For as long as we have existed, humans have always been stronger together. Back when we were only hunter-gatherers, warriors would band together to take down large and dangerous animals. Even in today’s relatively safe world, people still come together to form communities, such as church groups or football fan clubs. Humans need community. They need to be with people with whom they share common qualities. This desire has been shown in stories and art found throughout much humankind’s short existence, from Neanderthal cave paintings to classic epics such as the Iliad and the Odyssey.
The more qualities that are shared among a particular community, the closer that community will seem to bond. One particularly community that has been a prevalent part of every human culture is a warrior class. Many of the famous epics of ancient past feature heroes who heir from this social tier, and even today you hear stories of soldiers bonding to become brothers in every aspect but blood. Yet even within these warrior fraternities, where it is honorable to die in battle, heroes are still in a sense separated from their colleagues. Though their shield-brothers might have their backs in the midst of combat, often the complex social obligations to the warrior class could cause deep rifts in the bonds between allies. Though a great epic hero may be part of a fraternity of warriors, true friendship, compassion, and even love were hard to come by due to troubling social obligations and differing interpretations of the warrior code. However, that does not mean heroes were alone, for even though they had few friendships, those that they did have drastically affected their growth in becoming heroic.
In the four epics I have read this past semester, every one of them featured a warrior-king who belonged to a larger fraternity of warriors. Though this warrior culture wasn’t as touched on in the Epic of Gilgamesh, it was extensively talked about in the Mahabharata, the Odyssey, and in Beowulf. There are several features in common with each epic’s presentation of the warrior’s code. It was honorable to die in battle; in fact, it was expected of a warrior to die that way. Living long enough to die of old age was often seen as shameful, and this caused bitterness to arise in those who did live. Warriors were also obligated to come to the aide of their allies, even with conflicts that they had no need to be part of. This is seen in the Iliad when King Agamemnon recruits a large number of Greek cities to fight with him as he sieges Troy. Though Odysseus did not want to go fight for him, he was obligated because he was part of the Greek warrior culture. This sets up the Odyssey, which occurs almost immediately after the destruction of Troy.
Why did heroes such as Odysseus agree to leave their families for a battle that was not their own, even if they were ‘obligated’? At that time, it was “Greek popular mortality” to help friends and harm enemies (Ruprecht 35). Though this phrase represents a very simplistic and naïve view, it was seen as the basis for pre-Odyssey heroes, such as Achilles or Ajax, who were warriors down to the very cells that made up their bodies. They were trained to not run from fights and to live a glorious, albeit short, life. On the other hand, there are the post-Odyssey heroes, most importantly Odysseus, who is at his heart a survivor. Achilles and Odysseus are both famous heroes, yet each one is fundamentally different. Achilles believes in the attainment of glory and honor, and will do anything to attain that, even die. Odysseus, however, will do what is necessary to survive. He has a family and he wants to go to home to peace. Yet even when he does arrive home, he shows abstinence, for the suitors were there and he would not have survived if he had immediately revealed himself. Achilles, on the other hand, would have just rampaged in blindly.
In his paper “Homeric Wisdom and Heroic Friendship,” literary critic Louis A. Ruprecht, Jr. explores the concepts of philia, eros, and agape, or friendship, passion, and love, within the various heroic works of Homer, Sophocles, and Aristotle. He argues that the concept of friendship was very interesting in ancient Greek culture: “Philia may have been defined a complex set of social obligations and responsibilities, employing social alliances in such highly factional contexts as we see in the Iliad” (Ruprecht 32). Therefore, what the Greeks knew as friendship differs drastically from our own modern interpretation. In Greek society, it was common for city-states to ostracize citizens who could be an issue. It was important for a Greek to know many people, because very often the line between friend and enemy could fluctuate.
A great example of this would be Sophocles’ tragedy Ajax. The play takes place after the death of Achilles by Paris, when Odysseus and Ajax attempt to recover his body. Both laid claims to invincible armor because of their efforts for retrieval, so they held a competition. However, both came out equally, so it went to a Greek council to decide who should receive it. Odysseus, being more naturally eloquent and cunning, convinced the council that he should get the armor. Ajax, however, believes he should have received the armor due to his strength and how much he had helped the Greeks. He then plans to murder the Greek council for their ‘betrayal,’ but is placed under a spell by Athena that makes him confuse a herd of sheep for the council and he slaughters and tortures them. During this time, Odysseus comes upon Ajax doing this, and pities him. Once Ajax is released from the spell, he is ashamed for being tricked by Athena and afraid of being mocked by the other Greeks. In the end, he takes his own life but pleads that his body not be discovered by an ‘enemy’ and left unburied. The last act of the play is a debate over what to do with Ajax’s body. Many of the Greek leadership, such as Agamemnon, wish to leave the body unburied, while Ajax’s half-brother demands that he should be buried. Furthermore, even though Odysseus was an enemy of Ajax, he believes Ajax should be buried. The council is persuaded, and Ajax is buried. As to why Odysseus decides to bury his enemy, examine the following conversation between Agamemnon and Odysseus:
Agamemnon: Do you, Odysseus, fight against me for him?
