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Humbaba the Ogre

Humbaba the Ogre


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The Epic of Gilgamesh

Context
Many hundreds of years before Homer wrote his Iliad and Odyssey, and before the Old Testament scriptures were written, poets and scribes in ancient Mesopotamia (the area in modern-day Iraq known in its most famous ancient incarnation as Babylonia) were composing, transcribing, and redacting different retellings of a still-more-ancient story, The Epic of Gilgamesh. This story of Gilgamesh's struggle with himself--of a lonely king in the dawning years of civilization learning how to conduct himself as a man in society, limited by mortality and responsibility--is possibly the world's first literary masterpiece. Gilgamesh speaks to enduring themes, among them fate, responsibility, maturation, and friendship, that continue to be relevant today. However, contemporary readers are separated from Gilgamesh by thousands of years and vast cultural distances. So to understand Gilgamesh, it is first important to understand something about the civilization that produced it.
Around the year 3000 B.C.E., the inhabitants of the fertile plains watered by the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers began to establish some of the earliest governments in the history of mankind. The historical record indicates that one of these early city-states, Uruk, was ruled in the twenty-eighth century B.C.E. by a king named Gilgamesh. By the twenty-sixth century, a cult-religion had developed around Gilgamesh, who was worshipped as the ruler and judge of the underworld the degree to which Gilgamesh had grown into myth is attested by the fact that his reign as an earthly king, it was reputed, had lasted 126 years. Around the same time, literature began to appear in Mesopotamia in the form of wedge-shaped characters, known as cuneiform, inscribed on clay tablets. Two principal languages were used: Sumerian, a language with no known relatives that predominated among scholars and in the urban south, and Akkadian, which was more common in the rural north.
There was never one version of Gilgamesh in the same way that one can speak of a single, widely accepted version of, say, The Great Gatsby. The oldest surviving fragment of a written Gilgamesh poem has been dated to the twentieth century B.C.E. But scholars hypothesize that bards began to compose oral poems about Gilgamesh and his life in the last centuries of the third millennium B.C.E. This oral composition is supposed to have reached its most prolific period in the court of King Shulgi of Ur during the twenty-first century B.C.E. Very possibly, King Shulgi also had his scribes produce written versions of the poems. Certainly, we now have fragments of five separate poems about Gilgamesh--called by his Sumerian name, Bilgames--all traceable to the eighteenth century B.C.E. Possibly, these are copies made from master-copies in King Shulgi's library.
The city-state of Babylon, under the famous King Hammurapi, rose to power in the eighteenth century B.C.E. The earliest existing major Akkadian-language version of the Gilgamesh story--known by a salient line, "Surpassing all other kings"-- dates to the time of King Hammurapi's reign. This version, of which we now only have fragments, certainly shares a great deal with the Sumerian Gilgamesh poems that preceded it, but it represents its own, discrete literary work.
Sometime between the years 1300 and 1000 B.C.E., a Babylonian poet named Sin-liqe-unninni redacted previous stories about Gilgamesh into a single, coherent narrative, a poetic epic that spanned 3000 lines and 11 clay tablets. Sin-liqe-unninni preserved much from earlier versions, but he also left much out and inserted some new material. Over the centuries, this version may have been altered somewhat, but scholars believe it is substantially the version of the Gilgamesh story found on many fragmentary manuscripts throughout the region, and most importantly in the libraries of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal, who ruled in Nineveh from 668-627 B.C.E. This version--known, from its first line, as "He who saw the Deep"--has become accepted as the standard version of the Gilgamesh epic, and it will be the text referred to here as Gilgamesh.
As one might imagine given the antiquity of the story, we do not have a single, intact copy of the Gilgamesh epic. Instead, we have more than eighty different manuscripts, some extremely fragmentary, some relatively intact, which were produced over a period of thousands of years, in different ancient languages, and under differing conditions. It is only through comparing and attempting to reconstruct these manuscripts from the many cuneiform-covered shards recovered by archaeologists working in the Near East that scholars can begin to reconstruct the various different retellings of the life and deeds of Gilgamesh. What we call today the standard version--the Akkadian "He who saw the Deep," redacted at the end of the second millennium B.C.E. by Sin-liqe-unninni and copied in the library of Ashurbanipal of Assyria--is an incomplete masterpiece: of 3000 lines, more than 575 are completely missing, and many more are incomplete. This commentary on Gilgamesh follows what was at the time of writing the most recent and authoritative major translation of "He who saw the Deep," the Penguin translation by Andrew George. This translation follows "He who saw the Deep" but inserts fragments from other versions of the Gilgamesh story when there is a gap of missing lines in the standard version.

