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The Epic of Gilgamesh

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Why is killing Humbaba important for Gilgamesh and Enkidu in The Epic of Gilgamesh?

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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 Bull of Heaven. This divine anger will result in Enkidu's death from illness (one of the critical turning points of the poem).

Keep in mind that, at its core, The Epic of Gilgamesh is a poem about death and failure. Gilgamesh's greatest and most important adventure follows his attempt to gain immortality, only to fail completely. As a character, he is highly flawed. He begins the story as a brutal tyrant and exhibits a great deal of hubris across the poem. These flaws and themes are reflected in the killing of Humbaba (and for this alone, you can label this scene as important).

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In the second tablet, Enkidu expresses to Gilgamesh that he has grown tired and weak from being idle. Gilgamesh responds by telling Enkidu that he has not established his name and stamped it on the bricks as his destiny decreed. He then decides that he and Enkidu will travel to the Forest of Cedar and defeat the evil Humbaba. However, Enkidu warns him about the dangers of entering the forest that Enlil has appointed Humbaba to guard. Gilgamesh then replies by saying,

"Where is the man who can clamber to heaven? Only the gods live forever with glorious Shamash, but as for us men, our days are numbered, our occupations are a breath of wind." (N. K. Sandars, 7)

Essentially, Gilgamesh believes that it is important to defeat the mighty Humbaba in order to cement his legacy for all mankind to witness and acknowledge. Gilgamesh is a prideful king, who is concerned about his legacy and wants his name to go down in history. Gilgamesh knows that by defeating Humbaba, his name will be written on the bricks of the wall surrounding Uruk. He also wants to show the citizens of Uruk that it is possible for humans to defy the gods.

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Gilgamesh, befitting his epic hero status, wants to fight and kill Humbaba to prove to his people that they should not be afraid of Humbaba and that the gods are able to be defied by mere mortals. Also, perhaps as a secondary motive, he wants to be able to inspire the youth of Uruk with his mighty deeds to encourage them to be great and powerful in the same way that he is. Note what he says in the following quote:

I want to prove

Him not the awesome thing we think he is

And that the boundaries set up by gods

Are not unbreakable. I will defeat him

In his cedar forest. The youth of Uruk

Need this fight. They have grown soft and restless.

Gilgamesh therefore openly states that part of his reason for wanting to fight Humbaba is to confront the fear that his people have of him as an "awesome thing" and also to challenge the gods in setting up their boundaries, which mortals think are "unbreakable." Of course, these motives, with their arrogance and hubris and defiance, are completely fitting for an epic hero who is determined to make a name for himself by doing what others do not because they are too afraid.

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