Some questions for Inanna & Dumuzi

One more voice note on Inanna’s story – for my mythology and literature class.

If you’d like to hear it in my halting voice:

“The Descent of Inanna”

The story of Inanna’s descent has correlates in other mythologies you may be more familiar with. The descent of Persephone to the underworld and her mother Demeter’s search for her. Also the death of Eurydice and her lover Orpheus’s effort to rescue her from the underworld. Both of those Greek myths, of course, that had elaborate cultic practices surrounding them.

Dumuzi has many correlates as well. He is what the Victorian anthropologist Sir James Frazer called “the dying-and-rising god.” Figures to whom Dumuzi bears at least a passing resemblance include the Green Knight, of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and Dionysus, the god of wine, associated with the grape stock. If you’ve seen a grapevine, you can cut the vine all the way back down to a stump in the earth, and in spring it will spring forth with new green, and soon grow so luxuriantly that it covers and buries your fence, your other plantings, your car, your driveway. I say this having watched the behavior of my neighbours’.

Dumuzi in the underworld, flanked by snakes & surrounded by galla demons, who bear implements for breaking & flaying him (British Museum).

Dumuzi’s most surprising cousin though is Jesus Christ. We just celebrated, or saw others celebrate, the death and resurrection of the Son of God, Jesus Christ. Consider that Christ comes among us with a proposal of new and renewed spiritual life; is put to death; and, in the early spring, He is, by divine power, brought back to life. One understanding of the figure of Jesus Christ is that He is a descendant of the dying-and-rising gods with which the Ancient Near East was full to overflowing.

If that sounds outlandish to you, like I’m just making too much of a coincidental resemblance, consider as well that Jesus Christ, in the three days between his death and his resurrection, journeys, according to Catholic theology, to Hell – a part of His story known as the Harrowing of Hell. He’s reputed while down there to have saved the souls of those who died righteous but could not journey to Heaven, being unbaptized. So – death, a hell journey, then rebirth in the spring. And the period Christ spends in the underworld, the Harrowing of Hell, is named for an agricultural implement: a harrow is used in the cultivation of a field.

The galla climbed the reed fence.
The first galla struck Dumuzi on the cheek with a piercing nail,
The second galla struck Dumuzi on the other cheek with the shepherd’s crook,
The third galla smashed the bottom of the churn,
The fourth galla threw the drinking cup down from its peg,
The fifth galla shattered the urn,
The sixth galla shattered the cup,
The seventh galla cried:

“Rise, Dumuzi!
Husband of Inanna, son of Sirtur, brother of Geshtinanna!
Rise from your false sleep!
Your ewes are seized! Your lambs are seized!
Your goats are seized! Your kids are seized! …

Galla beat Dumuzi
Dumuzi, attacked by the galla, beseeches the sun god, Utu (source unknown).

The galla seized Dumuzi.
They surrounded him.
They bound his hands. They bound his neck.

The churn was silent. No milk was poured.
The cup was shattered. Dumuzi was no more.
The sheepfold was given to the winds.

(He’s broken up like wheat getting threshed. Reading it, I feel the way I think Christians are meant to on Good Friday about the Crucifixion. Oh and “Easter” appears to come from “Ishtar” – Inanna’s successor in the Fertile Crescent.)

Turning to the poem itself. One question here is why. Why does Inanna “open her ear” to the Great Below? Why does she decide to leave everything she knows and is queen of behind, to journey to this place that is hostile to her, inimical to her? She gives an explanation to Neti the gatekeeper to be passed on to her sister. Oh, I’m here to observe the funeral rites for your husband, the Bull of Heaven. I don’t think that goes too far as an explanation. It may or may not be true. It could be a feint, a dodge. It could be legit, but even if it’s a reason that she’s headed there, it’s not the reason that she’s headed there.