Characters
Note: Gilgamesh has its roots deep within the Babylonian mythic and historical tradition. It contains mention of numerous names unfamiliar to most contemporary readers, names of members of the various pantheons of gods, ancient heroes, and places both historical and mythic. An exhaustive directory of Gilgamesh's reference points would need to cover the entire corpus of Babylonian history, myth, and literature. What follows here is instead a selection of names essential to understanding the main sense of Gilgamesh.
Gilgamesh - The epic's title character. When we first meet the king of Uruk, he possesses beauty, strength, and unequaled potential for greatness, but he is a tyrannical ruler, callow and impetuous. Gilgamesh is the story of the hero's growth to full maturity, as he develops through his friendship with Enkidu and his quests for renown and immortality. Although Gilgamesh fails to attain immortality in his lifetime, he became posthumously deified as the ruler and judge of the dead, according to Babylonian mythology.
Enkidu - Enkidu was created by the gods as a rival and companion to Gilgamesh: only Enkidu, "mighty as a rock from the sky" (I.125), is a match for Gilgamesh. He grows up among wild animals in the unsettled areas outside of Uruk but is tamed and civilized by the prostitute Shamhat. He quickly becomes inseparable from Gilgamesh and tempers Gilgamesh's impetuosity with his wisdom. Eventually, Enkidu dies, victim of an illness sent by the god Enlil his death triggers Gilgamesh's wanderings in search of immortality.
Uta-napishti - Uta-napishti's name means "I found Life" he is also known as Atra-Hasis, which means "Surpassing Wise." He plays the role of the biblical Noah in the Babylonian story of the Deluge. The god Ea allowed him to build a boat and survive the Deluge, after which he was made immortal by a convocation of the gods. Gilgamesh travels to Uta-napishti to find out the secret of eternal life, but he is frustrated, finding only Uta-napishti's patience and wisdom and the advice to appreciate his kingly good fortune and accept the inevitability of death.
Shamhat - Shamhat is the prostitute who seduces Enkidu when he is still living in the wild. With her charms--"her allure is a match for even the mighty" (I.141)--she separates him from the herds of wild animals, persuading him to enter civilization. When he learns that he is doomed to an early death, Enkidu curses Shamhat for the seduction that cost him his innocence, but he is eventually persuaded to relent and bless her.
Enlil - The chief ruler of earth and its inhabitants his name literally means "Lord Wind." In Gilgamesh, Enlil is implacable and harsh: it is Enlil who sends the Deluge to destroy every human being and who is furious when Uta-napishti survives. And it is Enlil who decrees Enkidu's doom.
Humbaba - The tusked ogre set by Enlil to guard the sacred Forest of Cedar. In the first of Gilgamesh's great heroic ventures, he and Enkidu, aided by the god Shamash, kill Humbaba.
Ninsun - Also known as "Lady Wild Cow" and frequently referred to as "Wild-Cow Ninsun." She is Gilgamesh's mother, a minor goddess who offers him counsel and intercedes on his behalf before his encounter with Humbaba.
Shamash - The sun god. Shamash, the ancient patron of travelers, is particularly protective of Gilgamesh and Enkidu in their quests for glory. It is Shamash who sends the "thirteen winds" to blind the ogre Humbaba so Gilgamesh can kill it, and it is again Shamash who intercedes in vain on Enkidu's behalf when Enlil pronounces his death sentence.
Ishtar - The patron goddess of Uruk, Ishtar is the goddess of sexual love and war and the daughter of Anu. She is taken with Gilgamesh and becomes furious when he rejects her, citing her history of mistreating her lovers. In retaliation, she sends the Bull of Heaven to kill him.
Anu - The father of the gods and the god of the sky. He is Ishtar's father. It is Anu who originally conceives of the creation of Enkidu, but it is also Anu who suggests killing either Gilgamesh or Enkidu as punishment for their slaughter of Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven.
Ea - The god of the ocean depths. Ea is a clever god: he is the god who figures out how to save Uta-napishti from the disaster of the Deluge and who sends the Seven Sages to bring wisdom to mankind.
Belet-ili - Also known as Aruru. The Mother Goddess who gives birth to all of mankind, and who, with Anu's assistance, creates Enkidu.
Ur-Shanabi - Assisted by the Stone Men, Ur-Shanabi ferries people to the overseas home of Uta-napishti. At the end of the epic, he is summarily dismissed from Uta-napishti's service, and he travels with Gilgamesh back to Uruk to bear witness to the grandeur of Uruk's walls.
Shiduri - A goddess--her name means "she is my rampart"--who lives in a tavern at the edge of the world. She originally hides from Gilgamesh but eventually tells him how to find Ur-Shanabi, the ferryman to Uta-napishti's home.
Lugalbanda - A past king of Uruk, later deified, who was either Gilgamesh's father or his guardian deity (depending on the tradition).
Analytical Overview
Western literature has few epics of any real greatness: readers can probably name most of them and count them on their hands with a few fingers left over. Of these, The Epic of Gilgamesh is by far the oldest. The standard version of the epic, redacted by Sin-liqe-unninni between 1300 and 1000 B.C.E., preceded Homer's Iliad and Odyssey by centuries. And the story of Gilgamesh's deeds is much older then that--as old, perhaps, as the cult religion that worshipped Gilgamesh as a deity around 2600 B.C.E.
But what does it mean to call Gilgamesh an "epic"? The epic form itself is often traced to Homer, and it is typical for reference works, like M.H. Abrams' Glossary of Literary Terms, to ascribe five common features to epics: 1) there is a hero of great national or even universal importance 2) there is a vast canvas, a setting that may be the whole world or larger 3) the plot involves battles involving superhuman deeds or a long, difficult journey 4) gods or other supernatural beings are interested and involved 5) there is a ritualized, performative aspect, a style more ceremonial than ordinary speech. In Gilgamesh we have a story, older than Homer, which fulfills all of these criteria. Gilgamesh is the mightiest of ancient kings, a cultural hero and, like Achilles, the son of a goddess. Gilgamesh's narrative spans not just the known world of Mesopotamia but also the sea beyond the world's end, and the tunnels through which the sun travels back to its resting place. We have superhuman achievements in battle-- the defeat of Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven--and also a lengthy and difficult journey. We have the active involvement of much of the Babylonian pantheon of gods, including Ea, Enlil, Ishtar and Shamash. And we certainly have a ceremonial style.
Formally, Gilgamesh is a verse poem. It is about 3000 lines long, divided in 11 sections, according to how it was originally recorded on 11 clay tablets. It is divided into "verses," or lines, which are often connected by parallel meaning or otherwise into couplets. There are no stanzas in Gilgamesh, properly speaking: its translators arrange the verses into stanzas according to their understanding of the poem's rhythms and meanings. Unlike modern poetry, Gilgamesh does not rely extensively on metaphor or symbolism. Its highly stylized tone is preserved through the use of repetition. It is an arrangement of formalized structures of language. The reader will notice the abundance of repetition: every time we hear of Enkidu's strength, it is "as mighty as a rock from the sky (I.125)," and Ninsun is always "Wild-Cow Ninsun (III.100)." Most modern poetry gets its strength from idiosyncrasies of language and perception, describing things as they appear to the poet. The world of Gilgamesh is more concrete, less subjective. Gilgamesh describes the contours and colors of its world in terms of set shapes and defined tones.
Though Gilgamesh is epic in scale and tonally formalized, it does not forfeit a capacity for deeply personal emotional impact. It is driven by Gilgamesh's intense, existential loneliness, in the face of society and in the face of mortality. It is the story of Gilgamesh's coming to grips with that loneliness, with his own place in society and in the cosmic order the story, in modern psychological terms, of his socialization and maturation. At the beginning of the poem, Gilgamesh possesses all the raw stuff of greatness but none of the necessary psychological qualities: he becomes a tyrant, ignorant of the duties of a king, exhausting the local youths and despoiling the maidens in a quest for companionship. His relationship with Enkidu, his mirror image (they are physical rivals, the only two such pure specimens, but while Gilgamesh is a king and unhappy with the duties and rules of a civilized state, Enkidu is of the wilderness, pulled toward civilization), eases his loneliness. And if it is difficult to identify with Gilgamesh, who is, after all, a tyrant, a half-god and a model of physical perfection, the pathos of his grief at the loss of Enkidu (reminiscent of the Greek hero Achilles' grief at his best friend Patroclus' death) humanizes him fully.
By the end of the poem, Gilgamesh has learned a great deal about acting not just like a man but about acting like himself in what the ancient Babylonians considered his proper kingly role. He learns from Enkidu about friendship, wisdom, and sacrifice from Shamash about humility from Uta-napishti about stoicism, resignation, responsibility, and mortality. He learns, most properly put, a sense of self. He is no longer the tyrant, the vainglorious youth, the irresponsible and self-involved wanderer: he returns to Uruk and takes pride in his walls, his true claim on immortality being his contributions to the city he rules. In this sense, the epic is about the ancient Babylonian conception of the world. When Gilgamesh reconciles himself to his duties as a king and his human blood takes proper precedence over divine, Gilgamesh learns his place within the hierarchies of man and god.
If the epic concerns itself explicitly with the growth of one extraordinary man, it is also concerned, on a broader level, with an entire culture and civilization: Gilgamesh is one of the crucial foundation-myths of Mesopotamian society. It is about the proper relationship between the individual and society the way the gods relate to man, and what man owes the gods the proper way to rule a people, and the proper way to obey a king. From our perspective at the beginning of the twenty-first century C.E., Gilgamesh was a figure who bridged the shadowy area between history and the chaos that was before history. He was that way for the ancients, too: in this epic, it is Gilgamesh who acts to restore civilization after the great Deluge that--in Gilgamesh and in the later, cognate, Biblical story--destroyed all civilized life. Gilgamesh visits Uta-napishti, the survivor of the Deluge, and learns wisdom from him. According to the paean at the poem's beginning, Gilgamesh is the one who "restored the cult centers destroyed by the Deluge,/ and set in place for the people the rites of the cosmos." Gilgamesh's personal triumph is the triumph of an entire culture: when Gilgamesh sets himself right, he sets right the entire ancient world.
Tablet I
Summary
The Epic of Gilgamesh opens with a prologue introducing Gilgamesh as a heroic character. Gilgamesh, the man "who saw the deep," is praised: he is the bringer of wisdom, and the man who built the massive walls around his city, Uruk. He is tall, consummately handsome, and strong, a model of physical perfection. But Gilgamesh is also a harsh tyrant. He exhausts young men with contests of strength, and he claims droit de signeur, the right to sleep with any woman before her wedding night.
Understandably distraught, the women of the city complain to the god Anu, who responds by working with Aruru, the mother of the gods, to create a rival for Gilgamesh. The rival will keep Gilgamesh busy, giving respite to the harried townspeople. Under Anu's direction, Arura fashions Enkidu out of a pinch of clay. Enkidu is a creature of the wild: his hair is uncut, and he grazes with the animals. But Enkidu is out of place at the watering hole with the animals, and one day he is spotted by a hunter. We learn that Enkidu begins to plague the hunter, pulling up all his snares. The hunter travels to Uruk, where Gilgamesh advises him to allow the prostitute Shamhat to seduce Enkidu, which will mark Enkidu as a man and separate him forever from the herd.
Indeed, this is the way it happens: Shamhat unclothes herself in front of Enkidu, who is irresistibly attracted to her. For seven nights, they couple. Afterward, Enkidu finds himself shunned by the herd: coupling with a woman, he has become less of an animal and more of a man. Shamhat encourages Enkidu to leave the wild and come with her to Uruk to meet Gilgamesh. Enkidu agrees to go, bragging of his great strength and vowing to challenge Gilgamesh's supremacy.
Shamhat reacts to Enkidu's aggressive challenge by telling Enkidu about dreams that Gilgamesh has had, in which he foresaw the arrival of Enkidu as a companion and an equal rather than as a rival. Twice, Gilgamesh dreamed strange dreams: first, that a heavy rock fell from heaven and attracted the adoration of the crowds second, that an axe was lying in the street and merited the same public attention. His mother, Ninsun, explained the dreams: both the axe and the rock symbolized Enkidu--whose "strength is as mighty as a rock from the sky (I. 293)"--who would become Gilgamesh's comrade and savior. Gilgamesh, much in need of a friend and counselor, accepts this news eagerly.
Commentary
The epic starts with a paean that introduces Gilgamesh not as a man but as a hero. We are first presented with Gilgamesh as myth and history have recreated him: sheathed in glory, the man who "was wise in all matters (I. 2)." We are given a summary of Gilgamesh's accomplishments as if they were already finished and sealed into history. It is only in the unfolding of the epic that we learn what was the cost of Gilgamesh's wisdom, and how long it took him to achieve his lofty stature in the cultural memory. It is almost impossible to imagine weakness and failure in this man. But Gilgamesh is nothing if not the story of our hero's colossal failure. On the simplest level, Gilgamesh's quest for immortality is a flop. The triumphant irony of this epic is that the sum of Gilgamesh's human failings is a heroic success: as the opening lines brilliantly summarize the story, this is the story of a man who "came a far road, was weary, found peace (I. 9)." It is only through learning that he is a man with failings--doomed to a mortal death--that Gilgamesh grows to epic stature. And, of course, the story of Gilgamesh's all-too-human struggles makes for an epic that, thousands of years later, ensures the hero's immortality.
The sudden shift from paean of praise to troubled narrative comes suddenly. We learn first, as if it is part of the paean of praise, that Gilgamesh is unmatched among warriors and loves athletic contests. That this, is in fact, a problem comes to light in the next line: "The young men of Uruk he harries without warrant (I. 67)." Gilgamesh exhausts his companions. He allows rest to neither men nor women. The women complain, and the solution of the gods is to create Enkidu, who will be a rival to Gilgamesh. The idea seems to be to distract Gilgamesh's excess of energy toward something, if not constructive, at least difficult. Gilgamesh's problem seems to be that he is without peer. He cannot resign himself to superiority among men: he needs constantly to expend energy, to test himself, and there is nobody who can test him, nor even keep up with him. There is, we know, divinity in Gilgamesh: his mother, Ninsun, is a god, and Gilgamesh is referred to here as two-thirds divine. His place among people is in question. He needs a companion equally strong and equally superhuman. Gilgamesh is, along these lines, the story of a struggle inside Gilgamesh, between the divine majority--which towers above mere humanity and yearns toward immortality--and his human blood, which eventually proves the thicker. And this may be taken as an allegory for the ancient Babylonian perspective on the human condition in general: caught somewhere between the animals and the gods, man must learn his place and his proper responsibilities.
Tablet II
Summary
The wild man Enkidu and the prostitute Shamhat make love for seven nights, at the end of which Shamhat asks Enkidu to abandon his life in the wilderness and come with her to Uruk, where he will find a place among men, with others like him. She leads him to a shepherd's camp, where Enkidu, unaccustomed to even rudimentary civilization, looks askance at bread and beer. But Shamhat prevails on him, and he learns to eat human food he also allows himself to be groomed and clothed like a man.
Enkidu sees a man going to Uruk for a wedding and learns from him about Gilgamesh's custom of sleeping with brides-to-be before their wedding nights. Repulsed, Enkidu sets off for Uruk, where, on his arrival, he is instantly recognized as a potential rival to Gilgamesh. Public presentiments are born out: Gilgamesh arrives to sleep with the bride-to-be, and Enkidu blocks his path. For a while, they struggle violently eventually, however, each seems to have earned the other's respect. Gilgamesh breaks off the struggle, and Enkidu praises him as unique, the king of Uruk by divine right. They kiss and form a friendship.
Bolstered by Enkidu's companionship, Gilgamesh resolves to travel to the Forest of Cedars, where he will challenge Humbaba, the forest's superhuman guardian. Enkidu strongly advises against the challenge, warning Gilgamesh of Humbaba's reputation, second only to that of the storm god Adad. But Gilgamesh's determination carries the day, as he reminds Enkidu of man's mortality--and thus, implicitly, the importance of garnering glory--and of Enkidu's own reputation for valor. Together, the two go to the forge, where the smiths cast axes and daggers for them.
In assembly, Gilgamesh announces his plan to the townspeople and elders: he will kill Humbaba and earn an immortal reputation. He asks the blessing of the townspeople on his journey and announces that on his return he will observe the New Year twice over, in celebration. When it comes time for him to speak, Enkidu asks the elders to convince Gilgamesh to abandon his scheme, telling them as he told Gilgamesh of Humbaba's terrifying reputation. The elders echo Enkidu's warnings, but Gilgamesh only laughs at them.
