Myth Monday: Underworld Adventures

Last week on Myth Monday: Reviews of some myth collections 

I’m still reading through Myths From Mesopotamia (edited and translated by Stephanie Dalley). If we’re (un)lucky I’ll focus some future posts on Gilgamesh, but honestly so much has been written about Gilgamesh, and there’s so much I could say about Gilgamesh, that I don’t know where to start.

Anyway, today on Myth Monday we’re going to go to the underworld with Ishtar, the Mesopotamian goddess of fertility, love, war, sex, etc etc etc. I guess she’s a big deal. Buckle in, because this story is wild.

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Ishtar could get it. Source

“The Descent of Ishtar to the Underworld” is a short Babylonian/Assyrian myth, but there’s a Sumerian version too. For reasons that are not clear in the myth (but of course hotly contested among scholars), Ishtar decides she’s really got to go down to the underworld. Maybe she’s just sight-seeing. Maybe she’s trying to rescue someone. Maybe she’s got the hots for the queen of the underworld. In any case, she goes down there and bullies the gatekeeper into letting her come in: if he doesn’t open the door, she will huff and puff and blow his door down (that’s probably a metaphor). She also threatens to animate the dead and turn them into zombies and send them out into the land of the living. I’m not sure if she’s qualified to be lady of the zombies, but the gatekeeper is scared enough that he asks the queen of the underworld, Ereshkigal, to let Ishtar in.

Ereshkigal agrees, but is not in the best of moods (I probably wouldn’t be either if a sex-goddess threatened to break my doors down and turn my dead minions into zombies).

british_museum_queen_of_the_night
Queen of the Night,” who may be Ishtar, Ereshkigal, or someone else.

Ishtar has to give up her worldly possessions one by one as she progresses through the seven doors of the underworld, and at last meets up with Ereshkigal.

Meanwhile, in the land of the living, nobody wants to have sex anymore because their sex goddess is gone. The gods are pretty unhappy with the inactive love lives of the entire land, so they send “Good-looks the playboy” (according to my translation) to, ahem, ask Ereshkigal very nicely to return Ishtar. Ereshkigal curses Good-looks, I presume because she’s not impressed with his good looks, but returns Ishtar anyway. However, the queen takes as ransom Dumuzi, Ishtar’s lover. Ishtar doesn’t seem upset about this (she probably has like 9,000 lovers after all) but Dumuzi’s sister Belili* is extremely upset.

The End.

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Ishtar’s lion on the Ishtar Gate of Babylon

* I’m really confused about who Belili is and how she figures into all of this. In some versions she is Dumuzi’s sister and his lover. Yikes.

I can’t help comparing this myth to the Greek underworld and Persephone. When Persephone is kidnapped by Hades (or seduced, depending on the version), no plants will grow in the land of the living while she is in the underworld. In both of these myths, the absence of the goddess results in the stagnation or lack of reproduction, whether plants or mammals. Both goddesses represent life in some way, and are needed to keep life alive (so to speak).

Coming up on Myth Mondays: another Mesopotamian myth featuring Ereshkigal, Percy Jackson, and more!

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