Humbaba, Polyphemus, Cacus, and Grendel as a “Monster” Type

  Burgess, Jonathan. 2023. “Humbaba, Polyphemus, Cacus, and Grendel as a “Monster” Type.” In “Γέρα: Studies in honor of Professor Menelaos Christopoulos,” ed. Athina Papachrysostomou, Andreas P. Antonopoulos, Alexandros-Fotios Mitsis, Fay Papadimitriou, and Panagiota Taktikou, special issue, Classics@ 25.

In the recent Ithaca Homer Conference of 2021–2022 (online), I explored the question of species for the Cyclops Polyphemus in Odyssey Book 9. In this study I extend my analysis by comparative study of other epic characters commonly labelled “monsters”: Humbaba in the Epic of Gilgamesh, Cacus in Aeneid Book 8, and Grendel in Beowulf. After summarizing my previous (unpublished) paper about Polyphemus, I will take up similar issues involving these three characters. My impression is that the comparators confirm my previous analysis of the Homeric Cyclops. My essential thesis is that Polyphemus and his comparators are human, not “monsters” or “ogres.” [1] If one considers the word “monster” to be a general term for unusual humans, then I hope my discussion will confirm this impression. But I have found that terms like “monster” and “ogre” for our four characters have been employed rather thoughtlessly. In Beowulf studies there has been a vigorous push-back on such terminology, for both linguistic and theoretical reasons. I do not see that this is the case in Homeric studies.
Most readers, translators, and students of the Odyssey assume that Polyphemus and his fellow Cyclopes are not human. There are indeed good reasons for this assumption. Cyclopes are usually divine in Greco-Roman myth (as in Hesiod’s Theogony), and Polyphemus indeed has divine parents, Poseidon and a sea nymph. But Homer’s Polyphemus is labelled a human in the Homeric text, however paradoxical that may seem. That term of course need not imply that the Cyclops is a conventional human. But words like “monster” and “ogre” have false implications of species differentiation that have no real basis in ancient myth. [2] Both Homer and Odysseus use aner, human, to refer to Polyphemus and the Cyclopes. At the beginning of the Phaeacian episode (6.5) Homer explains why the Phaeacians, former neighbors of the Cyclopes, moved away from these overbearing andres, “humans.” Odysseus apparently references a single eye when he calls Polyphemus a Cyclops, but he also designates him as aner, “human” (9.197). So do his companions (9.494). Polyphemus is thus considered a human (aner) by both Odysseus and the poet.
Our word “monster” is derived from the Roman word monstrum, which has a root that signifies “demonstrating” or “warning” (as in Latin verbs monstrare and monere). In Roman culture the birth of a human or animal with missing or extra body parts was considered a monstrum, a divine omen or portent from the gods. The Latin word could be employed to signify what we might call “monstrous,” but its usage was broader and essentially referenced what inspired wonder. Teratological vocabulary in Homer includes teras (from which “teratology” is derived) and the alternate nouns pelor or peloron, along with the adjective pelorios. These words typically signal the perception of something evoking wonder. Natural phenomena can seem to be a teras, an omen, like a star in Iliad (4.76) or the sight of a snake eating fledglings at Aulis in Iliad (2.299–332). The snake and the chicks themselves are described as pelora, “wonders” (321), and peloron is also applied to the stag killed by Odysseus in Odyssey (10.168). Impressive humans like Ajax, Hector, and Achilles can be described by the pelor words (Iliad 3.229, 11.820, 21.527), as can divinities like Hades and Ares (Iliad 5.395, 7.208). The same is true for things, like a spear and a boulder in the Iliad (8.424; 594).
Sometimes these terms can be applied to a non-human being. Scylla is deemed by Odysseus in Book 12 to be a pelor kakon, “an evil wonder.” Since Scylla seems non-human, we might translate the phrase as “evil monster.” What makes Scylla non-human? In Homer she has six bestial heads from her waist and twelve feet, but no human head and therefore no human cognition or speech. Human cognition and speech have been considered markers of humanity, and their lack commonly signifies the non-human. In practice I do not consider these distinctions definitive, and I am also sympathetic to theoretical challenges of distinction between the human and the animal. [3] But as a working definition let us consider human cognition and speech to be human aspects. By these standards Scylla is non-human, at least, if we put to one side iconography of Scylla with a human head and Ovid’s backstory of metamorphosis from a human (Metamorphoses 14.1–74). With her mixture of body parts, Scylla could be described as an anomalous animal. Using “monster” in its popular sense, I would suggest that Scylla is the only certain “monster” in the wanderings of Odysseus. Probably the Sirens also qualify, since they possess speech, but though ancient iconography depicts them as human-headed with the bodies of birds Odysseus provides no description of their form.
