The father of the Gods, “Enlil of the mountain,” is responsible for Gilgamesh’s fate. Gilgamesh has a dream, and Enkidu interprets it: he says that though Gilgamesh is a king, he is not fated to be immortal. Enkidu tells Gilgamesh not to despair over his mortality. He says that Gilgamesh has been given immense power and strength, and he should not abuse his power. As Enkidu tells Gilgamesh this, Enkidu begins to cry. Enkidu explains that “idleness” has weakened him. Gilgamesh likewise says that he has not “established my name stamped on bricks as my destiny decreed.” He decides to travel to the “Land of Cedars” to make a name for himself and raise monuments to the gods. Together, with Enkidu, Gilgamesh will travel to the forest, where an evil giant named Humbaba lives and guards the cedars.
Here the Epic has its first discussion of its central theme: finding meaning in life in the face of mortality. We see that Gilgamesh’s understanding of his own mortality is almost dismissive: he argues that since all men die anyway, they might as well risk their lives to make a name for themselves. At this point in the story, Gilgamesh does not question the value of “making a name for himself” in a world where all great heroes are eventually forgotten—it is enough to use his allotted years to achieve fame and glory. It’s also notable that such glory can only be achieved by leaving the city and going out into nature. The Epic first presented nature as a place of innocence, but now it becomes more of a “wilderness” where heroes can prove themselves. Enkidu also notes that the comforts of the city have made him weak.
Gilgamesh rouses Enkidu with a speech, saying that since all men must die eventually, he should have no fear of death when facing Humbaba. Gilgamesh says, “Our days are numbered, our occupations are a breath of wind.” Even if Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh says, his name will be remembered for his fight with Humbaba. Enkidu insists that, before entering the Land of Cedars, Gilgamesh should tell the sun god, Shamash, that he is going there, because the Land of Cedars belongs to Shamash.
Gilgamesh repeats his argument that since life is fleeting, they might as well go on a quest, and he presents it in poetic language that makes the idea universal—even now, thousands of years later, we are no closer to discovering how to find true meaning in the face of our inevitable mortality. Unlike Gilgamesh, Enkidu does not give much significance to the idea of making a name for himself. At this point, Enkidu also shows more respect for the gods—the Land of Cedars is not only a place representing nature and the wild, but also a place holy to a god, and so Enkidu is wary of being too prideful and angering the gods.
Gilgamesh takes up two goats in his arms and speaks to Shamash, asking for the god’s permission and that he might return to Uruk. “Gilgamesh, you are strong,” Shamash replies, “but what is the Country of the Living to you?” Gilgamesh says that “In the city man dies oppressed at heart.” In a river, Gilgamesh sees bodies float by, and he knows that this will be his fate as well. He says that he wishes to enter the Land of the Cedars because his name will not yet be remembered forever, “as my destiny decreed.” Gilgamesh begins to cry. He asks Shamash why, if he is not meant to defeat Humbaba, “Why did you move me, Shamash, with the restless desire to perform it?” Gilgamesh promises that if he dies in the Land of the Cedars it will be without anger, but that if he returns he will bring “gifts and . . . praise to Shamash.”
The phrase “In the city man dies oppressed at heart” gives us the clearest sense yet of the relationship between city and nature in the Epic. Even as they enjoyed the benefits of living in the city, Gilgamesh and Enkidu are also aware that their spirit grows idle and weak there. To live freely and meaningfully, they feel they must go out into the more dangerous world and accomplish something heroic. For Gilgamesh and Enkidu this means leaving the city and going into the wilderness, but the more general idea of leaving one’s home and experiencing the wider world (whether in nature or civilization) is one that has endured in stories for thousands of years.
Shamash accepts “the sacrifice of [Gilgamesh’s] tears.” In addition, Shamash appoints the winds to help Gilgamesh on his quest. Shamash orders blacksmiths to make enormous axes and swords. For Gilgamesh they craft an axe called “Might of Heroes” and “the bow of Anshan.”
Gilgamesh pays respects to the gods, and is rewarded in turn. At this point in the Epic he understands his place in the hierarchy of the universe. He accepts that he is mortal, and thus subordinate to the gods.
The people of Uruk assemble in the street to listen to Gilgamesh speak. He declares his mission to “climb the mountain, to cut down the cedar, and leave behind an enduring name.” The “counselors of Uruk” tell Gilgamesh that he is young and arrogant to think that he can defeat Humbaba. They say that Humbaba is immortal and possesses powerful weapons. Gilgamesh laughs and asks Enkidu, “How shall I answer them; shall I say I am afraid of Humbaba, I will sit at home all the rest of my days?” He asks Enkidu to go with him to the Great Palace in Egalmah and ask Ninsun, Gilgamesh’s mother, for advice.
The counselors of Uruk voice the Epic’s own caution against Gilgamesh’s arrogance, warning him that he will not defeat Humbaba, and that pursuing heroic deeds for their own sake is overly prideful. Again, Gilgamesh argues that because life is fleeting and life in the city has no heroic value, he must try to defeat Humbaba anyway. It is especially telling that part of Gilgamesh’s idea of heroism involves “cutting down the cedar”—overcoming nature and “the wild.”
