The Epic of Gilgamesh

Tablet V

Humbaba chides Enkidu for his cruelty. He suggests that Enkidu is jealous and fearful that Humbaba will supplant him in Gilgamesh’s affections. Humbaba reminds them that he is the servant of Enlil, the god of earth, wind, and air—a greater divinity by far than Shamash. If Gilgamesh kills him, he will surely bring a curse down upon himself. But Enkidu tells Gilgamesh to hurry up and kill the demon before Enlil finds out what they’re up to and tries to stop them. Only by killing Humbaba and stealing his cedars can they guarantee their fame. So Humbaba dies.

Gilgamesh fashions a new gate for the city out of the tallest tree in the forest as a monument to their great adventure. The companions cut down more trees and fashion them into a raft, on which they float back to Uruk, carrying upon it the gate and Humbaba’s head.

Analysis

Like Tablets II, III, and IV, very little of Tablet V exists in the Sin-Leqi-Unninni version. Translators have filled in the blanks by drawing on an ancient Sumerian poem called “Gilgamesh and the Land of the Living” and a group of Akkadian and Hittite texts that parallel the story so thinly presented here.

Gilgamesh and Enkidu have undertaken much more than a trade mission or an exhibition of physical prowess—their quest is a journey of initiation. The heroes have left their mother behind (Ninsun is Enkidu’s mother by adoption now) to make their names in the world. Much later in the story, Enkidu passes through a real death, and Gilgamesh passes through a figurative one, completing his quest with a spiritual transformation and a final journey home. Though this journey of initiation is immensely important to both Gilgamesh and Enkidu, it is not wholly sanctioned by the gods. On the one hand, Gilgamesh and Enkidu are on a sacred quest, supported by a god, Shamash. On the other hand, they undertake their adventure in defiance of the superior deity Enlil. They trespass on territory forbidden to mortals so that they can steal something that belongs to the gods, the cedar trees, and turn them into monuments—idols—that honor themselves. Their journey leads them to explore their innermost selves, certainly, but they also explore the boundaries that make up their spiritual world.

Though the descriptions of the heroes and the weapons are explicit, the descriptions of actual combat are muted. The cultures that produced the Gilgamesh poems were very warlike, but we hardly hear about them using the weapons they had forged, even though the weapons receive quite a bit of attention. In one version, their swords, axes, daggers, and bows weigh 600 pounds. In another, an army accompanies Enkidu and Gilgamesh as well as their foe Humbaba. The author exaggerates the heroes’ manly attributes—many critics call Enkidu and Gilgamesh the world’s first superheroes. However, which of the two warriors actually kills Humbaba remains ambiguous. In some versions Enkidu urges Gilgamesh to do the deed, while in others Enkidu does it himself.

The poem may not provide explicit scenes of combat, but it clearly describes the terrors of war. As the companions draw closer to their confrontation with Humbaba, anticipatory nightmares torment Gilgamesh. Enkidu’s interpretations are so ludicrously optimistic that they seem to be wishful thinking, and we have to suspect that they are meant to be ironic. Gilgamesh and Enkidu do in fact prevail over the demon and return to Uruk in triumph, so for the moment at least, Enkidu’s readings are correct. The dread and terror of death remain, however, and permeate the entire tablet. Death ultimately defeats the heroes, since death, after all, is the fate of all mortals. The full force of this defeat emerges in Tablet VII when Enkidu falls ill.