Mircea Eliade "From Primitives to Zen": THE DESCENT OF ISHTAR

TO THE NETHER WORLD


Ishtar, goddess of life and fertility, decides to visit her sister Ereshkigal, goddess of death and sterility. As Ishtar forces her way through the gates of the nether world, her robes and garments are stripped from her. Naked and helpless, she finally reaches Ereshkigal, who instantly has her put to death. Without Ishtar, there is no fertility on earth, and the gods soon realize their loss. Ea creates the beautiful eunuch Asushunamir, who tricks Ereshkigal into reviving Ishtar with the water of life and releasing her.- The ending of the myth is obscure; perhaps Ishtar's lover, Tammuz, was released along with her. Like the Gilgamesh Epic the myth of the descent of Ishtar to the nether world has its Sumerian counterpart (see S. N. Kramer, 'Inanna's Descent to the Nether World,' ANET, pp. 52-7)- Yet the Akkadian version differs substantially from its Sumerian prototype and is by no means a slavish translation of the former. The Sumerian version of the myth dates from the first half of the second millennium B.C.; the Semitic versions do not antedate the end of the second millennium B.C.

To the Land of no Return, the realm of Ereshkigal,

Ishtar, the daughter of Sin, set her mind.

Yea, the daughter of Sin set her mind

To the dark house, the abode of Irkalla,1

To the house which -none leave who have entered it,

To the road from which there is no way back,

To the house wherein the dwellers arc bereft of light,

Where dust is their fare and clay their food,

(Where) they see no light, residing in darkness,

(Where) they are clothed like birds, with wings for garments,

(And where) over door and bolt is spread dust.

When Ishtar reached the gate of the Land of no Return,

She said (these) words to the gatekeeper.

'O gatekeeper, open thy gate,

Open thy gate that I may enter!

If thou openest not the gate so that I can-not enter,

I will smash the door, I will shatter the bolt,

I will smash the doorpost, I will move the doors,

I will raise up the dead, eating the living,

So that the dead will outnumber the living.'

The gatekeeper opened his mouth to speak,

Saying to exalted Ishtar.

'Stop, my lady, do not throw it 2 down!

I will go to announce they name to Queen Ereshkigal.

' The gatekeeper entered, saying to Ereshkigal:

'Behold, thy sister Ishtar is waiting at the gate,

She who upholds the great festivals,

Who stirs up the deep before Ea, the king.'

When Ereshkigal heard this,

Her face turned pale like a cut-down tamarisk,

While her lips turned dark like a bruised kuninu-reed.

'What drove her heart to me? What impelled her spirit hither?

Lo, should I drink water with the Anunnaki?

Should I eat clay for bread, drink muddied water for beer?

Should I bemoan the men who left their wives behind?

Should I bemoan the maidens who were wrenched from the

laps of their lovers?

(Or) should I bemoan the tender little one who was sent off before his

time? 3

Go, gatekeeper, open the gate for her,

Treat her in accordance with the ancient rules.'

Forth went the gatekeeper (to) open the door for her.

'Enter, my lady, that Cutha 4 may rejoice over thee,

That the palace of the Land of no Return may be glad at thy presence.

' When the first door he had made her enter,

He stripped and took away the great crown on her head.

'Why 0 gatekeeper, didst thou take the great crown on my head?'

'Enter, my lady, thus are the rules of the Mistress of the Nether World.'

[Ishtar passes through seven gates of the nether world. At each of them the gatekeeper removes an ornament. At the second gate, he takes the pendants on her ears; at the third, the chains round her neck, then he removes, respectively, the ornaments on her breast, the girdle of birthstones on her hips, the clasps round her hands and feet, and the breechcloth on her body. Each time, she asks the same question; each time she receives the same answer.]

As soon as Ishtar had descended to the Land of no Return,

Ereshkigal saw her and was enraged at her presence.

Ishtar, unreasoning, flew at her.

Ereshkigal opened her mouth to speak,

Saying (these) words to Namtar, her vizier:

'Go, Namtar, lock her up in my palace!

