The Killing of Humbaba

After Gilgamesh and Enkidu have cemented their friendship, Gilgamesh suddenly announces he wants to go to the Cedar Forest to kill the evil monster, Humbaba.  At first it isn’t clear why he wants to do this, but later we learn his motives: self-promotion and self-aggrandizement. Gilgamesh wants fame. He wants his name to live forever.

Having encountered Humbaba in the past and knowing him to be a formidable adversary, Enkidu tries to dissuade Gilgamesh from embarking on such a dangerous mission. But Gilgamesh won’t be deterred. He shames Enkidu into joining him and the two of them set off for the Cedar Forest, arriving after several days.

 Gilgamesh and Enkidu; by Ziegler175 (own work); December 1987; National Museum in Aleppo; Tell Halaf Relief 14JH;  via Wikimedia Commons

Gilgamesh and Enkidu; by Ziegler175 (own work); December 1987; National Museum in Aleppo; Tell Halaf Relief 14JH;  via Wikimedia Commons

Our two intrepid friends make their way gingerly through the Cedar Forest until they stand in front of Humbaba’s den. Humbaba emerges, spewing venomous threats and insults. But he gives them the option to retreat with no harm done to either party. Gilgamesh is tempted to take him up on the offer; Enkidu is not. He incites Gilgamesh to go for the kill. The two charge at Humbaba who lets out a fierce roar. They are about to engage in mortal combat when the god Shamash intervenes.  He sends gale force winds to pin Humbaba down, paralyzing his movements. Gilgamesh leaps on to Humbaba’s body and holds a knife menacingly at his throat.  Just then, a strange thing happens: Humbaba begs for mercy.

It is quite a reversal. From the blustering monster capable of splitting mountains with the stomp of his feet, Humbaba disintegrates into a helpless figure, pleading for his life. He reminds Enkidu he had the ability to kill him during their previous encounter, but he chose to be merciful instead. He begs to be shown the same degree of mercy. He swears allegiance to Gilgamesh and offers to help him cut down the trees.

Gilgamesh is tempted to take him up on his offer. But once again, it is Enkidu who urges the kill. Humbaba warns them they will incur Enlil’s anger if they kill him since he was assigned by the god to be the forest’s guardian. But Enkidu convinces Gilgamesh to ignore his warning. Gilgamesh brings down his axe, severing Humbaba’s neck and causing his blood to gush out into the valleys. The reader is told a gentle rain fell from the sky as if to suggest the heavens mourned the death of this giant monster.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar