The Head of Humbaba 
from Gilgamesh: A Verse Narrative 

retold by Herbert Mason 

            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 
5         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 
10        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, 
15        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 
20        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 
25        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 
30         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 
35        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. 
40        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 
45        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, 
50        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 
55        The head of Humbaba was swinging from a tree.

 

 

Finding Common Ground 

1. Can you find common ground between yourself and Gilgamesh and his friend?  Do you have any questions about the story—any details that you did not understand? 


2. Read the story a second time, take notes. When you finish the second reading, review your understanding of the story. Are your questions answered? Do you have any different responses? 

3. Now meet with other readers and compare notes. 

• Is the text clear? 

• Does it remind you of any details in Beowulf’s story? 

• Have you ever experienced any of Gilgamesh’s feelings? 

• Does the story have anything to say to people today?

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