His face is that of a lion. “When he looks at someone, it is the look of death.” “Huwawa’s roar is a flood, his mouth is death and his breath is fire! He can hear a hundred leagues away any [rustling?] in his forest! Who would go down into his forest!” In various examples, his face is scribed in a single coiling line like that of the coiled entrails of men and beasts, from which omens might be read. This has led to the name “Guardian of the Fortress of Intestines.”
Huwawa is first mentioned in Tablet II of the Epic of Gilgamesh: after Gilgamesh and Enkidu become friends following their initial fight, they set out on an adventure to the Cedar Forest beyond the seventh mountain range, to slay Huwawa (Humbaba): “Enkidu,” Gilgamesh vows, “since a man cannot pass beyond the final end of life, I want to set off into the mountains, to establish my renown there.” Gilgamesh tricks the monster into giving away his seven “radiances” by offering his sisters as wife and concubine. When Huwawa’s guard is down, Gilgamesh punches him and captures the monster. Defeated, Humbaba appeals to a receptive Gilgamesh for mercy, but Enkidu convinces Gilgamesh to slay Huwawa. In a last effort, Humbaba tries to escape but is decapitated by Enkidu, or in some versions by both heroes together; his head is put in a leather sack, which is brought to Enlil, the god who set Huwawa as the forest’s guardian. Enlil becomes enraged upon learning this and redistributes Humbaba’s seven splendors (or in some tablets “auras”). “He gave Humbaba’s first aura to the fields. He gave his second aura to the rivers. He gave his third aura to the reed-beds. He gave his fourth aura to the lions. He gave his fifth aura to the palace (one text has debt slaves). He gave his sixth aura to the forests (one text has the hills). He gave his seventh aura to Nungal.” No vengeance was laid upon the heroes, though Enlil says, “He should have eaten the bread that you eat, and should have drunk the water that you drink! He should have been honored.”
As each gift was given by Gilgamesh, he received from Humbaba a “terror” (= “radiance”) in exchange, from Huwawa. The seven gifts successively given by Gilgamesh were:
- his sister, Ma-tur,
- (a gap in the text),
- big shoes,
- tiny shoes,
- semi-precious stones, and
- a bundle of tree-branches.
While Gilgamesh thus distracts and tricks this spirit of the cedar forest, the fifty unmarried young men he has brought on the adventure are felling cedar timber, stripping it of its branches and laying it “in many piles on the hillside,” ready to be taken away. Thus the adventure reveals itself in the context of a timber raid, bringing cedar wood to timberless Mesopotamia.
As his death approaches, and Gilgamesh is oppressed with his own mortality, the gods remind him of his great feats: “…having fetched cedar, the unique tree, from its mountains, having killed Humbaba in the forest…”
The iconography of the apotropaic severed head of Humbaba, with staring eyes, flowing beard and wild hair, is well documented from the First Babylonian Dynasty, continuing into Neo-Assyrian art and dying away during the Achaemenid rule. The decapitated head of the monstrous Humbaba found a Greek parallel in the myth of Perseus and the similarly employed head of Medusa, which Perseus placed in his leather sack. Archaic Greek depictions of the gorgoneion render it bearded, an anomaly in the female Gorgon. Judith McKenzie detected Humbaba heads in a Nabatean tomb frieze at Petra.
Humbaba is mentioned in Salman Rushdie's Luka and the Fire of Life, with the added details that the god has a serpent tail and a "serpent willy": The Humbaba of Assyria was a naked, scaly giant with a horned head and lion's paws. His tail was a living snake with a little, flicking forked tongue. "And so is his willy," Luka noted with delight. "That's quite something, a willy-snake, that's a thing I've never seen before."