Commentary
The story of Enkidu's seduction and socialization by the prostitute Shamhat can be understand as an allegory about human nature and the relationship between man and civilized society. Enkidu is created wild: he goes unshorn and unclothed and runs unchecked with the beasts of the field. He is purely innocent, ignorant of civilization and its corruptions, exemplified by the despotism of Gilgamesh, who ignores or is ignorant of the proper role of the monarch and who instead tyrannizes his people with the inexhaustible rutting of his will. Enkidu is ignorant, especially, of sex, the selfsame stumbling block on which Gilgamesh, who imposes himself sexually on brides-to-be, trips and falters.
But after Enkidu's first marathon sex session with Shamhat, he becomes severed irrevocably from the natural world. The herd shuns him because he has lost the innocence crucial to wildness. In exchange, he is given the blessing of civilized man: "now he had reason, and wide understanding (I. 202)." Readers will notice the similarity between this story and its more famous heir, the Biblical story of Adam and Eve. Like Adam before the Fall, Enkidu lives in a kind of pastoral Edenic innocence like Adam, he is led into sin by the woman like Adam--at least according to the Christian tradition--Enkidu looses his innocence because of sexual desire like Adam after eating from the tree of knowledge, Enkidu sees his innocence exchanged for understanding. And, like Adam, Enkidu eventually pays for his loss of innocence with the loss of his life: Enkidu recognizes this when, on his deathbed, he curses the hunter and Shamhat for taking him from the wilderness, a forfeit that doomed him to mortality. There is also, of course, the obvious Biblical parallel in the fact that Enkidu's first act after gaining understanding and loosing innocence is to clothe himself.
Indeed, readers may notice in general many parallels between Gilgamesh and certain Biblical episodes. Most obviously, Gilgamesh's story of Uta-napishti and the Deluge shares much with the Biblical story of Noah and the Flood. This should not come as a surprise to the reader. It is most likely that the relevant Biblical episodes were written after Gilgamesh attained wide popularity across the ancient Near East Gilgamesh, then, seems to have anticipated Biblical episodes and perhaps even served as a model. What does seem clear is that the authors of the Bible and the poets who transmitted Gilgamesh in its Akkadian incarnations shared similar languages (Hebrew and Akkadian are both Semitic languages), similar cultural histories, and, it seems, similar mythic traditions.
Tablet V
Summary
Gilgamesh and Enkidu are awestruck by the Forest of Cedars, but the beauty of the forest is only enough to distract them for a short while: they draw their weapons and plunge into the forest, pursuing Humbaba. Much of what follows is missing from the manuscripts, but it seems as if, once again, they each feel fear in turn, and each faltering hero is, as always, bolstered by his companion.
Finally, the moment of conflict is at hand: the companions come face to face with the ogre Humbaba. Humbaba accuses Enkidu of treachery for leading Gilgamesh to the forest, and he threatens to kill Gilgamesh and feed his corpse to carrion birds. At this moment of crisis, Gilgamesh freezes in terror, and Enkidu rallies him with vehement exhortations to courage. The two sides move toward combat, but they are interrupted by a powerful interloper, the sun god Shamash, who--in compliance with Ninsun's request--strikes Humbaba with the thirteen storm winds, blinding and immobilizing him. Thanks to the god's intervention, the mighty ogre is at Gilgamesh's mercy. Realizing this, Humbaba changes his tone, pleading with Gilgamesh to spare his life. Turning to Enkidu, Humbaba twice asks him to advocate with Gilgamesh on his behalf. But both times Enkidu urges Gilgamesh to kill Humbaba, who recognizes that his fate is sealed and curses the two companions to an early death: Gilgamesh, the ogre swears, will bury Enkidu before his time.
At Enkidu's final urging, Gilgamesh shakes himself from his torpor and kills Humbaba. The victorious companions then cut down the finest cedars in the forest as plunder. Enkidu declares that he will make a door out of a tall cedar and hang it in the temple of Enlil as an offering to the great god. Taking the head of Humbaba as a trophy, the two build a raft and sail back to Uruk.
Commentary
Like the great heroes of the Homerian epics, Gilgamesh succeeds in his quest not only because of his personal qualities but largely because of divine assistance. He is favored by Shamash and doing work decreed by the gods, who have determined that Humbaba must be killed. Not that divine sanction is an immediate guarantee of flawless success. Gilgamesh is so appealing as a hero because his human weaknesses are in constant struggle with his divine heritage and the divine favor invested in him. Even with Shamash's help, Gilgamesh can barely bring himself to kill Humbaba for that, he needs Enkidu's repeated urgings. All of Gilgamesh's earlier reassuring words to Enkidu seem to be forgotten or useless. He is only revived by Enkidu's twice quoting back to him his own calls to arms: "Establish forever [a fame] that endures (V. 244)." It should be noted in this context that here, as with the Greek epics, serving fate is no excuse, and the gods need not be consistent: though Enlil desired the death of Humbaba, he eventually punishes Enkidu for executing Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven.
If Enkidu, in the final analysis, demonstrates his courage and calm under fire through urging Gilgamesh out of his frightened paralysis, it does not come without personal cost. As we have mentioned, Gilgamesh can be seen as the story of Enkidu, the prototypical wild man, becoming a part of civilization, among many other things. It is in this tablet's action that Enkidu makes his final split with the wilderness that raised him.
Enkidu serves as Gilgamesh's guide to the Forest of Cedars. He has been there before. And, it seems, he is familiar with Humbaba: "I knew him, my friend," he tells Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh may believe he can defeat the ogre, but, as he concedes, he is ignorant of their opponent. Enkidu's fear is born of experience. But this experience is not one-sided. Humbaba, in his turn, knows Enkidu indeed, he has been watching him since his youth. There seems to be a kind of kinship between Enkidu and Humbaba, two supernatural beings living in the wilderness beyond the pale of human settlement. Indeed, there is certain respect. Enkidu, more than anyone else in this poem, fears Humbaba's might Humbaba grants Enkidu's skills in forestry. Humbaba assumes that their kinship and respect afford mutual protection. Just as Humbaba did not kill the young Enkidu, Enkidu should not ally himself with Gilgamesh, the emissary of civilization, to kill Humbaba. Enkidu has turned his back on his ties with the creatures of the wild: this, in Humbaba's eyes, is treachery. And it is not entirely clear from the text that Humbaba is wrong. In killing Humbaba, and then making the more aggressive moves to cut down the forest to provide a door for Enlil's temple, Enkidu declares himself a man of Uruk rather than a creature of the wild, and his transformation approaches completion.
Tablet VI
Summary
Returning to Uruk after his triumph over Humbaba, Gilgamesh cleanses himself, restoring his good looks. Seeing how handsome he is, the goddess Ishtar, guardian deity of Uruk, proposes marriage, promising her prospective bridegroom a life of honor and vast wealth. But Gilgamesh vehemently--and quite eloquently, if viciously--rejects her proposal. He heaps insults on her: she is toxic, he says, poisoning whatever touches her. Detailing a history of her paramours, Gilgamesh observes that Ishtar is invariably damaging to the one she claims to love.
Enraged, Ishtar flees for redress to her father, Anu, the god of the heavens. Initially, Anu accuses Ishtar of provoking Gilgamesh into insulting her. But when Ishtar threatens to shatter the gates separating the living and the dead, bringing the netherworld denizens up to overwhelm the living, Anu grants her request he gives her the Bull of Heaven, which she promptly unleashes upon Uruk. The supernaturally powerful Bull wreaks havoc on the countryside, until Gilgamesh and Enkidu feel compelled to confront it.
The two heroes prove more than a match for the Bull of Heaven. Enkidu draws up plans for a tactical assault: while he seizes the Bull from behind, Gilgamesh attacks from the front and slaughters the animal. Immediately, the heroes offer the Bull's heart as tribute to Shamash, the god who has protected them throughout. Ishtar, meanwhile, is both mournful and angry. As if she has not been humiliated enough, Enkidu scornfully tosses the haunch of the Bull at her, threatening her, too, with death. While Ishtar assembles the ritual prostitutes for a mourning rite over the Bull, Gilgamesh has the Bull's horns coated with lapis lazuli and made into vessels for oil he gives them to his patron god, Lugalbanda. The heroes are riding high. After cleansing themselves, they pass hand-in-hand through the streets of Uruk, attracting worshipful stares. Gilgamesh even starts a cheer among his servants: "Gilgamesh is the finest among men!" There is much rejoicing in Gilgamesh's palace. But that night, as the heroes lie asleep, Enkidu has a very troubling dream.
Commentary
Readers of ancient Greek and Roman myths will recognize Gilgamesh's motivations in rejecting the goddess Ishtar's advances. In Greek and Roman mythology, rarely does anything good happen to a mortal who is loved by a god. It seems this is true also of Ishtar's paramours in Babylonian mythology. The gods are capricious and powerful, a dangerous combination, and anyone who has been unlucky enough to be loved by Ishtar bears the unwelcome mark of her favor.
The story of Ishtar's many unsuccessful loves may be read as an allegory of man's relationship to the gods. Ancient Babylonian man is utterly subject to the will of the gods even if he manages to flout divine will through an extraordinary act of heroism, he will yet be punished, as Enkidu is punished after he helps Gilgamesh kill the Bull of Heaven. The irony is that even divine favor can be disastrous. The gods are an unknown quantity, and man is in the precarious position of serving them while fearing the rewards of diligent service nearly as much as the consequences for disobedience.
If the catalogue of Ishtar's unhappy love affairs can function as an allegory about the vagaries of divine favor, it also presents an opportunity to enumerate some of the myths that explained the natural world for the ancient Babylonians. Gilgamesh cannot properly be called a myth in the sense that the goal of the poem is not to provide explanations of origins (as Andrew George points out). However, as we have noted--and will discuss later at greater length--this is not necessarily true: Gilgamesh has many facets, and one of those facets is surely a story about the origin of civilization, an explanation for the rise of civilized society after the Deluge. And it is certainly true that the poem does contain many myths, which are sprinkled throughout. Noteworthy among these myths is the story about why the snake changes its skin: as is explained in Tablet XI, it stole the rejuvenating fruit from Gilgamesh and gained the capacity for self-rejuvenation. Ishtar's black book of lovers contains many such mythic references. In the course of Gilgamesh's diatribe against Ishtar, we learn how the "allallu-bird" got his peculiar cry, how the horse became domesticated, how shepherds and wolves became enemies, and how the first dwarf was created. What emerges is a picture of Gilgamesh as a cultural lodestone, a poem that may not be a myth, but which incorporates and references an entire culture.
Tablets VII-VIII
Summary
In his dream, Enkidu sees the gods sitting in counsel. The standard text version of Enkidu's dream has not been recovered, but another ancient version of the myth, written in Hittite, tells what the gods said. Anu argues that either Gilgamesh or Enkidu must die for killing the Bull of Heaven and Humbaba. Enlil spares Gilgamesh and condemns Enkidu to death. Shamash, the sun god who has championed the two heroes, disputes Enlil's judgment, but he is shamed into silence.
The meaning of this dream is clear: Enkidu's fate, once spoken by Enlil, is irrevocably sealed. Enkidu is devastated, and he takes out his frustrations by cursing the door that he cut from the Forest of Cedar and hung in Enlil's temple, an offering that proved ineffective. Gilgamesh initially refuses to adopt Enkidu's fatalistic attitude, vowing to appeal the decision of the gods, but Enkidu reminds him that Enlil is implacable and his decisions are never reversed. Enkidu continues with his string of recriminations, first blaming the hunter who spotted him in the wild and set in motion the events that brought him to civilization. Then Enkidu curses Shamhat, the prostitute who seduced him away from the wild. But Shamash overhears him cursing Shamhat and intervenes, observing that Shamhat did nothing but good for Enkidu and offering what words of comfort he can: after Enkidu dies, he will be amply mourned by Gilgamesh. Recanting, Enkidu blesses Shamhat with success.
Enkidu then has another troubling dream. He sees himself bound and led captive into the underworld, where he sees all the kings who have ruled the land since the beginning of time, and the dread gods of the underworld. After this vision, Enkidu's strength begins quickly to fail. Exhorting Gilgamesh not to forget him, Enkidu slides toward death. On his deathbed, he laments his shameful fate: not to die in combat, with a glorious reputation, but to be struck down by illness.
Enkidu dies, and Gilgamesh mourns his best friend. In a moving and tearful eulogy, he calls upon all the denizens of Uruk--from civilized man to wild animal--to mourn for Enkidu. Gilgamesh assembles craftsmen to forge a lavish statue to memorialize Enkidu, and he provides him with the best in his treasury for his trip to the underworld, where the treasures will be given as gifts to please the gods of the dead. The funeral ceremonies for Enkidu begin, and Gilgamesh vows that once Enkidu is buried he will let himself go unkempt with grief, abandoning his throne to wander the wild.
Commentary
The tragedy of Enkidu's death is that he is a victim of correct action. He kills Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven by divine will then, the gods turn around and punish him for adhering to their commands. Indeed, when Gilgamesh hesitates before killing Humbaba, it is Enkidu who warns him that to show mercy will be to violate the commandment of the gods. For his obedience, Enkidu is punished, and Gilgamesh goes unscathed. Shamash, Enkidu's advocate in the pantheon, points out the injustice, asking Enlil "Was it not at your word that they slew him?" Enlil does not respond to the substance of Shamash's argument, instead impugning Shamash's right to sit in judgment: "How like a comrade you marched with them daily," the chief god snidely observes. It is not clear from Gilgamesh whether the gods themselves are merely instruments of fate or whether fate is defined as the caprices of the gods, which need have no logical explanation.
Typically, Gilgamesh refuses to accept fate when it is revealed. Just as he will soon attempt to defeat mortality itself--the fate common to all humans--he rejects Enkidu's fated death, vowing to entreat the gods for Enkidu's life. Indeed, Gilgamesh believes that Enkidu's ready acceptance of fate is a moral wrong, asking Enkidu what happened to his wisdom, why he now lets his "heart talk profanity (VII.71)." But Enkidu provides Gilgamesh with his first great lesson in coming to terms with his human limitations with a simple, stoical resignation: "People go to their doom before their time (VII.89)."
Enkidu seems resentful not so much of dying as of dying without glory. If this poem is the story of the human quest for immortality, Enkidu feels that he has utterly failed he is not dying in battle, where he can make his reputation, but rather in bed, of some mysterious illness. There is an interesting element of competition here, in which the rivalry between Gilgamesh and Enkidu--the rivalry explicit in the gods' creation of Enkidu as Gilgamesh's only equal--resurfaces. As much as Enkidu laments leaving his friend Gilgamesh, what he truly seems to regret is leaving Gilgamesh alone to continue to build up his reputation. Enkidu's curse of the hunter is telling. He resents the hunter for removing him from the wild, thus, initiating the chain of events that led to Enkidu's early death, a death that "let me be not as great as my friend (VII.95)."
This is not to say that the relationship between Enkidu and Gilgamesh is insincere. Gilgamesh's grief at Enkidu's death is deeply moving, and in his eulogy Gilgamesh rises to his greatest rhetorical heights. The funeral rites for Enkidu--and especially the gifts that Gilgamesh gives to Enkidu to take with him to the underworld--are detailed exhaustively. Gilgamesh seems bent on preserving what can be preserved of Enkidu's reputation, despite his companion's early death: he recounts Enkidu's interaction with every element of Uruk's society, and does not fail to give Enkidu his share of the credit for their heroic deeds. Notable, in particular, is that Gilgamesh's reaction to Enkidu's death is, in a sense, to turn himself into Enkidu. Gilgamesh vows to leave Uruk after Enkidu's funeral, to let his hair grow long and unkempt in mourning, to wear lion skins and "wander the wild (VIII.91)." He will become, to an extent, what Enkidu was before he came to Uruk. Part of the reason for this has to do with the extent of Gilgamesh's grief: he is moved to abandon civilization and wander alone. Part of it may have to do with the notion, prevalent in this poem, that the wilderness is the locus of immortality. Enkidu believes that he would not have died had he remained in the wilderness this is why he blames the hunter and the prostitute for bringing him to civilization. The wilderness seems to be where innocence breeds immortality.

