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The Cord Not Easily Broken

A cord of three strands is not easily broken, the ancient proverb says. The proverb was recalled by the Preacher in Ecclesiastes; it was recalled nearly 2,000 years earlier in the oldest written story we have as a human race—The Epic of Gilgamesh. The proverb speaks of friendship. In both texts, it’s embedded amongst praise for two friends. “Two are better than one,” the Preacher writes, and then the proverb: “A cord of three strands is not easily broken.” “Two boats lashed together will never sink,” writes the author of Gilgamesh, and then the proverb: “A cord of three strands is not easily broken.” But if two friends, why three cords? What is the third cord?

* * *

Gilgamesh, King of Uruk, surpassed all kings. He was powerful, violent, a wild bull of a man. Yet Gilgamesh has “exceeded all bounds,” writes the epic’s author. He treated the city as his possession, doing as he pleased, taking what he desired, and trampling its citizens like a wild bull.

The people cried to the gods: “Should the shepherd be savaging his flock?” The gods heard the people. They created a match for Gilgamesh, a second self, a man to bring balance to Gilgamesh’s stormy heart. The gods took a pinch of clay and tossed it into the wilderness. They formed Enkidu—part man, part beast. Hair covered his body. He roamed the wilderness, ran with the gazelles, ate grass, and drank from rivers. “Let Enkidu balance Gilgamesh,” the gods said, “and Uruk will have peace.”

In time, Enkidu learned of Uruk’s king. He heard of Gilgamesh’s abuses, and his face paled with rage. He heard of Gilgamesh’s glory, and his heart stirred with desire—the longing for a true friend.

So Enkidu went to Uruk and found the king savaging his flock. Enraged, Enkidu challenged Gilgamesh. Enraged, Gilgamesh grabbed Enkidu. In fury, the two collided like wild bulls. Halls shook; doors splintered. Yet, in the violence, friendship blossomed. Rage ceased. Respect formed. They looked at each other and became true friends.

* * *

Time passed quickly. One day Gilgamesh said to Enkidu, “We must invade the Sacred Cedar Forest. We must fell trees tall enough to make whirlwinds as they fall. We must slay the fierce monster Humbaba who guards that forest of the gods.”

I will cut down the tree,

I will kill Humbaba,

I will make a lasting name for myself,

I will stamp my fame on men’s minds forever.

Enkidu was struck with grief. “Dear friend, a scream sticks in my throat. I knew that country when I roamed the wild. That forest is sacred, its entrance is forbidden, and the gods placed Humbaba there to terrify men.”

His breath spews fire. His teeth are like tusks. His voice booms like thunder. He hears all that rustles in the forest, and he wears a thousand nightmare faces. Who among men or gods could defeat him?

Gilgamesh’s response was cutting. “You speak like a coward!”

I will cut down the tree,

I will kill Humbaba,

I will make a lasting name for myself,

I will stamp my fame on men’s minds forever.

Once more Enkidu intervened: The Cedar Forest is sacred, its entrance is forbidden, and the gods placed Humbaba there to terrify men.

His breath spews fire. His teeth are like tusks. His voice booms like thunder. He hears all that rustles in the forest, and he wears a thousand nightmare faces. Who among men or gods could defeat him?

Once more Gilgamesh mocked his friend: “Are you still afraid of dying a hero’s death?”

I will cut down the tree,

I will kill Humbaba,

I will make a lasting name for myself,

I will stamp my fame on men’s minds forever.

“Enkidu listened gravely,” the author writes. “He stood silent there for a long time. At last, he nodded. Gilgamesh took his hand.”

Consider that powerful pause: What was Enkidu thinking? Certainly not about stamping his fame on men’s minds. Certainly not whether the adventure was wise. It must have been this: the welfare of his friend–something that had not yet come into Gilgamesh’s mind.

There is one piece of advice Gilgamesh did follow: the elders recommended that Enkidu walk in front. “Remember the ancient proverb,” they said, “If you walk in front, you protect your friend.” Gilgamesh happily agreed to this.

So they journeyed into the wild, with one chanting:

I will cut down the tree,

I will kill Humbaba,

I will make a lasting name for myself,

I will stamp my fame on men’s minds forever;

and with the other chanting:

I will walk in front,

I will protect my friend.

Two friends on an adventure, one in love with his fame and the other in love with his friend.

* * *

After a journey of thousands of miles, they reached the edge of the forest and heard a terrifying roar. Gilgamesh stopped. He trembled. Tears flowed down his cheeks.

This would have been a perfect time to say, ‘I told you so,’ but Enkidu took no pleasure in that possibility. Instead, Enkidu encouraged his friend:

Dear friend, great warrior, I am with you.

A cord of three strands is not easily broken.

With that, Gilgamesh regained his courage. With his friend, he entered the forest, and with his friend, he found Humbaba, terrifying to men. Gilgamesh stopped. He trembled. Tears flowed down his cheeks.

Gilgamesh heaved,

His breath spews fire. His teeth are like tusks. His voice booms like thunder. He hears all that rustles in the forest, and he wears a thousand nightmare faces. Who among men or gods could defeat him?

Again Enkidu encouraged his friend.

Dear friend, great warrior, I am with you.

A cord of three strands is not easily broken.

At that moment, a god intervened and paralyzed Humbaba. Gilgamesh jumped on the monster and raised his huge ax. Humbaba raged and called down a curse on his assailant: “If you kill me, Gilgamesh, the gods will be moved with fury. They will kill Enkidu, and they will wrack you with grief.”

Gilgamesh hesitated, horrified, his courage strained. Enkidu’s resolve remained unbroken.

Dear friend, great warrior, I am with you.

A cord of three strands is not easily broken.

You will cut down the tree,

You will kill Humbaba,

You will make a lasting name for yourself,

You will stamp your fame on men’s minds forever.

With that, the ax came down, Humbaba died, and the sacred grove fell. With that, Gilgamesh stamped his fame on men’s minds forever. The cord of three strands was not broken. Not yet. The gods were angry with Gilgamesh, so they killed Enkidu and wracked Gilgamesh with grief. With that, the three-strand cord was broken.

One strand, Gilgamesh.

One strand, Enkidu,

One strand, a friend’s love for his brother.

The cord not easily broken.

This article relies on the translation by Stephen Mitchell.

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