Ereshkigal: The Mighty Mesopotamian Goddess of the Underworld
“Namtar made his voice heard and spake, addressed his words to Ereshkigal,
"Send me to Anu your father, and let me arrest the god!
Let me take him to you, that he may kiss you again!"
- Excerpt from ‘Nergal and Ereshkigal’
Ereshkigal is a chthonic goddess that is found in the mythology of ancient Mesopotamia. She is believed to have been the Queen of the Underworld and a very powerful deity. This may be seen in the myth known as Inanna’s Descent to the Underworld , where Ereshkigal emerges triumphant after a confrontation with her younger sister, Inanna, who was a formidable goddess in her own right. Another myth in which Ereshkigal plays an important role is that of her marriage to Nergal.
The ancient Mesopotamians believed in life after death and that the souls of the dead traveled to the Underworld. To the Sumerians, this place was known as Kur, whilst the Akkadians referred to it as Irkalla. This was a dark, gloomy place, where the dead were believed to drink from muddy puddles and eat dust. The ruler of the Mesopotamian Underworld was Ereshkigal, whose name means ‘Queen of the Great Below’, or ‘Lady of the Great Place’. ‘Great’ in this instance is a reference to the vastness of her realm.
The Origins of Ereshkigal
In some myths, Ereshkigal is said to have been the daughter of Anu, the supreme god of the Mesopotamian pantheon and the personification of the sky. According to one myth, when Anu’s tears, which were shed for his separated sister-lover Ki (the personification of the earth), mingled with the salty water of the primeval sea goddess Nammu, Ereshkigal was born.
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This goddess became the Queen of the Underworld after she was abducted by the dragon Kur, who was the half-brother of Ereshkigal. The dragon brought the goddess to the Underworld, and although the gods tried to rescue her, they were not able to do so, as no one, not even the gods, were able to return from the realm of the dead.
Ereshkigal. (JasonEngle/ Deviant Art )
Inanna’s Descent to the Underworld
Ereshkigal plays a prominent role in the myth known as Inanna’s Descent to the Underworld . The main character of this myth is Inanna, the Queen of Heaven, Ereshkigal’s younger sister. In the myth, Inanna journeyed to the Underworld to observe the funeral rites of Gugalanna, Ereshkigal’s husband. Although Inanna was allowed to pass through the seven gates of the Underworld, Ereshkigal instructed her gatekeeper, Neti, to remove a piece of clothing or jewelry from her sister as each gate was opened. This may be interpreted as the gradual removal of Inanna’s power as she progressed deeper into the realm of her sister. Finally, when Inanna reached Ereshkigal’s throne room she was completely naked and therefore powerless. After the Annuna of the Dead passed judgment on her, Inanna was killed by Ereshkigal and her corpse was hung from a hook on the wall. The gods, however, succeeded in rescuing her, and brought her out of the Underworld alive.
Ereshkigal, Queen of the Nether World. ( mesopotamiangods)
Marriage to Nergal
Another myth in which Ereshkigal appears is that of her marriage to Nergal, her fourth consort. In this tale, the gods held a banquet which Ereshkigal was not able to attend. Thus, the Queen of the Underworld sent her son, Namtar, as her representative. As Namtar arrived, all the gods, except Nergal, the war god, stood up out of respect for Ereshkigal. Namtar felt insulted, and when he returned to the Underworld, he complained about this to his mother.
Enraged, Ereshkigal demanded that Nergal be handed over to her so that she could kill him. The gods complied with this demand, though Nergal was given 14 demons to aid him at each of the seven gates. Ereshkigal instructed that the gates be shut after Nergal passed through each of them and when the war god arrived in the throne room she would kill him.
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An ancient Parthian relief carving depicting Nergal, the ancient Mesopotamian god of death and plague. ( Public Domain )
Nergal, however, posted a pair of demons at each gate to keep it open. When the war god reached Ereshkigal, he overpowered her and her son. As Nergal prepared to decapitate Ereshkigal with his axe, the goddess pleaded for mercy, promising to be his wife and to share her power with him. Nergal appeared to have felt sorry for what he had done, and spared Ereshkigal. Although Nergal remained with Ereshkigal in the Underworld, he only did so for half a year, as he was the war god, and war is a feature of human existence that cannot be removed permanently.
Queen of the Night
Lastly, it is worth mentioning that no known iconography of Ereshkigal has survived till this day. It has been argued that the Burney Relief (also known as the Queen of the Night), is a representation of this goddess. This is not universally accepted, however, as some belief that the figure depicts Ereshkigal’s sister, Inanna or perhaps Lilith.
This relief shows an Assyrian goddess, possibly Ishtar or her sister Ereshkigal. ( Public Domain )
Top Image: Ereshkigal. Source: InfiniteCreations/ Deviant Art
By Wu Mingren
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