Tablets IX-X
Summary
After Enkidu's funeral, Gilgamesh is overcome by the dual emotions of grief for his friend and fear of death. He resolves to wander the world in search of Uta-napishti, the eternal man, who possesses the secret of immortality. At nights he prays to the moon, Sin, to keep him safe, and does battle with lions, killing them and fashioning their skins into clothing. His guardian, the sun god Shamash, is concerned for him and warns him of the futility of his search. But Gilgamesh reasons that he will have an eternity of death for rest life is for living and searching.
Eventually Gilgamesh comes to the twin mountains of Mashu, which support the heavens. There he meets the deadly scorpion-men, who guard the gate through which the sun passes. They are impressed by Gilgamesh's godlike appearance and warn him against trying to pass through the path of the sun under the mountains. But Gilgamesh persists, and they allow him to enter the tunnel. For hours he walks in the darkness, racing against time to get out of the tunnel before the sun enters and burns him to death. Successful, he exits the tunnel into a beautiful garden, its fruit made of precious stones.
Gilgamesh has reached the seashore. This is the edge of the world, where the waters are deadly to human touch, but Gilgamesh must cross the ocean to find Uta-napishti. Here, in a tavern, lives Shiduri, a wise goddess. Taking Gilgamesh to be a thug, Shiduri bars the door of the tavern and speaks to him from the roof. He tells her who he is: Gilgamesh, the hero, who killed Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven. She cannot believe him: if he is who he claims to be, why is he wandering the world, miserable and disheveled? In response, he tells her about his friendship with Enkidu and how Enkidu's death has made him afraid of his own mortality. She gives him counsel: he cannot cross the ocean alone instead he must find Ur-shanabi, the ferryman of Uta-napishti. Gilgamesh does this, but, rushing impetuously into a fight, kills the Stone Men, the sailors who man Ur-shanabi's boat. Ur-shanabi himself asks who Gilgamesh is, and, in return, Gilgamesh offers the same story he told Shiduri about Enkidu's death and Gilgamesh's own subsequent fear of death.
Since the Stone Men are dead, Gilgamesh cuts punting-poles and uses them to propel himself and Ur-shanabi across the ocean when there are no more poles, they use their garments as a sail. Finally Gilgamesh reaches the other side and, using the now-familiar formula, explains his quest to Uta-napishti. Uta-napishti responds by reminding Gilgamesh of his good fortune: he is a king, not a fool, and ought not to act like a fool by abandoning his kingly duties and traveling the world. Uta-napishti segues from there into an extended speech about the inevitability of death, which is an eternal fact of life, ordained by the gods and unavoidable.
Commentary
The start of Tablet IX finds Gilgamesh wandering in the wild, bemoaning his own mortality. This moment of self-pity is remarkable because it segues seamlessly into several lines that Gilgamesh seems to narrate in the first person: "I came one night to a mountain pass (IX.8)." Indeed, there are a few episodes throughout the poem where Gilgamesh seems to be the narrator or where the narrator assumes Gilgamesh's perspective. The reader will recall, in this context, one of the accomplishments of Gilgamesh, enumerated in the paean that opens the poem: "He. set all his labors on a tablet of stone (I.10)." This may be understood figuratively: the "tablet of stone" may be a metaphor for the walls of Uruk, which Gilgamesh built and which serve as a monument to his achievements. But it also may be taken literally. Perhaps the claim being made here--the conceit that the poem's author is employing--is that Gilgamesh is autobiographical, the hero's own record of his journeys.
Whoever wrote or claimed to have written, Gilgamesh, it is clear that that person was intent on maximizing the amount of formalized repetition in the poem. In the account of Gilgamesh's race through the path of the sun, we have an outstanding example of this kind of repetition. Every double-hour Gilgamesh spends in the tunnel is accounted for in nearly identical terms in a kind of obsessively ritualistic retelling. It is as if the author is telling a rosary of hours. This episode in the tunnel is hardly the only instance of extensive, ceremonial repetition in the poem. There is, for instance, Gilgamesh's descriptions of his quest and of Enkidu, repetitions identical practically down to the last comma. There is the long litany of items Gilgamesh sends to the underworld with Enkidu, each accompanied by an identical prayer. This is a highly formal world, one senses, structured by repeated ceremonies, which, in turn, are built of repeated words and actions. It is a world where things move in cycles, looping back on themselves. Perhaps this repetition is a way of assuring people of the concrete reality of things, the certainty of things, in a world where the forces of fate could be arbitrary and capricious. It is also possible and even likely that all the formalized structures are in the service of an oral narrative tradition, which would thrive on the mnemonics of repetition.
Uta-napishti cuts through Gilgamesh's ritual of mournful introduction with the wisdom for which he is famed his other name, after all, is Atra-Hasis, "Surpassing Wise." He tells the hero, albeit slightly indirectly, what no one has dared say save Humbaba. (And Humbaba did not fare well after telling Gilgamesh the truth.) The truth, to Uta-napishti, is that Gilgamesh is acting like a fool. Uta-napishti does not make this assertion quite openly. Instead, he speaks of how superior Gilgamesh is to the fool. And yet, for all his advantages, it is implicit, and not at all subtly put, that Gilgamesh has chosen to act like a fool. Notice that Uta-napishti's description of the fool, ostensibly so much inferior to Gilgamesh, begins to sound a great deal like Gilgamesh. The fool is cloaked in rags so is Gilgamesh. The fool lacks advisors Gilgamesh ignores wise counsel, including that from the god Shamash. Gilgamesh abandons his court and travels the world pursuing sorrow and an impossible dream. Uta-napishti believes that Gilgamesh is wasting his life and his happiness, and that he is taking his many kingly advantages for granted in forfeiting them for a life of wandering. Uta-napishti is concerned here with the proper way for a king to behave: he believes Gilgamesh must accept his privileges gracefully, listen to council, and provision the temples of the gods. If we accept the conceit that Gilgamesh himself wrote Gilgamesh, then the poem may be seen as a king's cautionary advice to his successors about the proper way to behave in office. It is a story, then, about responsibility and duty.
Tablet XI
Summary
After Uta-napishti expounds on the inevitability of death, Gilgamesh points out the obvious flaw in his argument: if death is inescapable, then how did Uta-napishti himself become immortal? Uta-napishti responds by telling Gilgamesh the story of the Deluge.
The gods decided, in counsel, to destroy all mankind. The god Ea, however, told Uta-napishti of their plans and proposed a way to survive the devastation. Uta-napishti was to build a huge boat and to take on board a specimen of every living thing. In order to explain his boat-building, Uta-napishti was to tell the other townspeople that he had been driven from Shuruppak by the god Enlil and was going to live with Ea. The gods, Uta-napishti would tell the credulous masses, were preparing to send the world a rain of plenty.
Uta-napishti did as he was told, building a vast boat according to Ea's specifications and loading aboard every wild creature and humans equipped with every skill. There came a dawn when the horizon brooded with black clouds, and gods--foremost among them Adad, the god of the storm--unleashed the Deluge upon the earth. For six days and seven nights, the Deluge devastated everything even the gods were terrified at the ferocity of the downpour, and the mother goddess repented for acquiescing to the harm done her human children. On the seventh day the storm ended, and the boat ran aground. To determine whether the waters were receding, Uta-napishti dispatched first a dove, then a swallow, and finally a raven. The raven did not return, and Uta-napishti realized that the waters were indeed subsiding, and the raven had found a place to land. When Enlil realized that someone had escaped the Deluge, he became furious. Ea defended his own actions it was wrong of Enlil to attempt the total annihilation of mankind. Enlil seems to see reason in this and spares Uta-napishti, making his wife and him immortal.
Such immortality, Uta-napishti concludes, is patently unattainable for Gilgamesh who could convene a divine assembly for him? To prove that Gilgamesh is unsuited for immortality, Uta-napishti challenges him to do without sleep for a week. Almost immediately, Gilgamesh fails the challenge instead, he falls asleep for an entire week. Each day, Uta-napishti's wife bakes a loaf of bread and leaves it next to Gilgamesh. When he awakes and sees how moldy the older loaves are, he realizes how long he has slept. Gilgamesh is crushed now he sees the face of Death even in sleep.
Uta-napishti orders Gilgamesh bathed and clothed and tells Ur-shanabi to escort him back to Uruk. Gilgamesh, however, is reluctant to abandon his quest. So Uta-napishti tells him of a thorny plant that will rejuvenate the possessor. Immediately, Gilgamesh dives down into the Ocean Below--the freshwater ocean that the Babylonians believed existed under the seas--and emerges with the plant. On the way home, however, he is imprudent enough to forget the plant when he goes to bathe it is stolen by a snake and causes the snake to shed its skin and be rejuvenated. Sadly, Gilgamesh did not mark the place where he dived for the plant, and he berates himself for his improvidence. All that is left for him is to return to Uruk. As they arrive, Gilgamesh turns to Ur-shanabi and urges him to inspect and admire the walls around the city, the walls built by Gilgamesh himself.
Commentary
Uta-napishti's tale of the Deluge should sound familiar: Gilgamesh's conception of the great flood shares a great deal with the later Biblical story of Noah. But whereas the Bible ascribes the Deluge to God's anger at human wickedness, Gilgamesh does not explain why the gods--Enlil foremost among them--chose to annihilate their creations. For the reasoning behind that, we must turn to other ancient Babylonian sources, cited by Andrew George in the introduction to his translation of Gilgamesh. These sources tell the story of antediluvian mankind's uncontrolled proliferation, which angered the god Enlil, who was kept from sleeping soundly by mankind's constant noisemaking. His final solution to this noise was the utter annihilation of all people. When the Deluge failed as a result of Ea's trickery, the gods determined to curb man's proliferation in another way: they limited the human lifespan, making man mortal.
So man was immortal before the Deluge. And through learning the secret of Uta-napishti's immortality, Gilgamesh begins to understand why it is that he cannot be immortal: the story of the Deluge is the story not just of Uta-napishti's eternal life but of the rest of mankind's necessary mortality. The Deluge is not just tangentially relevant to this story. It is the source of Gilgamesh's frustration, what separates him from the godlike immortality he craves.
Certainly, the Deluge and its aftermath were catastrophic for men individually, costing them their immortality, but they were also catastrophic for men as a group, for human civilization. The Deluge, ancient tradition holds, destroyed every trace of human society. Everything had to be rebuilt from the ground up. And herein lies one of the wonderful ironies of the poem. Gilgamesh's quest for immortality can be seen as a quest to recapture life as it was before the cataclysm that was the Deluge this quest fails, in the sense that Gilgamesh does not achieve immortality. But it succeeds in a way that Gilgamesh himself did not anticipate. It is Gilgamesh, in the end, who restores civilization to its antediluvian sophistication. His success is not so much personal as cultural. His great triumphs were not his victories in battle but rather his contributions to Babylonian society. He was the one who "restores the cult-centers destroyed by the Deluge,/ and set in place for the people the rites of the cosmos (I.43-44)," so that Gilgamesh's visit to Uta-napishti was, in fact, wildly successful, leaving Gilgamesh with the wisdom necessary to become a good king and to reorder the ancient world.
Gilgamesh's wisdom lies, finally, in a proper appreciation of himself and his role in society and in the cosmos. He learns from Uta-napishti to appreciate his good fortune as a king, and he learns from him also the importance of listening to good counsel. For practically the first time, under Uta-napishti's roof, Gilgamesh shows restraint: my first instinct was to fight you, he admits, but I would prefer to hear your advice. Uta-napishti teaches Gilgamesh about the importance of accepting frustration and failure. And this, in turn, teaches him to more fully value his truly important achievements. When he returns to Uruk, he speaks to Ur-shanabi about the walls he has built and the city that has grown up under his reign. Gilgamesh's attainment of wisdom is symbolized by his descent to the Ocean Below, the domain of Ea. Ea is the wise god who advocates for man, who helped Uta-napishti escape the Deluge, and who sent the Seven Sages to civilize mankind.
The final irony of Gilgamesh, of course, is that Gilgamesh does achieve immortality. He leaves his mark writ large on the walls of Uruk. He is immortalized in the oldest surviving literary epic, which--according to a tradition within the poem itself--was written by Gilgamesh himself. The man credited with helping to rebuild civilization after the Deluge, Gilgamesh achieved eternal life as a cultural hero of the Babylonians. And, finally, he becomes, according to Babylonian myth, literally immortalized. After his death, Gilgamesh becomes a god, responsible for judging and ruling the underworld. He was, in a sense, forever reunited with Enkidu.
Study Questions
1. Even if Gilgamesh technically fulfills the criteria that would make it an epic (like Homer's Iliad or Milton's Paradise Lost), there is room to argue that, in fact, a poem like Gilgamesh is better classified otherwise: as myth, perhaps, or as wisdom literature. Make a case for Gilgamesh as a part of a literary tradition other than, or in addition to, the epic tradition.
2. Despite the emotional restraint with which Gilgamesh is written, it is evident that the relationship between Gilgamesh and his companion Enkidu is tremendously complex and deeply felt. What are the attitudes that the two bring to the relationship? Do the two heroes differ in their attitudes toward each other?
3. Gilgamesh is a tremendously old text we receive it through many different cultural filters, as well as through the always idiosyncratic filter of translation. The tradition of Babylonian literature is so different from our own that it is difficult for the non-expert to speak with any competence about the stylistic tropes in the text. Try for a moment, however, to think of Gilgamesh outside of historical context and cultural contingencies. Think of Gilgamesh merely as a poem. What can you say about the poem's use of the poet's devices of language? Make an argument with reference to specific textual examples.
4. Like Achilles, the tragic hero of The Iliad, Gilgamesh is the son of a goddess. It might be argued that just as Homer's epic tells the story of Achilles wrestling with his mortality, Gilgamesh is also concerned with the destiny of a man caught between divinity and humanity. What does Gilgamesh have to say about Gilgamesh's place in the cosmic hierarchy? About the relationship between men and gods?
5. Obviously, there are many parallels between the Gilgamesh narrative and certain stories familiar from the Hebrew Bible, chief among them the stories of the Deluge and the Flood. What are the important differences between the two retellings of this story? What do these differences let us know about the ancient Babylonian worldview?
6. It can be argued that Gilgamesh contains a set of allegories, stories with literal meanings but also with figurative significance for Babylonian attitudes toward life. Find an instance in the narrative of a story, or incident, that might have a secondary level of signification beyond the literal sense of the text and elaborate on the importance of that secondary significance in our understanding of the epic.
7. Gilgamesh grapples with the problem of fate throughout this poem. How does Gilgamesh conceive of fate? Is it similar to the Greek notion of fate or destiny? Is it irreversible? What are the attitudes of the major characters toward fate? Does Gilgamesh's eventual, posthumous deification represent a victory over fate or for fate?
8. What is the relationship in this novel between the ideas of the wild and the civilized? Pay attention to the relationships between Enkidu and Gilgamesh, Humbaba and Enkidu, Gilgamesh and his subjects, and the town of Uruk and the surrounding wilderness.
9. Is Gilgamesh a hero? This is a question asked both of you personally and of your sense of the poem. Does Gilgamesh, written long before the Greeks formalized the idea of heroism, even have a concept of the heroic? If so, then what are the traits that Gilgamesh associates with heroism? Do you think that they are the appropriate traits? Does Gilgamesh have them? What about Enkidu?
10. Gilgamesh begins as it ends, with a description of the mighty walls around Uruk we have come full circle. In between, we are presumably supposed to have gained a sense of how Gilgamesh, the greatest king of Uruk, developed as a person. Most importantly, as the first few verses of the poem imply, we are supposed to have learned how Gilgamesh attained wisdom. But does Gilgamesh truly attain wisdom? How did the callow young tyrant become, as he is alleged to be, "wise in all matters" (I.2)? How is wisdom defined in Gilgamesh? What does Gilgamesh learn, and how does he learn it?

