Cradle of Civilization

A Blog about the Birth of Our Civilisation and Development

Ereshkigal – “The great lady under earth”

Posted by Fredsvenn on August 28, 2014

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Ereshkigal

In Mesopotamian mythology, Ereshkigal (EREŠ.KI.GAL, lit. “great lady under earth”) was the goddess of Irkalla, the land of the dead or underworld, supposed to be gathered in a large subterranean cave known as Aralu or Irkalla, though at one time Allatu (Allatum), an underworld goddess modeled after the mesopotamic goddess Ereshkigal and worshipped by western Semitic peoples, including the Carthaginians, may have functioned as the sole mistress of Aralu, ruling in her own person.

Allatu also may be equateed with the Canaanite goddess Arsay, a goddess of the underworld worshipped by the Canaanites. According to texts, she is the third daughter of Baal at Ugarit.

Allāt or al-Lāt was a Pre-Islamic Arabian goddess who was one of the three chief goddesses of Mecca. She is mentioned in the Qur’an (Sura 53:19), which indicates that pre-Islamic Arabs considered her as one of the daughters of Allah, along with Manāt and al-‘Uzzá.

The shrine and temple dedicated to al-Lat in Taif was demolished on the orders of Muhammad, during the Expedition of Abu Sufyan ibn Harb, in the same year as the Battle of Tabuk (which occurred in October 630 AD). The destruction of the idol was a demand by Muhammad before any reconciliation could take place with the tribes of Taif who were under siege.

Especially in older sources, Allat is an alternative name of the Mesopotamian goddess of the underworld, now usually known as Ereshkigal. She was reportedly also venerated in Carthage under the name Allatu.

The goddess occurs in early Safaitic graffiti (Safaitic han-‘Ilāt “the Goddess”) and the Nabataeans of Petra and the people of Hatra also worshipped her, equating her with the Greek Athena and Tyche and the Roman Minerva. She is frequently called “the Great Goddess” in Greek in multi-lingual inscriptions. According to Wellhausen, the Nabataeans believed al-Lāt was the mother of Hubal (and hence the mother-in-law of Manāt).

The Greek historian Herodotus, writing in the 5th century BC, considered her the equivalent of Aphrodite: The Assyrians call Aphrodite Mylitta, the Arabians Alilat, and the Persians Mithra. In addition that deity is associated with the Indian deity Mitra.

This passage is linguistically significant as the first clear attestation of an Arabic word, with the diagnostically Arabic article al-. The Persian and Indian deities were developed from the Proto-Indo-Iranian deity known as Mitra.

According to Herodotus, the ancient Arabians believed in only two gods: They believe in no other gods except Dionysus and the Heavenly Aphrodite; and they say that they wear their hair as Dionysus does his, cutting it round the head and shaving the temples. They call Dionysus, Orotalt; and Aphrodite, Alilat.

Ereshkigal was sometimes given the name Irkalla, similar to the way the name Hades was used in Greek mythology for both the underworld and its ruler. In Norse mythology, Hel is a being who presides over a realm of the same name, where she receives a portion of the dead.

Ereshkigal was the only one who could pass judgment and give laws in her kingdom. The main temple dedicated to her was located in Kutha (Sumerian: Gudua, modern Tell Ibrahim), an archaeological site on the right bank of the eastern branch of the Upper Euphrates, north of Nippur and around 25 miles (40 km) northeast of Babylon, in Babil Governorate, Iraq. Kutha is also the name of the capital of the Sumerian underworld, Irkalla.

The site consists of two tells or settlement mounds. The larger main mound is 0.75 miles (1.21 km) long and crescent-shaped. A smaller mound is located to the west. The two mounds, as is typical in the region, are separated by the dry bed of an ancient canal, the Shatt en-Nil.

In the Assyrian inscriptions “Cutha” occurs on the Shalmaneser obelisk, line 82, in connection with Babylon. Shulgi (formerly read as Dungi), King of Ur III, built the temple of Nergal at Cuthah, which fell into ruins, so that Nebuchadnezzar II had to rebuild the “temple of the gods, and placed them in safety in the temple”.

