The Descent of Ishtar to the Underworld, Nergal and Ereshkigal, and Adapa.

by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1874).
One of my reads at the moment is Myths from Mesopotamia translated by Stephanie Dalley (Oxford University Press 2008). I read Atrahasis last week; the following work in the book is The Epic of Gilgamesh which I'd already read, and this week I've the next three works in it: The Descent of Ishtar to the Underworld, Nergal and Ereshkigal, and Adapa.

The first two, The Descent of Ishtar to the Underworld and Nergal and Ereshkigal, share common themes with each other and with the Greek myth of Persephone (Proserpine in Roman myth). In Homeric Hymns for example (specifically To Demeter) the poet describes the abduction of Persephone by Hades. Demeter, the goddess of agriculture and Persephone's mother, mourned and withdrew from life which brought chaos and famine until the intervention of Zeus who offered a solution: the crisis is overcome, and order returns to the world. She is also mentioned in Hesiod's Theogony as the daughter of Olympians gods Zeus and Demeter. In The Descent of Ishtar to the Underworld (c. 10th Century - 7th Century B.C.) the fertility goddess Ishtar (also known as Inanna; she is the equivalent of Aphrodite in Greek myth) is intent on visiting Kurnugi, better known in the west as the Underworld. It begins,
To Kurnigi, land of [no return],
Ishtar daughter of Sin was [determined] to go;
The daughter of Sin was determined to go
To the dark house, dwelling of Erkalla's god,
To the house which those who enter cannot leave,
On the road where travelling is one-way only,
To the house where those who enter are deprived of light,
Where dust is their food, clay their bread.
They see no light, they dwell in darkness,
They are clothed like birds, with feathers.
Over the door and the bolt, dust has settled.
Ishtar, when she arrived at the gate of Kurnugi,
Addressed her words to the keeper of the gate,
'Here gatekeeper, open your gate for me,
Open your gate for me to come in!
If you do not open the gate for me to come in,
I shall smash the door and shatter the bolt,
I shall smash the doorpost and overturn the doors,
I shall raise up the dead and they shall eat the living:
The dead shall outnumber the living.
The gatekeeper consults Ereshkigal, the goddess of the Underworld, who angrily consents. Ishtar then passes through, gradually stripped of her possessions. When they meet Ereshkigal instructs Namtar, god of death and fate:
Go, Namtar [      ] of my [     ]
Send out against her sixty diseases
[         ] Ishtar:
Disease of the eyes to her [eyes]
Disease of the arms to her [arms]
Disease of the feet to her [feet],
Disease of the heart to her [heart],
Disease of the head [to her head],
To every part of her and to [      ].
As in the Greek version, fertility is brought to a standstill - nothing and no one reproduces in the world. Papsukkal, a messenger god, is greatly saddened by the state of affairs and implores Sin and King Ea to intervene. Ea then creates a person, essentially to cheer Ereshkigal up and make her more likely to undo her curse ("Ereshkigal shall look at you and be glad to see you. / When she is relaxed, her mood will lighten."). Ereshkigal hears of this and curses the person then sends for Ishtar, who is given back all her possessions as she progresses. She is released, but in exchange for her consort Dumuzi, to the dismay of his sister Belili. The poem ends,
Then Belili tore off her jewellery,

Her lap was filled with eyestones.
Belili heard the lament for her brother, she struck the jewellery [from her body],
The eyestones with which the front of a wild cow was filled.
'You shall not rob me (forever) my only brother!
On the day when Dumuzi comes back up, (and)
the lapis lazuli pipe and the carnelian ring come up with him,
(When) male and female mourners come up with him,
The dead shall come up and smell the smoke offering.'
It is a genuinely disturbing myth. The subject matter, its age, and the fragmented nature of it gives the feeling of the writing itself being ghostly, and the frequent repetition in it makes it almost hypnotic. It's a strong and powerful work that left me unsettled for some time. Of course it's a valuable work too given, again, its age and its great influence, but in terms of entertainment alone this still, 3,000 years later, ranks very highly indeed.

