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The Epic of Gilgamesh

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In The Epic of Gilgamesh, what is the symbolic significance of Humbaba?

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In The Epic of Gilgamesh, Humbaba could be said to symbolize the forces of nature that must be subdued and controlled by man if he is to achieve freedom from his surroundings. The poem presents this process of subjugation as a necessary condition of human progress. Only once the forces of nature have been tamed by man can civilization truly flourish.

Humbaba is Lord of the Cedars, and his forest dwelling—dark and mysterious—is held by Gilgamesh to be a place of evil. It's not so much that Humbaba represents an immediate threat to Uruk; it's more the idea that he is a holdout against the relentless march of human progress and civilization. So long as there is a corner of the known world, however remote, that's a no-go area for humans, then civilization and its achievements will remain in jeopardy.

In the somewhat anticlimactic battle between Humbaba and Gilgamesh and Enkidu, the forest-dwelling monster proves no match for man-made armor and weapons. The symbolism is clear: for now, civilization has prevailed over the forces of nature.

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In The Epic of Gilgamesh, Humbaba is the terrifying monster that guards the Cedar Forest and attempts to protect the natural environment from intruders like Gilgamesh and Enkidu. Humbaba is described as being a dangerous monster, who breathes fire and is impossible to defeat. Initially, Enkidu is skeptical about embarking on the quest to defeat Humbaba but the two heroes eventually decide to travel into the unknown forest to challenge the terrifying monster with the help of Shamash. One could argue that Humbaba symbolically represents the unknown natural environment and nature's potential for destruction. Gilgamesh and Enkidu represent civilization and their quest to defeat the enigmatic, dangerous Humbaba symbolically represents humanity's desire to conquer the natural world. Humbaba's association with wickedness and evil corresponds to nature's destructive power in form of natural disasters.

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Let us remember that Humbaba is the monster who guards the Forest of Cedars. Gilgamesh and Enkidu, Gilgamesh's erstwhile sidekick, manage to kill him in a rather titanic struggle. However, perhaps the key to any symbolic significance that Humbaba might have lies in the description that we are given of him. Enkidu famously describes him using the following language:

When he roars it is like the torrent of the storm, his breath is like fire, and his jaws are death itself. He guards the cedars so well that when the wild heifer stirs in the forest, though she is sixty leagues distant, he hears her.

If we examine the account of their battle together, we can see that Humbaba is a creature of evil. Even at the point of his death, just before Gilgamesh is going to kill him, he tries to stop Gilgamesh by promising him to serve him as a slave, and therefore seeks to manipulate him. It is only Enkidu who manages to prevent this from working. Perhaps therefore the symbolism of Humbaba lies in his evil nature: he is an aberration of nature in his physical appearance, and this indicates that he is a force of wickedness and destruction.

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