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Humbaba’s mouth is fire; his roar the
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
See Important Quotations Explained
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
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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Epic of Gilgamesh!