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The most prominent female deity in ancient Mesopotamia was Inanna (also known as Ištar). Monotheistic religions have a way of leaving out women (or making them ancillary characters like Mary). Polytheistic religions often divide their goddesses into fertility goddesses (like Aphrodite) versus power goddesses like Athena or Artemis. Inanna reflects no such omission or dichotomy: as Queen of Heaven, she was both the goddess of sex and the goddess of war. In fact, saying that she was the most prominent female deity of the Babylonian/Akkadian/Sumerian pantheon might be unfair: arguably she was the most prominent god of any sort in that pantheon.
Worship of Inanna seems to have begun in the city state Uruk around 6000 years ago. Her sacred symbols were the eight pointed star and the lioness. She is especially affiliated with the planet Venus (which, obviously, was known instead as “Inanna” to the Mesopotamians), the third brightest object in the sky which, bafflingly, can rise in the East and the West in both the morning and evening (we realize that his is because Venus is our closest neighbor, but to the Babylonians it was uncanny). Inanna was not just the day star but also storm, flood, wrath, and war. Additionally, she was a goddess of fertility and unbridled sensuality. Inanna had many lovers (and was always looking for more) but her actual husband was the beautiful shepherd god, Dumuzi. There are several unabashedly graphic poems about the physical nature of the pair’s marriage (which you can look up on your own).
In addition to personifying forces of nature, Inanna possessed all of the secrets of civilization. She beguiled ancient Enki, the first god, with her charms and made him drunk on beer. Then she convinced him to give her the Mes, clay tablets which represented fundamental truth and all the blueprints for power and civilization. When Enki sobered up, he sent his attendants after Inanna to fetch back the Mes, but it was too late. Uruk blossomed and outshone Enki’s city, Eridu, in glory.
Probably the most famous story about Inanna concerns her trip to the underworld (ruled by Inanna’s sister, the dark and jealous goddess Ereshkigal). One day Inanna left heaven. She abandoned her seven cities and emptied her temples. She donned the seven sacred objects symbolic of her queenhood and set out for the realm from which no traveler returns. Before leaving, however, Inanna left explicit directions with her faithful vassal, Ninshubur, concerning what to do if she (Inanna) did not return in three days.
Arrayed in splendor, Inanna came before the great bronze gate to the underworld and announced herself as “Inanna, Queen of heaven.” She claimed to be visiting the underworld to attend her sister’s husband’s funeral. The doorkeeper of the dead, Neki was amazed and he sought Ereshkigal’s orders. To enter the underworld, Inanna had to give up her crown and, at each subsequent gate she was forced to part with another of her treasures/garments. One by one she set aside her lapis earrings, the double strand of beads about her neck, her breastplate (called, “Come, man, come”), her golden hip girdle, and the lapis measuring rod. She walked on and on through the dreary lands of spirits, ghosts, and wraiths. Whenever she tried to talk to Neti, he answered, “Quiet Inanna, the ways of the Underworld are perfect. They may not be questioned.”
Finally at the last gate she had only her royal breechcloth. Surrendering this last garment she came to the final depths of the realm of the dead naked and stripped of power. As she stepped before the throne of Ereshkigal she was knocked to her knees by the annuna, the monstrous judges of the underworld. They surrounded her and judged her. Here is a translation of the actual Sumerian text:
They passed judgment against her.
Then Ereshkigal fastened on Inanna the eye of death
She spoke against her the word of wrath
She uttered against her the cry of guilt
She struck her.
Inanna was turned into a corpse
A piece of rotting meat
And was hung from a hook on the wall
After three days Inanna did not return. Ninshubur became worried. She was a goddess in her own right who sometimes served as a herald or a messenger for the other gods, but her true devotion was always to Inanna (some myths even describe her as one of Inanna’s lovers). Acting on Inanna’s instructions, Ninshubur went to various deities to ask for help rescuing Inanna.
Inanna’s father and paternal grandfather were unmoved by her death (having warned her against sojourning in the land of the dead). However ancient Enki, still loved her, despite the fact that she had taken the Mes from him. In order to save Inanna from death he summoned kurgarra and the galatur, demon beings, to whom he gave the water of life. Assuming the guise of houseflies, the two demons flew into the underworld and descended to Ereshkigal’s throne room where Inanna was suspended dead and decomposing on a hook. With magical powers they rescued Inanna’s corpse from suspension and poured the water of life upon it. Inanna returned to life and proceeded back through the underworld, gathering her clothes and treasures as she went.
