POCATELLO, ID – A scene from a version of the ancient Sumerian legend “The Epic of Gilgamesh” replays through my mind every so often.
In this version of the story, Ishtar, the goddess of love, has offered the men, Gilgamesh and Enkidu, love, sex, whatever most humans are led to believe is the ultimate life experience, but instead, the men become engrossed in each other and get into a wrestling match working through the violence and issues of envy they have with each other, a form of trial by ordeal.
Ishtar is puzzled by this behavior, but the men brush her off claiming that making love with women is ok, but close friendship with other men is more important.
Friendship, not romantic love, the story claims, is the key to a satisfying life.
Over the years I’ve seen versions of this story played out in real life as well as in literature, and I must warn readers that it’s best not to jump to homoerotic conclusions.
In a Biblical replay of the epic, Jacob is angry because the wife he believes he married turns out to be the girl’s older sister that his father-in-law cleverly sneaked into the wedding chamber. Since Jacob’s story is also Middle-Eastern and is fraught with similarities to the Gilgamesh legend, we find that he too gets into a wrestling match with a man, an angel, or with God; references differ, but at the end of the struggle, Jacob receives a new name, Israel, and has come to terms with his fate. The physical struggle soothes his mental anguish, and as all such stories go, a woman lurks in the shadows.
The American West is not without its version of the myth, the 1953 George Stevens film “Shane”, was filmed just up the crik from where I am now sitting. The scenes take place near Jackson’s Hole, Wyoming. It’s a beautiful film with the infamous peaks of the Tetons in the background, a lovely grassy plain with deer and elk, a sweet flowing stream (now I expect the area is pretty much filled up with condos and hotels). And Shane himself is beautiful with his blond hair and fringed buckskins in contrast with other characters’ more practical work clothing.
In fact, when the film was first shown in New York City, a predominately Jewish audience laughed when Alan Ladd first appeared and announced, “Call me Shane.” Shana, Shaina, is Yiddish for feminine beauty.
Mid-story, Shane and homesteader Joe Starret engage in a physical test of strength and character. Joe is married to Marion who loves him, but she and Shane are obviously attracted to each other. Neither man discusses this with Marion directly or with each other; and yet, the issue lies bare between the men who become engrossed in chopping out and removing a huge troublesome stump; they don’t stop until the task is accomplished.
This behavior disturbs Marion who realizes the task has become a competition. Who is the better man? In what I interpret as a very silly scene, Marion tries to distract the men from their work by donning her wedding dress and displaying her most feminine self, reminiscent of Ishtar’s behavior before Gilgamesh and Enkidu. The men ignore her, however. They finish the task, and as a result become friends who deeply respect each other.
British author D. H. Lawrence (famous for writing the steamy and controversial Lady Chatterley’s Lover) lived out his last years near Taos, New Mexico. In his novel Women in Love, there is also a wrestling scene between two male friends. Ursula and Rupert become a couple, and Ursula wants him all to herself, but Rupert and Gerald have become deep friends. The men get into a wrestling match one evening that deepens their relationship and upsets Ursula who wants to believe that love between a man and a woman is enough. But Rupert tells her that it isn’t enough.
When I read Women in Love as a young woman, it angered me. Of course, then I believed, a deep relationship between husband and wife is enough. Now I know better. We all need our friends, and if a partner interferes with important friendships, it diminishes the partnership.
I cherish the friends I’ve made over these last many years in my private Pocatello.