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Mesopotamian Myths of the Underworld

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1 Mesopotamian Myths of the Underworld
Mr. Henderson Mythology

2 The Underworld The underworld in Mesopotamian myth is called Irkalla or Kurnugi. It was ruled by the goddess Ereshkigal. Thought to be below the earth, it was guarded by seven gates, each with a gatekeeper who would not allow the living to pass inside. All souls traveled to Kurnugi after death, there was no “heaven” for mortals.

3 The Goddess Ishtar Ishtar, the sister of Ereshkigal, was the goddess of love and fertility. Ishtar was married to a mortal shepherd named Tammuz, who Ishtar later made king over the city of Uruk, before he became a god himself. “Ishtar” is the goddess’ Babylonian name, she is also called by “Inanna”, which was her Sumerian name.

4 Ishtar’s Descent into the Underworld
The myth begins with Ishtar descending into the underworld for some uncertain reason to visit her sister Ereshkigal. Ishtar passes through the seven gates of the underworld. At each gate the gatekeeper removes an item from such as her crown, bangles, then finally her robe. At last when, Ishtar reaches her sister, she is naked and powerless.

5 Ishtar’s Descent into the Underworld
Nevertheless, Ereshkigal fears the presence of her sister in the underworld. She instructs her vizier, Namtar to inflict sixty diseases upon Ishtar. Meanwhile, with Ishtar trapped in the underworld, all procreative action has ceased on earth. This concerns the god Ea, who hatches a plan to get Ishtar released from Kurnugi.

6 Ishtar’s Descent into the Underworld
Ea creates a intersex being named Asu-shu-namir who is told to invoke the name of the great gods against Ereshkigal and to request the waters of life. Asu-shu-namir does so, and though Ereshkigal is angry, she hands over a bag containing the waters of life. Ishtar is revived by the waters, and departs from the underworld.

7 Ishtar’s Descent into the Underworld
Ishtar leaves through the gates reclaiming each of her lost items on the way. The tablet at this point breaks off, but an early Sumerian version (where Ishtar is called Inanna and Tammuz is called Dumuzi) does survive. It seems that a condition for her release is to find someone willing to take her place in the underworld, demons follow her to ensure someone is sent in her place.

8 Ishtar’s Return to the Earth
Inanna encounters several friends following her release, but they rejoice to see her and she is unwilling to send any of them to the underworld in her place. However when she arrives at Uruk and to her husband Dumuzi, she finds her him seated on his throne, not dressed in mourning for her. Enraged she has the demons seize Dumuzi, who takes her place in the underworld.

9 Dumuzi in the Underworld
However Dumuzi’s sister, Geshtinanna, is grief stricken by her brothers imprisonment in the underworld. She volunteers to spend half the time in the underworld so that he can be free for six months of the year. In this way the release of Dumuzi, who was worshipped as a fertility god, represents the coming of the growing season

10 Mention of Tammuz in the Bible
"Then he brought me to the entrance of the north gate of the house of the LORD, and I saw women sitting there, mourning the god Tammuz. He said to me, "Do you see this, son of man? You will see things that are even more detestable than this."” Ezekiel 8:14-15 (NIV)

11 Ishtar in Mesopotamian Art

12 Myth of Nergal and Ereshkigal
Another myth of Ereshkigal deals with her marriage to Nergal (also known as Erra), the god of war and plague. The Igigi, the gods of heaven, are holding a feast but Ereshkigal cannot attend due to her responsibilities in the underworld. Her servant Namtar is sent for to carry her share of the feast to her in Kurnugi.

13 Myth of Nergal and Ereshkigal
Namtar arrives to fetch his mistresses portion, at which point the surviving tablet is damaged. Neverthess it seems that in the danaged section Nergal, does something to offend Namtar. Nergal is sent to the underworld to pay penance, he carries his own chair and is warned to accept no hospitality in the underworld.

14 Myth of Nergal and Ereshkigal
Ereshkigal is smitten with Nergal, though he resists her offer of food, drink, and a place to sit. However she allows Nergal to catch sight of her bathing, though he initially is able to resist, eventually he gives in and lies with her. Nergal then leaves and Ereshkigal becomes distraught. She threatens Ea in heaven, saying she will raise the dead unless Nergal is returned to her.

15 Myth of Nergal and Ereshkigal
Nergal is compelled to return to the underworld, since her did partake of her hospitality when her lay with Ereshkigal. He returns as a conqueror, smashing past the seven gatekeepers and pulling Ereshkigal from her throne. Nergal marries Ereshkigal and becomes her king and lord of the underworld.

16 Alternate Version An alternate (and much shorter) version of the myth begins with Ereshkigal unable to attend the banquet on account of her fear of the sun. Ea, offended by her absence, sends Nergal to bring back her head. Nergal however, upon reaching her, is moved by her pleas for mercy and marries her rather than kill her.

17 Images of Nergal and Ereshkigal

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