Having arrived at Egalmah, Gilgamesh asks Ninsun to pray to Shamash on his behalf while he goes on his journey. Ninsun dresses in her room, putting on jewels and a tiara, then goes to the altar of the Sun and speaks to Shamash, asking why he had to give Gilgamesh such great ambitions. She asks Shamash not to forget Gilgamesh while he goes on the journey. She then says to Enkidu that he is like an adopted son to her. She asks him to serve Gilgamesh well, and gives him an amulet that he wears around his neck. She tells him, “I entrust my son to you; bring him back to me safely.”
Again, by paying respect to the gods, Gilgamesh is awarded their protection. The gods of the Epic of Gilgamesh share many characteristics with the gods of later epics (like Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey) in that they basically act like powerful, spoiled humans—jealous and easily susceptible to flattery and praise. Shamash is presented as one of the least petty of the gods, however, and he consistently acts as a guardian to Gilgamesh, despite Gilgamesh’s pride.
Gilgamesh and Enkidu prepare to leave for the Land of Cedars. They arm themselves. The people ask when they will return, and the counselors tell Gilgamesh not to be arrogant and to be cautious when fighting Humbaba. They also tell him to let Enkidu lead the way, because he knows the forest well and has seen Humbaba before. The counselors wish Gilgamesh good luck in his quest.
Though the counselors’ warnings are repeating what was said before, an important change happens here in the relationship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu: here we see that Enkidu will take the lead in their quest. Because he grew up in the wilderness, he has more knowledge and experience there than the “civilized” Gilgamesh does.
Enkidu tells Gilgamesh to follow him—Enkidu knows the way—and not to be afraid. In three days, they walk the distance of “a journey of a month and two weeks,” crossing seven mountains before arriving at the forest. Enkidu says that when he opened the gate to the forest before, his hand became weak. Gilgamesh tells Enkidu to “not speak like a coward.” Gilgamesh assures Enkidu not to be afraid and to “roused by the battle to come.” They travel into the forest and to the green mountain. They are stunned by the forest, by the height of the trees and the trail where Humbaba typically walked. Gilgamesh digs a well and makes an offering on top of the mountain, asking the mountain to give him a “favourable dream.”
The Epic’s exaggerated distances (or underreported travel times) highlight the larger-than-life aspects of its heroes and also the mythical significance of their quest. They do not merely exit the city and fight a monster: they also travel more than a month’s journey in just three days to fight a monster who is believed to be immortal. The gate to the Cedar Forest is also an important symbol of transition here. Enkidu wishes to turn back, but Gilgamesh convinces him to go through. This signifies a point of no return in their journey: by travelling through the gate, they are committing to challenging Humbaba (and thereby possibly offending the gods).
They sleep, and at midnight Gilgamesh wakes up from a dream. He tells Enkidu of his dream: it was terrifying and confusing. Gilgamesh dreamed that he took hold of a wild bull that bit and attacked him. In the dream, the bull threw him back, and then a man offered him water from a water-skin. Enkidu offers his interpretation of the dream: the man is Shamash, and when they are in danger Shamash will lift the two of them up and offer them help.
Dreams often communicate the intentions of the gods, and predict the future the gods have decreed. This one promises Gilgamesh Shamash’s support. Water is also an important symbol in the epic (particularly later). The water offered here is a symbol for more general restoration and rejuvenation.
Gilgamesh tells Enkidu of another dream he had. In a deep swamp, the two of them stood next to each other as the mountain above them fell toward them. The falling mountain caught Gilgamesh’s legs. Then he saw an incredible and beautiful light. The light pulled Gilgamesh out from under the mountain and lifted him up to stand solid-footed on the ground. Enkidu says that the mountain represents Humbaba, and just as the mountain fell, so Humbaba’s body will fall to the ground.
Gilgamesh has another prophetic dream about their quest. We can likely interpret the light as representing Shamash, the sun god, who has pledged to help Gilgamesh because of Gilgamesh’s offerings and prayers.
They travel another day and dig a well before the sun has set. Gilgamesh climbs up the mountain, sets an offering of food on the ground, and prays to the mountain to send Enkidu an auspicious dream. Enkidu dreams of cold rain coming down on him. When Enkidu wakes up at midnight, he asks Gilgamesh if he woke Enkidu up. Enkidu says that he is scared. He tells Gilgamesh that he saw another dream: the earth fell dark, lightning struck, fires raged, and the clouds “rained down death.” Then, in the dream, the light disappeared, the fires went out, and all that was left was ash.
Enkidu’s dream gives us the first glimpse of a possible tragedy at the end of their quest. The disappearance of light may represent the absence of Shamash’s protection, and even the end of life itself. It’s telling that all the frightening images in the dream are representative of dangerous, uncontrollable nature—storms, fire, and darkness. The wilderness is presented as frightening, and thus as the best place for heroism.
