Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Inanna: Queen of Heaven and Earth: Her Stories and Hymns From Sumer

Book Review: Inanna: Queen of Heaven and Earth: Her Stories and Hymns from Sumer by Diane Wolkstein and Samuel Noah Kramer (Harper and Row 1983)

This remarkable book notes the earliest deciphered tradition of goddess worship among ancient civilizations. Inanna was the Sumerian Goddess of Heaven and Earth, equated with Venus as both morning star and evening star and daughter of the Moon God, Nanna. This is a very nice compilation by the noted Sumerologist, Kramer, and Wolkstein’s insight into the psychological meanings of some of these stories. The stories and hymns are nicely illustrated with pictures of authentic artifacts relevant to them.

The first story is a creation tale of a sort called – The Huluppu-Tree. Indeed it is the oldest known recorded creation story. It is basically a symbolic tale of Inanna cultivating a tree and then after it was well grown having it cut down by the warrior-king Gilgamesh. With the tree he makes Inanna a bed and a throne symbolic of her future functions as lover and ruler. This occurs after the gods are joined with their domains: An carried off the heavens, Enlil the earth, and Ereshkigal – Queen of the Great Below was given the underworld. This is the time when Enki – the god of wisdom sets sail for the underworld – a difficult journey perhaps symbolically pitting consciousness exploring unconsciousness. The tree was planted at this time but the waters of the Euphrates plucked it up and Inanna finds it floating in the river and plants it in her holy garden in her city of Uruk. Wolkstein analyses the Sumerian poetical style which seems to use an artful style of repetition and parallel clauses. I should note that apparently there is more to the Huluppu Tree tale that is not published here but involves later events.

The next story is – Inanna and the God of Wisdom. Here Inanna travels to the city of Eridu to visit Enki, the wisdom god. They feast and Enki gets rather drunk on beer and offers her the – me – which refer to laws and arts related to order, kingship, and civilization. She takes them on her boat of heaven and floats back along the river to Uruk. Enki tries unsuccessfully to get them back when he realizes what he has done but she is able to keep them and bring them safely to Uruk with the help of her faithful servant Ninshubur, who may represent Inanna’s inner resourceful self. Again Wolkstein’s analysis of the story is very useful in pointing out details most of us would have missed – such as the last – me – given which was the power of making decisions. Here Inanna decides to keep the me and depart. When she returns safely she is ready to be a ruler. Enki then gives her his blessing. Her next task involves the next story –

The Courtship of Inanna and Dumuzi – Inanna is now ripe for marriage. She wants to court the farmer but her brother the sun god Utu convinces her to court the shepherd Dumuzi. This is a most classic mythic love story and steers well into the symbolic-erotic:

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

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

To which part of King Dumuzi’s positive reply notes:

“At the king’s lap stood the rising cedar”

And so we have the union of the goddess and the god-king. In nearby Semitic lands Inanna and Dumuzi were known as Ishtar and Tammuz as in later Babylonian times Inanna fused with Ishtar. This love story forms the basis of the Sacred Marriage – the Heiros Gamos – tradition which derives from these lands. No doubt this love story and the erotic adventures within were acted out ritually by specially selected priests and priestesses. Indeed the biblical references to the Great Whore of Babylon may refer to these rites of a sort. Here the divine and the erotic merged. Inanna has now mastered both of the arts of rule and love symbolized by the throne and the bed made from the Huluppu Tree. The result is a fertile and prosperous kingdom much like the Indo- European type model of the sacred marriage of the sky father and the earth mother. He offers rain (sperm) to the ground (womb) of the earth and the land is fertile. In one hymn the marriage rite of Inana and Dumuzi is called the Joy of Sumer, where great feasting and offerings to the holy couple are performed. They use sweet smelling cedar oil and juniper resin incense.