Odysseus: I do. I hated when it was right to hate.
Agamemnon: Now he is dead, should you not trample on him?
Odysseus: Avoid, Atrides, triumphs that are not right.
Agamemnon: Proper respect is not easy for a king.
Odysseus: But easy to heed the good advice of friends.
Agamemnon: The good man should listen and be persuaded in the end.
Odysseus: Enough. You conquer when you are won by friends.
Agamemnon: Recall the sort of man you give grace to!
Odysseus: My enemy, yes, but he was noble.
Agamemnon: Do you intend to pity a corpse you hate?
Odysseus: Virtue moves me more than enmity.
Agamemnon: Changeable men like you are the strangest among mortal.
Odysseus: Many hearts move between friendship and enmity.
Agamemnon: Do you approve such changeable friends?
Odysseus: I cannot befriend a rigid spirit.
So Ajax is buried because Odysseus, of all the people, considered him a friend. Unfortunately, even in spirit Ajax continued to despise Odysseus, as seen in the Odyssey when Odysseus visits the land of the dead and beckons to speak with Ajax, who refuses to due to his immense hatred (Homer XI. 617-649).
Are there any relationships in ancient Greek culture that are similar to our definition of friendship? According to Ruprecht, a family bond could be seen in this light. As was mentioned in Ajax, Ajax wished that his corpse would be found by his half-brother so it could be trusted to be properly buried. This means that Ajax, at this point, only trusted those who were his family. This family bond could also be found in the Iliad.
A major driving force in the Iliad is the tension between Achilles and Agamemnon when Agamemnon takes the woman who Achilles captured as a slave for himself. Achilles feels betrayed and dishonored because his ‘war pillage’ was unfairly taken from him, so he decides to quit fighting the war. Eventually there comes a point where the Greeks need Achilles to help them otherwise they might lose the battle, so a council of three Greeks was sent to persuade him to come back: Odysseus, Phoenix, and Ajax. Odysseus attempts to appeal to his sense of obligation (this is one of the many times where obligation to the warrior fraternity is called into a question), yet he fails to persuade Achilles because Achilles has no wish to talk. Next Phoenix attempts to appeal to Achilles’ sense of friendship and mentions, once again, an obligation. Phoenix tells Achilles that he owes him because he took care of him as a child. This is pretty much an “I’m your friend, so help me defeat my enemies” argument. Unfortunately, Achilles turns Phoenix’s plea on its head by telling Phoenix to be his friend by being the “enemy of my enemy,” therefore making Phoenix choose between Achilles and Agamemnon. Next Ajax tries, and he is more successful than the prior two, even though he argues the same pleas. Achilles agrees to stay at Troy, and will return to help the Greeks only if Hector of Troy was able to catch the Greeks’ ships on fire. Why was Ajax able to get the most success out of Achilles though he argued the same points of the others? As was mentioned earlier, Ajax is a warrior very similar to Achilles. He has a very simple definition of heroism and has a heart of a warrior rather than a survivor. Another possible reason may be that Ajax and Achilles are cousins. Achilles’s father, Peleus, is brothers with Telamon, Ajax’s father (Ruprecht 36). Achilles might be moved by Ajax most of all because they are family, and in his eyes that might mean they are actually friends.
If philia, or friendship, in Greek stories represents “moral, social obligations,” then are there other words the Greeks used to denote a relationship that could be similar to a modern friendship? Though Ruprecht mainly focused on the concept of philia, he did also examine the concepts of eros and agape, or passion and love. He specifically defined eros as “two people in relation to one another and in comparative isolation from the rest of the world,” (Ruprecht 51). In other words, eros is the raw, energetic passion between two individuals. The example Ruprecht used was that of Achilles and his companion Patroclus. However, I think a more fitting example would be the heroes Gilgamesh and Enkidu from the Epic of Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh was the Sumerian king of Uruk and was a great beast of a man. Though as king he had done a lot of marvelous things for the people of Uruk, he was also a tyrant and trampled people’s rights. He had no boundaries. In order to balance him out, the gods created Enkidu, a wild man who was like Gilgamesh’s double. Eventually Enkidu was tamed and taken to Uruk. In Uruk, he challenged Gilgamesh to a fight, and they fought to see who the stronger man was. In the end, Gilgamesh won, however, a friendship was formed between the two.