This agrees with the Biblical statement that the men of Cuthah served Nergal. Josephus places Cuthah, which for him is the name of a river and of a district, in Persia, and Neubauer says that it is the name of a country near Kurdistan.

The so-called “Legend of the King of Cuthah”, a fragmentary inscription of the Akkadian literary genre called narû, written as if it were transcribed from a royal stele, is in fact part of the “Legend of Naram-Sin”, not to be read as history, found in the cuneiform library at Sultantepe, north of Harran.

Sumu-la-El, a king of the 1st Babylonian Dynasty, rebuilt the city walls of Kutha. The city was later defeated by Hammurabi of Babylon in the 39th year of his reign.

In The Last Pagans of Iraq: Ibn Waḥshiyya and His Nabatean Agriculture, Jaakko Hämeen-Anttila says: “One might also mention the rather surprising story, traced back to ‘Alì, the first Imam of the Shiites, where he is made to identify himself as “one of the Nabateans from Kùthà” (see Yàqùt,Mu’jamIV: 488, s.v. Kùthà).

It goes without saying that the story is apocryphal, but it shows that among the Shiites there were people ready to identify themselves with the Nabateans. Thus it comes as no surprise that especially in the so-called ghulàt movements (extremist Shiites) a lot of material surfaces that is derivable from Mesopotamian sources (cf. Hämeen-Anttila 2001), and the early Shiite strongholds were to a great extent in the area inhabited by Nabateans.

Of course, as also Yàqùt notes, the identification of Kùthàas the original home of the Shiites/Muslims testifies to the Abrahamic roots of Islam. Yet the identification of Kùthà, and by extension also Abraham, with the Nabateans is remarkable.” (p. 35)

According to the Tanakh, Cuthah was one of the five Syrian and Mesopotamian cities from which Sargon II, King of Assyria, brought settlers to take the places of the exiled Israelites (2 Kings 17:24-30).

II Kings relates that these settlers were attacked by lions, and interpreting this to mean that their worship was not acceptable to the deity of the land, they asked Sargon to send someone to teach them, which he did.

The result was a mixture of religions and peoples, the latter being known as “Cuthim” in Hebrew and as Samaritans to the Greeks.

In the Assyrian inscriptions “Cutha” occurs on the Shalmaneser obelisk, line 82, in connection with Babylon. Shulgi (formerly read as Dungi), King of Ur III, built the temple of Nergal at Cuthah, which fell into ruins, so that Nebuchadnezzar II had to rebuild the “temple of the gods, and placed them in safety in the temple”.

This agrees with the Biblical statement that the men of Cuthah served Nergal, a deity worshipped throughout Mesopotamia (Akkad, Assyria and Babylonia) with the main seat of his worship at Cuthah represented by the mound of Tell-Ibrahim. He is the son of Enlil (nlin) (EN = Lord + LÍL = Wind, “Lord (of the) Storm”), the God of breath, wind, loft and breadth (height and distance) and Ninlil.

Nergal is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible as the deity of the city of Cuth (Cuthah): “And the men of Babylon made Succoth-benoth, meaning “Booths of Daughters”, a Babylonian deity, and the men of Cuth made Nergal” (2 Kings, 17:30). Succoth-benoth was one of the deities brought to the former kingdom of Samaria (Israel) by “the men of Babylon” after the exile of Israel by Assyria.

After resettling large numbers of Israel’s population “in Halah, in Gozan, on the Habor River and in towns of the Medes” (2 Kings 18:11), the king of Assyria brought people from Babylon, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath and Sepharvaim” and settled them in Israel. (From the intermixture of these peoples and the remaining Israelites came the Samaritans.)