How might we read into the deeper layers of the myth, to learn what motivates this harrowing journey into the unknown and the unformed? One hint may be in the first three lines

From the Great Above she opened her ear to the Great Below.
From the Great Above the goddess opened her ear to the Great Below.
From the Great Above Inanna open her ear to the Great Below.

“Ear” in Sumerian also means “wisdom.” The ear is the seat of wisdom. How does the poem change if we read “wisdom” where “ear” is printed?

From the Great Above she opened her wisdom to the Great Below.
From the Great Above the goddess opened her wisdom to the Great Below.
From the Great Above Inanna open her wisdom to the Great Below.

I think it’s also important that she adorns herself, or protects herself, or prepares herself, by donning seven of the me, which in this poem are garments; remembering that the me are the powers of civilization. Can we infer more about what her motive is, what her mission is, from these acts of preparation? And I’ll leave it to you, what other moments in this poem can we look to for hints, clues, cues, keys, to what is going on for Inanna, beyond her stated reason for this road trip.

Having just read you the intensely repetitive opening three lines, I’m brought back to the question, What is up with all the repetition? What is it here for? A listener’s just not trusted to get it the first time? or even the second time? or is there some meaning or purpose behind all of these reiterations? Remember, these poems, which we read on the page in a literature classroom, were not originally intended for silent solitary reading and literary appreciation. These were poems that didn’t just say something, but did something. These were liturgies, hymns but in story form, meant to make contact with the divine figures whose stories they were relating.

“Queen of the Night” (British Museum). Terracotta. It’s uncertain whether she represents Ereshkigal, Inanna, or Lilitu (Lilith). The object in her right hand resembles, to my eye, the “measuring rod and line” (for dividing land into plots) Inanna brings to the underworld.

So there’s a religious purpose to them, a spiritual purpose. Having such a purpose, the work needs and wants to affect, you could say alter, the consciousness, the form of awareness, of the listener, the participant in the rite. As you encounter the repetitions, take them in, read them out loud to yourself, and see how they sound in your ear, see how they resonate in your body as you articulate the sounds. There’s not a lot of new meaning in a repeated line, the words don’t change much. But something may happen on a non-verbal, physiological plane, important to the effect of the poem.

The poem probably wants for us to identify with Inanna, so that we’re not just reading about her journey to the underworld, but participating in her journey to the underworld. We in a sense become Inanna. The whole time I’ve been recording this voice note there has been a doe and her fawn in my backyard, munching away at the flowers on my blackcurrant bush. What that has to do with Inanna, I don’t know, but it seems like it signifies.

All right, so, Inanna’s motivation, and the role of the repetition in inducing states of mind or consciousness in a reader or participants in the poem. The last thing I want to draw your attention to is the minor characters in the poem – the figures of the galatur, and the kurgarra, and the galla demons.

We get certain details about them that set them at a distance or a remove from ordinary human social interaction. The galla have no mothers or fathers, or brothers or sisters or children, they eat no food, they take no drink, they accept no libations. They do not participate in the usual give-and-take between the human realm and the divine realm. And the kurgarra and the galatur, what details do we have about them? They are created from gunk scraped from underneath the fingernails of the god of the sweetwaters, Enki.

Created with GIMP
A fly, from CP’s Dumuzi (Gaspereau 2020).

What do we make of that? What is the gunk under the fingernails of the god of the sweetwaters? Why would that be good raw material for these mysterious creatures? They are creatures neither male nor female, so they don’t participate in the usual Sumerian gender binary, and that seems to give them unusual powers. They can enter the underworld “like flies,” and they have a capacity for – empathy? deceit? both? – depending on how genuine you think their commiseration with Ereshkigal is. But they get the job done, and they get it done well. They play her: they play the Queen of the Underworld, which is not a safe game to play, or an easy game to win.

Last thing I’ll note then, is that these two are like flies, and they are essential to the rescue of Inanna. An actual fly is crucial to the rescue, or the discovery, the recovery of Dumuzi. So what’s up with the little pesky buglike creatures, showing up at these crucial moments in this sequence? What do you associate a fly with, and what’s a fly got to do with a fertility myth?

