The Great Myths #22: The Monster Humbaba (Mesopotamian)

Anthology: Poems on How to Live Human Voices Wake Us

Tonight I read a handful of poems on the theme of How to live, what to do? How to get by in the world as a devotee of culture, solitude, ritual, beauty, tradition and individuality? There is of course no one answer, and anyway, poetry should stay as far away from direct “advice,” or proscription of any kind. Still, when I sit back and think about the kind of poems that help me through the day – and the months, and the years – these are some of them. Let me know the poems you rely on in this way: send me a message at As I also mention, after this episode I’ll be taking a break from Human Voices Wake Us for at least a month. The best way to support the podcast is to preorder my book Notes from the Grid (coming out February 23), or check out any of my other books: To the House of the Sun, The Lonely Young & the Lonely Old, Bone Antler Stone The poems I read are: Wallace Stevens (1879-1955), How to Live What to Do Galway Kinnell (1927-2014), Tillamook Journal Edith Nesbit (1858-1924), Things That Matter Seamus Heaney (1939-2013), #2 from Lightenings Robinson Jeffers (1887-1962), Joy Louise Glück (1943-), Summer Night W. B. Yeats (1865-1939), A Prayer on Going into My House Emily Brontë (1818-1848), “Often rebuked, yet always back returning” Henry Vaughan (1621-1695), Man Don’t forget to join Human Voices Wake Us on Patreon, or sign up for our newsletter here.  — Send in a voice message: Support this podcast:
  1. Anthology: Poems on How to Live
  2. Anthology: Love Poems from the Last Four Centuries
  3. Advice from Charles Dickens & Alice Munro
  4. First Person: Voices from 1900-1914
  5. The Great Myths #22: The Story of Ragnarok in the Norse Eddas

Gilgamesh and his companion Enkidu face Humbaba, the guardian of the cedar forests of Lebanon. The tablets where the story is found contain many breaks, indicated throughout with an ellipsis; and the translation used here fills in some gaps by integrating other versions of the story.

Also, in our day and age, the story can easily be seen as an ecological parable where urban existence, as ever, means the ruination of nature. It’s not hard to recast Enkidu and Gilgamesh as the monsters:

Humbaba opened is mouth to speak,
saying to Gilgamesh:
“Let fools take counsel, Gilgamesh, with the rude and brutish!
Why have you come here into my presence?

“Come, Enkidu, you spawn of a fish, who knew no father,
hatchling of terrapin and turtle, who sucked no mother’s milk!
In your youth I watched you, but near you I went not,
would your … have filled my belly?

“Now in treachery you bring before me Gilgamesh,
and stand there, Enkidu, like a warlike stranger!
I will slit the throat and gullet of Gilgamesh,
I will feed his flesh to the locust bird, ravening eagle and vulture!”

Gilgamesh opened his mouth to speak, saying to Enkidu:
“My friend, Humbaba’s features have changed!
Though boldly we came up to his lair to defeat him,
yet my hear will not quickly…”

Enkidu opened his mouth to speak,
saying to Gilgamesh:
“Why, my friend, do you speak like a weakling?
With your spineless words you make me despondent.

“Now, my friend, but one is our task,
the copper is already pouring into the mould!
To stoke the furnace for an hour? To … the coals for an hour?
To send the Deluge is to crack the whip!”

“Don’t draw back, don’t make a retreat!
… make your blow mighty!”

Fifty lines later, after Humbaba has been captured, he begs Enkidu:

“You are experienced in the ways of my forest, the ways …,
also you know all the arts of speech.
I should have picked you up and hanged you from the sapling at the way into the forest,
I should have fed your flesh to the locust bird, ravening eagle and vulture.

“Now, Enkidu, my release lies with you:
tell Gilgamesh to spare me my life!”
Enkidu opened his mouth to speak,
saying to Gilgamesh:

“My friend, Humbaba who guards the Forest of Cedar:
finish him, slay him, do away with his power!
Humbaba who guards the Forest of Cedar:
finish him, slay him, do away with his power,
before Enlil the foremost hears what we do!

“The great gods will take against us in anger,
Enlil and Nippur, Shamash in Larsa…,
Establish for ever a fame that endures,
how Gilgamesh slew ferocious Humbaba!

“Smite him again, slay his servant alongside him!”
Gilgamesh heard the word of his companion.
He took up his axe in his hand,
he drew forth the dirk from his belt.

Gilgamesh smote him in the neck,
his friend Enkidu gave encouragement.
He … he fell,
the ravines did run with his blood.

Humbaba the guardian he smote to the ground,
for two leagues afar …
With him he slew …
the woods he …

He slew the ogre, the forest’s guardian,
at whose yell were sundered the peaks of Sirion and Lebanon,
… the mountains did quake
… all the hillsides did tremble.

He slew the ogre, the cedar’s guardian,
the broken …
As soon as he had slain all seven of the auras [Humbaba’s powers]
the war-net of two talents’ weight, and the dirk of eight,

a load of ten talents he took up,
he went down to trample the forest.
He discovered the secret abode of the gods,
Gilgamesh felling the trees, Enkidu choosing the timber.

[Enkidu] The Wild-Born knew how to given counsel,
he said to his friend:

“By your strength alone you slew the guardian,
what can bring you dishonor? Lay low the Forest of Cedar!
Seek out for me a lofty cedar,
whose crown is high as the heavens!

“I will make a door of the reed-lengths breadth,
let is not have a pivot, let it travel in a door-jamb.
Its side will be a cubit, a reed-length its breadth,
let no stranger draw near it, let a god have love for it.

“To the house of Enlil the Euphrates shall bear it,
let the folk of Nippur rejoice over it!
Let the god Enlil delight in it.

They bound together a raft, they laid the cedar on it,
Enkidu was helmsman …,
and Gilgamesh carried the head of Humbaba.

Gilgamesh, Tablet VI and other sources,
translated by Andrew George

Read the other Great Myths here

Comments are closed.