Tasked with guarding the Cedar Forest by the god Enlil, Humbaba is a demon often thought to be the personification of an erupting volcano. He wields great power, striking fear into the hearts of many, and stories of his fearsomeness paired with the Uruk elders’ alarm succeeds in characterizing Humbaba as a worthy adversary even before we meet him. Killing Humbaba, to Gilgamesh, appears to be less about granting his people access to the forest and more about proving himself with a feat of strength for which he would be celebrated. However, it’s also notable that he and Enkidu are doing the work of the sun god Shamash. That Shamash, who is linked with light and wisdom, opposes Humbaba further aligns the guardian with darkness and evil. He is also chosen by Enlil, the god who brought the flood and bears little empathy for humanity.

Surprisingly, Humbaba, though a demon, is not entirely without humanity of his own. Once defeated, he begs for his life and he even says he’ll become Gilgamesh’s servant if he is spared. Urged by Enkidu, however, Gilgamesh forgoes mercy. Humbaba suggests Enkidu is jealous, fearful that he, Humbaba, would replace him as Gilgamesh’s closest companion, offering a surprisingly shrewd insight into the relationship between the two warriors. Similarly astute is Humbaba’s prediction that killing him and angering Enlil will bring a curse upon them. This, combined with Enkidu’s rather audacious assumption that they can kill Humbaba before Enlil finds out and thus avoid his wrath, foreshadows a coming disaster brought about by their hubris.