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His face is that of a lion. “When he looks at someone, it is the look of death.” “Huwawa’s roar is a flood, his mouth is death and his breath is fire! He can hear a hundred leagues away any [rustling?] in his forest! Who would go down into his forest!” In various examples, his face is scribed in a single coiling line like that of the coiled entrails of men and beasts, from which omens might be read. This has led to the name “Guardian of the Fortress of Intestines.”

Huwawa is first mentioned in Tablet II of the Epic of Gilgamesh: after Gilgamesh and Enkidu become friends following their initial fight, they set out on an adventure to the Cedar Forest beyond the seventh mountain range, to slay Huwawa (Humbaba): “Enkidu,” Gilgamesh vows, “since a man cannot pass beyond the final end of life, I want to set off into the mountains, to establish my renown there.” Gilgamesh tricks the monster into giving away his seven “radiances” by offering his sisters as wife and concubine. When Huwawa’s guard is down, Gilgamesh punches him and captures the monster. Defeated, Humbaba appeals to a receptive Gilgamesh for mercy, but Enkidu convinces Gilgamesh to slay Huwawa. In a last effort, Humbaba tries to escape but is decapitated by Enkidu, or in some versions by both heroes together his head is put in a leather sack, which is brought to Enlil, the god who set Huwawa as the forest’s guardian. Enlil becomes enraged upon learning this and redistributes Humbaba’s seven splendors (or in some tablets “auras”). “He gave Humbaba’s first aura to the fields. He gave his second aura to the rivers. He gave his third aura to the reed-beds. He gave his fourth to the lions. He gave his fifth aura to the palace (one text has debt slaves). He gave his sixth aura to the forests (one text has the hills). He gave his seventh aura to Nungal.” No vengeance was laid upon the heroes, though Enlil says, “He should have eaten the bread that you eat, and should have drunk the water that you drink! He should have been honored and praised.

As each gift was given by Gilgamesh, he received from Humbaba a “terror” (= “radiance”) in exchange, from Huwawa. The seven gifts successively given by Gilgamesh were:

  1. his sister, Ma-tur,
  2. (a gap in the text),
  3. eca-flour,
  4. big shoes,
  5. tiny shoes,
  6. semi-precious stones, and
  7. a bundle of tree-branches.

While Gilgamesh thus distracts and tricks this spirit of the cedar forest, the fifty unmarried young men he has brought on the adventure are felling cedar timber, stripping it of its branches and laying it “in many piles on the hillside,” ready to be taken away. Thus the adventure reveals itself in the context of a timber raid, bringing cedar wood to timberless Mesopotamia.

As his death approaches, and Gilgamesh is oppressed with his own mortality, the gods remind him of his great feats: “…having fetched cedar, the unique tree, from its mountains, having killed Humbaba in the forest…”

The iconography of the apotropaic severed head of Humbaba, with staring eyes, flowing beard and wild hair, is well documented from the First Babylonian Dynasty, continuing into Neo-Assyrian art and dying away during the Achaemenid rule. The decapitated head of the monstrous Humbaba found a Greek parallel in the myth of Perseus and the similarly employed head of Medusa, which Perseus placed in his leather sack. Archaic Greek depictions of the gorgoneion render it bearded, an anomaly in the female Gorgon. Judith McKenzie detected Humbaba heads in a Nabatean tomb frieze at Petra.


