The Epic of Gilgamesh
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
The temple prostitute divides her garments and shares them with Enkidu. These are the first clothes he has ever worn. Then she takes his hand and leads him toward the city of Uruk. One night they stop at a shepherds’ camp, where the herdsmen are astonished by Enkidu’s size, strength, and beauty. They serve him plates of cooked food, bread, and skins filled with beer. At first, Enkidu doesn’t even recognize these items as food. Until now he has eaten only grass and sucked the milk of wild animals. But the harlot urges him to eat, and he does. After he gulps down seven skins of beer, Enkidu bursts into happy song. He washes and anoints himself with oil and dresses himself in new clothes. He takes up a sword and stands guard over the shepherds’ flocks, protecting them from the wolves and lions that had been preying upon them.
One day a stranger comes into camp carrying an ornate platter. Enkidu asks the harlot to find out who he is and where he is going. The man tells them that he is bringing offerings to a wedding ceremony in Uruk. Though King Gilgamesh is not the groom, the man says, he will lie with the bride before her husband does. Whatever Gilgamesh desires, he takes—no one can withstand his power. Enkidu is outraged and decides to go to Uruk to challenge him, sure that no one, not even Gilgamesh, can defeat him. When Enkidu arrives in Uruk, the people of the city are amazed to see a man who is as splendid as Gilgamesh himself. They crowd around him, hailing him as their champion. Enkidu defiantly plants himself on the threshold of the bride’s bedchamber and blocks the king when he tries to force his way in.
Locked together in combat, the two gigantic men grapple through the streets. The walls of the city tremble and the doorposts shake as they fight. Gilgamesh, who is stronger, eventually wrestles Enkidu to the ground. They immediately forget their anger. Enkidu concedes that Gilgamesh is the rightful king of Uruk and pledges his fidelity. Gilgamesh declares his undying friendship to his former rival. The two men kiss and embrace. Gilgamesh’s mother, Ninsun, gives their friendship her blessing, declaring that Enkidu will be her son’s faithful companion.
The former rivals look for a worthy adventure to undertake together. Enkidu tells Gilgamesh about the fearsome monster Humbaba, whom Enlil, the god of earth, wind, and air, had appointed guardian of the distant Cedar Forest, a place forbidden to mortals. When Gilgamesh hears about this demon, he is determined to fight him and dismisses Enkidu’s warning that the demon monster is invincible. Gilgamesh accepts death as long as he leaves an indelible mark in the land of the living. Killing an enemy like Humbaba, or even dying at his hands, would guarantee Enkidu’s fame too. Gilgamesh convinces Enkidu to join him, and the two heroes go to the armor makers and order new weapons, including enormous swords, axes, and bows. Together, they prepare to seek their destiny.
Almost all of Tablet II is missing in the Sin-Leqi-Unninni version, so the translators fill in the blanks with older versions of the story.
The harlot assumes a maternal role as she sets out to domesticate and acculturate Enkidu. She covers up Enkidu’s nakedness and leads him like a child to a shepherds’ camp. In Mesopotamian literature, the shepherds’ camp represents a significant way station on the road to civilization. The great city of Uruk itself was sometimes called Uruk of the Sheepfold, because of the centrality of Ishtar’s temple, where the king, acting as high priest, would reenact the lovemaking of the goddess and her human lover Tammuz, the shepherd. Enkidu eats cooked food and gets drunk, which are as much a part of the human experience as making love, wearing clothing, listening to and making music, and participating in and devising ceremonies. No longer the champion of the wild animals, Enkidu, now fully human, becomes their adversary as he guards the camp from their attacks.
Enkidu is outraged when he hears about Uruk’s oppression, especially how its king takes advantage of women in general and new brides in particular, but lust might not be Gilgamesh’s only motivation. His ritual deflowering of the brides might be a form of tribute to Ishtar, whose temple and rites play such a central role in the affairs of the city. Conceivably, Gilgamesh was dutifully enacting a sacred ritual, rather than basely enjoying a selfish pleasure. But in one old Babylonian version of the story, the lords of Uruk rejoice at Enkidu’s arrival in the city, calling him a hero for “men of decency,” which suggests otherwise.
The language describing the friendship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu is erotic, as is the description of the wrestling match that brought them together. Other erotic descriptions and actions appear throughout Gilgamesh. We are told that Gilgamesh loves Enkidu like a “bride,” for example, and they often kiss and embrace. In many ways, they appear to be lovers, and many critics believe this is a reasonable interpretation of their relationship. One writer summarizes the story of Gilgamesh as that of a rampantly heterosexual king who wrestles with a handsome, wild man and loves him like a wife until the gods punish his lover by killing him with a wasting disease. However, other critics oppose this interpretation and claim that any language suggesting a sexual relationship is metaphorical. In any case, the same-sex friendships of Mesopotamian warriors do not fit comfortably into our contemporary categories of friendship, marriage, and sexual partnership, ensuring that the true nature of Gilgamesh’s relationship with Enkidu remains a mystery.
Humbaba, or Huwawa, in some translations, is a vague and sometimes changeable adversary. The poet describes Humbaba as a personification of an erupting volcano. Geological fault lines run through nearby Turkey and other areas adjacent to Mesopotamia, and Gilgamesh’s earliest chroniclers most likely remembered the active volcanoes in the region. The cedar trees that Humbaba guards would have been a precious commodity in the relatively treeless region of southern Mesopotamia where Uruk is located. An actual trade mission or military raid into hostile territory, possibly Syria or Iran, undertaken by the historical King Gilgamesh, may have inspired the story of this quest. However, much of the narrative is clearly allegorical, and later in the poem Humbaba is referred to simply as “Evil.”
Domesticated by the prostitute, Enkidu in turn tames Gilgamesh. He calms Gilgamesh’s destructive urges, making him less wild and more human. Just as Enkidu once identified more with animals than with people, Gilgamesh himself is at first a kind of animal, vicious and violent, before Enkidu comes along. After befriending Enkidu, Gilgamesh turns his restless energies outward, no longer content to live in and for the moment. Now he wants to accomplish great things, both for his own fame and for that of his city. He thinks ahead to his death, of the ultimate purpose and meaning of his life. These themes dominate the second half of the poem.
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