Biblical Archaeology Review 36:4, July/August 2010


Tell Abu Habbah, Iraq

This grotesque and deeply furrowed clay mask from the ancient city of Sippar (modern Tell Abu Habbah in Iraq) in southern Mesopotamia portrays the face of the mythical demon Humbaba, the ferocious, unsightly creature of the Epic of Gilgamesh who guarded the fabled Cedar Forest and was ultimately slain by the hero Gilgamesh and his partner Enkidu. In Mesopotamian lore, Humbaba’s contorted face was often thought to resemble the twisted, sinuous path of coiled entrails, depicted in this mask as a single, continuous line that twists and turns to form and define all of the demon’s horrifying facial features. Amazingly, this quite-detailed coiled portrait of the ancient demon measures only 3.25 inches wide, about the width of a standard business card.

Masks of Humbaba were often used in Mesopotamian divination rituals where the will of the deity was sought by examining and “reading” the exposed intestines of slaughtered animals. If the face of the demon appeared in the entrails, it was a clear sign that revolution was about to take hold in the kingdom. Indeed, the cuneiform inscription written by a diviner named Warad-Marduk on the opposite side of this 3,700-year-old mask reports that just such a divination had been revealed in the intestines he examined.

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