The “men” from each of these five cities (“national groups” – NIV) made its own gods and set them up in the shrines of the land, mixing it with Yahweh worship. “The men of Babylon made Succoth Benoth, the men of Cuthah made Nergal, the men of Hamath made Ashima, the Avvites made Nibhaz and Tartak, and the Sepharvites, Adrammelech and Anamelech 2 Kings 17:30-31.

The Bible says that these deities were idols, although the Samaritans were not punished because they worshipped the God of the Israelites as well. Like Ashima, the identity of Succoth-benoth is unknown.

Nergal actually seems to be in part a solar deity, sometimes identified with Shamash, but only a representative of a certain phase of the sun. Portrayed in hymns and myths as a god of war and pestilence, Nergal seems to represent the sun of noontime and of the summer solstice that brings destruction, high summer being the dead season in the Mesopotamian annual cycle.

Nergal was also the deity who presides over the netherworld, and who stands at the head of the special pantheon assigned to the government of the dead. In this capacity he has associated with him a goddess Allatu or Ereshkigal.

Ordinarily Nergal pairs with his consort Laz. Standard iconography pictured Nergal as a lion, and boundary-stone monuments symbolise him with a mace surmounted by the head of a lion.

Nergal’s fiery aspect appears in names or epithets such as Lugalgira, Lugal-banda (Nergal as the fighting-cock), Sharrapu (“the burner,” a reference to his manner of dealing with outdated teachings), Erra, Gibil (though this name more properly belongs to Nusku), and Sibitti or Seven. According to the rabbins, his emblem was a cock and Nergal means a “dunghill cock”, although standard iconography pictured Nergal as a lion.

A certain confusion exists in cuneiform literature between Ninurta (slayer of Asag and wielder of Sharur, an enchanted mace) and Nergal. Nergal has epithets such as the “raging king,” the “furious one,” and the like. A play upon his name—separated into three elements as Ne-uru-gal (lord of the great dwelling) — expresses his position at the head of the nether-world pantheon.

In the late Babylonian astral-theological system Nergal is related to the planet Mars. As a fiery god of destruction and war, Nergal doubtless seemed an appropriate choice for the red planet, and he was equated by the Greeks either to the combative demigod Heracles (Latin Hercules) or to the war-god Ares (Latin Mars) — hence the current name of the planet.

In Assyro-Babylonian ecclesiastical art the great lion-headed colossi serving as guardians to the temples and palaces seem to symbolise Nergal, just as the bull-headed colossi probably typify Ninurta.

Nergal’s chief temple at Cuthah bore the name Meslam, from which the god receives the designation of Meslamtaeda or Meslamtaea, “the one that rises up from Meslam”. The name Meslamtaeda/Meslamtaea indeed is found as early as the list of gods from Fara while the name Nergal only begins to appear in the Akkadian period.

Amongst the Hurrians and later Hittites Nergal was known as Aplu, a name derived from the Akkadian Apal Enlil, (Apal being the construct state of Aplu) meaning “the son of Enlil”. As God of the plague, he was invoked during the “plague years” during the reign of the Hittite king Suppiluliuma, when this disease spread from Egypt.

Apollo, known in Greek-influenced Etruscan mythology as Apulu, is one of the most important and complex of the Olympian deities in classical Greek and Roman religion and Greek and Roman mythology.

The ideal of the kouros (a beardless, athletic youth), Apollo has been variously recognized as a god of light and the sun, truth and prophecy, healing, plague, music, poetry, and more. Apollo is the son of Zeus and Leto, and has a twin sister, the chaste huntress Artemis.

As the patron of Delphi (Pythian Apollo), Apollo was an oracular god—the prophetic deity of the Delphic Oracle. Medicine and healing are associated with Apollo, whether through the god himself or mediated through his son Asclepius, yet Apollo was also seen as a god who could bring ill-health and deadly plague.

Amongst the god’s custodial charges, Apollo became associated with dominion over colonists, and as the patron defender of herds and flocks. As the leader of the Muses (Apollon Musegetes) and director of their choir, Apollo functioned as the patron god of music and poetry. Hermes created the lyre for him, and the instrument became a common attribute of Apollo. Hymns sung to Apollo were called paeans.

