Summary: Tablet 5

The two heroes stand in awe before the vast forest’s gates, marveling at the cedar trees’ height, breathing in their incense. Humbaba’s footsteps have left clear paths through the woods. An enormous mountain looms in the distance, the place where Ishtar and the other gods are enthroned. They begin to walk toward it. That night Gilgamesh pours flour on the ground, an offering to Shamash the sun god. He prays that Shamash will visit him in a dream and grant him a favorable omen. Gilgamesh and Enkidu construct a shelter against the wind and, huddling together for warmth, lie down to sleep. In the middle of the night Gilgamesh has a dream.

Gilgamesh wakes up frightened and asks Enkidu if he called out to him. Then he tells Enkidu what he dreamed: They were walking through a deep gorge when a huge mountain fell on top of them. Enkidu promptly interprets the dream and says it is nothing to fear. He says that the mountain is Humbaba, and that he and Gilgamesh will topple Humbaba and his dead body will lie on the plain like a mountain. The two companions continue their journey through the forest.

After a few days, Gilgamesh makes another offering of flour to Shamash. Embracing each other for warmth, the two men lie down to sleep. At midnight, Gilgamesh wakes up again, filled with foreboding, and, unsure of what woke him, asks if Enkidu touched him. Then he tells Enkidu about his newest dream. In it, a wild bull attacked him, and he was helpless on the ground. He could hear the bull bellowing and could feel its hot breath on his face. Then someone offered him water. Again, Enkidu interprets the dream as fortunate. He says that the bull is not their enemy Humbaba, but Shamash, who blesses Gilgamesh by fighting with him. The man who brought water, Enkidu says, is Gilgamesh’s father, Lugulbanda.

The companions walk and walk, and together they cover hundreds of leagues. Then they dig another well and make another offering of flour to Shamash. It rains that night, but after a time, they fall asleep. A third dream comes to Gilgamesh. This time he dreams that the earth is shaking amidst the noise of thunder and lightning, and fire and ashes fall from the sky. Once again, Enkidu interprets the dream favorably. Even so, Gilgamesh is scared. He prays to Shamash, desperately pleading for his protection. Shamash answers and explains that Gilgamesh and Enkidu are experiencing the effects of the aura that rises from Humbaba’s garments. Humbaba has seven garments, each of which spreads terror. Shamash tells Gilgamesh that Humbaba is wearing only one of them now, and that if he dons all seven, Gilgamesh will be unable to defeat him. Time is of the essence in carrying out this attack.

At last the companions reach the mountain of the gods, the place forbidden to mortals. Gilgamesh and Enkidu take their axes and chop down some trees. Then they hear Humbaba, the guardian of the forest, roaring. A terrible confusion follows. The noise of clashing swords, daggers, and axes surrounds them, and Gilgamesh and Enkidu cry out in terror. They call to each other, reminding each other that they can prevail.

In the heat of the battle, Gilgamesh offers up a desperate prayer to Shamash. Shamash hears him and unleashes thirteen storms against Humbaba. Humbaba staggers and reels under this divine onslaught, and at last Gilgamesh overtakes him. But Humbaba pleads for mercy and says he knows Gilgamesh is Ninsun’s son. He tells Gilgamesh that if he is spared, he will be Gilgamesh’s servant. At first, Gilgamesh considers being compassionate, but Enkidu is pitiless. Enkidu urges Gilgamesh to make a quick end of the monster.

Humbaba chides Enkidu for his cruelty. He suggests that Enkidu is jealous and fearful that Humbaba will supplant him in Gilgamesh’s affections. Humbaba reminds them that he is the servant of Enlil, the god of earth, wind, and air—a greater divinity by far than Shamash. If Gilgamesh kills him, he will surely bring a curse down upon himself. But Enkidu tells Gilgamesh to hurry up and kill the demon before Enlil finds out what they’re up to and tries to stop them. Only by killing Humbaba and stealing his cedars can they guarantee their fame. So Humbaba dies.

