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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