Release against her, against Ishtar, the sixty miseries:

Misery of the eyes against her eyes,

Misery of the sides against her sides,

Misery of the feet against her feet,

Misery of the head against her head-

Against every part of her, against her whole body!'

After Lady Ishtar had descended to the Land of no Return,

The bull springs not upon the cow, the ass impregnates not the jenny,

In the street the man impregnates not the maiden.

The man lay in his (own) chamber, the maiden lay on her side

. .........................................

The countenance of Papsukkal, the vizier of the great gods,

Was fallen, his face was clouded.

He was clad in mourning, long hair he wore.

Forth went Papsukkal before Sin his father, weeping.

His tears flowing before Ea, the king:

'Ishtar has gone down to the nether world, she has not come up.

Since Ishtar has gone down to the Land of no Return,

The bull springs not upon the cow, the ass impregnates -not the jenny,

In the street the man impregnates not the maiden.

The man lay down in his (own) chamber,

The maiden lay down on her side.'

Ea in his wise heart conceived an image,

And created Asushunamir, a eunuch:

'Up, Asushunamir, set thy face to the gate of the Land of no Return;

The seven gates of the Land of no Return shall be opened for thee.

Ereshkigal shall see thee and rejoice at thy presence.

When her heart is calmed, her mood is happy,

let her utter the oath of the great gods.

(Then) lift up thy head, paying mind to the life-water bag.-

'Pray, Lady, let them give me the life-water bag

That water therefrom I may drink.' 5

As soon as Ereshkigal heard this,

She smote her thigh, bit her finger.-

'Thou didst request of me a thing that should not be requested.

Come, Asushunamir, I will curse thee with a mighty curse!

The food of the city's plows 6 shall be thy food,

The sewers of the city shall be thy drink.

The shadow of the wall shall be thy station,

The threshold shall be thy habitation,

The besotted and the thirsty shall smite thy cheek!'

Ereshkigal opened her mouth to speak,

Saying (these) words to Namtar, her vizier.

'Ea, Namtar, knock at Egalgina, 7

Adorn the thresholds with coral-stone,

Bring forth the Annunaki and seat (them) on thrones of gold,

Sprinkle Ishtar with the water of life and take her from my presence!'

Forth went Namtar, knocked at Egalgina.

Adorned the thresholds with coral-stone,

Brought forth the Anunnaki, seated (them) on thrones of gold,

Sprinkled Ishtar with the water of life and took her from her presence.

When through the first gate he had made her go out,

He returned to her the breechcloth for her body.

[As Ishtar passes through each of the seven gates, her ornaments are

returned to her one by one.]

'If she does not give thee her ransom price, bring her back.8

As for Tammuz, the lover of her youth,

Wash him with pure water, anoint him with sweet oil;

Clothe him with a red garment, let him play on a flute of lapis.

Let courtesans turn his mood.'

When Belili 9 had ... her jewelry,

And her lap was filled with 'eye-stones,10

On hearing the sound of her brother, Belili struck the jewelry on

So that the 'eye-stones' filled her chamber.

'My only brother, bring no harm to me!

On the day when Tammuz welcomes me,

When with him the lapis flute (and) the carnelian ring welcome Me,

When with him the wailing men and the wailing women welcome me-

May the dead rise and smell the incense.'


Notes

1 Another name of Ereshkigal, the queen of the nether world.

2 The door.

3 i.e. Ereshkigal would have cause for weeping if all these occupants of the nether world should be liberated by Ishtar.

4 A name of the nether world.

5 The scheme evidently succeeds, as Ereshkigal, distracted by the beauty of Asushunamir (meaning 'His Appearance is brilliant), does not recover until it is too late.

6 This probably means 'dirt.'

7 'Palace of Justice.'

8 The concluding part of the myth and its allusions, particularly to Tammuz are obscure.

9 Apparently referring to Ishtar.

10 'Bead'?


Translation by E. A. Speiser, Ancient Near Eastern Texts (Princeton, 1950), pp. 106-109, reprinted in Isaac Mendelsohn (ed.), Religions of the Ancient Near East, Library of Religion paperbook series (New York, 1955), pp. 119-25; notes by Mendelsohn

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