Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Ereshkigal: Ishtar’s Big Sister

This post is dedicated to Alexis, so that you can “know what you don’t already know.”

While not nearly as famous as her younger fertility goddess sister Ishtar, as ruler of the netherworld Ereshkigal was a goddess with a mystique and reputation all her own. Worshiped throughout the Middle East, Ereshkigal ruled over the realm of Irkalla; the land of the dead in Mesopotamian cosmology. Unlike Ishtar, who got to choose her own destiny amongst the gods, Ereshkigal was “given the underworld for her domain” according to the Epic of Gilgamesh (c. 1850 B.C.E.). In another myth, which shares elements in common with Ovid’s tale of Hades’ abduction of the goddess Persephone, Ereshkigal is kidnapped by her half-brother, the dragon Kur, and taken to the underworld where she is made queen. As with Ovid’s tale, Kur’s abduction of the goddess is motivated primarily by loneliness, not lust.

As a goddess of the dead, Ereshkigal had no appetite for food or drink and sustained herself by eating clay and drinking dirty water. However, while Ereshkigal may have not have cared for food and drink, she – like her sister – did love sex. Aside from the tale of Ishtar’s decent into the underworld, the most famous myth to involve Ereshkigal is undoubtedly the tale of how Ereshkigal obtained a husband.

It’s a story that begins with a party in heaven thrown for and attended by all the gods and goddess. All that is except Ereshkigal, who is confined to her realm beneath the earth and can not leave it. Not wanting to appear rude, however, Ereshkigal sends an envoy to go to the party in her place. While at the party, Ereshkigal’s envoy is insulted by the bull-like god of war Nergal. Since insulting an envoy in ancient times was as bad as insulting the person they represented, Ereshkigal demands that Nergal travels down to the underworld and apologize to her in person.

It is usually assumed that this incident takes place chronologically after the tale of Ishtar’s decent into the underworld and subsequent imprisonment there. If so then it is understandable why Nergal is terrified when he hears Ereshkigal’s demand for an in person apology. Nergal seeks consol from the other gods who tell him that the only thing he can do is to make sure not to eat or drink any food offered to him in the underworld, for if he does he can never leave. Not eating the food of the dead is a universal motif found worldwide in myths from Greco-Rome, Japan, Africa, and North America and probably reflects the commonly held religious taboo against eating the food offerings left for dead ancestors.

Nergal then descends down to Irkalla, passing through its seven gates and finally arriving in Ereshkigal’s courtroom. There he offers up his apologies which Ereshkigal accepts. Ereshkigal then offers Nergal food and drink – which he politely declines – before finally offering him sex. Having been given no warning pertaining to having sex with Ereshkigal, Nergal gladly accepts and the two proceed to make love continuously for the next six days until Nergal finally begins to grow tiered. However Ereshkigal, forever the nymphomaniac, only wants to keep making love as she is still “unsatisfied.”

Nergal, needing an out, tells Ereshkigal that he will return to her after he has traveled to heaven and announced their betrothal to the rest of the gods. As all men and most women who have heard variations of this line know, Nergal is lying. Once back in heaven Nergal sets about his business with no intention of ever returning to the underworld. When Ereshkigal realizes that Nergal isn’t coming back she is furious and sends another envoy to heaven who proclaims that unless Nergal returns to her she will “send up the dead that they might devour the living.” Clearly the ancient Mesopotamians had the idea for Night of the Living Dead long before director George A. Romero.

Having learned to take Ereshkigal’s threats seriously the other gods immediately begin to search for Nergal, but the war god has disguised himself as a bald, palsied crippled and this makes him harder to find. Eventually, however, Nergal is discovered and forced to return to Ereshkigal. On the return trip to the underworld Nergal, like Ishtar, is stripped of his clothes and articles of power as he passes through each of the underworld’s seven gates. Finally, arriving back in Ereshkigal’s throne room naked and humiliated Nergal is made the goddesses’ begrudging husband for the rest of time.

Sources
The History of Hell (1993) by Alice K. Turner
DK Illustrated Dictionary of Mythology (1998) by Philip Wilkinson
The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Mythology (2001) by Arthur Cotterell & Rachel Storm

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