In twenty years of teaching I never really learned to lecture. I prefer to learn what I think in the moment in collaboration with my students. Even in large courses, meant to be lecture classes, I work mostly by Socratic discussion. But Zoom and the like are too slow and rigid for that sort of work. So, in this pandemic spring, I’ve had to broaden my game.
Every week or two, I’ve posted for my students a “voice note” – a mini-lecture, basically, that I record off the cuff, or from a few lines of notes, and upload. With the quarter winding down, and these materials vanishing in the rearview mirror, I thought I’d transcribe and post them here.
This is the first voice note for my ENG 339 Mythology and Literature class – on two texts in Diane Wolkstein & Samuel Noah Kramer’s Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth. In transcribing, I’ve edited very lightly, and added in some of the primary text.
You’ll see that my goal is less to provide answers than to stir questions. Here is the note if you would rather listen.
“Inanna and the God of Wisdom”
I should say at the outset I’m not going to try to define myth or mythology for you. I would like rather for us to arrive at definitions gradually as the evidence of our perceptions accumulates. Any definition I give you now is bound to be partial and incomplete and is likely to shortchange you by reducing the scope of your possible readings.
I’ll say just one thing, maybe it’s two things, to characterize myth. A myth is a supercharged story – a story that radiates meaning, radiates meaningfulness. And in part that’s because a myth is a story that has the power of explanation to it. It has the power, for its adherents, to explain how something came to be, or how certain arrangements in the world came to be the way they are. So a myth is not for entertainment, though we may find them entertaining when they become literature, or movies. A myth in its original context is an act of worldmaking.
So, looking at Inanna’s first text, “The Huluppu-Tree.” Inanna is the Sumerian goddess of love, and of war, and in some contexts of increase, of fertility. In this poem, we have her as a young woman, and we see some of the characteristic features of Sumerian myth right from the outset. The opening lines:
In the first days, in the very first days,
In the first nights, in the very first nights,
In the first years, in the very first years,
In the first days when everything needed was brought into being,
In the first days when everything needed was properly nourished,
If you read them aloud yourself, what you cannot help but hear is the intensity of the patterning and repetition. And it might seem hard to move the story forward, when the language is so bent on circling back on itself and saying itself over again with the slightest of modifications. Hold that in mind – the question of what the myth is, the mythology is up to, with these repetitions, these circlings back.
And those repetitions have a graceful resemblance, if you look at the image on the facing page, it looks like a fragment of an image of somebody attending to a sapling, or two saplings, at the base of what’s probably a date palm. And see how the representation of date palm and of the waters under the surface of the Earth are both patterns that gain their force and intensity by taking a motif – crosshatching on the tree trunk, a sort of sinuous curve in the water under the earth’s surface – taking a single simple motif and repeating it ad nauseam. There’s a visual equivalence there to what we’re seeing in the repetition of the language.
That water under the earth, under that thin crust of earth, that’s the god Enki. Enki is the god of the sweetwaters, and in the Mesopotamian worldview, the sweetwaters, the freshwater, lives just below the surface of the earth. If you think about what happens digging a well, you dig a certain way into the earth, and water, when you hit the water table, water starts to flow through the soil into the hole that you’ve made. That’s the power of Enki. Enki is closer than some of the other gods, An, Enlil, to the underworld of Ereshkigal, because he abides under the surface of the earth. That’s not a coincidence. It’s significant to this journey of his that’s being described as he sets sail for the underworld. The underworld is adjacent to his territory, unlike for the other gods.
He set sail; the Father set sail,
Enki, the God of Wisdom, set sail for the underworld.
Small windstones were tossed up against him;
Large hailstones were hurled up against him;
. . .
The waters of the sea devoured the bow of his boat like wolves;
The waters of the sea struck the stern of his boat like lions.
Now it’s a curious thing that his journey to the underworld seems – incidental. The story of his journey ends with the waters of the sea striking the stern of his boat “like lions.” And then – story over. Scene switch. Suddenly we’re being told about a tree planted by the banks of the Euphrates.
At that time, a tree, a single tree, a huluppu-tree
Was planted by the banks of the Euphrates.
The tree was nurtured by the waters of the Euphrates.
The whirling South Wind rose, pulling at its roots . . .
Bad editing? Fragmentary tablet? Missing text? Is “At that time” a thin patch over a gaping hole? It’s more likely that the phrase hints at a cause-and-effect relationship that we need to suss out for ourselves. Two things are put adjacent, Enki’s trip to the underworld, with the near-swamping of his boat, it’s a contentious, agonistic journey, and then, adjacent to that, the growing of a tree by the banks of the Euphrates. The implication is, in one being beside the other, is that the one causes the other. Enki, the God of Wisdom, voyaging into the territory of the Queen of the Underworld, gives birth to something, makes a new being possible. And that new being is this huluppu-tree.