In Hellenistic times, especially during the 3rd century BCE, as Apollo Helios he became identified among Greeks with Helios, Titan god of the sun, and his sister Artemis similarly equated with Selene, Titan goddess of the moon.

In Latin texts, on the other hand, Joseph Fontenrose declared himself unable to find any conflation of Apollo with Sol among the Augustan poets of the 1st century, not even in the conjurations of Aeneas and Latinus in Aeneid XII (161–215). Apollo and Helios/Sol remained separate beings in literary and mythological texts until the 3rd century CE.

The worship of Nergal does not appear to have spread as widely as that of Ninurta, but in the late Babylonian and early Persian period, syncretism seems to have fused the two divinities, which were invoked together as if they were identical.

Hymns and votive and other inscriptions of Babylonian and Assyrian rulers frequently invoke him, but we do not learn of many temples to him outside of Cuthah. The Assyrian king Sennacherib speaks of one at Tarbisu to the north of the Assyrian capital of Nineveh, but significantly, although Nebuchadnezzar II (606 BC – 586 BC), the great temple-builder of the neo-Babylonian monarchy, alludes to his operations at Meslam in Cuthah, he makes no mention of a sanctuary to Nergal in Babylon.

Local associations with his original seat—Kutha—and the conception formed of him as a god of the dead acted in making him feared rather than actively worshipped.

Being a deity of the desert, god of fire, which is one of negative aspects of the sun, god of the underworld, and also being a god of one of the religions which rivaled Christianity and Judaism, Nergal was sometimes called a demon and even identified with Satan.

According to Collin de Plancy and Johann Weyer, Nergal was depicted as the chief of Hell’s “secret police”, and worked as an “an honorary spy in the service of Beelzebub”.

Ereshkigal is the sister and counterpart of the Goddess of Heaven and Earth, Inanna/Ishtar, the symbol of nature during the non-productive season of the year equated with Venus. Inanna was the quintessential fertility queen whose consort was Dumuzi, the Vegetable God.  Their mating rituals reflected a society based on agriculture in the fertile valley between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers that we now know as Iraq.

As all things existing in the natural world, she bore a cyclical nature of youth and innocence before emerging into full-blown sexuality as Queen, and then descending through the seven gates of hell into the land of her sister Ereshkigal who, in her grief and rage at the loss of her mate, took Inanna’s life. Ereshkigal did ultimately give Inanna back her life, and the freedom to ascend back to the heavens symbolizing the cyclical nature of all life patterns.

The goddess Ishtar, the East Semitic Akkadian, Assyrian and Babylonian goddess of fertility, love, war, and sex, refers to Ereshkigal as her older sister in the Sumerian hymn “The Descent of Inanna” (which was also in later Babylonian myth, also called “The Descent of Ishtar”).

According to the doctrine of two kingdoms, the dominions of the two sisters are sharply differentiated, as one is of this world and one of the world of the dead.

It was said that Erishkigal had been stolen away by Kur, considered the first ever dragon, and usually referred to the Zagros mountains to the east of Sumer, and taken to the underworld, where she was made queen unwillingly. In some versions of the myths, she rules the underworld by herself, sometimes with a husband subordinate to her named Gugalana (lit. “The Great Bull of Heaven” < Sumerian gu “bull”, gal “great”, an “heaven”, -a “of”).

Gugalanna was a Sumerian deity as well as the constellation known today as Taurus, one of the twelve signs of the Zodiac. Gugalanna was sent by the gods to take retribution upon Gilgamesh for rejecting the sexual advances of the goddess Inanna.

Gugalanna, whose feet made the earth shake, was slain and dismembered by Gilgamesh and Enkidu. Inanna, from the heights of the city walls looked down, and Enkidu took the haunches of the bull shaking them at the goddess, threatening he would do the same to her if he could catch her too. For this impiety, Enkidu later dies.

