” which one friend is spurred on to without the other might well have been replaced by an account of Achilleus’ sullen lyre-playing, or by no account at all.

Two other major accounts of the great love shared between a mortal and immortal man are those of Zeus and Ganymede, who was so comely that Zeus, risking the hatred of his wife, Hera, took Ganymede from his royal home in Troy up to Olympos to serve forever as his cup-bearer in the place of Hera’s daughter, Hebe, Youth. A second, even more archetypal story, is that of Hyacinth and Apollo, which has become essentially synonymous with, and is generally considered the first instance of male to male love.

Both Apollo and the West Wind, Zephyros, loved Hyacinth, but as things tend to go, Hyacinth chose Apollo, the great Olympian. So, in revenge, one day while Hyacinth and Apollo were throwing the discus together, Zephyros blew the discus Apollo threw back towards Hyacinth and took his sweet life. Thus, the hyacinth plant. Though the story seems more indicative of the pitfalls of relationships between gods and men–just as Ganymede’s illustrates the potential benefits, one wonders whether Hyacinth would not have happily given up the years of his life that he did for the brief days, months (years?) which he spent in the company of a god, his friend and love.*

Next there is the example of Roman amor pius between youthful Euryalus and the hunter Nisus, whose “minds and hearts were one,” says Virgil (Aeneid Bk IX 239-240, Mandelbaum tr.). These two men were both refugees from fallen Troy, and in the absence of ruling Aeneas, they, confident in the nobility of their pursuit and the strength of their arms, set out from the wall and fortified position of Latium into the night to kill Rutulians/Latins, their enemies.

The two men, along with several other Trojans, set out on a night-raid modeled after the one which Diomedes and Odysseus more successfully carried out in Book IX of Homer’s Iliad. But Euryalus, in his youthful folly, dawns the shining helmet of Messapus, which betrays him by “flashing back moonlight across the shades of gleaming night,” (Ibid Bk IX 496-497), and Volcens, captain of the enemy Rutulians, captures “thrashing but hopeless” Euryalus.

Nisus, in horror, discovers that his closest companion is gone and from the shadows loosens arrows which fell Tagus and Sulmo. Volcens, enraged, exclaims the following ultimatum to the darkness: “yet until we find him, you shall pay…the penalties of both with your warm blood.” (Ibid Bk IX 563-564), and at this Volcens stabs Euryalus dead as Nisus watches and cries out. In response, stricken and single-minded, Nisus rushes from the shadows and through the crowd of Rutulians “seeking only Volcens, only Volcens can be the man he wants. The enemy crowd him; on every side, their ranks would drive him back, but Nisus presses on unchecked, whirling his lightning sword until he plunged it full into the Latin’s howling mouth, and, dying, took away his foeman’s life. Then, pierced, he cast himself upon his lifeless friend; there, at last, he found his rest in death.” (Ibid IX 582-590) Out of love for his noble and slain friend, Nisus gave up his own life to avenge him. Regardless of one’s particular views on justice, one cannot help but admit that tragic and beautiful sentiment of Nisus. Perhaps a certain justice requires listening to one’s heart in the moment rather than accepting a more stoic and considered self restraint?

To give one’s life in response to the death and in the service of a friend seems at least noble-minded and itself a rather heroic way to die, and it is in the deaths and lives of the men above that one sees justification, explanation, and the foundations of the friendships and relationships one sees today: “together, those in the prime of life [friendship] stimulates to noble actions,” and I will add to a pursuit of the good and a recognition of the beautiful. Such sentiments appear to be the foundations of the relationships above, and in so being, these relationships appear to partake of the good.

*One may find the Ganymede and Hyacinth stories from Ovid’s Metamorphoses Bk X here in full.