Odysseus considers Polyphemus to be an aner, “human,” and the companions of Odysseus call him a “wild” man, agrios aner (9.494). The word agrios shares a root with Latin ager, “field.” By implication the spatially peripheral are uncivilized, ethically as well as culturally. Comparable are the words “savage” (from Latin silva, “forest”) and “pagan” (from Latin for “countryside”). Arguably the Homeric Cyclopes are typical of Greco-Roman wonder ethnography, as in the so-called “Plinian Races,” which I will refer to as the “Plinian Humans.” [4] In Book 7 of the Natural History Pliny the Elder influentially collected myths and reports about peripheral and anomalous humans. [5] As the product of fantasy and second-hand ethnography, the “Plinian Humans” vary widely. Some would seem to lack the human metric of a human head with human thought and speech, like the Dog-heads (Cynocephali) or the Headless (Akephaloi). As I indicated above, it is difficult to define the human consistently. But there is room within the conceptual sphere of humanity for Dog-heads and the Headless. According to Ctesias, the Dog-heads understood human speech, communicated among themselves by barking, and had a human culture. [6] The Headless are not well described, but they possessed features of the human head, including a mouth, on their chest.
As Polyphemus demonstrates, mythological and fantastic humans often confounded distinctions between the divine, human, and animal. My three other comparative “monsters” are also ambiguous in terms of species. Humbaba is the large guardian of a cedar forest who is killed by Gilgamesh and Enkidu in the Standard Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh. [7] Like Polyphemus, he is the son of a god (Enlil) and lives by himself in a natural environment (Cedar Forest). He is also comparable to Polyphemus for his large size and violence. [8] Polyphemus and Humbaba are both mortal. Odysseus almost kills Polyphemus with his sword before thinking better of it, and Humbaba is killed by Gilgamesh. Humbaba may be the son of a divinity, but—as is the case with Polyphemus and his completely divine lineage, or the two-thirds divine Gilgamesh, or the Greek heroes who are demigods—he is nonetheless mortal.
And Humbaba is arguably human. Humbaba is variously described, but “human” seems to be one term applied to him. Enkidu says to both Gilgamesh and to the elders “That is a man who must not be looked on” (II.219; 276). If human, Humbaba is certainly an extraordinary human. Gilgamesh says of him “I would see the god of whom men talk” (II.Y182, an Old Babylonian supplement). Enkidu and the elders compare his voice to the Deluge, his speech to fire, and his breath to death (II.221–222, 278–279) and claim that the god Enlil “made it his lot to terrify people” (II.228, 285, 299). Humbaba can certainly also be extraordinarily loud. When the intruders approach Cedar Mountain, he “bellowed once, a bellow full of terror, the guardian of the forests was bellowing … Humbaba was thundering like the God of the Storm” (V.106). When attacked he “bellowed, on his account howling” before making threats (V.150). [9] Colorful language is also used of Huwawa in the Sumerian narrative: “a warrior he is, his teeth the teeth of a dragon, his eye the eye of a lion! His chest is a torrent in spate, is brow devours the canebrake, none can go near him, (like) a man-eating lion, his tongue is never sated with blood.” [10]
These descriptions should be understood as exaggeration by means of metaphor and simile. When Odysseus in Odyssey in Book 9 says that Polyphemus was “not like a man but like a mountain” (191–192) [11] this does not literally mean that he was non-human, as some critics claim (nor does it mean that he is actually a mountain!). In Tablet III Gilgamesh’s divine mother Ninsun asks the sun god Shamash to protect the hero from Humbaba, whom she describes as “ferocious” and “the evil thing that you hate” (53–54; Gilgamesh repeats the phraseology at 204–205). [12] Like Enkidu, Ninsun is not necessarily an objective source. But there is no doubt that Humbaba is dangerous. In tablet V Humbaba threatens to slit the throat of Gilgamesh and feed his corpse to the birds (123–124). One could deem such language ethically “monstrous,” but of course we hear such threats and worse from human characters in the Iliad.
Much of the Epic of Gilgamesh is lost and what survives is often opaque or ambiguous. There are mixed messages about the status and species of Humbaba, which are multiplied by variant versions of the episode. In the Sumerian Huwawa story, Bilgames wants to acquire fame by traveling to “Living One’s Mountain,” or Cedar Forest. Enkidu warns him that it is guarded by Huwawa, but Gilgamesh is focused on the cedars. [13] It is the cutting of the trees that alerts Huwawa and leads to the confrontation that follows. In later narratives Gilgamesh is focused more on Humbaba. [14] In the Old Babylonian text employed by Andrew George to fill in a gap in the Standard version Gilgamesh suggests killing Humbaba to obtain fame (“… let us slay him … Let us surprise him in his lair!”). [15] After the gap Enkidu explains that Humbaba serves Enlil as a warden of Cedar Forest; when pleading for his life Humbaba offers to serve Gilgamesh in the same way (V.174–177).
