The Epic of Gilgamesh | Study Guide


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The Epic of Gilgamesh | Book 3 | Summary



After some time, Gilgamesh announces his plan to kill Humbaba to "drive out evil from the world." Humbaba is a monster tasked by the gods with guarding the Cedar Forest, but, tears in his eyes, Enkidu objects to the plan. The forest is immense and ancient; mortals can't penetrate it. Yet Gilgamesh insists he will enter the forest and cut a cedar so tall its fall will cause a whirlwind. Then Enkidu raises another objection: Enlil, powerful god of the universe, set Humbaba to guard the sacred trees from mortals. And Humbaba is massive and deadly, with breath that burns flesh and a terrifying face that resembles a man's guts. He will hear anyone who approaches from many miles away and be ready to kill. Irritated at being contradicted, Gilgamesh accuses Enkidu of cowardice. Since only the gods are immortal, he reasons, and since death is certain for mortals, he will risk a heroic death to gain fame. When people speak of the king's death, they'll remember Enkidu was "safe at home" when it happened. Besides, Enkidu is brave and has killed lions, but if he refuses this adventure, Gilgamesh will go alone to earn everlasting fame.

Gilgamesh locks Uruk's seven gates and addresses his people from the throne, explaining his plan as Enkidu stands by and weeps. He asks the young soldiers to bless his plan and hopes to return to celebrate the New Year with them. Meanwhile, Enkidu begs the elders to talk sense into Gilgamesh, and they try, making the same arguments as he has. The king's "heart beats high" for adventure, but this plan, they insist, is foolish. But Gilgamesh laughs away these warnings, and Enkidu, seeing the king's persistence, agrees to go with him to the smiths to have weapons made for the adventure—more than 600 pounds in armor, axes, and other weapons, a weight no other man can manage.

Before the two leave, they visit Ninsun in her temple to get her blessing on the journey. Ninsun is distressed by her son's plan; after a ritual bathing and dressing, she goes to the roof to pray to Shamash, who made her son beautiful and strong but also gave him a "restless heart." She asks Shamash and his consort, Anu, to protect Gilgamesh day and night and give him victory. Then Ninsun adopts Enkidu, hanging a protective amulet around his neck as she asks him to guide Gilgamesh safely to the Cedar Forest and home again. Hand in hand like brothers, Gilgamesh and Enkidu leave Uruk as the young men cheer and the elders urge Enkidu to lead the way cautiously and guard the king.


Readers can only surmise how many days, weeks, months, or even years the heroes spend enjoying their friendship—dining together, hunting, enjoying athletic contests, visiting Ishtar's temple. But at some point, Gilgamesh's restless nature asserts itself again. He needs more—but this time, rather than hounding his people, he looks away from the city for an adventure. Often in hero tales, the protagonist is caught up in an adventure, called away from ordinary life and plunged into conflict, whether he wants it or not. But Gilgamesh, warrior king, calls adventure to him. Indeed, he seeks an adventure that may be inappropriate not only in its goal but in its motivation. Gilgamesh tries to mask his true motivation by claiming to be doing his job. Humbaba is evil; Gilgamesh must protect his people from evil. But he reveals his actual motivation: to obtain lasting fame for great deeds. A secondary goal is to cut one of the tall cedars, which are off limits to mortals—not only would this achievement increase his fame, it would affirm his semidivine nature, which is not enough to keep death away.

Readers today may mistake Enkidu's tears for weakness. He begins sighing and crying at the first mention of this plan and continues to weep when Gilgamesh declares his intention to the elders. But weeping is not unmanly in Uruk. Gilgamesh cries later—both when they face Humbaba and when Enkidu dies. The tears suggest how serious the situation is, worthy of deep feeling and careful thought. Enkidu and, later, the elders dissect the plan. They are not concerned about Gilgamesh's need for adventure—it's just the particular adventure that troubles them. They raise moral objections (Humbaba is appointed by the gods), physical objections (Humbaba is a deadly enemy with supernatural abilities), and practical objections (the forest is far off and vast).

The reader may observe, however, that the desire for fame drives many an epic hero: Gilgamesh wants to test himself and earn greater fame. To find fulfillment, he seeks out a monster. Gilgamesh may be in denial about the threat Humbaba poses, having never seen the monster. He may be enamored by the idea of new gear and a long camping trip with his buddy—he seems almost bubbling with excitement. Given his past behavior, however, he may seek this adventure merely because it's his nature to do so. Interestingly, only his mother, Ninsun, accepts that no one can talk Gilgamesh out of his decision. She prays for his safety, asks Enkidu to protect him, and lets him go. She seems to know her son better than he knows himself.

Uruk, and most of Mesopotamia, was an area of marshes and smaller trees; tall wood for lumber was a precious commodity, and fragrant cedar trunks were a desirable commodity, often reserved for building and furnishing temples and palaces. Even today, despite centuries of lumbering, Lebanon boasts a forest of tall cedars and uses the image of a cedar on its flag. Perhaps Gilgamesh also has in mind the prize a few of these trees would be for his beautiful city. Whatever the case, with mixed motivations, the friends set out on their fateful journey, leaving Uruk's protective walls behind.

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