Inanna and Dumuzi get it on

Another voice note for my Mythology and Literature class, on the goddess Inanna’s choice of a mate, and the meaning of their meeting. Lightly edited, like the last one. If you’d rather listen than read, here you are:

“The Courtship of Inanna and Dumuzi”

A thought first more generally about what myth is, what our relationship to myth is.

It’s tempting to think of myth as something other people in other times have done and made, in order to give order and structure to their world. We might think that, given now to a scientific worldview, to empirical procedures for understanding how human beings work, how human societies work, how the cosmos at large works, on the greatest possible scale of stars and galaxies, the minutest possible scale of subatomic particles, that we’re no longer doing mythology – that mythology is something that we can see from the outside, from a remove, and gaze upon with interest, maybe some amusement, maybe a bit of condescension or admiration or nostalgia, depending on our disposition.

I want to suggest to you a different perspective though. That perspective begins from the notion that it’s only other people’s myths that look like myths. Your own myths don’t look like myths to you, they look like axioms. Let me note for you a couple of things that are very much part of our worldview, and that, if we see them from bit of a remove, may look more myth-like than we have been given to think.

The past. The future. Neither the past nor the future has any objective existence. Nowhere will you find the past, not even the instant that just passed. Nowhere will you find and be able to present the future; it does not exist anywhere. The past and the future are constructs of human mind. Our belief in them is so foundational that most of the rest of our beliefs depend upon them to even make sense at all.

I submit to you, the past and future, along a linear timeline as we conceive of them, are mythic, in that they are foundational, and they are collaborative constructs – nobody can make a myth on their own – collaborative constructs of our cultural imagination. And one mark that it’s myth is that we recoil from the suggestion that it’s “just a myth.”

So, if a myth is a world-arranging story, and the figures in the myths we’re looking at are animate, they’re characters, how then do we think about this reading for today, “The Courtship of Inanna and Dumuzi”? It’s more than just a boy and a girl meeting, flirting, fighting, and then getting it on. That’s just the surface.

We can ask what it is in the world of the Sumerians that this myth has the power to arrange, to put in order. Inanna is the goddess of love, of war, though I don’t think she’s prominent in that function here, of love and fecundity and increase. Also she has at her disposal the me, the gifts or powers of civilization. Dumuzi is the god of the vegetation, of the spring, of rebirth. He’s the classical dying-and-rising god; and in some contexts he was also the god of shepherds, a pastoral god, which explains his epithet, “the shepherd.” So what does it mean that the goddess of increase, herself, and the god of vegetation, himself, are getting it on?

Well, we can look at the terms in which their getting-it-on is expressed. You may have noticed the abundance of nature imagery, of agricultural metaphor. Fortunately this is just audio, so you can’t see me blushing as I read. Inanna is speaking:

My vulva, the horn,
The boat of Heaven,
Is full of eagerness like the young moon.
My untilled land lies fallow.

So there’s the agricultural dimension.

As for me, Inanna,
Who will plow my vulva,
Who will plow my high field?
Who will plow my wet ground?

It’s all thoroughly subsumed to this agricultural metaphor, of the sexual act as an act of well, farming, of planting seed that will then grow. The word “semen” is from the Latin word for “seed,” by the way. A little further on, we’re hearing from the narrator again:

At the king’s lap stood the rising cedar.
Plants grew high by their side.
Grains grew high by their side.
Gardens flourished luxuriantly.

Dumuzi and Inanna - cropped
Lovers embracing. Clay plaque, Mesopotamia, Isin-Larsa-Old Babylonian period, ca. 2000-1600 BCE. Baked clay. Basel, Erlenmeyer Collection.

Almost as if their sexual union either causes new abundance and growth in the natural world, or is one in the same as the abundance of spring, new growth, in the natural world – the world of nature that surrounds them, and the agricultural world, the fields that sustain the cities of Mesopotamia, the fields in which the natural world has been domesticated, put to human use. The fruit of their union is the whole of the green earth.