The astonishing modern discovery of lost texts about Gilgamesh, different narratives over an extended period of time and across a wide range of locations, well documents the variability of Huwawa/Humbaba. A new tablet found after the publication of George’s edition, now included in the second edition of his 2020 translation, adds a further nuance to his characterization. The publication of the tablet by Al-Rawi and George suggests that it depicts Humbaba “not as a barbarian ogre … but as a foreign ruler entertained with music at court in the manner of a Babylonian king.” [16] That may be a bit fanciful, but the new passage is certainly remarkable in its appreciation of the natural lushness of Humbaba’s Cedar Forest (V.10–26). There the sound of crickets, birds, and monkeys are compared to the sound of musicians: “like a band of musicians and drummers, daily they bash out a rhythm in the presence of Humbaba” (V.25–26). Other potential variants are suggested by Bachvarova in her analysis of Hurrian fragments: “One wonders whether the Song of Huwawa might end with Gilgamesh sparing Huwawa’s life, or perhaps his death was presented as a tragic event.” [17]
Humbaba also has some supernatural aspects, like numinous “auras,” which serve as a defense of the forest yet seemingly are conflated with cedars or anthropomorphized as the “sons” of Humbaba. [18] Nonetheless through trickery Gilgamesh disarms Humbaba of his auras and kills him. George routinely refers to Humbaba as a “monster” or “ogre,” though he recognizes that he is “essentially anthropomorphic.” [19] Mesopotamian iconography depicts his face as hideous, and this probably was an influence on the Greek Gorgon face. [20] Much remains obscure, but putting this all together I would argue that Humbaba is essentially an unusual human, not a “monster” in the common and loose sense of the word as “non-human.”
There are two more “monsters” to consider. The most extensive and prominent narrative of Cacus occurs in Book 8 of the Aeneid (184–305). The Greek Evander, living at the site of the future Rome, tells Aeneas how Hercules rid the land of Cacus, a fire-breathing, cave-dwelling, pastoralist in the Aeneid who dared to steal cattle from the Greek hero. [21] He is the son of Vulcan and is described by Evander as a monstrum that is “half human” and “half-wild” (semihominis Caci facies, 8.194; vultum villosaque saetis pectora semiferi, 8.267). These dueling terms of duality suggest that even a monstrum (198) can be partly human or unusually human. [22] That Cacus in origin was apparently an Etruscan seer named “Cacu” is also suggestive of his ambiguous or mixed nature. [23] Though intertextual analysis has focused on the Homeric Hymn to Hermes (deceitful driving cattle backwards) and other Roman versions of the tale, [24] it has been noticed that Cacus shares many characteristics with the Homeric Polyphemus (as well as the Cyclops of Aeneid Book 3). [25] Like Polyphemus, Cacus is a peripheral cave-dwelling pastoralist. He also is androphagus, which I think classifies this half-human as a cannibal, the same term I use for Polyphemus and Grendel. [26] Cacus also has supernatural aspects, like the ability to breathe fire and smoke. But I consider Cacus an anomalous human even in Virgil’s narrative. [27] The nature of a heroic antagonist can vary from author to author, or even within a narrative.
Grendel and his mother in Beowulf are also large and powerful antagonists of a hero. Grendel resembles our other so-called “monsters’ in a number of ways. He lives peripherally in a natural environment of marshes and watery caves, alone with his mother. Since I think we must consider him human, he is therefore a cannibal. Once again it is culture and lifestyle, beneath the shock of the cannibalistic violence, that are the true markers of monstrosity. Though description of him in the epic lacks specificity, both Grendel and his mother are large, strong, and violent. There is some suggestion that Grendel is invulnerable to weapons and has claws, but the poem describes Grendel and his mother as having the form of a human (1349–1352), which is harmonious with our other anthropomorphic if anomalous heroic antagonists. Grendel and his mother are like their comparators’ unusual humans. One can readily employ a term like “man-monster” to describe Grendel, as long as there is no pretense at species classification. [28]
The poet also insists that both Beowulf and his mother are descended from Cain (99–114, 1258–1268). [29] This is the author’s perspective, not that of the characters, for the poet is a Christian who is describing non-Christians of a previous era. In the earlier passage about Cain, the poet links the exile of Cain after the murder of Abel to the production of various “banished monsters,” including elves, phantoms, and giants (quotations are from the Heaney translation). In the second Beowulf passage Grendel’s mother is also as a descendant of Cain exiled into a peripheral zone, the wet and deep world of moors and caves. That Grendel and his mother as descendants of Cain suggests that they are human. But Grendel is a “fiend out of hell,” a “demon” who “had dwelt for a time in misery among the banished monsters” (100–105). The poem also seems to imply that “monsters,” including ogres, elves, evil phantoms, and giants, are also descended from Cain (106–114):

…Cain’s clan, whom the Creator had outlawed
and condemned as outcasts. For the killing of Abel
the Eternal Lord had exacted a price:
Cain got no good from committing that murder
because the almighty made him anathema
and out of the curse of his exile there sprang
ogres and elves and evil phantoms
and the giants too who strove with God
time and again until He gave them their reward.

