So maybe I’m already becoming addicted to writing here. I haven’t written anything else today (I started this before midnight, so it counts, goddammit!), but figure every word I can get down in a day counts for something. This time, though, lets take a minute to do something slightly more productive than ranting at the sky to spite our own names, eh?
I’ve always been a fan of mythology, and cut my teeth on the Greek classics as far back as sixth grade. Epic tales of heroism and love, the wrath of a god spurned, and the ever more intricate relations between the gods and their children always fascinated me. As I grew older, this only grew into an even deeper appreciation for how stories evolve over time and place and might influence on another across cultures and ages.
Eventually, I had to know where it all began. I had to go back to the earliest writing known to modern man: Sumerian cuneiform. Now, I can’t read cuneiform, but I can read translations of the originals thanks to a scholarly project called The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature.
The ETCSL has been a godsend for me as I ransack it regularly for a greater understanding of the foundational myths of one of our earliest civilizations. Most people, by now, have heard of the most famous of the Sumerian myths: The Epic of Gilgamesh. It’s a fascinating tale and if you’re lucky I might tell it to you sometime.
It’s not Gilgamesh’s story I want to recount right now, though.
One of the more well-known Greek myths is the tale of Orpheus and Erydice. When Erydice died, poor Orpheus in his grief journeyed to the underworld to try and bring her back. He was told that if he climbed back out of the underworld without looking back, Erydice would be right behind him. If he looked back, however, she would be lost forever. Near the exit, merely steps away, Orpheus lost his nerve and looked back, and indeed lost Erydice forever.
This story, however, is not that one at all. This is the tale of Inana and her descent to the underworld. Like Orpheus, it involves a lost love, but unlike Orpheus… well, you’ll see:
Inana, the Sumerian goddess of Love and War (for what two concepts could be more alike?), was one of the principal deities of the pantheon. In an earlier tale she’d stolen the very concepts of kingship and civilization from another god, Enki, and delivered them to mankind, so she was pretty damn powerful and revered in the culture.
One day, Inana got it in her head that she needed to visit the underworld to attend the funerary rites for the Bull of Heaven, consort to her sister Ereshkigal who ruled there. The Bull had previously been slain by Gilgamesh and Enkidu in that particular Epic. So, draped in all of her finest symbols of power, Inana went down to the underworld.
Ereshkigal didn’t particularly like all of that power being waved around her domain, though, and concocted a plan by which she told each of the seven gatekeepers on the path to the underworld that in order to pass Inana would have to surrender one of her symbols as a gesture of faith. It was “the way of the underworld” they told her, and so Inana had no choice but to agree.
By the time Inana crossed the seventh and final gate, she stood before her sister stripped naked and powerless. Ereshkigal captured her immediately.
Inana was clever, though, as she had demonstrated when she stole the ‘mes’ from Enki. Before setting out, she’d instructed her most loyal minister that if she did not return within three days and three nights he was to travel to each of three other gods and beg their aid in returning Inana to life. The first two denied his request, but Enki did not. Even though she had stolen the ‘mes’ from him, the Lord of the Watery Abyss created two servants from the dirt under his fingernail and sent them with the minister to do whatever it took to please Ereshkigal and return to him with Inana’s body so she could be restored.
When the servants arrived in the underworld, they found Ereshkigal had fallen gravely ill herself and begged them to cure her. This they said they would do and asked only Inana’s body in return as they had been instructed. Everything went as planned, the servants revived Inana, and she was allowed to leave the underworld once more.
However, all was not quite over yet. In order to fully escape the underworld’s grasp, Inana had to provide another to take her place. A pair of Ereshkigal’s demons followed her and would not leave until the replacement had been chosen.
First they came upon the loyal minister, but Inana would not allow him to be taken because he had done his duty and properly mourned her passing. Next they came upon Inana’s beautician, but he was still in mourning as was right and she refused to allow him to go. This went on for a couple more servants who were also found to have been good and loyal mourners until finally they came upon Dumuzi.
Dumuzi was Inana’s husband and a god of fertility. When Inana came upon him, however, Dumuzi was not in mourning. He was, in fact, sleeping under a tree and wearing all of his usual finery. Seeing her own husband had failed to mourn her passing, Inana became enraged and told the demons to take him in her place.
At this point, some texts insist Dumuzi had a series of escape attempts, but the end result is the same: he always wound up in the underworld, and the fertility of the land suffered for his loss. Crops withered and died, and people went hungry as Dumuzi was locked away in the underworld.
True to her capricious nature, though, Inana regretted her anger and mourned him as he had failed to mourn her. Eventually, Dumuzi’s sister Geshtinana journeyed to the underworld to beg for his release and it was decreed that the siblings would split the year so every six months one would replace the other in the underworld. Forever.
Dumuzi returned, and life was restored to the land. Inana’s mourning was replaced with joy during those months, and whenever he had to return she returned to mourning, and thus the seasons were born: fertile and full of life while Dumuzi walked the earth, and cold and barren while his sister did.
I love that story.