In the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, the story of a king’s search for immortality, Ereshkigal allowed Enkidu, the bosom friend of Gilgamesh, to witness the sorrows of her morbid dark kingdom. Enkidu described to Gilgamesh how he saw Ereshkigal with the Book of the Dead and her scribe, Belit-Sheri, amongst the souls of the dead wearing garments of wings.

Taurus was a constellation of the Northern Hemisphere Spring Equinox from about 3,200 BCE. It marked the start of the agricultural year with the New Year Akitu festival (from á-ki-ti-še-gur10-ku5, = sowing of the barley), an important date in Mespotamian religion. The death of Gugalanna, represents the obscuring disappearance of this constellation as a result of the light of the sun, with whom Gilgamesh was identified.

In the time in which this myth was composed, the Akitu festival at the Spring Equinox, due to the Precession of the Equinoxes did not occur in Aries, but in Taurus. At this time of the year, Taurus would have disappeared as it was obscured by the sun.

“Between the period of the earliest female figurines circa 4500 B.C. … a span of a thousand years elapsed, during which the archaeological signs constantly increase of a cult of the tilled earth fertilised by that noblest and most powerful beast of the recently developed holy barnyard, the bull – who not only sired the milk yielding cows, but also drew the plow, which in that early period simultaneously broke and seeded the earth.

Moreover by analogy, the horned moon, lord of the rhythm of the womb and of the rains and dews, was equated with the bull; so that the animal became a cosmological symbol, uniting the fields and the laws of sky and earth.”

The cuneiform for “kur” was a pictograph of a mountain, but can also mean “foreign land”. Although the word for earth was Ki, Kur came to also mean land, and Sumer itself, was called “Kur-gal” or “Great Land”. Kur is almost identical with “Ki-gal”, “Great Land” which is the Underworld (thus the ruler of the Underworld is Ereshkigal “Goddess of The Great Land”.

“Kur-gal” also means “Great Mountain” and is a metonym for both Nippur and Enlil who rules from that city. Ekur, “mountain house” was the temple of Enlil at Nippur. A second, popular meaning of Kur was “underworld”, or the world under the earth. The underworld Kur is the void space between the primeval sea (Abzu) and the earth (Ma).

Kur was sometimes the home of the dead. It is possible that the flames on escaping gas plumes in parts of the Zagros mountains would have given those mountains a meaning not entirely consistent with the primary meaning of mountains and an abode of a god. The eastern mountains as an abode of the god is popular in Ancient Near Eastern mythology.

It is likely that this name coincides with the modern day Kurds who are the predominant ethnicity inhabiting much of the Zagros mountain range.Hennerbichler believes the term Kurd and similar ethnic labels to have been derived from the Sumerian word stem “kur”, meaning mountain. In modern Kurdish language, kur is the word for boy.

In later Babylonian myth Kur is possibly an Anunnaki, brother of Ereshkigal, Inanna, Enki, and Enlil. In the Enuma Elish in Akkadian tablets from the first millennium BC, Kur is part of the retinue of Tiamat, and seems to be a snakelike dragon.

In one story the slaying of the great serpent Kur results in the flooding of the earth. A first millennium BC cylinder seal shows a fire-spitting winged dragon—a nude woman between its wings—pulling the chariot of the god who subdued it, another depicts a god riding a dragon, a third a goddess.

Ereshkigal was also a queen that many gods and goddesses looked up to in the underworld. She is known chiefly through two myths, believed to symbolize the changing of the seasons, but perhaps also intended to illustrate certain doctrines which date back to the Mesopotamia period.

Inanna/Ishtar’s trip and return to the underworld, about Inanna’s descent to the netherworld and her reception by her sister who presides over it, is the most familiar of the myths concerning Ereshkigal. In this myth Ereshkigal traps her sister in her kingdom and Inanna is only able to leave it by sacrificing her husband Dumuzi in exchange for herself.