In the second passage about Cain, upon the introduction of Grendel’s mother, we are told that “from Cain there sprang / misbegotten spirits, among them Grendel, / the banished and accursed…” (1265–1267). Are we to think that Grendel and his mother are also “monsters” descended from Cain?

Many Beowulf scholars since Tolkien have thoroughly explored the nature of heroic antagonists and thereby challenged the conception of Grendel and his mother as non-human. [30] Köberl pithily retorts that if Grendel “can suffer damnation, he must have a soul; if has a soul, he must be human.” [31] But linguistic analysis can defend the humanity of Grendel and his mother better than theological debate. Köberl also lists the many “human terms” applied to Grendel: wer (105), guma (973, 1682), vine (720), and maga (978). It is also remarkable, if telling, that the word aglaeca or aeglaeca has commonly been translated as “monster” in reference to Grendel and his mother but “warrior” or “hero” when in reference to Beowulf and another human character. [32]
As with the Mesopotamian literature, I unfortunately do not have command of the original language of this epic. [33] But it is clear to me that Heaney’s translation reads well partly because it is not exactly faithful. In the first passage about Cain (99–114), Beowulf is indeed a “fiend of hell,” who does “evil” and was a “grim ghost,” or perhaps more ironically and thus better, a “grim guest”; both words are derived from Old English gaest. These descriptions need not imply that he was supernatural, incorporeal, or non-human, and again we must consider poetic and metaphorical phraseology. “Monsters” in Heaney’s translation, as in many translations for all four of our characters, is gratuitous. The word “monster” itself is anachronistic for all our texts except for Virgil. Elves and spirits may or may not be human, but Beowulf is nowhere equated with them. As for giants, in the Odyssey the Homeric Cyclopes are large and the Laestrygonians are comparable to giants (10.120), but they are nonetheless apparently human. The mythological Greek gigantes are said to be related to the Phaeacians, who are exotic humans, and to the Cyclopes, who in my analysis are also exotic humans. [34] The Nephilim of Genesis in the Hebrew bible (Genesis 6:1–4) were strong men produced by the mating of sons of gods with mortal women. In the pseudoepigraphical tradition they were sometimes described as giants who were destroyed in the universal flood. [35] The poem’s reception of both classical and biblical material and its intermediary configurations makes our understanding of Beowulf’s opponents more complicated than is often assumed.
There is also a third heroic antagonist for Beowulf, the dragon, which I am happy to concede is non-human, though this Old English wyrm, from which comes our word “worm,” need not exactly match our modern sense of a dragon. But I deem Grendel and his mother to be humans, however unusual and exotic. One could say that they are anthropoids or humanoids that are basically human, like the “Plinian Humans.” [36] Since we are dealing with myth and fabulous ethnography, there is no need to employ scientific exactitude. Our epic heroes seem to consider these unusual heroic antagonists as different, but nevertheless human. The very likeness of heroic protagonists and their anomalous antagonists is uncanny, and therefore scary from the perspective of the heroes. From the perspective of the heroic antagonists the heroes must seem different and scary as well. When their space is invaded, they often respond with reciprocal intrusions and violence. Grendel and his mother as “enemy of man” (man-cynnes; 164, 1276) might best be explained by spatial and cultural terms, not hatred between species.
A tangent on an early seventh-century image of Perseus slaying Medusa will supply a more general comparative context for my analysis of our four monsters. The image is striking because Medusa is portrayed as a centaur (Paris, Louvre CA 795; LIMC Perseus no. 117). [37] The artist probably does not think that Medusa is a centaur (though Pegasus was born from her severed neck). [38] The iconography functionally serves to identify Medusa as mixed-species. Perhaps we can suppose that Medusa, mortal with a grotesque yet human head, is human or human-like (as with Scylla I do not refer to her metamorphosis back-story). Centaurs themselves I would classify as mixed-species humans. Pliny discusses centaurs as anomalous human births (7.3), and though he does include them among the “Plinian Humans” I consider them comparable to them. They have a human head and therefore human cognition and speech. They also have primitive culture in the boondocks of Thessaly. In myth they serve are known for drunkenness and lechery, even if “good” centaurs Chiron and Pholos are exceptions to the rule. [39] That centaurs can be good or bad also is harmonious with anomalous humans of myth and ethnography, who though sometimes dangerous can also be characterized as wise and utopian. Such duality can be applied to the Homeric Cyclopes. Though Odysseus views them as primitive, the regressivist Hesiod might approve of their pastoral work ethic within a utopian setting.