Unfortunately the galla, the demons of the underworld, discovered her as she was leaving. Unable to prevent her egress, they nevertheless demanded a substitute life to take her place and they followed as the goddess made her way back through the underworld and back out into the world of life. As Ninshubur joyfully greeted Inanna, the galla asked for the attendant’s life (which Inanna angrily refused). The underworld demons then asked for Inanna’s sons, Shara and Lulal, and even for Inanna’s beautician Cara as sacrifices to take Inanna’s place. However the goddess was firm: since all of these people were dressed in mourning for her, she refused to let them be touched. However when the Queen goddess came home to her palace, she found her husband, Dumuzi (who was once a shepherd but now lived as a god-king) dressed in rich robes, drinking and feasting merrily. Infuriated, she pointed him out to the galla and the demons sprang at him. Dumuzi appealed to the sun god Utu for help and was transformed into a snake, but the demons were remorseless and they found him in his new form and dragged him away to the depths of the underworld in place of the resurrected Inanna.
The gods cared little about Dumuzi’s fate, but his sister Geshtinanna remained loyal to him. She begged Ereshkigal to take her in her brother’s stead and the death goddess (impressed by such love for a sibling) relented and allowed her to spend half the year as a stand-in for her brother. Their annual place changing was believed to drive the seasons. As for Inanna, she went back to war and sex. Yet something had changed, reborn, she had knowledge of the underworld and the ultimate mysteries.
Ningishzida was a Mesopotamian deity, worshiped in the city of Gishbanda which lay near Ur in the orchards of the Fertile Crescent. It seems that he was originally a tree god (the name Ningishzida means “lord of the sacred/giving tree” in Sumerian, the first known written language), but he became associated with fertility, the underworld, and the healing force of nature. I wish I could tell you more about Ningishzida, but, remember how I mentioned Sumerian was the first known language? Surviving texts concerning Ningishzida are ancient. The texts were baked into clay tablets and these have become smashed and broken. When translated they look like this (roll over the links along the left side for source identification and click any of the “GI” links for English translations). There is beauty, nature, the underworld, and magic. There are serpents and lions and glowing portals, but the meaning is unclear (to say the least).
Yet if the combination of fertility, a magical tree, the Fertile Crescent, and a serpent do not seem immediately familiar to you, perhaps you should peruse the book which comes free with the hotel room (you don’t even have to read very far). Scholarly tradition asserts that the Pentateuch was written before or during the Babylonian exile of the 6th century. The author/authors seem to have used Mesopotamian sources for the portions which deal with creation and primeval history.
Ningishzida is portrayed as either a serpent with the head of a man, or, more frequently, as a double-headed serpent coiled into a double helix. It is believed that the Greeks also made use of this symbolism in their myth of the caduceus, the wand of Hermes/Mercury which is associates with theft, deception, and death (for Mercury was a psychopomp who led souls to the underworld with his staff). Of course contemporary people are familiar with the double helix as well. We know that DNA, the fundamental blueprint of life is latticed together on a double helix. It is strange that the first use of this symbol is a mysterious Sumerian tree/snake god who apparently also appealed to Jewish scholars during the Babylonian captivity.
The concept of crowns—ceremonial headdresses which indicate leadership–is ancient. If contemporary tribal society is any indication, the concept of providing kings, chiefs, and high priests with fancy hats to mark their status predates civilization. But whether that is the case or not we conclusively know that the concept goes back to the very beginning of civilization because we have textual evidence, and, more importantly, we have magnificent physical evidence! Here is the headdress of Puabi, an important noblewoman in the city of Ur, during the Ur’s First Dynasty (ca. 2600 BC).
It is not clear whether Puabi was a queen or a high priestess: her title “nin” or “eresh” was applied to queens, high priestesses, and goddesses. Perhaps the distinction was not meaningful to her Sumerian subjects. Puabi is also known as Shubad in Sumerian (although evidence indicates that she was Akkadian/Semitic). She lived at a time when Ur was one of the largest cities on earth.
