Killing Humbaba

The story of David and Goliath is one of the Bible’s really great tales. It is exciting, easy to put on a flannel board, and it has a great spiritual message: you can always overcome your obstacles, no matter how big they are, if you just have faith in God (and a reasonably good sling shot). Goliath has become a good metaphor for problems in our lives that seem to big to tackle. This, in fact, is the theme of one of President Monson’s most well-known talks and the book in which it was collected. We must all confront our Goliaths.

But I want to talk about another great hero who killed a huge opponent–one whose story was ancient even to the people who wrote the Old Testament: the Mesopotamian proto-hero Gilgamesh. Like David (and nearly every other hero in the Ancient or Modern world), Gilgamesh makes a name for himself by killing a big thing–the semi-divine Humbaba, whose name even means “hugeness.”

But there is a big difference between Gilgamesh and David. Unlike Goliath, whose army is arrayed against the Israelites in mortal combat, Humbaba—a forest guardian in the Cedar Forest—is minding his own business, just guarding the trees like he is supposed to. He poses no danger to Gilgamesh or anybody else in the story. In fact, Gilgamesh’s friends, his people, and his mother—the goddess Ninsun—all tell him to stay home and just let Humbaba stay in the forest and be big.

But the Gilgamesh wants none of it. When his BFF Enkdu tries to talk him out of his journey, Gilgamesh berates him as a coward:

You were raised in the mountains, with your own hands
you have killed marauding lions and wolves,
you are brave, your heart has been tested in combat,
But whether you come along or not,
I will cut down the tree. I will kill Humbaba,
I will make a lasting name for myself,
I will stamp my fame on men’s minds forever. (93-94)

And that is that. Gilgamesh is afraid that he is going to die, so he leaves his kingdom, shames his best friend into coming with him, marches for six days in order to hunt down a big creature who isn’t hurting anyone, and kills Humbaba in cold blood while he begs for his life. This offends the gods (who put Humbaba there in the first place) and sets in motion a chain of events that leads to Enkidu’s death, Gilgamesh’s deep mourning, and the realization that he is still going to die.

Killing Humbaba is the most foolish things that Gilgamesh does, but it is also one of the most human. Like most of us, Gilgamesh was not content just to fight the battles that needed fighting–he had to go looking for battles that he didn’t need to fight in order to satisfy some deep need for conflict. He fears death, and he wants to be immortal, but he lacks imagination, so the best he can do is kill something big. Guys do this all the time and call it hunting.

But there is a great metaphor here too. In much the same way that Goliath represents the big problems in our lives that we have to confront, Humbaba represents the problems that we seek out because we are stupid. Sometimes we take on these problems out of anxiety—because we just can’t live comfortably knowing that somebody on Twitter is wrong. Sometimes we do it to prove something to ourselves, or to someone else, or because we think we are rescuing a friend, or because somebody insulted us. When we pick battles that don’t need to be picked, or spend resources solving problems that weren’t even problems until we went looking for things to solve, we are, metaphorically, killing Humbaba.

Near the end of his life, Gilgamesh realizes that all of the big-thing-killing he has dedicated his life to has been useless. He has not prevented his death, nor does the fame he will enjoy after his death give him a moments solace for the death of Enkidu (but really the future loss of himself–it is Margaret he morns for):

I have wandered the world, climbed the most treacherous
mountains, crossed deserts, sailed the vast ocean,
and sweet sleep has rarely softened my face.
I have worn myself out through ceaseless striving,
I have filled my muscles with pain and anguish.
I have killed bear, lion, hyena, leopard,
tiger, deer, antelope, ibex, I have eaten
their meat and have wrapped their rough skins around me.
And what in the end have I achieved? (176)

Both David and Gilgamesh represent fundamental truths of the human condition, but they represent different fundamental truths. David tells us that we can’t always avoid major conflicts, so we have to be prepared. Gilgamesh tells us that we can sometimes avoid major conflicts, but, to our detriment, we don’t always really want to.

May we have the strength to defeat our Goliaths and the strength to stop seeking out Humbabas. And may we have the wisdom to tell them apart.


Quotations from Stephen Mitchell’s Gilgamesh: A New English Version. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004.


  1. Aaron Brown says:

    All of my ideological opponents, large and small, are Goliaths. I am jealous of those of you who have Humbabas in your lives.

    Aaron B

  2. Aaron, you ARE the Humbaba in our lives.

  3. “Guys do this all the time and call it hunting.”
    Thanks for ruining an otherwise excellent post with a PC stab at hunters. Or were you calmly revealing your own existential angst by attacking the hunting/fishing lobby? Hmmm….

  4. Well, I rather liked this piece. Even the PC “stab” at hunters – the hunters who were just minding their business in the forest, till you came along and picked an unprovoked fight :)

  5. Good thoughts. How many times have I looked for ways to prove myself to my own detriment? (from someone who enjoys fishing but only to excess).

  6. A thought provoking distinction. Thank you. Lends itself to a further mote and beam distinction. I jump to a whole series of non-PC and some political exclamations about other people’s Humbabas, and then stop myself with doubt whether I can really tell the difference for myself.

  7. I agree with Segullah. Does the writer know any thoughtful hunters? Does he believe thoughtful hunting takes place? Yet another reminder of the political nature of this blog. Because the author just can’t resist himself.

  8. Let us separate blood lust hunting from food hunting and necessary culling. And honoring and thanking the animal who gave its life for our necessities. This also works for supermarket beef, pork, chicken and lamb, even salmon, cod and tuna.

    I think that is the point of the story, the destruction of good things for no purpose but Shadenfreude and self aggrandizement. We all kill every day but we should be conscious of it and aware and sorrowful that we must be the instruments and the necessity of it. Even hunters.

  9. The reference to hunting is not just a throw-away political shot. It is essential to how the narrative works. In most hero-quest stories like this, there is a battle with a monster in which the hero is protecting the culture. The monster has been attacking the mead hall (Beowulf), or eating soldiers (Odysseus), or putting virgins in a maze (Theseus), or leading the charge against one’s army (David). The monster has to be killed or the people will suffer.

    But this is not the case with Gilgamesh. He kills Humbaba for sport, to prove himself worthy of an immortal reputation by killing the biggest thing he can think of. Think of him as an American billionaire who charters a plane to Kenya, bribes his way onto the wildlife preserve, and kills a lion so he can take a picture of himself standing with his foot on the lion’s head. This is what Gilgamesh does. He kills a giant, not because the giant needed killing, but because he needed to kill.

    The Epic of Gilgamesh is the story of how a completely selfish king becomes the great wall-builder who protects his people. And the story of killing Humbaba is part of showing his self-absorption and his complete unwillingness to consider the needs of his people. The killing of Humbaba is many things, but it is portrayed as a battle that Gilgamesh chooses to fight for his own needs rather than one that he had to fight in order to be a good king.

    The whole point of the story is that killing Humbaba is a fight that he picks himself, because something inside of him needs to fight, and not something that serves any non-selfish purpose–or even self-protective purpose. And my whole point is that we have enough battles in the world that we have to fight that it is foolish to go around picking fights that serve no purpose whatsoever.

  10. I actually really did appreciate this post. I hope my comment above about taking a “stab” at hunters didn’t come across as angry.

  11. You spelled Einkudu wrong according to many translations spell it the way I spell it