Finally, I will comment on the theoretical implications of these four “monster” narratives from both internal and external perspectives. Internally we have seen that a close reading reveals description and characterization of heroic antagonists that modern usage of the word “monster” obscures. Our sample texts are also more nuanced in their portrayal of these characters than the critics usually allow. Occasionally the narrative evinces sympathy for the heroic antagonists. Odysseus reports Polyphemus’ moment of pathos with the ram under which Odysseus hides (Odyssey 9.447–460). [40] Humbaba piteously begs for mercy. [41] Virgil effectively portrays the panic of Cacus upon realizing that he has antagonized a very dangerous foe. Beowulf gives us few details about the thoughts or even physical appearance of Grendel and his mother, and they never speak in the poem. But their exiled existence among the inhabitable periphery of nature seems makes them intrinsically pitiable. [42] As with the other texts, one can notice subtle undercurrents of counter-narratives within these epics, sometimes to the degree that protagonist and antagonist are equated or reversed. [43]
From an external point of view, I would suggest that it is not species but ethnography that often defines the difference between heroic protagonists and their antagonists. The genre of “Plinian Humans” mixes paradoxography with ethnography. [44] Wonder and ethnography are also intertwined in the wanderings of Odysseus. Though the Greek hero only meets one Cyclops, he confidently describes the Cyclopes as uncivilized according to Greek standards: no agriculture, no ships, and no political organization. The Homeric name “Lotus-eaters” both anonymizes and generalizes a non-Greek people by reference an apparent main nutritional resource. Comparable are “Fish-eaters” and other generalizing cultural names found in ancient ethnography. Odysseus has very limited knowledge about the unusual humans that he meets. He only meets one Cyclops, Polyphemus, but he introduces the episode with an expansive description of the uncivilized nature of the Homeric Cyclopes. In other words, as often in ethnographic and travel texts, Odysseus has recourse to free-floating typologies about exotic cultures.
One apparent reflection of this tendency is Athena’s claim when speaking to Telemachus that Odysseus is captive to “wild men” (1.197–199). In disguise as Mentes, Athena cannot tell Telemachus what she knows about Odysseus’ situation. Her little fib would nevertheless seem to reflect Calypso’s detention of Odysseus. With reference to the companions’ description of Polyphemus as an agrios aner, “wild man” (9.494), I suggest that Athena also employs the concept of “wild men” with ethnographical import. The companions may be referring to the Cyclops’ cannibalistic violence, but ethical judgement is typically intertwined with ethnography. When Odysseus states in the Cyclops episode that he will “test” the natives to see whether they are “insolent, wild (agrioi), and unjust, or hospitable with a reverent mind” (9.172–176), he is using agrios in both ethical and ethnographical ways. The hero employs similar phraseology when he awakens at Scheria (6.119–121) and when he arrives at an Ithaca that he does not recognize (13.200–202). Alcinous, king of the Phaecians, employs the binaries of good and bad humans when he asks Odysseus to identify who he is and where he has travelled (8.572–576). Essentially, Alcinous asks for an ethnographic travel tale that judges exotic humans ethically. That is what he gets, “monsters” and all.
Violence and cannibalism are common tropes of travel tales, especially involving first contact. [45] Non-classicists have often noticed, to their surprise, that the Polyphemus episode seems to anticipate modern colonial and imperial narratives. [46] Other real-world causalities sometimes seem to be at play beneath heroic desire for fame and adventure. Arguably the story of Humbaba and Cedar Forest is fundamentally about the need to import timber to forest-free Mesopotamia. [47] The battle with Humbaba is prominent, but the cutting of trees for timber is the prevalent motive for the episode. [48] The pulling out of Humbaba’s teeth after his death (V.290: “from the head he took the tusks as booty”) may reflect Mesopotamian hunting of elephants for ivory. [49] Odysseus may want to return home and wife, but he often succumbs to the more material desire for guest-gifts. That, along with ethnographic “testing,” is his motivation for sailing over to the land of the Cyclopes, as well as waiting for the occupant of the cave to return.
Given our current environmental predicament, we are also now more alert to the disregard or misuse of nature in out texts. [50] Besides noting that Humbaba is “essentially anthropomorphic,” George suggests that he has the “terrifying numinous power of the remote and ancient forest” and “tree-like characteristics.” [51] In a sense Gilgamesh’s attack on Humbaba is an attack on nature, which we can say about all four of our heroes. In the variant tablet published by Al Rawi and George and now included in George’s second edition of his translation, Enkidu is surprisingly sensitive about the issue. After Humbaba is killed, he worriedly states to Gilgamesh, “My friend, we have reduced the forest to a wasteland; how shall we answer Enlil in Nippur? In your might you slew the guardian; what was this wrath of yours that you went trampling the forest?” (V.303–306). It is ironic that Gilgamesh and Enkidu at the beginning of Tablet V “stood there marveling at the forest, / gazing at the lofty cedars, gazing at the forest’s entrance…” before attacking its guardian and cutting down trees. Odysseus famously describes the natural environment of “Goat Island” with “colonial eyes.”