The crown of Puabi was discovered by Sir Leonard Woolley in 1928 (when the great archeologist was half way through a 12 year series of excavations in Ur’s “Royal Cemetery”). The tomb had never been discovered by looters and it contained a treasure trove of precious grave goods including a chariot, a variety of jewelry, a set of golden tableware, and the remains of two golden lyres.
Puabi did not merely take riches with her to the next world. Her tomb also contained the remains of several oxen and 26 human attendants (most likely sent along with the Nim by means of poison). Most of these attendants were discovered in a central chamber of the tomb structure (which Woolley colorfully, and aptly, called a “death pit”). The queen was buried in state a sumptuous treasure chamber with only three other retainers. The Oriental Institute website provides a more complete description of Puabi’s dead attendants:
Puabi’s death pit contained the remains of more than a dozen retainers, most of whom were women. The approach to the pit appeared to have been guarded like that of the king [whose looted grave was found nearby], in this case by five men with copper daggers. The vehicle here was a sled, pulled by two oxen, and accompanied by four grooms. Other attendants within Puabi’s pit included ten women, all wearing elaborate headdresses, positioned in two rows “facing” one another and accompanied by musical instruments
The Oriental Institute goes to pains to point out that human sacrifice and mass suicide remain speculative and that “scholars have failed to come to any consensus concerning the exact beliefs and practices behind the royal tombs at Ur.” I am going to ignore those august words and rely on the (heavy) circumstantial evidence of all those extra corpses to say “human sacrifice”.
Puabi herself was about 40 years old when she died and she only stood 1.5 meters (5 feet) tall. Although she may have been tiny, the stature of her city-state was rapidly rising at the time. Ur was located near the mouth of the Euphrates and its location allowed it to grow wealthy from trade. At the time of Puabi, it was beginning to rival Uruk (its predecessor) and it had long eclipsed ancient Eridu, the first of the Mesopotamian city-states.
Shamash was the Mesopotamian deity of the sun. To the Akkadians, Assyrians, and the Babylonians he was synonymous with justice, generosity, and salvation. However there was a second solar deity in the Mesopotamian pantheon, Nergal, who was not associated with such positive aspects of existence. Nergal was the child of Enlil, god of the wind, who was exiled from earth for raping Ninlin, the goddess of the open fields. Ninlin followed Enlil into exile and gave birth to their son Nergal in the underworld (Sumerian myth-makers should be ashamed of the sexism of this story). Nergal’s dark origins foreshadowed his nature. Unlike Shamash, who represented the life giving power of the sun and divine justice, Nergal was only associated with certain phases of the sun. To quote Wikipedia “Portrayed in hymns and myths as a god of war and pestilence, Nergal seems to represent the sun of noontime and of the summer solstice that brings destruction, high summer being the dead season in the Mesopotamian annual cycle.”
As a god of plague, drought, fire, and insufferable heat, Nergal quickly came to be associated with death and the underworld. He was portrayed either as a powerful man bearing a sickle-sword and a mace, or as a lion with a man’s head.
Although he was a terrible god of destruction, the main myth we have about Nergal is romantic in nature. Mesopotamian scholars have discovered and translated a poetic epic recounting Nergal’s tempestuous courtship of the dark goddess Ereshkigal (the queen of the underworld, who once gave Ishtar such a wretched time). After a passionate tryst, Nergal left Ereshkigal, who thereafter was overwhelmed by passionate longing for further intimacy. Hearing of her unhappiness and realizing how much he in turn missed her, Nergal abandoned his place in the heavens and traveled down through the seven gates of hell to rejoin Ereshkigal. The two death gods then shared a bed for seven days and seven nights before marrying and jointly sharing rule of the underworld (it’s a happy story!).
Despite the felicity of his connubial circumstances, to the people of Mesopotamia, Nergal represented the unpredictability of mortal life and early unnatural death. He was worshiped, particularly at his chief temple located at Cuthah (a smaller city just northeast of Babylon) but his cult was far from the most popular. Unlike many other Babylonian deities, Nergal was mentioned in the Bible (2 Kings 17:30) and his name has therefore found a place among the demons and boogeymen of Christianity. If you search for “Nergal” on the internet you are likely to find the picture of a heavy metal singer from Poland dressed up in gothic makeup!