The story begins by introducing Gilgamesh, king of Uruk. Gilgamesh, two-thirds god and one-third man, is oppressing his people, who are crying out to the gods for help. For the young women of Uruk this oppression takes the form of a droit de seigneur — or "lord's right" to sleep with newly married brides on their wedding night. For the young men (the tablet is damaged at this point) it is conjectured that Gilgamesh is exhausting them through games, tests of strength, or perhaps forced labour on building projects. The gods respond to their pleas by creating an equal to Gilgamesh in order to distract him. They create a primitive man, Enkidu, who is covered in hair and lives in the wild with the animals. He is spotted by a trapper, whose livelihood is being ruined because Enkidu is uprooting his traps. The trapper tells Gilgamesh about the man, and it is arranged for Enkidu to be seduced by a harlot. This seduction by Shamhat, a temple prostitute, is Enkidu's first step toward being tamed, and after seven days of making love with him, she proposes to take him back to Uruk. Gilgamesh, meanwhile, has been having dreams that relate to the imminent arrival of a loved new companion.

Shamhat brings Enkidu to a shepherds' camp, where he is introduced to a human diet and becomes the night watchman. Learning from a passing stranger about Gilgamesh's treatment of new brides, Enkidu is incensed and travels to Uruk to intervene at a wedding. When Gilgamesh attempts to visit the wedding chamber, Enkidu blocks his way, and they fight. After a fierce battle, Enkidu acknowledges Gilgamesh's superior strength and they become friends. Gilgamesh proposes a journey to the Cedar Forest to slay the monstrous demi-god Humbaba, in order to gain fame and renown. Despite warnings from Enkidu and the council of elders, Gilgamesh will not be deterred.

The elders give Gilgamesh advice for his journey. Gilgamesh visits his mother, the goddess Ninsun, who seeks the support and protection of the sun-god Shamash for their adventure. Ninsun adopts Enkidu as her son, and Gilgamesh leaves instructions for the governance of Uruk in his absence.

Gilgamesh and Enkidu journey to Lebanon Cedar Forest. Every few days they camp on a mountain, and perform a dream ritual. Gilgamesh has five terrifying dreams about falling mountains, thunderstorms, wild bulls, and a thunderbird that breathes fire. Despite similarities between his dream figures and earlier descriptions of Humbaba, Enkidu interprets these dreams as good omens, and denies that the frightening images represent the forest guardian. As they approach the cedar mountain, they hear Humbaba bellowing, and have to encourage each other not to be afraid.

The heroes enter the cedar forest. Humbaba, the ogre-guardian of the Cedar Forest, insults and threatens them. He accuses Enkidu of betrayal, and vows to disembowel Gilgamesh and feed his flesh to the birds. Gilgamesh is afraid, but with some encouraging words from Enkidu the battle commences. The mountains quake with the tumult and the sky turns black. The god Shamash sends 13 winds to bind Humbaba, and he is captured. The monster pleads for his life, and Gilgamesh pities him. Enkidu, however, is enraged and asks Gilgamesh to kill the beast. Humbaba curses them both and Gilgamesh dispatches him with a blow to the neck. The two heroes cut down many cedars, including a gigantic tree that Enkidu plans to fashion into a gate for the temple of Enlil. They build a raft and return home along the Euphrates with the giant tree and the head of Humbaba.

Gilgamesh rejects the advances of the goddess Ishtar because of her mistreatment of previous lovers like Dumuzi. Ishtar asks her father Anu to send Gugalanna the Bull of Heaven to avenge her. When Anu rejects her complaints, Ishtar threatens to raise the dead who will "outnumber the living" and "devour them". Anu becomes frightened, and gives in to her. Ishtar leads the bull of heaven to Uruk, and it causes widespread devastation. It lowers the level of the Euphrates river, and dries up the marshes. It opens up huge pits that swallow 300 men. Without any divine assistance, Enkidu and Gilgamesh attack and slay it, and offer up its heart to Shamash. When Ishtar cries out, Enkidu hurls one of the hindquarters of the bull at her. The city of Uruk celebrates, but Enkidu has an ominous dream.

In Enkidu's dream, the gods decide that one of the heroes must die because they killed Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven. Despite the protestations of Shamash, Enkidu is marked for death. Enkidu curses the great door he has fashioned for Enlil's temple. He also curses the trapper and Shamhat for removing him from the wild. Shamash reminds Enkidu of how Shamhat fed and clothed him, and introduced him to Gilgamesh. Shamash tells him that Gilgamesh will bestow great honors upon him at his funeral, and will wander into the wild consumed with grief. Enkidu regrets his curses and blesses Shamhat. In a second dream however he sees himself being taken captive to the Netherworld by a terrifying Angel of Death. The underworld is a "house of dust" and darkness whose inhabitants eat clay, and are clothed in bird feathers, supervised by terrifying beings. For 12 days, Enkidu's condition worsens. Finally, after a lament that he could not meet a heroic death in battle, he dies.

Gilgamesh delivers a lamentation for Enkidu, in which he calls upon mountains, forests, fields, rivers, wild animals, and all of Uruk to mourn for his friend. Recalling their adventures together, Gilgamesh tears at his hair and clothes in grief. He commissions a funerary statue, and provides grave gifts from his treasury to ensure that Enkidu has a favourable reception in the realm of the dead. A great banquet is held where the treasures are offered to the gods of the Netherworld. Just before a break in the text there is a suggestion that a river is being dammed, indicating a burial in a river bed, as in the corresponding Sumerian poem, The Death of Gilgamesh.

Tablet nine opens with Gilgamesh roaming the wild clothed in animal skins, grieving for Enkidu. Fearful of his own death, he decides to seek Utnapishtim ("the Faraway"), and learn the secret of eternal life. Among the few survivors of the Great Flood, Utnapishtim and his wife are the only humans to have been granted immortality by the gods. Gilgamesh crosses a mountain pass at night and encounters a pride of lions. Before sleeping he prays for protection to the moon god Sin. Then, waking from an encouraging dream, he kills the lions and uses their skins for clothing. After a long and perilous journey, Gilgamesh arrives at the twin peaks of Mount Mashu at the end of the earth. He comes across a tunnel, which no man has ever entered, guarded by two terrible scorpion-men. After questioning him and recognizing his semi-divine nature, they allow him to enter it, and he passes under the mountains along the Road of the Sun. In complete darkness he follows the road for 12 "double hours", managing to complete the trip before the Sun catches up with him. He arrives at the Garden of the gods, a paradise full of jewel-laden trees.

Meeting the ale wife Siduri, who assumes, because of his dishevelled appearance, that he is a murderer or thief, Gilgamesh tells her about the purpose of his journey. She attempts to dissuade him from his quest, but sends him to Urshanabi the ferryman, who will help him cross the sea to Utnapishtim. Gilgamesh, out of spontaneous rage, destroys the stone-giants that live with Urshanabi. He tells him his story, but when he asks for his help, Urshanabi informs him that he has just destroyed the only creatures who can cross the Waters of Death, which are deadly to the touch. Urshanabi instructs Gilgamesh to cut down 300 trees, and fashion them into punting poles. When they reach the island where Utnapishtim lives, Gilgamesh recounts his story asking him for his help. Utnapishtim reprimands him, declaring that fighting the common fate of humans is futile and diminishes life's joys.

Gilgamesh observes that Utnapishtim seems no different from himself, and asks him how he obtained his immortality. Utnapishtim explains that the gods decided to send a great flood. To save Utnapishtim the god Ea told him to build a boat. He gave him precise dimensions, and it was sealed with pitch and bitumen. His entire family went aboard, together with his craftsmen and "all the animals of the field". A violent storm then arose which caused the terrified gods to retreat to the heavens. Ishtar lamented the wholesale destruction of humanity, and the other gods wept beside her. The storm lasted six days and nights, after which "all the human beings turned to clay". Utnapishtim weeps when he sees the destruction. His boat lodges on a mountain, and he releases a dove, a swallow, and a raven. When the raven fails to return, he opens the ark and frees its inhabitants. Utnapishtim offers a sacrifice to the gods, who smell the sweet savor and gather around. Ishtar vows that just as she will never forget the brilliant necklace that hangs around her neck, she will always remember this time. When Enlil arrives, angry that there are survivors, she condemns him for instigating the flood. Ea also castigates him for sending a disproportionate punishment. Enlil blesses Utnapishtim and his wife, and rewards them with eternal life. This account matches the flood story that concludes the Epic of Atrahasis (see also Gilgamesh flood myth).

The main point seems to be that when Enlil granted eternal life it was a unique gift. As if to demonstrate this point, Utnapishtim challenges Gilgamesh to stay awake for six days and seven nights. Gilgamesh falls asleep, and Utnapishtim instructs his wife to bake a loaf of bread on each of the days he is asleep, so that he cannot deny his failure to keep awake. Gilgamesh, who is seeking to overcome death, cannot even conquer sleep. After instructing Urshanabi the ferryman to wash Gilgamesh, and clothe him in royal robes, they depart for Uruk.

As they are leaving, Utnapishtim's wife asks her husband to offer a parting gift. Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh that at the bottom of the sea there lives a boxthorn-like plant that will make him young again. Gilgamesh, by binding stones to his feet so he can walk on the bottom, manages to obtain the plant. He intends to test it on an old man when he returns to Uruk. Unfortunately, when Gilgamesh stops to bathe, it is stolen by a serpent, who sheds its skin as it departs. Gilgamesh weeps at the futility of his efforts, because he has now lost all chance of immortality. He returns to Uruk, where the sight of its massive walls prompts him to praise this enduring work to Urshanabi.

This tablet is mainly an Akkadian translation of an earlier Sumerian poem, Gilgamesh and the Netherworld (also known as "Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Netherworld" and variants), although it has been suggested that it is derived from an unknown version of that story.[3]:42 The contents of this last tablet are inconsistent with previous ones: Enkidu is still alive, despite having been killed off earlier in the epic. Because of this, its lack of integration with the other tablets, and the fact that it is almost a copy of an earlier version, it has been referred to as an 'inorganic appendage' to the epic.[10] Alternatively, it has been suggested that "its purpose, though crudely handled, is to explain to Gilgamesh (and the reader) the various fates of the dead in the Afterlife" and in "an awkward attempt to bring closure",[11] it both connects the Gilgamesh of the epic with the Gilgamesh who is the King of the Netherworld, and is "a dramatic capstone whereby the twelve-tablet epic ends on one and the same theme, that of "seeing" (= understanding, discovery, etc.), with which it began."

Gilgamesh complains to Enkidu that various of his possessions (the tablet is unclear exactly what — different translations include a drum and a ball) have fallen into the underworld. Enkidu offers to bring them back. Delighted, Gilgamesh tells Enkidu what he must and must not do in the underworld if he is to return. Enkidu does everything which he was told not to do. The underworld keeps him. Gilgamesh prays to the gods to give him back his friend. Enlil and Suen don't reply, but Ea and Shamash decide to help. Shamash makes a crack in the earth, and Enkidu's ghost jumps out of it. The tablet ends with Gilgamesh questioning Enkidu about what he has seen in the underworld.


The Great Myths #22: The Monster Humbaba (Mesopotamian)

Gilgamesh and his companion Enkidu face Humbaba, the guardian of the cedar forests of Lebanon. The tablets where the story is found contain many breaks, indicated throughout with an ellipsis and the translation used here fills in some gaps by integrating other versions of the story.

