52:02 Humbaba of the Cedar Forest
This week’s artifact is a small clay mask of the Sumerian mythological figure Humbaba, which comes to us from the ancient Mesopotamian city of Uruk. It dates to around the second millennium BCE, and is housed at the British Museum.
Humbaba is primarily remembered as an antagonist in the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the most engaging and imaginative pieces of literature from the ancient world. If any reader hasn’t had the pleasure of making its acquaintance, I enthusiastically recommend Stephen Mitchell’s fine rendering in his Gilgamesh: A New English Version. Mitchell does the casual reader the favor of smoothing out the ragged text, which is pocked by lacunae, presenting it as a graceful running narrative.
The heart of the epic is the fast friendship between the Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, and the wild man Enkidu. When our story opens, the people of Uruk lament that the king has no respect for the social order and runs amok among the people, taking what he will and generally acting in a dreadful manner. The gods hear their prayers, deciding that someone of his verve requires a foil, a companion against whom he can wrangle, and with whom he can adventure.
After various machinations, Gilgamesh meets, fights, and eventually befriends Enkidu, a true child of nature who has never been tamed or subdued by the arts of civilization.
After declaring their mighty friendship, the two warriors resolve to set out to the cedar forest sacred to the great god Enlil, and there to face and slay the forest guardian Humbaba. So they travel beyond the fields they know, and after many adventures and a series of oracular dreams, they come to the forbidding forest, to meet and challenge their foe.
Humbaba has long been regarded in the scholarship as a figure of ambiguity. He is accused by our heroes of being a diabolical force that they are tasked to destroy, and he does seem to have a horrible, ogre-like appearance. But he also appears as the guardian of the forest and sacred to the gods. His slaying cannot but impress the reader as wanton, and is if to amplify the point, once the heroes have slain him, they lay waste to the precious cedar forests with their axes.
I often wonder if Humbaba was the inspiration for the Forest God in Hayao Miyazaki’s wonderful film Princess Mononoke. Both figures embody an ambivalent status as lord of life and death.
In 2011, an important new clay tablet came to the attention of scholars. It contains a previously-unknown portion of the Gilgamesh epic, and sheds new light on the character of Humbaba and his forest. A full translation and discussion may be found in the fascinating short paper Back to the Cedar Forest by F. N. H. Al-Rawi and A. R. George.
The passage describes the entrance of Gilgamesh and Enkidu into the forest in one of the “very few episodes in Babylonian narrative poetry when attention is paid to landscape.” Here is a short excerpt; the remainder may be read in the paper cited above:
They stood there marveling at(?) the forest,
observing the height of the cedars,
observing the way into the forest.
Where Ḫumbaba came and went there was a track,
the paths were in good order and the way was well trodden.
They were gazing at the Cedar Mountain,
dwelling of gods, throne-dais of goddesses:
[on the] face of the land the cedar was proffering its abundance,
sweet was its shade, full of delight.
[All] tangled was the thorny undergrowth, the forest a thick canopy,
cedars (and) ballukku-trees were [so entangled,] it had no ways in.
For one league on all sides cedars [sent forth] saplings,
cypresses […] for two-thirds of a league.
The cedar was scabbed with lumps (of resin) [for] sixty (cubits’) height,
resin [oozed] forth, drizzling down like rain,
[flowing freely(?)] for ravines to bear away.
[Through] all the forest a bird began to sing:
[…] were answering one another, a constant din was the noise,
[A solitary(?)] tree-cricket set off a noisy chorus,
[…] were singing a song, making the … pipe loud.
A wood pigeon was moaning, a turtle dove calling in answer.
[At the call of] the stork, the forest exults,
[at the cry of] the francolin, the forest exults in plenty.
[Monkey mothers] sing aloud, a youngster monkey shrieks:
[like a band(?)] of musicians and drummers(?),
daily they bash out a rhythm in the presence of Ḫumbaba.
This particular mask is inscribed on the back with a cuneiform inscription pertaining to rites of divination. Its features are traced from one long, continuous coil, suggesting viscera that were probably used in the associated rites. You can see the inscription on the British Museum research website here.