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Gilgamesh stands before the gates of Uruk and tells its
people that he is determined to invade Humbaba’s forbidden forest
to cut down the cedar trees that Humbaba protects. He asks for their
blessings and promises to return on time for the new year’s feasts,
predicting that all of Uruk will shout his praise. The elders of
the city are appalled. They warn their king that he is going too
far and that he underestimates Humbaba’s power. The demon has the
power to hear a deer stir in the forest from sixty leagues away,
so no mortal trespasser could ever hope to escape his notice. He
is a great warrior, a veritable battering ram. They caution Gilgamesh
not to rely solely on his own strength and remind him that Enkidu
knows the wilderness best. He knows how to find water in parched
land, and he can find his way to the forest. If Gilgamesh must undertake
this rash errand, then he will need all the help and protection
his friend can give him.
The old men remind Gilgamesh to appease the sun god Shamash with
offerings of water and to be mindful of his father, Lugulbanda, who
has the power to protect him too. Then Gilgamesh and Enkidu make
their way to the great temple Egalmah, where they ask Gilgamesh’s
mother, the goddess Ninsun, for her blessing. Gilgamesh tells her
that he doesn’t intend to just steal the greatest of the trees Humbaba
protects, but to kill the demon himself. Ninsun is distraught. She
retreats to her bedroom, where she bathes and changes into priestly
garments. Then she climbs to the roof of the temple and burns sacred
herbs, summoning a superior deity, Shamash the sun god. She asks
Shamash why Gilgamesh must embark on such a dangerous quest and
why Shamash inspired him to do so. She commends her son to Shamash’s
protection and then formally adopts Enkidu as her son, placing a
sacred pendant around his neck. Now Gilgamesh and Enkidu are truly
brothers. An erotic ritual involving prostitutes, possibly of both
At last, after prayers, invocations, sacrifices, speeches,
and practical preparations, and after listening to more warnings
from the elders and declaring their intention to prevail, the two
heavily armed heroes step outside the seven-bolt gate of Uruk and
set off on their adventure. They do not stop to eat until they have
walked twenty leagues. In three days, they cover 150 leagues
(450 miles); it would
take an ordinary man three weeks to walk so far. They dig a well
and make an offering to the god Shamash, then continue on their
journey. As they walk, they bolster each other’s spirits. Enkidu urges
Gilgamesh on whenever his courage flags, assuring him that they
can defeat Humbaba. When Enkidu falters, Gilgamesh reassures him
that he is a good warrior, that when the time for battle comes he
will not lose heart, and that they will stand and fight together.
When they finally reach the forest, they pause for a moment and
think about what they are going to do.
Tablet III is even more fragmentary than Tablet II in
the Sin-Leqi-Unninni version and Tablet IV is almost nonexistent—only
about thirty lines have survived. Again, the various English translations stitch
together older variants of the tale. Nonetheless, some important
The extent of Shamash’s importance becomes clear in this
tablet. Shamash is the sun god, associated with light and wisdom. Humbaba,
whom Shamash detests, is associated with darkness and evil. Gilgamesh
and Enkidu do not seek only to glorify their own names. In seeking
to kill Humbaba, Gilgamesh and Enkidu are doing a god’s work, even
if it is directly opposed to another god’s desires. Shamash remains
a strong presence in the poem until the last few tablets, when Ea,
the god of wisdom and crafts, seems to assume his role. The temple
Egalmah, where Gilgamesh’s mother, Ninsun, resides and where she
invokes Shamash from the roof, would have been a vast complex with
an inner court and sanctuary and a ziggurat rising up behind it.
The ziggurat was a holy mountain in miniature, an antechamber between
worlds where the gods and men conversed. Although Ninsun herself
is a god, she does not live in heaven. Rather, she is physically
present in Uruk. Her invocation of Shamash and the lengths Gilgamesh
and Enkidu will go to please him demonstrate the reach of Shamash’s
influence and power.
The city elders urge Gilgamesh to pray to his father Lugulbanda for
protection. In an ancient Sumerian poem called “Lugulbanda and Mount
Hurrum,” one of two about Gilgamesh’s predecessor on Uruk’s throne,
Lugulbanda’s companions leave him for dead on a journey to Aratta,
a neighboring city-state. With Shamash’s help, he finds his way
back to civilization and sustains himself along the way by eating
uncultivated plants and the flesh of wild animals. Gilgamesh and
Enkidu’s adventure in some ways recapitulates Lugulbanda’s. Being
left for dead and surviving—death and rebirth—are major themes in Gilgamesh.
When Gilgamesh fortifies Enkidu’s courage before the battle, telling
him to “touch my heart,” he foreshadows the terrible moment after
Enkidu dies in Tablet VIII when Gilgamesh touches his companion’s
heart and feels nothing at all.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Epic of Gilgamesh!