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 genders, begins.
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 themes emerge.
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.
Read more about the theme of gods being dangerous for mortals.
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.
Read more about the theme of death.
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.