So that’s something to watch for in these myths. They very often won’t explain the most important aspects of their explanations. You need to work that out for yourself. What does it signify that it is the God of Wisdom, and not any other, who makes this journey, for instance?
So, I’m not going to walk you through the whole text, that would take us forever. But I wanted to look at those opening lines to articulate two kinds of thing to look for. One, the repetition. It’s possible to just skip over it as an annoying or tedious feature of another time’s sensibility. I encourage you instead to really sink into it, allow it to be a kind of musical cadence that’s not getting in the way of the storytelling but actually belongs to the storytelling. And then see what the felt experience of those repetitions is for you.
The other point, then, is that often the deepest significance of the story is unstated, is left implied, and it’s for us to make the inference. Sometimes the inference depends upon cultural knowledge that we don’t have, unless any of us are Sumerian, and I doubt anyone here is. Some of that cultural knowledge will be given to us in the notes, so be sure not to skip the notes at the back of the book that annotate the poem. And some of it doesn’t depend on cultural knowledge and we can think and feel through for ourselves.
With those thoughts in mind, I encourage you to spend a little time with the serpent, the Anzu-bird, and the “dark maid” Lilith, who make their home in the tree.
Then a serpent who could not be charmed
Made its nest in the roots of the huluppu-tree.
The Anzu-bird set his young in the branches of the tree.
And the dark maid Lilith built her home in the tree.
Nobody knows what an Anzu-bird is! That’s why it’s left untranslated. Whatever cultural knowledge we need there is lost to us. But the maid Lilith, we get a little cultural context from the note at the back of the book:
In Hebrew legend, she was the first bride of Adam; but insisting on her own equality, she refused to copulate with him, for she did not want to be underneath him. She fled from Adam and remained forever outside human relationship or regulation, possessed by an avid, insatiable sexuality.
Think through, feel through, what it is for Inanna, this young woman, teenager really, coming into her womanhood, to encounter the figure Lilith in this tree that is supposed to be made into Inanna’s bridal bed. And, what might a snake be or stand for? You’ll probably hear an echo from Genesis, and that’s not accidental, this text is a lot older than the story in Genesis, and probably influential on it. What else is a snake? The snake is something that sheds its skin, the snake is commonly a phallic symbol, this in particular is a snake that cannot be charmed – how do the different qualities of these creatures suggest the conflicts, the struggle, the nature of the struggle, that lnanna is in right now?
Turning to “Inanna and the God of Wisdom.” Again, I don’t want to overdetermine your reading. I want just to point to a few things maybe to dwell with, because they may help open up the poem to you.
One in this one is the notion of the me, pronounced “may.” What do you think the me are? I mean, we get long lists of them, we see what they are each individually. What does the word me mean, what is a me, what are the me, such that they can be treated as physical objects, loaded in a boat and taken from the stronghold of one city, Eridu, and brought by a somewhat fraught and dangerous journey, chased by demons of various different shapes, to the docks of another city, Uruk, Inanna’s city?
“My father has given me the me:
He gave me the high priesthood.
He gave me godship.
He gave me the noble, enduring crown.
He gave me the throne of kingship. . . .
He gave me the dagger and sword.
He gave me the black garment.
He gave me the colorful garment.
He gave me the loosening of the hair.
He gave me the binding of the hair. . . .
He gave me the standard.
He gave me the quiver.
He gave me the art of lovemaking.
He gave me the kissing of the phallus.
He gave me the art of prostitution. . . .”
All of the major gods of Sumer are associated with one of the cities of what we now call Mesopotamia. When the me have successfully been brought to the city of Uruk, and given to the people of Uruk, and it seems to give birth to more me, violating laws of conservation of matter and energy. . . . When all of these me are now in the hands of the people of Uruk, what does it mean for Uruk? And does this mean Enki and the people of Eridu are now without the me? Are the me like coins and dollar bills that if you grab them up, and take them from one place to another, the place you took them from no longer has them? Or are the me more like love, of which it is said, the more you give away the more you receive – it’s not a fixed quantity.
And if the me are not a fixed quantity, and Inanna can take them from Enki, bring them to her people, without depriving Enki of them, then two questions. One, why are they represented as physical objects? And two, why does Enki work so hard to get them back from Inanna, when he has nothing to lose from her possession of them?