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.