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.