The Epic of Gilgamesh Questions and Answers

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Why is it important for Gilgamesh and Enkidu to kill Humbaba in The Epic of Gilgamesh?

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Scott David eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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I think there are two possible ways of interpreting this question. On one level, you can ask why killing Humbaba is important to Gilgamesh and Enkidu. At the same time, however, you can also ask how this action is reflected within the themes and structure of the Epic of Gilgamesh. In this case, the question would be: why is this decision important to the poem itself?

I think other contributors have already addressed the first of these questions (ultimately, for Gilgamesh and Enkidu, I think, the killing of Humbaba is largely about pursuing glory for themselves). With that in mind, I am focusing on the second of these questions.

What's important to remember is that the killing of Humbaba is actually an affront to the god Enlil. From that perspective, this decision can be understood as an example of misjudgment and recklessness on the part of Gilgamesh and Enkidu. Later, Gilgamesh and Enkidu will make further enemies among the gods after Gilgamesh spurns Ishtar and the two heroes kill the...

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Gretchen Mussey eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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humbahaha | Student

Your question implies that it was necessary for the two heroes to kill Humbaba, but this is not the case. The Elders of Uruk and Enkidu both try to persuade Gilgamesh not to fight the monster. His own mother, the Goddess Ninsun, is unhappy about the expedition. She asks the sun god Shamash:

Why have you imposed a restless heart on my son Gilgamesh?
Now you have touched him so that he wants to travel a long way to where Humbaba is.
He will face fighting such as he has not known
He will travel on a road that he does not know

Although there is a suggestion in the text that the people will rejoice if Humbaba is killed and that he is hated by Shamash, the underlying message is that this adventure is foolhardy. This is not just because of the dangers involved, but because Humbaba is the official guardian of the cedar forrest, appointed by Enlil himself. Gilgamesh and Enkidu know that killing Humbaba will anger the gods. Enkidu says:

[Kill Humbaba] before the preeminent God Enlil hears... and the gods... be filled with rage against us

Consequently, when the council of the gods decide that either Gilgamesh or Enkidu must die, the reason is that:

...they killed the Bull of Heaven and have also slain Humbaba

So the slaughter of Humbaba was by no means "necessary". In fact, it was a foolish quest that lead directly to Enkidu's death. It was caused by Gilgamesh's selfish desire to "make a name" for himself. Only at the end of the story, after all of his attempts at securing immortality prove futile, does Gilgamesh realise that it is better to preserve life (like the flood hero) than to destroy it.