Another hermeneutic angle that employs various against-the-grain perspectives is creative reception, which can actualize the variants or subtexts that I have explored. A classic example is John Gardner’s Grendel, a retelling of the Beowulf narrative from the perspective of Grendel. [52] Comparable if shorter is Zachary Mason, Chapter 26 of The Lost Books of the Odyssey, in the voice of Polyphemus. Modification of a canonical text, in other words, may articulate a subtext already within the original narrative.
In sum, my argument has three main points. First, the modern concept of the “monster” as non-human often obscures the human or unusually human nature of heroic antagonists in epic. Secondly, ancient narratives employed complexity, subtext, and often pathos when describing heroic antagonists. Thirdly, we can add our own modern perspectives, whether socio-economic, postcolonial, or environmental to explore the meaning of these narratives. Within the texts there is much ambiguity about the “monsters,” and comparative and theoretical perspectives challenge the socio-political ideology of these narratives. The intervention of creative retelling through reception can bring subtexts and counter-narratives to the foreground. My overarching thesis is that ethnography, not species, is the primary metric of what a “monster” is.


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———. 1980. “Cain’s Monstrous Progeny in Beowulf: Part II, Post-diluvian Survival.” Anglo-Saxon England 9:183–197.
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[ back ] 1. “Monster” is derived from Latin monstrum, discussed below. “Ogre” apparently derives from Orcus, the Latin underworld deity or underworld. Aguirre and Buxton 2020:4 suggest derivation from a dialect form of Italian orco, “demon.” See Murgatroyd 2007; Mitchell 2021 for monsters in Greco-Roman literature.
[ back ] 2. Long ago Tolkien (2018 [1936]:14n23) with clear eyes stated ,“The gods, Cronian or Olympian, the Titans, and other great natural powers, and various monsters, even minor local horrors, are not clearly distinguished in origin or ancestry.”
[ back ] 3. Derrida 2008, a rather meandering talk with much about his cat, has been influential for postmodern and posthuman theory on this issue. For such perspectives on Beowulf, cf. George 2010, ch.7 (survey of bibliography); Joy and Ramsey 2006 (edited chapters); Monstroso 2022 (within an edited volume on critical posthumanism).
[ back ] 4. See Mittman 2015, who proposes “Plinian Peoples.” See Mitchell 2021, Part II for key Greek material for such wondrous ethnography, especially Herodotus, Ctesias, and Megasthenes. On the influence of the “Plinian Humans” in post-antiquity see Friedman 1981.
[ back ] 5. Beagon 2005. Pliny linked anomalous human births, which do not resemble parents, with wondrous humans who retain anomalous features from generation to generation. Aristotle also discussed anomalous births, though not as omens; see Mitchell 2021:ch. 5.
[ back ] 6. For the ancient material about Ctesias’ lost Indika, see Nichols 2011.
[ back ] 7. I have consulted the edition with translation and commentary by Andrew George (2003), but quote from the second edition of his translation (2020). When quoting I ignore brackets and italics that indicate various kinds of textual uncertainty or interpretation, though I point out when Old Babylon supplements are employed by George to fill in missing sections. Note that an interesting new fragment of Tablet V (see Al-Rawi and George 2014; George 2020:186–188), found after the first edition of the translation of 1999 and the edition/commentary of 2003, modifies the line numbering of Tablet IV and V in the second edition of the translation (2020). See Clarke 2019:70–73 for excellent employment of the new tablet.
[ back ] 8. Louden 2011:181–184 extensively compares the Homeric Cyclops with Humbaba; Bachvarova 2016:55–56 considers the Homeric tale derivative from the Humbaba story through multifarious and oral transmission. For example, the blinding of Polyphemus is comparable to the winds that attack Humbaba’s face (V.159–164), which George 2020:36 describes thusly: “Shamash sends the thirteen winds to blind the forest king.” See also the comparative analyses of Lord 1991:143; Bakker 2001.
[ back ] 9. Cf. (from the new tablet; Al-Rawi and George 2014) Humbaba’s “seven sons,” of whom six names survive: Cricket, Screecher, Typhoon, Screamer, Crafty, and Storm (V.307–308). Humbaba’s loudness is comparable to that of Polyphemus (Odyssey 399–400) and Cacus (Aeneid 8.248). Davies 2004a:33 in discussion of Cacus notes that the name of Geryon (whose stolen cattle Cacus steals) etymologically means “roarer” (as in Greek gerus, “voice”).