After descending the mountain, Gilgamesh uses his axe to start chopping down the cedars. From afar, Humbaba hears the noise and shouts, “Who is this that has violated my woods and cut down my cedar?” From heaven, Shamash speaks to Gilgamesh, telling him not to fear. But Gilgamesh is very afraid, and is overcome by weakness and sleep. He lies on the ground “as though in a dream.” Enkidu tries to wake him, but cannot. Eventually Gilgamesh hears Enkidu’s pleas and wakes up, armoring himself. Gilgamesh prays to “live to be the wonder of my mother” and not to return to the city until he has fought Humbaba. Enkidu tells Gilgamesh that the only reason Gilgamesh is not afraid is because he does not know Humbaba. Enkidu himself is terrified. Enkidu tells Gilgamesh about Humbaba. He tells Gilgamesh to go on if he likes, but that he himself is going to return to the city.
By overcoming his fear of fighting Humbaba, Gilgamesh shows that he is more concerned with heroic feats than in preserving his own life. Enkidu, however, offers another perspective: he believes that Gilgamesh’s lack of fear comes from ignorance. Just as Gilgamesh does not yet appreciate (or even seem to accept) the true finality of death, he does not understand just how dangerous his fight with Humbaba will be. Gilgamesh’s friendship with Enkidu gives him access to a view of the world that is more realistic about mortality, but at this point in the story Gilgamesh still rejects it—he is too proud.
Gilgamesh says that he will not die or be mourned. He asks Enkidu to help him in the fight against Humbaba. He tells Enkidu that since all men must die anyway, they should bravely fight Humbaba. Anyone who does not finish a fight, Gilgamesh says, “is not at peace.” Humbaba then comes out from his house of cedar. Enkidu tells Gilgamesh to remember his arrogance back in Uruk, and to attack Humbaba without fear. He tells Gilgamesh not to let Humbaba escape into the woods. Enkidu suggests that they trap Humbaba before he can arm himself. Humbaba comes out from his house and stares down Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh prays to Shamash for help, and Shamash commands the eight winds to attack Humbaba, blinding him and preventing him from moving.
Gilgamesh’s certainty that he will not die reveals his still-arrogant understanding of mortality. Gilgamesh is the hero, but Enkidu is the one whose plan of attack allows them to succeed, and when the two men need help from the gods, Shamash aids them. In all, there’s little real fighting on Gilgamesh’s part—what seems to be most important is that he overcome his fear of Humbaba.
Gilgamesh cuts down the first cedar and cuts the branches off, laying them down at the bottom of the mountain. He and Enkidu then cut down seven more cedars and assemble the branches at the bottom of the mountain. Seven times Humbaba “blazed out” at Gilgamesh and Enkidu, whenever they chop down a cedar. Humbaba begins to cry as he speaks to Gilgamesh, saying that he never had a mother or father, and that if Gilgamesh lets him go free, he will serve Gilgamesh and the mountain will belong to him. Humbaba says that he will cut down the trees and build Gilgamesh a palace. Humbaba leads Gilgamesh to his house, and Gilgamesh feels compassion for him. But Enkidu warns him that Humbaba will take advantage of Gilgamesh’s generosity and prevent him from returning home.
Again, it is Enkidu who ensures the pair’s success. This is an interesting section, as it’s unclear what the writer is actually describing. Humbaba seems to be closely connected to the cedars he guards, so much so that he is wounded when they are chopped down. Humbaba “blazing out” is probably a reference to other legends about the giant in Mesopotamian mythology. Humbaba was said to have seven “radiances” or “auras,” and in taking these from him Gilgamesh and Enkidu seem to rob him of his power. In a telling shift, Enkidu—who was once an “innocent” creature living in nature—now chops down the tall, beautiful cedars.
Humbaba says that Enkidu speaks out of jealousy and terror. Enkidu again tells Gilgamesh to slay Humbaba and his servants. Gilgamesh listens to Enkidu and strikes Humbaba with his sword. Then Enkidu strikes Humbaba. The third blow, also by Enkidu, kills Humbaba. The cedars “shiver” when Humbaba falls. Gilgamesh and Enkidu then advance into the forest to the “sacred dwellings of the Anunnaki.” Gilgamesh cuts down the first trees of the forest and Enkidu clears their roots. They lay down Humbaba’s body as an offering and kiss the ground. But when he sees Humbaba’s head, Enlil is angry. He curses them, declaring “may the fire be on your faces, may it eat the bread that you eat, may it drink where you drink.”
The probable historical basis for this adventure was an expedition to chop down cedars and bring them back to Sumer (where there was little timber), as the Epic presents the felling of trees as an essential part of the battle with Humbaba. Importantly, it is Enkidu who strikes the killing below, and Enkidu whom the gods will blame for the death of Humbaba. Humbaba doesn’t seem like much of a villain in the end, and Gilgamesh seems especially proud and merciless in killing the giant simply to gain glory for himself. Enlil is the god who had appointed Humbaba to guard the cedars, so when Gilgamesh and Enkidu kill Humbaba it is a direct affront to the supremacy of the gods—an act of hubris that will lead to tragedy.