from Gilgamesh "The Death of Humbaba" No Biography

Gilgamesh was an historical king of Uruk in Babylonia, on the River Euphrates in modern Iraq. He lived about 2700 B.C. Although historians tend to emphasize Hammurabi and his code of law, the civilizations of the Tigris-Euphrates area, among the first civilizations, focus rather on Gilgamesh and the legends accruing around him to explain, as it were, themselves. Many stories and myths were written about Gilgamesh, some of which were written down about 2000 B.C. in the Sumerian language on clay tablets which still survive. The Sumerian language, as far as we know, bears no relation to any other human language we know about. These Sumerian Gilgamesh stories were integrated into a longer poem, versions of which survive not only in Akkadian (the Semitic language, related to Hebrew, spoken by the Babylonians) but also on tablets written in Hurrian and Hittite (an Indo-European language, a family of languages which includes Greek and English, spoken in Asia Minor). The fullest surviving version is derived from twelve stone tablets, in the Akkadian language, found in the ruins of the library of Ashurbanipal, king of Assyria 669-633 B.C., at Nineveh. The library was destroyed by the Persians in 612 B.C., and all the tablets are damaged. The tablets actually name an author, which is extremely rare in the ancient world, for this particular version of the story: Shin-eqi-unninni.

At dawn Gilgamesh raised his ax And struck at the great cedar. When Humbaba heard the sound of falling trees, He hurried down the path that they had seen But only he had traveled. Gilgamesh felt weak At the sound of Humbaba's footsteps and called to Shamash Saying, I have followed you in the way decreed; Why am I abandoned now? Suddenly the winds Sprang up. They saw the great head of Humbaba Like a water buffalo's bellowing down the path, His huge and clumsy legs, his flailing arms Thrashing at phantoms in his precious trees. His single stroke could cut a cedar down And leave no mark on him. His shoulders, Like a porter's under building stones, Were permanently bent by what he bore; He was the slave who did the work for gods But whom the gods would never notice. Monstrous in his contortion, he aroused The two almost to pity. But pity was the thing that might have killed. It made them pause just long enough to show How pitiless he was to them. Gilgamesh in horror saw Him strike the back of Enkidu and beat him to the ground Until he thought his friend was crushed to death. He stood still watching as the monster leaned to make His final strike against his friend, unable To move to help him, and then Enkidu slid Along the ground like a ram making its final lunge On wounded knees. Humbaba fell and seemed To crack the ground itself in two, and Gilgamesh, As if this fall had snapped him from his daze, Returned to life And stood over Humbaba with his ax Raised high above his head watching the monster plead In strangled sobs and desperate appeals The way the sea contorts under a violent squall. I'll serve you as I served the gods, Humbaba said; I'll build you houses from their sacred trees.
Enkidu feared his friend was weakening And called out: Gilgamesh! Don't trust him! As if there were some hunger in himself That Gilgamesh was feeling That turned him momentarily to yearn For someone who would serve, he paused; And then he raised his ax up higher And swung it in a perfect arc Into Humbaba's neck. He reached out To touch the wounded shoulder of his friend,
And late that night he reached again To see if he was yet asleep, but there was only Quiet breathing. The stars against the midnight sky Were sparkling like mica in a riverbed. In the slight breeze The head of Humbaba was swinging from a tree.

from Gilgamesh Discussion Questions

Recall and Interpert
1. At what point does Gilgamesh begin to feel fear? What details in the text suggest that he has become afraid?
2. How is Humbaba described in the text? What about Humbaba might have aroused pity?
3. Describe the struggle between Humbaba and Enkidu. In your opinion, what might Gilgamesh have been feeling as he witnessed this scene?
4. What tactic does Humbaba use when he realizes Gilgamesh might be able to kill him? What does this tactic tell you about his character?
5. What does Enkidu fear for his friend? Why might he fear this?

Evaluate and Connect
6. Mood is the emotional tone or atmosphere of a story. Choose one word to describe the mood of this selection, and give reasons for your choice.
7. What do lines 19-23 tell you about the Sumerians' attitude toward pity? Do you think people today have the same attitude? Explain.
8. Think back to your responses to the Reading Focus on page 80. Compare Gilgamesh's experience wrth your own.
9. Theme Connections In what ways is Gilgamesh a heroic character? What qualities make him seem to be just an average human being?
10. In your opinion, why might people feel paralyzed in stressful situations? Explain how one might prepare for crises to avoid freezing up.