The other myth is the story of Nergal, the plague god. Once, the gods held a banquet that Ereshkigal as queen of the Netherworld cannot come up to attend. They invite her to send a messenger and she sends Namtar, her vizier. He is treated well by all but disrespected by Nergal. As a result of this, Nergal is banished to the kingdom controlled by the goddess. Versions vary at this point, but all of them result in him becoming her husband. In later tradition, Nergal is said to have been the victor, taking her as wife and ruling the land himself.

It is theorized that the story of Inanna’s descent is told to illustrate the possibility of an escape from the netherworld, while the Nergal myth is intended to reconcile the existence of two rulers of the netherworld: a goddess and a god. The addition of Nergal represents the harmonizing tendency to unite Ereshkigal as the queen of the netherworld with the god who, as god of war and of pestilence, brings death to the living and thus becomes the one who presides over the dead.

Ereshkigal is the mother of the goddess Manungal (or simply Nungal), a goddess of the underworld. She is the consort of the god Birdu or Bubu’tu, a god of the underworld syncretised with Nergal. Her title was the “Queen of the Ekur” where she held the “tablet of life” and carried out judgement on the wicked.

Her son with Enlil was the god Namtar (or Namtaru, or Namtara; meaning destiny or fate), a hellish minor deity in Mesopotamian mythology, god of death, and minister and messenger of An, Ereshkigal, and Nergal.

Namtar was born before his father raped the goddess Ninlil. He was considered responsible for diseases and pests. It was said that he commanded sixty diseases in the form of demons that could penetrate different parts of the human body; offerings to him were made to prevent those illnesses.

It is thought that the Assyrians and Babylonians took this belief from the Sumerians after conquering them. To some they were the spirit of fate, and therefore of great importance. Apparently they executed the instructions given him concerning the fate of men, and could also have power over certain of the gods. In other writings they were regarded as the personification of death, much like the modern concept of the Grim Reaper.

In the story of Ishtar’s Descent to earth, acting as Ereshkigal’s messenger, Namtar curses Ishtar with 60 diseases, naming five of the head, feet, side, eyes, and heart, after she arrives to earth.

Namtar was regarded as the beloved son of Bêl/Enlil, and was married to the underworld goddess Hušbišag, a Sumerian netherworld goddess and mother of Hemdikug, a daughter.

With Gugalana her son was Ninazu, a god of the underworld, and of healing. He was the son of Enlil and Ninlil or, in alternative traditions, of Ereshkigal and Gugalana or Nergal and Allatu/Ereshkigal. In the text Enki and Ninhursag he was described as the consort of Ninsutu, one of the eight deities born to relieve the illness of Enki.

Ninazu was the patron deity of the city of Eshnunna until he was superseded by Tispak. He had sanctuaries were the E-sikul and E-kurma. Unlike his close relative Nergal, he was generally benevolent.

Ninazu was the father of Ningiszida, in Sumerian is translated as “lord of the good tree, a Mesopotamian deity of the underworld. In the text Enki and Ninhursag he was described as the consort of Ninsutu, one of the deities born to relieve the illness of Enki.

Ninazu was the patron deity of the city of Eshnunna until he was superseded by Tispak. He had sanctuaries were the E-sikul and E-kurma. Unlike his close relative Nergal, he was generally benevolent.

In Sumerian mythology, Ningiszida appears in Adapa’s myth as one of the two guardians of Anu’s celestial palace, alongside Dumuzi. He was sometimes depicted as a serpent with a human head.

Ningishzida is the earliest known symbol of snakes twining (some say copulation) around an axial rod. It predates the Caduceus of Hermes, the Rod of Asclepius and the staff of Moses by more than a millennium.

His wife is Azimua and also Geshtinanna, while his sister is Amashilama. In some texts Ningishzida is said to be female, which means “Nin” would then refer to Lady, which is mostly how the word is used by the Sumerians. He or she was one of the ancestors of Gilgamesh.

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