[ back ] 10. I quote from lines 99–103 of Version A, “The Lord to the Living One’s Mountain,” George 2020:106–116.
[ back ] 11. Despite my comparative method, I take Gilgamesh’s (broken text) dreams of a mountain and a man, apparently the mountain not the man referencing Humbaba, to be a coincidence.
[ back ] 12. See George 2003:811–812.
[ back ] 13. See Forsyth 2021:ch. 1 (e.g. “In the Sumerian poem, the lack of a heroic name dominates, and although Huwawa’s activities are no doubt in the background, his villainy could not have been made so explicit: Gilgamesh himself does not know what faces him when he begins his quest for heroic status” (27). Clarke 2019:44–48 and 67–73 is excellent on both the Sumerian and Babylonian Huwawa narratives (with comparative attention to Achilles) but does not distinguish between the forest and Huwawa as a motive for the expedition.
[ back ] 14. Bakker 2001:335–337; Clarke 2019:44–48, 67–73.
[ back ] 15. George 2020:17–18, Y97–101. Bachvarova 2016: 65 indicates that in the Hittite Song of Gilgamesh Gilgamesh’s motive is “to see Huwawa.”
[ back ] 16. Al-Rawhi and George 2014:74.
[ back ] 17. Bachvarova 2016: 74; see 72–77 for discussion of possible variations of the Hurrian version. Fleming and Milstein 2010 also explore variance and innovation in the Akkadian Huwawa narrative.
[ back ] 18. “Sons” uniquely in the new tablet; see Al-Rawi and George 2014:74–75.
[ back ] 19. George 2003:144. Clarke 2019:68 says that Humbaba “is a monstrous or demonic being … but is also a divinely sanctioned protector of the forest,” adding that “such ambiguity is typical of the lesser divine beings.”
[ back ] 20. See George 2003:145.
[ back ] 21. The narrative is part of the larger story of Heracles and Geryon (see Davies 1988). Geryon is an anomalous human who is treated sympathetically in Stesichorus. I thank Malcolm Davies, an expert on all aspects of my paper, for collegial response to my oral presentation.
[ back ] 22. Jarmi 2013 differently assumes that Cacus is designated as non-human by monstrum; relevant to my argument is the interesting suggestion that Virgil’s use of monstrum portentously signals the disorder of human civilization.
[ back ] 23. Small 1982; Davies 2004a. Jarmi 2013 considers the Etruscan iconography of Cacu too obscure to interpret but notes major variations of the Cacus tale type in annalist traditions as early as the second BCE (cf. Small 1982:26–29). The variants include Cacus as a servant of Evander who steals from a herdsman or is killed by one.
[ back ] 24. Clauss 2016.
[ back ] 25. Cf. Jacobson 1989; Sansone 1991; Secci 2013:202–204. Sansone and Secci both note that the heroes share characteristics with the villains. For example, Heracles like Cacus is a violent cattle thief and like Polyphemus murderously entraps a victim in a cave; Odysseus like Cacus is a trickster.
[ back ] 26. In my view the cannibalism of these characters dehumanizes their prey, not themselves. Similarly, Phillips 2008:46–47 and differently, Parks 1993:3–6 for Grendel.
[ back ] 27. Jacobson 1989:101 states that “there is no reason to believe that Cacus was ever a supernatural monster … Vergil makes him one, the son of a significant deity, like Polyphemus in Homer.” Small 1982:10 adds that “Even Virgil, followed by Propertius and Ovid, did not manage entirely to suppress the humanness of Cacus.” Davies 2004a: 304 states that “… the portrayal of Cacus runs the entire gamut of possibilities from good to evil, human to monster, virtually contemporaneously.” Davies 2004b, beginning with effective quotations from James George Frazer and Milton, further explores shared characteristics of heroes and their antagonists.
[ back ] 28. Baird 1966:378, where the spatial context of exile, not physiognomy, is the key marker (“By conceiving of him as exiled man, he superimposes upon the man-monster, Christian-demon cluster of images all of the various mixed emotions which the Anglo-Saxon audience brought to the idea of the outlaw”). Baird later claims that on Grendel’s nature the poet is deliberately contradictory, adding that the poet “demands that we see Grendel as both wicked monster and wretched man” (380).
[ back ] 29. See Orchard 1995:ch. 3.
[ back ] 30. Tolkien 2018 [1936]. George 2010 provides a helpful history of Beowulf criticism. For structural comparison of Odysseus and Beowulf see Carpenter 1946:136–138; Lord 1991:133–139; Foley 1991; Gainsford 2012; for Polyphemus and Grendel, Parks 1993:10.
[ back ] 31. Köberl 2002:96. On the nature of “monsters” in Beowulf, see also Parks 1993; Nevillle 2001; Stanley 2001; Phillips 2008; Yang 2013.
