Among the pantheon of Sumerian Father Gods, only the River God Enki responds to Inanna’s faithful helper Ninshubur who begs him to rescue Inanna from death in the Underworld. Enki pares out mud from under his fingernails. (Of course the River God is muddy!) From this dirt, he fashions two creatures “neither male nor female”. To one, he gives the food of life and to the other, he gives the water of life. Then he instructs them:
“Go to the underworld
Enter the door like flies.
Ereshkigal, the Queen of the Underworld, is moaning
With the cries of a woman about to give birth.
No linen is spread over her body.
Her breasts are uncovered.
Her hair swirls about her head like leeks.
When she cried, “Oh! Oh! My inside!”
Cry also “Oh! Oh! Your inside!”
When she cries, “Oh! Oh! My outside!”
Cry also “Oh! Oh! Your outside!”
The queen will be pleased.
She will offer you a gift.
Ask her only for the corpse that hangs from the hook on the wall.
One of you will sprinkle the food of life on it.
The other will sprinkle the water of life.
Inanna will arise”
So Enki’s two little creatures do as they are told. They are present with Ereshkigal’s pain. They accept and validate it. When she moans, they moan. When she groans, “Oh my belly!” and “Oh my back”, they groan “Oh your belly! Oh your back!” When she sighs, “Oh my heart!” and “Oh my liver!” they echo her sighs. The queen’s grief is articulated into a kind of call-and-response poem that brings her relief.
She looked at them.
Who are you,
Moaning –groaning -sighing with me?
If you are gods, I will bless you.
If you are mortals, I will give you a gift.
I will give the water-gift, the river in its fullness.”
But the creatures decline the water-gift of fertility. Ereshkigal then offers them the grain-gift, the fields in harvest, and again, they decline.
“Speak then! What do you wish?”
“We wish only the corpse that hangs from the hook on the wall.”
“The corpse belongs to Inanna.”
“Whether it belongs to our queen,
Whether it belongs to our king,
That is what we wish.”
So the corpse was given to them. They sprinkled it with the food of life and the water of life and Inanna arose. (This is not the end of the story, so stay tuned for two more episodes!)
Enki’s little mourners, all those thousands of years ago, did what healers today call “active listening” – the skill of shutting off the stream of thoughts, judgements, and counter-arguments running through one’s own head and totally tuning into what a person is saying and feeling. My experiences as a hospice volunteer taught me that this kind of listening actually does bring relief and healing. But I also learned how very difficult it is! When listening to someone coping with death, my mind would race with denials (Oh you don’t really mean that!) and distractions (Do I need to stop for milk on the way home?). I would worry about what to say next – a worry more about me than the person suffering in front of me! So I am full of admiration for Enki’s creatures. I imagine them as acrobats – lithe and highly skilled. They are centered and humble in wild chaos of Ereshkigal’s grief. The fact that they are gender-free seems instructive. To be totally present for someone, perhaps gender is irrelevant. To give the healing gift of listening, sexuality may be as much of a stumbling block as ego.