In fact, the bond that was formed between Gilgamesh and Enkidu was much more than a friendship, it was eros. As Stephen Mitchell explains in the introduction of his “version” of the Epic of Gilgamesh, “The poem comes just short of stating that the relationship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu is homosexual. But it’s clear that the homoerotic element in their bond is very strong” (Mitchell 23). The two become much more than brothers and do everything together. They would even hold hands as they traveled around the city of Uruk. Mitchell continued saying, “Both men come to feel their friendship as a kind of marriage, and each on could say, as David says of Jonathan [from the Bible, who exhibit an eros relationship very similar to Gilgamesh and Enkidu] ‘Thy love to me is wonderful, passing the love of women’” (Mitchell 24). Unfortunately, tragedy befell Gilgamesh and Enkidu, just as tragedy always seems to befall the most passionate. In retaliation for humiliating a goddess, Enkidu fell very ill and died. This death of Gilgamesh’s companion drove Gilgamesh to seek out immortality for he was now afraid of his own death. It was this journey in which Gilgamesh changed to become a true hero. Though he failed to find a way to live forever, he realized that his legacy was always going to be his city of Uruk, and he became a better king.
Gilgamesh’s relationship with Enkidu was largely eros, however, it also contained elements of agape: love. If philia was the social obligation to one’s community, and eros was the powerful, bestial passion between two individuals, then agape is the closest form of a modern interpretation of a friendship. How can something like love be the most similar to a friendship though? While Ruprecht argued that Ajax and Achilles may not have had any true friendships (aside from family), he did argue that Odysseus did have two genuine friends: Penelope and Athena, even though he mentions that according to Aristotle, to have a friendship you would need to be near that person and to be able to see them and feel them. Yet Odysseus didn’t see Penelope for twenty years, and his relationship for Athena is even more complex. In order to sustain such unique friendships, something special must be added to the recipe, and that is love.
During Odysseus’ ten year wanderings after leaving Troy, there are two occasions where he had sexual affairs. The first would be with Circe, and the second with Calypso. Though these affairs were quite passionate, he was generally much uninvolved with them. In his mind, he still loved Penelope, and he even turned down immortality to return to her. As Ruprecht points out, though Odysseus slept with Calypso, there was no friendship. Yet when he was shown in bed with Penelope, Ruprecht describes that “what Homer shows us here is an intimacy, precisely what a mortal can only rarely (and only with great circumspection) enjoy with an immortal. We see this couple in bed – talking” (Ruprecht 53). There is an intimacy that is required for love to occur. So what defines Odysseus’ and Penelope’s intimacy as agape rather than eros? After Odysseus kills all the suitors, he and Penelope talk. During this talk, they in fact test each other to see if they could trust each other after twenty years, and they both pass each other’s tests.
The reason Odysseus could never love Calypso or Circe is that intimacy is near impossible to achieve with an immortal. “One may only love what one might lose; intimacy is possible only in the context of finitude. To love seems to require the existence of secret spaces, hidden from each other” (Ruprecht 54). Most mortals will never be able to love an immortal, because immortals have no boundaries. They pry open and see all of our secret spaces. Reversely, this is why immortals are able to love mortals, because mortals are finite. We are only here for so long, and then we are gone. Immortals only have so long to experience a particular mortal. However, then how can Odysseus and Athena have an agape relationship? The difference is how Athena interacts with Odysseus. Looking back at the Iliad, there are a plethora of occasions where the gods interfere with a particular battle or hero. Achilles was always being affected by a god to be stronger and look grander. On the other hand, during Odysseus’ wanderings, how often does Athena interfere? She doesn’t interfere until he returns back to Ithaca. “Athena loves him [Odysseus], so she leaves him alone,” (Ruprecht 55). Even when she does help him, she will still often test his limits, and he always exceeds them. Both Penelope and Athena love Odysseus, and so they test his limits in order to help him exceed them by himself. Odysseus, in a way, is one of the truest heroes because much of his growth occurs because of himself, even with being incredibly favored by a goddess.
Throughout history, mankind has always needed community to survive. However, in order to grow we need friends. Examining epics across centuries, one can find examples where a friend was necessary for a warrior to become a hero. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest known text in the world, in order for Gilgamesh to become the ruler he needed to be, his eros relationship with Enkidu had to be severed. Traveling forward many centuries we come to the Iliad and Sophocles’ Ajax. Here we are given examples of warriors whose heroic growth is cut short partly because they lived high-octane lives, partly because of the social obligations regarded with philia, and partly because they lacked any true friendships. Finally, in the Odyssey, we are given what is likely the closest form of modern friendship, agape. Odysseus is able to grow because his two closest friends, his wife and a goddess, were able to test him to exceed his own limits. Yet, a friendship can’t survive based on just one of those. The concepts of philia, an obligation; eros, a physical dependence; and agape, an emotional compassion; are required for a true friendship to exist. Each unique friendship will have its own ratios of how much these concepts fit together, yet there will always be one constant thing: love. Yet in today’s society, the word love seems to only define sexual relationships. As Ruprecht pointed out, “We have turned ‘love’ into the shortest and least interesting of our monosyllables and drawn a sharp (too sharp?) distinction between it and all other deep attachments – like reverence, like friendship,” (Ruprecht 53). Any time you have a glorious friendship, love will always be a part of it.