[ back ] 32. Carlson 1967, with close study of vocabulary, excoriates scholars and translators for common reference to “monsters” in Beowulf.
[ back ] 33. I thank Samuel Cardwell, a graduate student in the Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto, for guidance on the key vocabulary in the Cain passages.
[ back ] 34. See Aronen 2002.
[ back ] 35. For the poem’s complex employment of Greco-Roman and biblical material channeled through Augustine and Isidore, cf. Peltola 1972; Mellinkoff 1979, 1980; Orchard 1995; Neville 2001.
[ back ] 36. I am pleased that Spyros Syropoulos agrees with me that many “monsters” are humanoid or “almost human,” as indicated by his A Bestiary of Monsters in Greek Mythology (online publication 2018) that he kindly shared with me.
[ back ] 37. See Topper 2010 for a thorough analysis of the scene, with bibliography at 109n7 for my approach, the imagery as a marker of a mixed-species being. I thank Marion Meyer for discussing this issue with me.
[ back ] 38. One of Medusa’s multiple equine associations; see Topper 2010:109n3 for bibliography.
[ back ] 39. Curiously, in Dante’s Inferno Cacus is depicted as a centaur with a fire-breathing dragon on his shoulders and snakes covering his equine back, guarding the “thieves” section of Hell’s Circle of Fraud (25.17–33).
[ back ] 40. Hutchinson 2007:22–25 sensitively explicates the scene.
[ back ] 41. Cf. Higgins 2020 on Humbaba and other Near Eastern “beloved monsters” and Forsyth 2021:36–43 on the ambivalent portrayal of Huwawa/Humbaba. Lord 1991:144 argues that the “sacred” nature of ancient heroic adversaries makes their heroic conquerors sacrilegious to a degree.
[ back ] 42. See Chapman 1956, entitled “Alas, Poor Grendel.” Orchard 1995:59 describes Grendel as “a man-shaped creature exciting a degree of pity.”
[ back ] 43. Forsyth 2021:36–37 argues that the second millennium Hittite version represents a Hurrian tradition “in which the actual hero of the narrative, even though the outcome is the same, was not Gilgamesh but the local Huwawa himself” (“local” is used as a reference to the area of Lebanon as a source for cedar).
[ back ] 44. Scodel 2005.
[ back ] 45. Barker, Hulme, and Iversen 1998.
[ back ] 46. For postcolonial approaches of the Polyphemus episode, see Burgess 2015:115–117. George 2010:58–59 surveys bibliography on Beowulf reflecting historical conflict with the indigenous (e.g., Carlson 1967:363; Phillips 2008:45). Relevant is the complex historical contexts that produced a “myth of migration” at play in Beowulf (Niles 1993).
[ back ] 47. See Forsyth 2021:37. Klein and Abraham 2000 establish that “Cedar Mountain” was at first situated eastward of Uruk before it was later localized in the area of Lebanon (“Mount Lebanon” is mentioned repeatedly in the Standard Babylonian text).
[ back ] 48. Smiths make axes in an Old Babylonian passage used to fill a lacuna in Tablet II (George 2020:19). Lumbering apparently occurs in the broken texts before (V.56–57) and extensively after Humbaba’s death (V.300–323), when a raft is built to transport the timber. In the Sumerian text (Version A) Gilgamesh is called the “Cedar Smiter” before the expedition (46) and the log cutting occurs before the encounter with Huwawa (64–66). Cf. the ending of an Old Babylonian tablet, “The Slaying of the Guardian of the Cedar Forest” (George 2020:186–188): “He discovered the secret abode of the gods / Gilgamesh felling trees, Enkidu choosing the timber. / Said Enkidu to him, to Gilgamesh, / … O Gilgamesh, smite the cedar!”
[ back ] 49. George 2003:469 states that this scene “surely alludes to the plunder of Syrian Elephants’ tusks for ivory” and “add to the elephantine imagery” of the bellowing (see above) and tracks (V.4–5) of Humbaba. In the Sumerian version the head of Huwawa is severed and brought as a trophy to Enlil, who is angered.
[ back ] 50. Al-Rawi and George 2014:74: “The anxiety about offending the gods seems to a modern reader compounded by ecological regret;” see also Balogh 2022 on the “eco-guilt” of the Epic of Gilgamesh. Puchnar 2022:28–34 employs an environmental perspective (a little romantically) on the Homeric Cyclops episode; see also Bakker 2001:334–335. For Beowulf, see Phillips 2008:43.
[ back ] 51. George 2003:144.
[ back ] 52. See George 2003:115–117 on the academic implications of Gardner’s novel, including Grendel as a “symbol of the indigenous population uprooted and displaced by the colonizing tendencies of Hrothgar and his people” (116).