Humbaba’s mouth is fire; his roar the floodwater;
his breath is death. Enlil made him guardian
of the Cedar Forest, to frighten off the mortal
who would venture there. But who would venture
there? Humbaba’s mouth is fire; his roar
is the floodwater; he breathes and there is death.
He hears the slightest sound somewhere in the Forest.
Enlil made him terrifying guardian,
Whose mouth is fire, whose roar the floodwater.
Enkidu speaks these lines in Tablet II, as he and Gilgamesh prepare to invade the forbidden Cedar Forest and fight the demon Humbaba. One of the most remarkable literary techniques in this epic is the artful repetition within the verses, though generalizing about literary style is difficult, since every English translation renders the poem so differently, and the ancient versions differ so vastly. Some of these repetitions relate to formal structure, which means that at one time they might have provided mnemonic assistance to help storytellers, who had no written versions, remember the tale. But the effect of these repetitions can also be powerfully incantatory, in English translation as well as in Gilgamesh’s original languages. These lines convey not only Humbaba’s awesome presence but also the paralyzing fear that he inspires in his challengers. Their hypnotic, driving quality suggests Enkidu and Gilgamesh’s agitated psychological state: they must quell the obsessive, chattering voices of dread in their minds before they can stand up to Humbaba.
What could I offer
the queen of love in return, who lacks nothing at all?
Balm for the body? The food and drink of the gods?
I have nothing to give to her who lacks nothing at all.
You are the door through which the cold gets in.
You are the fire that goes out. You are the pitch
that sticks to the hands of the one who carries the bucket.
You are the house that falls down. You are the shoe
that pinches the foot of the wearer. The ill-made wall
that buckles when time has gone by. The leaky
water skin soaking the water skin carrier.
On Tablet VI, when Gilgamesh returns from the Cedar Forest with the head of Humbaba, the goddess Ishtar is overcome with lust. Gilgamesh rejects her proposition scornfully. The poetry of Gilgamesh often requires scholarly explication to fill in the blanks of the story, explain the complex origins of Mesopotamian gods, and reconcile the inconsistencies in a narrative that stitches together two millennia’s worth of stories. When Gilgamesh spurns Ishtar, however, his insults are clear, pointed, and hilarious. The setup is familiar—the proud, handsome young man, and the rich, jaded, older woman who wants to make him her plaything. As obscure as Gilgamesh might be in its details, its broad outlines are timeless and universal. The epic contains a lot of angst and brooding about death, but it also evinces a tremendous relish for the sensuous pleasures of life.
Enkidu, . . . your mother is a gazelle,
and . . . your father who created you, a wild ass.
[You were] raised by creatures with tails,
and by the animals of the wilderness, with all its breadth.
The paths going up to and down from the forest of cedars
All mourn you: the weeping does not end day or night
After Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh pours out his grief in this impassioned lamentation. He projects his grief onto a rural landscape so that it seems the entire natural world mourns for Enkidu, even the animals and the paths in the forest. His lamentation poignantly evokes Enkidu’s wild origins and also reveals the extent of Gilgamesh’s grief. This kind of projection will appear again centuries later in the pastoral elegies of the ancient Greeks and later European writers. Pastoral literature gives an idealized picture of the simple, natural life of shepherds, and an elegy is a poem that expresses sorrow for the dead. Pastoral elegies present the natural world as mourning the deceased as well. They include long descriptions of the deceased, those who mourn them, the unfairness of death, and the possibility of a next life. The simple diction and the animal imagery in these lines evoke the biblical “Song of Songs” as well. The austere lyricism of Gilgamesh’s ancient poetry, though present throughout the epic, stands out in this passage.
As for you, Gilgamesh, let your belly be full,
Make merry day and night.
Of each day make a feast of rejoicing.
Day and night dance and play!
Let your garments be sparkling fresh,
Your head be washed; bathe in water.
Pay heed to a little one that holds on to your hand,
Let a spouse delight in your bosom.
After Gilgamesh braves the dark passage under the twin-peaked mountain through which the sun passes on its daily travels, he emerges into a magical garden by the sea, which represents a kind of second birth. The garden belongs to Siduri the veiled bar maid, the goddess of wine-making and brewing. With some trepidation, she permits the disreputable-looking Gilgamesh to enter her tavern. Then she gives him some pointed advice: he should give up his futile quest for eternal life and make the most of the life he’s living now. For unknown reasons, Sin-Leqi-Unninni did not include Siduri’s famous speech in his version of The Epic of Gilgamesh. Fortunately, it survived in an old Babylonian text. While Siduri’s words anticipate by thousands of years the “Carpe Diem” of the Roman Horace, and the famous words “Make the most of what we yet may spend / Before we too into the Dust descend” of the medieval Persian astronomer poet Omar Khayyam, they evoke a similar spirit of making the most of the present moment.
And so they traveled until they reached Uruk.
There Gilgamesh the king said to the boatman:
“Study the brickwork, study the fortification;
climb the ancient staircase to the terrace;
study how it is made; from the terrace see
the planted and fallow fields, the ponds and orchards.
One league is the inner city, another league
is orchards; still another the fields beyond;
over there is the precinct of the temple. . . . ,
Three leagues and the temple precinct of Ishtar.”
Measure Uruk, the city of Gilgamesh
These words mark one of the most astonishing transitions in literature. Only a few lines earlier, Gilgamesh was in despair because he lost his magical plant, his last opportunity for immortality, which he believes is a sign that he should abandon his quest. But this loss was also the moment of truth. Accompanied by Urshanabi the boatman, who has been forbidden to have any further commerce with the immortals, he approaches the vast, beautiful urban expanse of Uruk, with its cultivated fields and orchards and its towering ziggurat devoted to Ishtar, all of it enclosed by intricately wrought walls. Gilgamesh, seeing it anew, regards it with pride and awe. Offering up his realm for the boatman’s admiration, Gilgamesh repeats, word for word, the opening lines of the epic. This is my city, he says. My place. He has quested to the ends of the earth for the meaning of life and found it at last in his own home. Thus ends The Epic of Gilgamesh.
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