Staying with Ereshkigal, the next myth, Nergal and Ereshkigal, tells of how Nergal forces his way into the Underworld and becomes king. There are two versions presented in the collection: the first is what's known as the standard version, the second the Amarna version. In the first  (and the longest version) Nergal travels to the Underworld taking with him a chair (by performing a purification rite, setting up offerings, and placing a chair to the left of the offerings, the ghost is prevented from seizing the would-be captive):
He painted it with [    as a substitute for silver],
Painted it with yellow paste and red paste as a substitute for gold,
Painted with with blue glaze as a substitute for lapis lazuli.
The work was finished, the chair complete.
He makes his descent and enjoys in the Underworld a banquet (at which Ereshkigal is not present) however he insults her vizier (Namtar) so she summons him to her. Having kissed her he then evades her though and returns to heaven; he is summoned once again and returns to seize the throne.

This standard version is, I found, particularly difficult: very fragmented and highly confusing: I'm not even sure if I got it right. The second version is far shorter: again Nergal insults Namtar; she summons him, and -
Inside the house, he seized Ereshkigal
By her hair, pulled her from the throne
To the ground, intending to cut off her head.
'Don't kill me, my brother! Let me tell you something.'
Nergal listened to her and relaxed his grip, he wept and was overcome (when she said),
'You can be my husband, and I can be your wife.
I will let you seize
Kingship over the wide Earth! I will put the tablet
Of wisdom in your hand! You can be master,
I can be mistress.' Nergal listened to this speech of hers,
And seized her and kissed her. He wiped away his tears.
'What have you asked of me? After so many months,
It shall certainly be so!'
There it ends.

Oannes (Adapa) by Odilon Redon (1908).
The final section (for this week at least) is Adapa. In this story he was one of the seven sages before the great Flood who were sent by Ea to civilise mankind. It begins,
Thoughtfulness [     ]
His word commands like the word of [Anu]
He (Ea) made broad understanding perfect in him (Adapa), to disclose the design of the land.
To him he gave wisdom, but did not give eternal life.
At that time, in those years, he was a sage, son of Eridu.
Ea created him as a protecting spirit among mankind.
A sage - nobody rejects his word -
Clever, extra-wise, he was one of the Anunnaki,
Holy, pure of hands, the pašīšu-priest who always tends the rites.
He does the baking with the bakers,
Does the baking with the bakers of Eridu,
He does the food and water of Eridu every day,
Sets up the offerings table with his pure hands,
Without him no offerings table is cleared away...
In the story the South Wind's wing is broken by Adapa (the story goes that his fishing boat had capsized and he did it in anger). He is summoned by the gods but before he goes Ea intervenes and puts him in mourning as well as instructing him not to eat or drink anything Anu, Dumuzi, and Gizzida give him. He obeys and when questioned why he refuses to eat he replies that Ea advised him not to. Anu replies,
'Why did Ea disclose to wretched mankind
The ways of heaven and earth,
Give them a heavy heart?
It was he who did it!
What can we do for him?
Fetch him the bread of (eternal) life and let him eat!'
They fetched him the bread of (eternal) life but he would not eat.
They fetched him the water of (eternal) life, but he would not drink.
They fetched him a garment, and he put it on himself.
They fetched him oil, and he anointed himself.
Anu watched him and laughed at him.
'Come, Adapa, why did you not eat? Why didn't you drink?
Didn't you want to be immortal? Alas for downtrodden people!'
'(But) Ea my lord told me: 'You musn't eat! You musn't drink!'
Take him and send him back to his earth.
And that is how Adapa was denied eternal life in the heavens.

It's another fascinating tale and some suggest some tenuous similarities with the story of Adam: the idea of forbidden food and being made to remain in earth which represents a state of sin, though in this instance Adapa obeyed his god (that analysis is hotly contested, it should be noted). Whatever the case, I enjoyed the story; I enjoyed all of these in fact, though the standard version of Nergal and Ereshkigal were particularly difficult.


  1. unless i'm misled, the first two tales, especially, seem to be in a kind of two-part rhythm and referencing two different subjects, like sagas or eddas, with the same kinds of repetitions continuing from one line to another... interesting...

    1. Yes, I see your point. It's been such an interesting read so far and I feel I'm starting to learn a few of the major gods. It's always daunting going into mythology from scratch!

  2. Enjoyed your review and hearing about some lesser known myths. My main trouble with mythologies is I always have too many questions about why things happen or why characters make certain choices... Still, this makes me want to get into reading them again.

    1. Well I do recommend this collection - it's very powerful :)


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Getting up on Cold Mornings by James Henry Leigh Hunt.

The Prevention of Literature by George Orwell.

2017 in Pictures.