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Gilgamesh epic

Ideas of heroicism often involve the subjugation of nature, or the “taming” of preternatural forces by the respective hero. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, aspects of human rationality and human civilization are pitted against preternatural forces, through the use of mythic symbology, in the slaying of Humbaba the Terrible.

In order to understand that the conflict between Gilgamesh, Enkidu and Humbaba represents not merely the surface-level action of a hero slaying a monster, it is necessary to probe the underlying symbolism of not only Humbaba as a representative of the preternatural world, but of Gilgamesh and Enkidu as representatives of the human collective, of human society and the manner in which it encroaches upon, and ultimately destroys elemental nature.

The Akkadian myths out of which Humbaba emerged understood Humbaba to be the keeper or guardian of the Cedar Forest, which is known to be the abode of the gods. When Gilgamesh persuades Enkidu to journey to the Cedar Forest to kill Humbaba, his ambition is to “cut down the sacred Cedar and achieve eternal fame” (Gilgamesh, xix). It is also worthy of note that “During the six-day journey Gilgamesh has terrifying and ominous dreams” (Gilgamesh, xix) because this indicates the association of Humbaba not only with primordial nature, but with the human psyche as well.

One might assert that Humbaba represents what modern psychologists understand as the “unconscious” aspect of the human psyche or even the “universal unconscious” of the collective human psyche. Seen as such, the excursion by Gilgamesh and Enkidu into the Cedar Forest is, symbolically, an excursion into the deeper and more autonomous aspects of the human psyche.

By “autonomous” what is meant is those aspects of the human psyche which are not compatible with civilized society, with ordered existence, but which emerge out of the deepest, natural instincts and realities of the primitive “unconscious” which may or may not stand as a threat to civilized society. There is some indication prior to the beginning of the journey to the Cedar Forest that a harmony or balance has been achieved between the civilized world and the primordial world; no-one has journeyed to the Cedar Forest to disturb the gods and the gods have been happily shielded from direct human awareness.

However, Gilgamesh — motivated both by pride and by the desire to “achieve fame for himself and reinvigorate Enkidu’s spirit and limbs” (Gilgamesh, 14) chooses to brave the fearful forces of the forest and directly confront the primordial powers. Once the confrontation with Humbaba begins, it is obvious that the threatening aspect of the primordial powers has been greatly over-stated in the minds of the civilized people who have left the Cedar Forest behind.

The “monster” turns out to be fully capable of begging Gilgamesh to spare his life, and to no avail. The slaying of Humbaba, as anti-climactic as it is self-destructive, implies that Gilgamesh’s blow for human civilization is, in fact, a blow against the “soul” of humanity and against nature. Obviously, the symbolic resonance of the slaying of Humbaba originates in the pre-existing (perhaps archetypal) knowledge that human-beings are, despite their civilized separation from a pure “state of nature,” still a part of nature and can be nothing else.

It is necessary for human society to accommodate the preternatural urges and awareness that permeate even the “modern” psyche of Gilgamesh’s time. The slaying of Humbaba stands for the slaying of the harmony that humanity once experienced with nature and as such is an ironic inversion of heroic myth. Work Cited The Epic of Gilgamesh. Trans. Maureen Gallery Kovacs. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1989.

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