The next story is the longest and most detailed. This is referred to as – The Descent of Inanna – where Inanna now strong and whole decides to journey from the Great Above to the Great Below – the underworld to visit her sister Ereshkigal. Her reason for going is to witness the funerary rites of Ereshkigal’s husband – the Bull of Heaven – who has died. (Interestingly a note in the commentary gives a possible astronomical meaning as the Bull of Heaven referring to the constellation Taurus – remember most of our constellations come from Babylonia and earlier very likely from Sumeria – anyway apparently in mid-January in Sumeria the constellation Taurus the Bull drops below the horizon for about six weeks. The agricultural year begins in March when Taurus re-emerges.

Inanna takes with her seven articles of jewelry representing seven important – me. At each gate inward she removes one article until she arrives naked, is judged, and becomes a corpse hung from a hook on the wall. After three days as instructed her servant Ninshubur sets up lamenting in the shrines of Enlil and Nanna who do not help her but Enki does help fashioning beings who can travel to the underworld and re-animate Inanna. She ascends back from the underworld but accompanied by fierce demons that demand someone return in her place. She refused to send Ninshubur or her children. She sees Dumuzi unmoved in his regal garments and bids him go in her place. He escapes with the help of Utu the sun god. Then he has a dream where his death fate is assured although he escapes the demons several more times. Finally the capture him and take him but his sister Geshtinanna agrees to spend half the year in the underworld to allow Dumuzi to return to the throne and to Inanna for the other half of the year. Referring to the note about the Bull of Heaven above – it is also the case that Dumuzi also called the Bull – returns from the underworld when Taurus emerges. There are all sorts of ways one may interpret this tale and there are interesting ways things are described which perhaps give clues to how the Sumerians thought about the mysteries of life. For example, death is conferred by fastening the eye of death, speaking the word of wrath, and making the cry of guilt. Before the demons found Dumuzi, Inanna and Geshtinanna both weeping for his fate were taken to him – his hiding place revealed by a fly, a holy fly – who traded this knowledge for a chance to “frequent the beer houses and taverns,” to “dwell among the talk of the wise ones,” and to “dwell among the songs of the minstrels.” Some consider the Dark Queen Ereshkigal to be another aspect of Inanna, the dark instinctual side associated with the unconscious and the hidden and mysterious.

The other much shorter hymns given praise Inanna as a storm goddess, and in aspect as the planet Venus, Lady of the Morning Star, Lady of the Evening Star, and The Lady Who Ascends into the Heavens. One might imagine twice daily rites as Venus rises and sets each morning and evening.

The commentaries include a section by Kramer about Sumerian culture, history, and literature. Another commentary describes the actual excavation and discovery of the story of the Descent of Inanna and how the text was deciphered even though pieces had been taken to two different museums in different parts of the world. Another piece was discovered later. There is also a short section missing. This was all in cuneiform writing carved on clay tablets. Wolkstein’s commentaries interpret the stories with some rather keen insight. She notes that Gilgamesh and Dumuzi are both god-kings of Uruk and one may make the assumption that representing the same office they may represent the same being – the lover and consort of Inanna. She compares the stories to other Sumerian tales such as The Epic of Gilgamesh and stories about Lilith and about Ereshkigal and Nergal.

The last section of the book are descriptions of the various sculptures and clay tablets depicted in the text described by Elizabeth Williams-Forte. Date Palms, serpents, and crescent-shaped boats are commonly depicted. Inanna is sometimes referred to as Keeper of the store of dates. Symbols of Inanna include the eight-petalled flower rosette, or star(like Venus perhaps). Another are the specific style of reed door posts possibly fashioned in such a way that a cloth is hung down as a door and fastened back when opened in a special slit. Inanna-Ishtar is often depicted with her scepter standing on one or most commonly two lions – presumably indicative of her great power. Inanna as a goddess model was precursor to Ishtar, Astarte, Athtart, perhaps to some extent the Canaanite Ashera, and likely many other goddesses.

These Sumerian stories are very old – perhaps the oldest of literature and perhaps along with the Rig Veda offer the earliest written accounts of what early peoples thought, believed, and did in a ritual sense. Certainly these are texts worth reading and I should also say that the poetic aspects, the meter, the repetition, the twists and turns were very interesting. Many years past I also read the Epic of Gilgamesh but perhaps I will read it again.

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