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Today’s post is taking us all the way back. We are going to the beginning of civilization ca. 3700–3500 B.C. when the first cities sprang up from the mud of Mesopotamia and the near East. This figurine is one of thousands and thousands which were found in Tell Brak, a vast mound which is what now remains of one of humankind’s first cities—an urban settlement which was built at around the same time as Ur and Sumer (although Tell Brak was in what is now–or recently was– Syria). Tell Brak is the name of the mound of rubbish, dirt, and artifacts where the ancient city once was—the original name of the city is unknown (although the city which sprang up nearby, after the destruction of the first metropolis, was known as Nagar).
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The urban inhabitants of Tell Brak loved these evocative little eye statuettes, but sadly we don’t really know what they are either. The best guess is that they were votive statues. Supplicants would leave them at the temple as a sort of offering for the god or goddess. An alternate theory is that they are simplified idols of Inanna–THE goddess of war, sex, and the planet Venus. The wide eyes are thought to betoken adoration or excitement or maybe the attentiveness of the gods. Sometimes there are multiple sets of eyes or smaller eyes beneath a larger pair. Some of the statues had ornamentation or even jewels.

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As you have probably surmised from this meandering speculation, we don’t really know what the eye statues symbolized or what reason people made them (although it was almost absolutely certain that they are religious). Whatever their original purpose was, I love them. I can’t think of a more evocative religious artform to come from a nameless early city. The simple haunting lines and wide-eyed knowingness of the unknowable mystery forms is exhilarating. You can practically feel them looking at you out the internet (to say nothing of when you are in an abandoned corner of the Met with other objects from 6,000 years ago…or on some mud hill in Syria). Ferrebeekeeper has long been fascinated by the art of the first cities…and by cities in general. I am going to be writing more about urban culture and meaning…and I will be featuring more art. So keep your eyes open!
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Inanna/Astarte/Ishtar

Inanna/Astarte/Ishtar

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.

Inanna as depicted by an ancient Mesopotamian scroll seal

Inanna as depicted by an ancient Mesopotamian scroll seal

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).

Detail of ancient Mesopotamian so-called "Ishtar Vase", terracotta with cut, moulded, and painted decoration, from Larsa, early 2nd millennium BC.

Detail of ancient Mesopotamian so-called “Ishtar Vase”, terracotta with cut, moulded, and painted decoration, from Larsa, early 2nd millennium BC.

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.”

Inanna naked (ancient alabaster statue)

Inanna naked (ancient alabaster statue)

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.

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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.

 Mesopotamian cylinder seal of Dumuzi feeding sheep. (ca 3200-3000 BC)

Mesopotamian cylinder seal of Dumuzi feeding sheep. (ca 3200-3000 BC)

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.

Eridu as envisioned by Balage Balogh

Although different people have advanced alternate claims (and new evidence continues to come from archaeological sites around the world), one of the first cities to rise up from the mud was the Mesopotamian city state Eridu.  Located in what was then a fertile estuary where the Euphrates emptied into the Persian Gulf, Eridu seems to have been founded circa 5400 BC by the confluence of three extremely different tribes each of which relied on a different ecosystem. According to Gwendolyn Leick, as paraphrased by the Museum of Knowledge:

The oldest agrarian settlement seems to have been based upon intensive subsistence irrigation agriculture derived from the Samarra culture to the north, characterized by the building of canals, and mud-brick buildings. The fisher-hunter cultures of the Arabian littoral…may have been the original Sumerians. They seem to have dwelt in reed huts. The third culture that contributed to the building of Eridu was the nomadic Semitic pastoralists of herds of sheep and goats living in tents in semi-desert areas.

Somehow these three groups blended together and created the first city. Eridu was built along a pattern which became typical for Sumerian city states: a large central ziggurat of mudbrick was surrounded by a warren of mudbrick houses. The temple was sacred to Enki, the wise god of the abzu (the freshwater marsh).  Enki was the principal god for a reason:  it was the fresh water from the abzu which filled the irrigation ditches and made cultivation of newly domesticated grains possible.  In 4000 BC Eridu had about four thousand inhabitants.  If you wanted to buy goods at a marketplace, drink beer in a tavern, see a building larger than one story, or walk down an alley at night it was probably the only place on earth you could do so.  By 3700 B.C Eridu’s population had grown to approximately ten thousand inhabitants.

The Statue of Enki Sails from Eridu (also painted by the remarkable Balage Balogh)

Thereafter, Eridu was swiftly eclipsed by Uruk to the northwest which was founded by the same blend of people.  The citizens of Uruk looked to Eridu for their template (in fact Sumerian mythology features a story in which Inanna, the harlot goddess of Uruk was forced to visit Eridu’s god Enki in order to obtain the gifts of civilization). Uruk became the first city to boast more than 50,000 people.  It featured the first monumental architecture, the first writing, the first full-time bureaucrats, and the first professional soldiers.  It was the first civilization.

As the other city states of ancient Mesopotamia grew and prospered, Eridu, began to wither.  The once fertile soil lost its vigor and became salty after centuries of irrigation.  Farmers switched to salt-resistant barley but then even that failed. Wars and strife swept over the region as kings and their armies vied for supremacy. By 2050 the region was depopulated.  Neo-Babylonians built a purely ceremonial temple there to honor Eridu’s legacy as the first city and the birthplace of civilization, but by the 6th century BC, even that was abandoned forever.

Eridu Today

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