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Small plaque: mask of the demon Humbaba

© 2005 RMN / Franck Raux

Near Eastern Antiquities
Iran

Author(s):
Herbin Nancie

This terra-cotta tablet depicts the demon Humbaba, guardian of the Forest of Cedars, who was beheaded by Enkidu and Gilgamesh, a tale recounted in the Epic of Gilgamesh. This figure with coarse features and a grimacing, even menacing expression, is here shown with a more kindly appearance. Several terra-cotta tablets and figurines dating from the early 2nd millennium BC have been found at various sites of Mesopotamia and Elam.

Humbaba, the lucky demon

This terra-cotta tablet features a male head in low relief. It is a figure from Mesopotamian mythology, the demon Humbaba, whose "mouth is fire and breath death." One of the heroes of the Epic of Gilgamesh, Humbaba was sent by the god Enlil to guard the Forest of Cedars and was beheaded by Gilgamesh and Enkidu. Images of this figure were used as lucky charms. Other demons with frightening appearances such as Pazuzu also had protective power and were represented on amulets (see notably AO 9497) and small figurines (AO 26056).

A grimacing demon in Mesopotamia, but a kindly figure in Elam

In the Mesopotamian tradition, Humbaba is represented as a grimacing, menacing figure, with coarse facial features. In full-sized depictions, he is shown nude and bandy-legged, sometimes wearing a belt around his belly, and with his right arm raised in an aggressive gesture. His face is usually made up of intestinal convolutions forming fleshy folds around his eyes, nose and mouth. He has a squashed nose, thick lips, and slanting eyes. His hair is short, with a thick fringe. In this piece, however, this evil spirit looks more jovial than frightening. This is perhaps because it was made in Elam and not in Mesopotamia.

A popular tradition

This object belongs to a series of terra-cotta figurines and tablets featuring the same type of figure and dating mostly from the early 2nd millennium BC. Similar representations have been found at a number of Mesopotamian and Iranian sites. This particular portrayal of Humbaba is a product of a delightful form of popular art, as opposed to luxurious pieces made for a much more demanding clientele.

Bibliography

Amiet Pierre, Élam, Auvers-sur-Oise, Archée éditeur, 1966, p.268, pp.285-286; fig. 229. Borne interactive du département des Antiquités orientales. Spycket Agnès, Les Figurines de Suse, vol.1 : Les Figurines humaines IVe-IIe millénaire av. J.-C., Paris, Gabalda, 1992, p.142, pl.101. (Mémoires de la Délégation archéologique en Iran, tome 52, Mission de Susiane, Ville royale de Suse VI).

Technical description

  • Small plaque: mask of the demon Humbaba

  • Terracotta

    H. 5.70 cm; W. 4.10 cm

  • R. de Mecquenem excavations, 1927

    Sb 6567

  • Near Eastern Antiquities

    Sully wing
    Ground floor
    Iran, Susiana (Middle Elamite period)
    Room 10
    Display case 9: Susa. Terracotta figurines (2340–1500 BC)

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Additional information about the work

B/W Negative