Gilgamesh fashions a new gate for the city out of the tallest tree in the forest as a monument to their great adventure. The companions cut down more trees and fashion them into a raft, on which they float back to Uruk, carrying upon it the gate and Humbaba’s head.

Analysis: Tablet 5

Like Tablets 2, 3, and 4, very little of Tablet 5 exists in the Sin-Leqi-Unninni version. Translators have filled in the blanks by drawing on an ancient Sumerian poem called “Gilgamesh and the Land of the Living” and a group of Akkadian and Hittite texts that parallel the story so thinly presented here.

Gilgamesh and Enkidu have undertaken much more than a trade mission or an exhibition of physical prowess—their quest is a journey of initiation. The heroes have left their mother behind (Ninsun is Enkidu’s mother by adoption now) to make their names in the world. Much later in the story, Enkidu passes through a real death, and Gilgamesh passes through a figurative one, completing his quest with a spiritual transformation and a final journey home. Though this journey of initiation is immensely important to both Gilgamesh and Enkidu, it is not wholly sanctioned by the gods. On the one hand, Gilgamesh and Enkidu are on a sacred quest, supported by a god, Shamash. On the other hand, they undertake their adventure in defiance of the superior deity Enlil. They trespass on territory forbidden to mortals so that they can steal something that belongs to the gods, the cedar trees, and turn them into monuments—idols—that honor themselves. Their journey leads them to explore their innermost selves, certainly, but they also explore the boundaries that make up their spiritual world.

Read more about journeys as a motif.

Though the descriptions of the heroes and the weapons are explicit, the descriptions of actual combat are muted. The cultures that produced the Gilgamesh poems were very warlike, but we hardly hear about them using the weapons they had forged, even though the weapons receive quite a bit of attention. In one version, their swords, axes, daggers, and bows weigh 600 pounds. In another, an army accompanies Enkidu and Gilgamesh as well as their foe Humbaba. The author exaggerates the heroes’ manly attributes—many critics call Enkidu and Gilgamesh the world’s first superheroes. However, which of the two warriors actually kills Humbaba remains ambiguous. In some versions Enkidu urges Gilgamesh to do the deed, while in others Enkidu does it himself.

The poem may not provide explicit scenes of combat, but it clearly describes the terrors of war. As the companions draw closer to their confrontation with Humbaba, anticipatory nightmares torment Gilgamesh. Enkidu’s interpretations are so ludicrously optimistic that they seem to be wishful thinking, and we have to suspect that they are meant to be ironic. Gilgamesh and Enkidu do in fact prevail over the demon and return to Uruk in triumph, so for the moment at least, Enkidu’s readings are correct. The dread and terror of death remain, however, and permeate the entire tablet. Death ultimately defeats the heroes, since death, after all, is the fate of all mortals. The full force of this defeat emerges in Tablet VII when Enkidu falls ill.

The poem suggests that fear and death are inescapable, but it also shows us how we can function in spite of them by being part of a community. As both Gilgamesh and Enkidu demonstrate, working within a community offers the opportunity to be part of something greater and longer-lasting than is possible individually, and it expands boundaries beyond what the individual flesh encloses. Alone, the prospect of death is overwhelming. Within a community, even one as small as that of Gilgamesh and Enkidu clinging together for warmth on the eve of a battle, fear fades. Gilgamesh and Enkidu distract each other from fear and persuade each other that they have the power to make their names, if not their bodies, immortal. The distinction between the personal and the collective is at the very heart of Gilgamesh. Culture, community, creativity, and camaraderie ultimately help Gilgamesh and Enkidu transcend the finality of death. When characters begin to believe that they really are immortal or that they deserve to be, they are guilty of excessive pride, which rarely goes unpunished. When Enkidu suggests that they can foil the god Enlil by killing his servant Humbaba quickly, before Enlil finds out what they’re doing, he deceives himself. The gods may be capricious and silly, but they are also implacable. Even as Enkidu and Gilgamesh triumph over the monster, they are laying the groundwork for their fall.