Forests and The Epic of Gilgamesh

  • This might be a stupid question, but I was hoping that someone could explain the role forests played in Mesopotamia at the time The Epic of Gilgamesh was written. I'm asking because one of the major quests that Gilgamesh attempts is to go to a Cedar Forest, and after he kills the forest guardian he immediately starts cutting down trees:

    he went down to trample the forest.
    He discovered the secret abode of the gods,
    Gilgamesh felling the trees, Enkidu choosing the timber.

    (The Epic of Gilgamesh)

    What confuses me about the whole chain of events is that gathering timber is portrayed as a heroic quest. This made me ask myself: is this because timber was a valuable commodity in the time and place the epic was composed? What role did timber play in society.

    The inspiration for this question was that I read the "new" (as in 2014) fragment earlier today, which contained some interesting passages about the forest:

    They were gazing at the Cedar Mountain,
    dwelling of gods, throne-dais of goddesses:


    As the cedar [cast] its shadow,
    [terror] fell on Gilgameš.
    [Stiffness took] a grip of his arms,
    and feebleness beset his legs.

    I don't think that those new passages would change our interpretation of the story, but I included them anyway to persuade people to take a look at the new fragment if you haven't already.

    Aw, you really didn't have to do all that.

    @C.M.Weimer it's just fake internet points. I can edit/close questions, so all the reputation I have isn't really doing anything useful.

  • cmw

    cmw Correct answer

    6 years ago

    This is not at all a stupid question! In fact, scholars have a couple theories on this. According to the standard interpretation, the cedar forests refer to the famous cedar forests of Lebanon and Syria, which were highly sought after by kings as far back as Sargon. Sargon of Akkad, based in Akkad in now northern Iraq, would boast of his conquests of the far reaches of Mesopotamia, including the cedar forests:

    He made them cross the Amanus; he made his troops cross the Amanus. He reached the cedar forest. Amidst its din(?) he bowed down and readied his weapons. He offered a sacrifice, made obeisance, spoke distinctly.

    ("Sargon in Foreign Lands," vv. 11'-14')

    There were not many forests with in either Mesopotamia or Egypt with the quality of wood you could find in Syria and the Levant, so timber from the region was extremely important. The acquisition of a source of cheap timber would most certainly be connected with issues of imperial expansion, and it's no surprise that both Pharaonic Egypt and Mesopotamia as early as Sargon of Akkad both desired control over the region.[1] (warning: PDF)

    This particular text comes from an epic of Sargon, although the fragmentary nature of it makes it difficult to know the full extent of the composition. What we do know is that there are many parallels with the Gilgamesh story.

    The Sargonid dynasty (ca. 2300-2150) was the first real empire (now often called the Akkadian empire), and Sargon and his descendants' rule, though they were of a Semitic-speaking people (usually called Assyrian or Babylonian based off the primacy of those two cities in latter times), included all of Sumer, a different people with a different language. After its collapse, the city of Ur took over the empire (although lacked its far reaches), which is now known as the Ur III dynasty. Ur was not a Semitic city, but a Sumerian one, and so naturally there was some tension in recognizing Sargon's deeds.

    One of the results of this tension appears to be the ascription of deeds of Sargon to Gilgamesh. Since Sargon went to Dilmun, Gilgamesh went to Dilmun; since Sargon conquered the area containing cedar forests, so too did Gilgamesh go to the Cedar Forest and defeat Humbaba.

    The precise relationship between the two is hypothetical. One hypothesis is that the journey to Cedar Forests was only created in the Ur III period. The epic would act as a counter of sorts to the Akkadian propaganda that preceded it.

    An alternative, one favored by Tigay (p. 78), is that there was always a journey to the Cedar Forest, but only with the Akkadian period did it acquire a precise location corresponding with Sargon's military activity.


    Hansman 1976. "Gilgamesh, Humbaba and the Land of the Erin-Trees." Iraq 38.1: 23–35.

    Horowitz 1988. Mesopotamian Cosmic Geography. Eisenbrauns.

    Kramer 1963. The Sumerians: Their History, Culture and Character. The University of Chicago Press.

    Kuniholm 1997. "Wood," in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East, Eric M. Meyers, ed. New York: 347–349. [PDF link]

    Noegel 2008. "Mesopotamian Epic," in Foley ed. A Companion to Ancient Epic. Blackwell Publishing.

    Tigay 1982. The Evolution of the Gilgamesh Epic. University of Pennsylvania Press.

    Westenholz 1997. Legends of the Kings of Akkade: The Texts. Eisenbrauns.

    hi, and thanks for the great answer. A follow-up question: was timber an important material to Mesopotamia (e.g.. was it rare, or was it central to their life in some way). Or is this section of the myth geopolitically (not technically a word) motivated?

    Certainly! I should have made that clear. There aren't many forests in either Mesopotamia or Egypt, so timber from the region was extremely important. The acquisition of a source of cheap timber would most certainly be connected with issues of imperial expansion, and it's no surprise that both Pharaonic Egypt and Mesopotamia as early as Sargon of Akkad both desired control over the region. This article in the Oxford Enc. of Arch. in the Near East covers the topic a bit more:

    I'll edit the answer soon and incorporate the follow up, since you did indeed ask that originally!

    one final followup question: would this theme of timber be in any way related to Gilgamesh's identity as a builder (e.g. he built the walls of the city, etc)

    It would take some more research for me to figure out if there are any connections, but I doubt they're directly related. Wall-building/city founding is a typical royal motif, and ancient walls weren't typically wooden (or rather, the strong ones were brick, stone, or mortar). Wooden walls would actually be more of a danger, since it would be more susceptible to fire.

    I'll work that into the answer, too, though you should check out Marc Van De Mieroop's The Ancient Mesopotamian City:

    value of timber sounds like a plausible reason but considering that the quote from "Sargon in Foreign Lands" connects the entering in the forest with doing obeisance, is it not likely that they viewed the (or "a") cedar forest as somehow sacred? Sort of like many early European religions before Christianity that viewed (specific) forests as sacred.

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