The Epic of Gilgamesh

Important Quotations Explained

1
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.
   —Tablet II

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.