Putting natural increase in terms of sexual union allows human beings to participate in natural and cosmic processes, and not just to participate in them, but in fact to influence them. The world-arranging story that is a myth has a place in it for the human teller of the story. And in fact one thing to watch for as we encounter the myths of a number of different cultures over this course is, what kind of place does the myth give to the human participants? Are human beings made focal and central, or are they one presence co-equal among many? The Haida term for human being, according to Robert Bringhurst, the translator of Ghandl, whom we’ll be reading some weeks from now, is “ordinary surface bird.” Puncturing perhaps human pretensions to a special role in the cosmos.

A passage from a book called The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man, on ceremonial observances around Inanna and Dumuzi’s marriage, I think sheds further light on the role this myth played in the cultural life of at least one of the Sumerian city-states. This is about the city of Isin:

[The City] celebrated yearly the marriage of the goddess Inanna to the god Dumuzi or Tammuz…. Since the goddess is an incarnation of the fertility of nature, and her husband, the shepherd-god Dumuzi, incarnates the creative powers of spring, it is understandable that this annual union of god and goddess signifies and is the reawakening of nature in spring.

Notice that dual verb – it signifies the reawakening of nature in spring, it also is the reawakening of nature in spring. The author, Thorkild Jacobsen, continues:

In the marriage of these deities the fertility and the creative powers of nature themselves become manifest. But why, we may ask, should human servants of the gods, the human ruler and – so it seems – a priestess, transcend their human status, take on the identity of the deities Dumuzi and Inanna, and go through their marriage? For this is what took place in the rites.

You got that? Every year, early spring, the king of the city takes on the role of Dumuzi, the high priestess of the temple takes on the role of Inanna, and in a ritual I believe most of whose details are lost to us, they, in those roles as god and goddess, consummated the marriage that ensured the return of natural abundance in spring.

Why does it make sense to them to do this? Jacobsen speculates:

The answer to that question lies back … in a remote prehistoric age when the gods were not yet anthropomorphic rulers of states and cities but were still directly the phenomena of nature. In those days man’s attitude was not merely one of passive obedience; it called for active intervention, as it does among many [quote unquote] primitives today. It is one of the tenets of mythopoetic logic that similarity and identity merge: “to be like” is as good as “to be.” Therefore, by being like, by enacting the role of, a force in nature, a god, man could in the cult enter into and clothe himself with the identity of these powers, with the identity of the gods, and through his own actions … cause the powers involved to act as he would have them act. By identifying himself with Dumuzi, the king is Dumuzi; and similarly the priestess is Inanna – our texts clearly state this. Their marriage is the marriage of the creative powers of spring. Thus through a willed act of man is achieved a divine union wherein is the all-pervading, life-giving re-creative potency upon which depends, as our texts tell us, “the life of all lands.” (198–99)

Okay, that’s a lot. All that is to say, the sexy bits are not just to make readers or listeners hot and bothered. They have a profound cosmological function: they make human beings participants in the generative powers of nature and the cosmos.

The image atop, left to right, like in a news photo, where protestors are:

Inanna, winged, with arrows for shoulders
Utu, sun god, he comes bladed out of the hill
Enki, god of the fresh waters, his shoulders running with fish
Isimud, Enki’s vizier, two-faced

Pound read myth as if it were the morning paper (Don Revell). Remember papers? The colour in it, Inanna’s joy, is from a pot I left on the hot stove & it cooked dry.

Inanna comes into her powers

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.

“The Huluppu-Tree”
“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.

Relief vessel. North Syria, Mari. Early Dynastic period, ca. 2500 BCE. From Wolkstein and Kramer, Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth

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?

Inanna and Enki
Plate XV, source of the poem, is the obverse of a large six-column tablet, no. 15283 in the Nippur collection of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

“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?