Queen of the Underworld

Ereshkigal- woodcut by Christine AndreaeThe Sumerian Underworld is ruled by Inanna’s older sister Ereshkegal whose husband, Gugalanna (aka the Bull of Heaven) has died. When, at the start of the poem, Inanna opened her ear to the Great Below, I imagined her hearing her elder sister’s cries of grief – hence this third woodcut in my series: Ereshkegal rides her dead consort; she clings to his horns. Only his bones remain. He has been dead for some time (if time exists in the Underworld) but she can not let him or her grief go. In my experience, when someone you love is lost to you or dies, the sharpness of the pain keeps the dead person present. To let go of the horns of grief and “come through it” to acceptance feels like yet another death.
Ereshkegal is naked. In her pain, she has stripped away her robes. Her skin is black: she is the Yang to her sister’s Yin. Borrowing from present day newspaper photos of mourners in war-torn Iraq (once Inanna’s province), Ereshkegal’s mouth is open in a cry of anguish. I have to wonder if giving passionate, unrestrained expression to grief is more healing than the stoicism I was taught to admire and emulate. Maybe. Maybe not. In any case, Ereshkegal’s grief is primitive: as violent and sexual as her Bull of a consort.

Inanna at the Gates

When Inanna reaches the Underworld, the chief gatekeeper demands “Who are you?” and she replies, “I am Inanna, Queen of Heaven, on my way to the East.” The gatekeeper asks:

“Why has your heart led you on the road
From which no traveler returns?”

Inanna answers that her sister’s husband has died:

“I have come to witness the funeral rites.
Let the beer of his funeral rites be poured into the cup.
Let it be done.” 1

A couple things in these lines surprise me. In our culture, West is the direction of death and endings. (The cowboy rides off into the sunset.) But Inanna is traveling “East” – the direction of the rising sun, of enlightenment. Was the Sumerian Underworld situated in the East or was Inanna only passing through it on a path to greater wisdom? More mundanely, I was also surprised to learn that beer was the Mesopotomian drink of choice and a daily staple. According to a 3900 year-old recipe in a Sumerian hymn, beer was made out of barley bread.

Sisterly sympathy?

I doubt it was kindness and pity that motivated Inanna’s descent. The first lines of the poem say that she opened her ear to the Great Below, not her heart. She went down wearing all the symbols of her power, her crown, her jewelry, her armor. The guardian at the gates told Ereshkigal that a maid “As tall as heaven/ As wide as the earth/As strong as the foundations of the city wall” was waiting at the palace gate. Clearly her appearance is threatening.
In the Assyrian/Babylonian version of the poem, Inanna, renamed Ishtar, tells the gatekeeper that if she is not given entry, she will break down the doors.

“. . .I will wrench the lock
I will smash the doorposts, I will force the doors
And I will bring up the dead to eat the living
[and] the dead will outnumber the living.” 2

The Assyrian Queen of the Underworld is afraid. She trembles like a cut reed. She shakes like a “tamarisk” (a feathery shrub) being hacked down. But the Sumerian Ereshkigal is suspicious, more angry at the intrusion than alarmed.

“She slapped her thigh and bit her lip.
She took the matter into her heart and dwelt on it.” 3

What will she do? Stay tuned!


1 Inanna,Queen of Heaven and Earth, Wolkstein and Kramer, p.55
2 The Civilizatyion of Babylonia and Assyria, Vol 2, Morris Jastrow Jr. p.454
3 Wolkstein and Kramer, p.56