Illustration of Gilgamesh's face

The Epic of Gilgamesh

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In The Epic of Gilgamesh, why do Uruk's people fear Humbaba? Is Gilgamesh brave or foolish for pursuing Humbaba?

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In The Epic of Gilgamesh, the people of Uruk and its countryside are frightened of Humbaba because of his fearsome reputation as a terrible giant. That even Enkidu is afraid as well speaks volumes of his power. Gilgamesh is certainly brave in taking this challenge, but whether he is foolish is a more complicated question, one that would require applying the values and expectations of ancient aristocratic warrior cultures to address.

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In The Epic of Gilgamesh, Humbaba is described as a terrible giant of superhuman ferocity, too overwhelming to oppose. However, while Humbaba terrifies the people of Uruk, what makes this depiction all the more convincing is the degree to which Enkidu shares that same fear. Enkidu is the closest thing Gilgamesh has to an equal, and for him to be so frightened by Humbaba speaks volumes of the giant's power. This is clearly an opponent far beyond the capabilities of mortals to resist, and thus serves as a worthy opponent for Gilgamesh to overcome.

As for whether or not Gilgamesh's actions here are brave or foolish, it is worth noting that the two concepts are not mutually exclusive. I think Gilgamesh's actions are certainly brave, but as for whether they are foolish, that is a more difficult question to judge.

Ultimately, to answer this question we should be willing to apply the standards of ancient aristocratic warrior culture to Gilgamesh's actions rather than our own. In that sense, Gilgamesh seems to be acting as an ancient king and hero should be expected to act. While he does, at the very least, display a great deal of arrogance, it should be remembered that ancient heroes and kings have very often upheld a larger-than-life dynamic. Indeed, the people of ancient antiquity often envisioned kings as occupying a space between mortals and gods, with kings serving as intermediaries between the two.

These ancient heroes were not understood as mortal men and were not bound by the same limits and expectations. They were expected to achieve exceptional feats, and, in this, Gilgamesh is acting in accordance with his heroic nature. He needs worthy feats against overwhelming odds to prove his reputation and ensure everlasting fame. In challenging Humbaba, he is acting in accordance with that nature.

That being said, I do think that Gilgamesh does cross a line after he has defeated Humbaba. At this point, Humbaba is shown begging for mercy, offering to devote himself to Gilgamesh, and Gilgamesh even considers accepting that surrender, although Enkidu cautions him otherwise. In the end, Gilgamesh chooses to slaughter Humbaba, much to the ire of Enlil, Humbaba's divine patron. This in particular represents a dangerous move from Gilgamesh and points towards a recklessness in his character (one that would be illustrated again in his castigation of Ishtar). Speaking within the context of heroic literature, those who anger, disrespect or challenge the gods tend to face severe consequences for their actions, and this same theme is certainly at play in The Epic of Gilgamesh.

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