Also, in our day and age, the story can easily be seen as an ecological parable where urban existence, as ever, means the ruination of nature. It’s not hard to recast Enkidu and Gilgamesh as the monsters:

Humbaba opened is mouth to speak,
saying to Gilgamesh:
“Let fools take counsel, Gilgamesh, with the rude and brutish!
Why have you come here into my presence?

“Come, Enkidu, you spawn of a fish, who knew no father,
hatchling of terrapin and turtle, who sucked no mother’s milk!
In your youth I watched you, but near you I went not,
would your … have filled my belly?

“Now in treachery you bring before me Gilgamesh,
and stand there, Enkidu, like a warlike stranger!
I will slit the throat and gullet of Gilgamesh,
I will feed his flesh to the locust bird, ravening eagle and vulture!”

Gilgamesh opened his mouth to speak, saying to Enkidu:
“My friend, Humbaba’s features have changed!
Though boldly we came up to his lair to defeat him,
yet my hear will not quickly…”

Enkidu opened his mouth to speak,
saying to Gilgamesh:
“Why, my friend, do you speak like a weakling?
With your spineless words you make me despondent.

“Now, my friend, but one is our task,
the copper is already pouring into the mould!
To stoke the furnace for an hour? To … the coals for an hour?
To send the Deluge is to crack the whip!”

“Don’t draw back, don’t make a retreat!
… make your blow mighty!”

Fifty lines later, after Humbaba has been captured, he begs Enkidu:

“You are experienced in the ways of my forest, the ways …,
also you know all the arts of speech.
I should have picked you up and hanged you from the sapling at the way into the forest,
I should have fed your flesh to the locust bird, ravening eagle and vulture.

“Now, Enkidu, my release lies with you:
tell Gilgamesh to spare me my life!”
Enkidu opened his mouth to speak,
saying to Gilgamesh:

“My friend, Humbaba who guards the Forest of Cedar:
finish him, slay him, do away with his power!
Humbaba who guards the Forest of Cedar:
finish him, slay him, do away with his power,
before Enlil the foremost hears what we do!

“The great gods will take against us in anger,
Enlil and Nippur, Shamash in Larsa…,
Establish for ever a fame that endures,
how Gilgamesh slew ferocious Humbaba!

“Smite him again, slay his servant alongside him!”
Gilgamesh heard the word of his companion.
He took up his axe in his hand,
he drew forth the dirk from his belt.

Gilgamesh smote him in the neck,
his friend Enkidu gave encouragement.
He … he fell,
the ravines did run with his blood.

Humbaba the guardian he smote to the ground,
for two leagues afar …
With him he slew …
the woods he …

He slew the ogre, the forest’s guardian,
at whose yell were sundered the peaks of Sirion and Lebanon,
… the mountains did quake
… all the hillsides did tremble.

He slew the ogre, the cedar’s guardian,
the broken …
As soon as he had slain all seven of the auras [Humbaba’s powers]
the war-net of two talents’ weight, and the dirk of eight,

a load of ten talents he took up,
he went down to trample the forest.
He discovered the secret abode of the gods,
Gilgamesh felling the trees, Enkidu choosing the timber.

[Enkidu] The Wild-Born knew how to given counsel,
he said to his friend:

“By your strength alone you slew the guardian,
what can bring you dishonor? Lay low the Forest of Cedar!
Seek out for me a lofty cedar,
whose crown is high as the heavens!

“I will make a door of the reed-lengths breadth,
let is not have a pivot, let it travel in a door-jamb.
Its side will be a cubit, a reed-length its breadth,
let no stranger draw near it, let a god have love for it.

“To the house of Enlil the Euphrates shall bear it,
let the folk of Nippur rejoice over it!
Let the god Enlil delight in it.

They bound together a raft, they laid the cedar on it,
Enkidu was helmsman …,
and Gilgamesh carried the head of Humbaba.


The killing of Humbaba (Gilgamesh epic part 1)

Enkidu and Gilgamesh join forces to slay the monster Humbaba.

The story of Gilgamesh and Enkidu is one of the oldest written stories of humankind, dating back to ancient Mesopotamia. It is an epic tale, covering heroes, monsters, divine intervention, death, and immortality.

The story starts with Gilgamesh, the fifth king of the ancient Sumerian city Uruk. Since his father was a hero, and his mother was a goddess, Gilgamesh was surely bound to become a true legend himself. After all, he possesses superhuman strength, stamina, intelligence, and charisma. The stuff of legends indeed. How lucky his subjects in Uruk must have felt for such a hero to rule over them. Right?

Worst ruler ever

Wrong. Although Gilgamesh possesses all traits required for heroism, he turns out to be quite the tyrant. He is a man without equal and he is well-aware of it. He suffers from a mental disease we all know too well these days: an inflated ego. Not only does he take whatever he wants from his subjects, but he is also known to rape and murder amongst his people, never feeling satisfied. After a while, the citizens of Uruk just cannot take it any longer. They start praying to the gods, asking them to soothe their king’s temper.

The goddess Ninhursag listens to the prayers of the people, and she fashions a man out of clay: Enkidu. She makes sure that Enkidu gets a temper that matches the ferocity of Gilgamesh. If Gilgamesh would find a companion that was his equal, maybe he would calm down a bit. In the end, what she creates is a 2/3 beast and 1/3 human. This description says quite a lot about the nature of both Enkidu and Gilgamesh. She then drops Enkidu in the wilderness, leaving him to live amongst the animals as a wild man.

A prophetic dream

Meanwhile, Gilgamesh dreams of a falling star landing in Uruk. When he wakes up, he consults his mother about the meaning of the dream. She happily explains that it means he will finally get to experience true friendship, the falling star representing the coming of a man that will be his equal: his ‘other half’.

Shortly after, a hunter spots a man amongst the wild animals just outside Uruk. This man has a savage look to him, wearing animal skins and having fur cover a large part of his body. Moreover, he walks and runs on all fours and seems to be able to speak with the animals around him. What’s worse (for the hunter): the wild man is freeing the wild animals that the hunter caught in his trappings.

Naturally, this man is Enkidu. But the Sumerians, the hunter included, do not know of his existence yet. Terrified, the hunter goes back home and reports to his father what he has just witnessed in the forest. His father tells him to travel to Uruk to ask wise King Gilgamesh for counsel. He will surely know what to do.

The ‘taming’ of Enkidu

After listening to the hunter’s plea for help, the King offers him wise counsel. He orders a prostitute to ‘tame’ the wild man. Somehow, his subjects think this is a great idea, and a woman called Shamhat (a temple prostitute) is selected to go back with the hunter to face the wild man. Enkidu is intrigued by her and Shamhat takes him back to a cabin. Enkidu proves to have godlike stamina. He makes love to Shamhat for 7 days in a row.

And then a strange thing happens: Enkidu shows an increasing number of human traits during and after these days. His understanding of the world has become fundamentally different and his wisdom has increased. But there is a downside to all of this: when he returns to his animal friends, they run away from him. When trying to talk to them, they do not seem to understand him any longer. When he chases after them, he finds that he has lost the knowledge of running fast on all fours. He had gained a lot of wisdom and, presumably, happiness during his 7-days love-making to Shamhat. He had become a magnificent human being, yet he had lost his place in the world.

Another wild man in Uruk

Filled with frustration, he returns to Uruk with Shamhat. During their travels, they come across other Sumerians, who all notice that Enkidu is a mighty man. They tell him about the city of Uruk and their King Gilgamesh, who is without a doubt the mightiest man around. Upon entering Uruk, testosterone takes over in Enkidu’s mind. He is determined to show the world what he is made of and starts shouting that he wants to prove his prowess by defeating King Gilgamesh in one-on-one combat. He does not have to wait too long, as the King soon steps forward to meet his challenger.

An epic showdown between Gilgamesh and Enkidu soon follows as the King and the wild man start wrestling each other amidst a gathering crowd. Any other regular foe would quickly be defeated, but these men would prove to be a perfect match for one another. As the fight continues, they both realize that their foe to be worthy. Not just a worthy competitor, but also a worthy companion. They end their match in a draw, leaving the battle outcome undecided, and decide that they will be best friends from that point onwards. Both of them finally had found the friend that they had been searching for.

A thirst for fame

Although Gilgamesh has found friendship, he still hungers for fame and adventure. As time passes, this hunger keeps growing inside of him. This is when he starts looking for a quest. He knows about a notorious demon that dwells in a faraway forest, which is called Humbaba. Soon after, he informs his subjects that he will take off to slay the beast, and he asks Enkidu to join him in his quest for glory and fame.

At first, Enkidu declines the invite of Gilgamesh. Not only has he started to enjoy his stay in Uruk, but he also warns that slaying Humbaba is a perilous endeavor. He explains that Humbaba is not just any demon, but that it is a protector of the forest, who has been installed by the gods themselves. Killing the beast would surely anger the gods.

Enkidu is not the only one warning against the quest. The King’s mother also begs Gilgamesh not to go, fearing that she cannot protect him against the wrath of Humbaba. When she realizes that she cannot change her son’s mind, she decides to adopt Enkidu into her family and tasks him with the protection of Gilgamesh on his quest. Enkidu, now bound by brotherly bonds, accepts the task and goes with his brother.

Questing towards Humbaba

Humbaba has been described in a multitude of ways: as an ogre, a giant, or a chimera. All accounts agree that it was a terrifying creature, who had killed many humans already and who masters the art of human speech. It is Enkidu who offers some extra insight, explaining that he has encountered Humbaba while living amongst the wild animals. He explains that Humbaba’s breath is like fire, his jaws are like death, his hearing is impeccable, and his body never requires sleep. Finally, all foes of Humbaba are overcome by fear. So when facing Humbaba, one does not only have to face the creature but fear itself as well.

Surely one would not face Humbaba willingly? But Gilgamesh longs for fame and glory. He understands that it might not be easy, but he feels like he has to slay the beast anyway. Therefore, he travels together with Enkidu to the forest lair of the beast.

The journey there

It takes them six days to complete their journey. It would have taken several weeks for normal human beings. As they draw near to the lair of Humbaba, King Gilgamesh starts to suffer from horrible nightmares.

So each night, Gilgamesh wakes up in the middle of the night, terrorized by nightmares. And each morning, Enkidu explains the meaning of these dreams. In his first nightmare, the King is crushed by a mountain. This mountain surely represents Humbaba, who overcomes Gilgamesh with great force. But his dreams become less fearsome when he is saved by a young man who radiates light. Enkidu explains that this young man represents Utu, who is the sun god, and that he will come to aid the two heroes when facing off against Humbaba. So Gilgamesh and Enkidu decide to try and get on the good side of Utu by making several sacrifices to him, asking him for his assistance in their quest.

Entering the cedar forest

Finally, Gilgamesh and Enkidu enter the realm of the gods, the Cedar Forest. The legends about Humbaba prove to be true, as brave Gilgamesh is suddenly filled with fear. He prays for Utu for guidance, and his prayers do not go unanswered. Utu instructs him to attack Humbaba now, as he is not at his full power.

So Gilgamesh and Enkidu seek out the beast, who has been waiting for them deep in the forest. Humbaba recognizes them both and knows why they are here. He growls that they are fools to have entered the Cedar Forest and that they are fools to challenge him. He is, after all, the guardian of the forest and backed by the gods.

The killing of Humbaba

Gilgamesh and Enkidu fight for their lives as they battle with Humbaba. Humbaba’s otherworldly speed and strength allow him to dodge and parry every blow of their weapons. Throughout the battle, there are several moments when one of the brothers is paralyzed by fear. The other brother then helps him overcome that fear, underlining that there is strength in numbers. But even with the brothers’ powers combined, they prove to be outmatched by the beast. When things start to look bad for our heroes, Utu decides to help them out. He throws strong winds at Humbaba from all directions to lock him in place. The beast is stuck.

Gilgamesh seizes the opportunity and captures Humbaba by bringing his blade to his throat. Humbaba realizes that he is beaten and tries to convince Gilgamesh to spare his life. He offers himself to become Gilgamesh’s slave, he warns him of the wrath of the gods if he is killed, and finally, he curses Gilgamesh and Enkidu when he realizes all hope is lost. When Humbaba utters the curse, Gilgamesh hesitates. Will he defy the gods by killing the guardian of their forest? It is Enkidu who urges him to slay the beast, reasoning that they already defied the gods by going on this quest. And so Gilgamesh beheads Humbaba and ends the beast’s existence once and for all.

To be continued

Whether the slaying of Humbaba was good or evil seems to be debatable. Did Gilgamesh kill a monster or a divine guardian? Regardless of the answer, slaying Humbaba was most definitely an act of greatness (albeit morally questionable). Gilgamesh and Enkidu return to Uruk, where fame and festivals await them. But the curse of Humbaba might turn out to haunt them for the rest of their lives.


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Subordinate to and sukkul or charioteer of the sun-god Šamaš, whom he drove from the eastern horizon at dawn to the doorway of the interior of heaven in the west at dusk in a daily ritual. Rebuilt by Nabonidus, the last king of the Neo-Babylonian Empire and he also featured in the pantheons at Uruk and Larsa, where his patron was also venerated. Wikipedia

Unknown language or languages of the Bronze Age Harappan civilization (Indus Valley Civilization, or IVC). The language being unattested in any readable contemporary source, hypotheses regarding its nature are reduced to purported loanwords and substratum influence, notably the substratum in Vedic Sanskrit and a few terms recorded in Sumerian cuneiform (such as Meluhha), in conjunction with analyses of the undeciphered Indus script. Wikipedia

Monstrous demon, so hideous that his presence alone makes fish boil alive in the rivers. Said to be accompanied into battle by an army of rock demon offspring—born of his union with the mountains themselves. Wikipedia

The history of the Assyrian people begins with the appearance of Akkadian speaking peoples in Mesopotamia at some point between 3500 and 3000 BC, followed by the formation of Assyria in the 25th century BC. During the early Bronze Age period Sargon of Akkad united all the native Semitic-speakers and the Sumerians of Mesopotamia (including the Assyrians) under the Akkadian Empire (2335–2154 BC). Independent state between 615–599 BC. Wikipedia

Sky deity who represents the Sun, or an aspect of it, usually by its perceived power and strength. Solar deities and Sun worship can be found throughout most of recorded history in various forms. Wikipedia

Ancient Semitic-speaking people from the Levant who also occupied large parts of southern Mesopotamia from the 21st century BC to the end of the 17th century BC, where they established several prominent city-states in existing locations, such as Isin, Larsa and later notably Babylon, which was raised from a small town to an independent state and a major city. The term Amurru in Akkadian and Sumerian texts refers to both of them and to their principal deity. Wikipedia

Feral children, children who have lived from a young age without human contact, appear in mythological and fictional works, usually as human characters who have been raised by animals. Benefit to them, protecting them from the corrupting influence of human society , or permitting the development and expression of their own animal nature (Enkidu), or providing access to the wisdom and lore by which animals survive in the wild (Mowgli). Wikipedia

The official sun god of the later Roman Empire and a patron of soldiers. Official religion alongside the traditional Roman cults. Wikipedia

Symbol representing the Sun. Common solar symbols include circles (with or without rays), crosses, and spirals. Wikipedia

Described in the biblical Book of Samuel as a Philistine giant defeated by the young David in single combat. The story signified Saul's unfitness to rule, as Saul himself should have fought for Israel. Wikipedia

The national god of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, with origins reaching at least to the early Iron Age and apparently to the Late Bronze Age. Storm-and-warrior deity who leads the heavenly army against Israel's enemies at that time the Israelites worshipped him alongside a variety of Canaanite gods and goddesses, including El, Asherah and Baal, but in later centuries El and Yahweh became conflated and El-linked epithets such as El Shaddai came to be applied to Yahweh alone, and other gods and goddesses such as Baal and Asherah were absorbed into the Yahwistic religion. Wikipedia

The 4th king of Babylon in a sequence designated as the Dynasty of E and ruled during the latter part of the 10th century BC. He was contemporary with the Assyrian king Adad-Nārāri II with whom he sparred. Equally uncertain. Wikipedia

God or goddess who represents the Sun, or an aspect of it, usually by its perceived power and strength. Solar deities and Sun worship can be found throughout most of recorded history in various forms. Wikipedia

One of the main emblems of Iran (Persia), and formerly was an element in Iran's national flag until the 1979 Iranian Revolution. The motif, which illustrates ancient and modern Iranian traditions, became a popular symbol in Iran in the 12th century. Wikipedia

Giant huntsman whom Zeus (or perhaps Artemis) placed among the stars as the constellation of Orion. Ancient sources told several different stories about Orion there are two major versions of his birth and several versions of his death. Wikipedia

Rooted in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Reasonably comprehensive list that provides information on both general ranks and specific differences. Wikipedia


Gilgamesh Sets Out for Fame

When the character of Humbaba is introduced he is said to have been assigned by Enlil to guard the Cedar Forest. He is depicted as a terrifying creature, “whose shout is the flood-weapon, whose utterance is Fire, and whose breath is Death,” Nevertheless, Gilgamesh states his intention to journey to the Cedar Forest to slay Humbaba so that he may gain everlasting renown, “Let me set to work and cut down pines, Ensure fame that will last forever!” Although his friend Enkidu and the elders of Uruk warn him against this venture, Gilgamesh remains adamant.

Having prepared weapons, Gilgamesh sets out for the Cedar Forest with Enkidu. Accompanying the pair were 50 young men from the city. During the journey to the Cedar Forest, Gilgamesh went up on a mountain, and made a flour offering there, after which he received a dream. This happened three times, and each dream was interpreted by Enkidu. Gilgamesh was distressed by his dreams but was assured by his friend that the dreams were auspicious, and that they would triumph over Humbaba.


Mesopotamian myths

Now, truly understanding Mesopotamia's time is hard (Leo Oppenheim mentioned that having a vision of Mesopotamian religion is illusory at best, while doing it in the same book anyway). Mesopotamia is full of ambivalence. Inanna (Ishtar) is probably the best example. Her interventions during the cycle of Aratta is emblematic of that. This is to the point you start to ask yourself what she does exactly, because when she finally sides with Ur, Enmershikar is almost already victorious. To the point you see she sides with you when you have so proved yourself to her that you ask yourself why you would even need her help! I give you this short insight here on Inanna just because it shows the Mesopotamian subtlety. This beautiful subtlety is all around the Huwawa story. Huwawa is truly terrifying and still it is difficult to not feel sorry for him. Gilgamesh seems totally immune to Huwawa's power, when Enkidu has proven resisting better than Gilgamesh, still you see Gilgamesh trying his best to strip Huwawa's power. At no time does the text makes Gilgamesh emphasize how he is mocking Huwawa, but a remote knowledge of Sumerian myth makes that clear (I mean. EVERY Sumerian was undoubtedly laughing when Gilgamesh propose Enmebaragesi as a wife). Enkidu at first sage, wise and scared, actually slaughters the poor Huwawa out of rage. You have lots of Sumerian themes beginning by the reversal which makes a story begin with one character (as the legendary king Enmerkar) and keep going with another character (the hero Lugalbanda). You have such a typical example here where the story lets you believe that Gilgamesh will do the job, when Enkidu actually slaughters the monster. It is reminiscent of one of Sumerian favourite stories, the dialogue/dispute: 2 things/characters fighting to know which/who is the best.
Let me finish by giving you this insight into Mesopotamian literature. We have a letter sent by a son to his mother while she is without news. The letter contains an incredibly long description of the mother in order to help the messenger to find her. 50 lines. Then comes the text of the letter, appreciate:

When thanks to the descriptions I have given you, you stand in her radiant presence, tell her: "Your beloved son, Lu-dignira is in good health".

Appreciate here the incredible beauty of Sumerian poetry "Lu-dignira is in good health".


Lost fragment of The Epic of Gilgamesh Discovered

At least there is a little good news coming out of the hell hole that is the middle east.


A serendipitous deal between a history museum and a smuggler has provided new insight into one of the most famous stories ever told: "The Epic of Gilgamesh."

The new finding, a clay tablet, reveals a previously unknown "chapter" of the epic poem from ancient Mesopotamia. This new section brings both noise and color to a forest for the gods that was thought to be a quiet place in the work of literature. The newfound verse also reveals details about the inner conflict the poem's heroes endured.

In 2011, the Sulaymaniyah Museum in Slemani, in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, purchased a set of 80 to 90 clay tablets from a known smuggler. The museum has been engaging in these backroom dealings as a way to regain valuable artifacts that disappeared from Iraqi historical sites and museums since the start of the American-led invasion of that country, according to the online nonprofit publication Ancient History Et Cetera.


Among the various tablets purchased, one stood out to Farouk Al-Rawi, a professor in the Department of Languages and Cultures of the Near and Middle East at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London. The large block of clay, etched with cuneiform writing, was still caked in mud when Al-Rawi advised the Sulaymaniyah Museum to purchase artifact for the agreed upon $800. [In Photos: See the Treasures of Mesopotamia]

With the help of Andrew George, associate dean of languages and culture at SOAS and translator of "The Epic of Gilgamesh: A New Translation" (Penguin Classics, 2000), Al-Rawi translated the tablet in just five days. The clay artifact could date as far back to the old-Babylonian period (2003-1595 B.C.), according to the Sulaymaniyah Museum. However, Al-Rawi and George said they believe it's a bit younger and was inscribed in the neo-Babylonian period (626-539 B.C.).


What Al-Rawi and George translated is a formerly unknown portion of the fifth tablet, which tells the story of Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, and Enkidu (the wild man created by the gods to keep Gilgamesh in line) as they travel to the Cedar Forest (home of the gods) to defeat the ogre Humbaba.

The new tablet adds 20 previously unknown lines to the epic story, filling in some of the details about how the forest looked and sounded.

"The new tablet continues where other sources break off, and we learn that the Cedar Forest is no place of serene and quiet glades. It is full of noisy birds and cicadas, and monkeys scream and yell in the trees," George told Live Science in an email.

In a parody of courtly life, the monstrous Humbaba treats the cacophony of jungle noises as a kind of entertainment, "like King Louie in 'The Jungle Book,'" George said. Such a vivid description of the natural landscapes is "very rare" in Babylonian narrative poetry, he added

I would never of thought there were monkeys in the highlands of Mesopotamia.
It is a fascinating find


Watch the video: Gilgamesh vs. Humbaba - Bronze Age Myths - Extra Mythology - #2 (May 2022).


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