Two weeks ago on Myth Monday, we covered “The Descent of Ishtar to the Underworld.”
This week, we’re revisiting the Mesopotamian underworld and its queen Ereshkigal in the story of “Nergal and Ereshkigal.”
Ereshkigal, being queen of the underworld, can’t leave her kingdom. Why? Not sure but I’m guessing that if she does, she’ll unleash the zombie apocalypse. So when the gods are partying and feasting, they send proxies instead so that Ereshkigal can feel included. They send this guy Kakka to Ereshkigal with a message: “Hey sis, thinking of you, xoxo, your brother Anu.” Ereshkigal sends her vizier Namtar to take part in the feast instead.
However, when Namtar gets there, he isn’t shown proper respect by this one guy Nergal. So, of course, because they’re all reasonable all-powerful gods, Anu punishes him by sending Nergal to the underworld (to make amends, possibly? Or just to die a horrible death by zombie. UNCLEAR). The gods give Nergal advice to help him survive (the usual, “don’t eat or drink or smell or cuddle ANYTHING YOU SEE” advice when one is traveling to Hell/Faerie/Underworld), and a chair which will ensure his ability to come back to the world of the living. I’ve always wanted a chair that can take me to the underworld and back again.
So Nergal gets down there, and obeys all of the rules very faithfully, until Ereshkigal puts on a MIGHTY FINE DRESS and takes a MIGHTY FINE BATH and then Nergal is like “one little cuddle couldn’t hurt, right?” And then they cuddle strenuously for six days.
Of course, on the seventh day, Nergal is like, “I’m taking my chair and getting out of here” and goes back to the land of the living.
Ereshkigal wakes up and is Displeased and utters the same curse that our girl Ishtar did in “The Descent of Ishtar”: Send my boyfriend back or “I shall raise up the dead, and they will eat the livivng. I shall make the dead outnumber the living!”
You know, normal break-up threats.
She then sends Namtar (her vizier, if you’ve forgotten, I know I did!) to get Nergal back. Namtar tells the gods that they better just send Nergal back or they’re going to have a zombie apocalypse on their hands.
Nergal, whether willingly or under orders (I can’t tell), goes back. However, this time instead of being let in through the seven gates of the underworld, he breaks them down like an invader. He goes into Ereshkigal’s throne room, marches right up to her, and throws her off of her throne.
And then they cuddle strenuously for another six days.
Nergal and Ereshkigal rule the underworld together after that, and live happily (?) ever after.
There are a lot of repetitive journeys through the seven gates leading into the underworld, by Kakka the envoy, Namtar the vizier, and Nergal. It’s apparently a bit of a process to get there. There are also some echoes and repetitions from the Ishtar story we looked at a couple of weeks ago, including the “I will make the dead outnumber the living” speech, as I mentioned above.
It reminds me of the story of Persephone and Hades, if Demeter got Persephone back only to send her again into the Underworld in order to assassinate Hades (write me that fic). It’s interesting to see a “gender-swapped” version of the more famous Persephone/Hades story, even though Ereshkigal is much older than the Greek story. One of the big differences, of course, is that Nergal isn’t kidnapped by Ereshkigal, he is sent to her as a punishment. Ereshkigal does fall in love with him (like Hades with Persephone) and decides she’s going to have him even if the gods don’t like it (like Hades) or if she has to ruin the land of the living to accomplish it. In Ereshkigal’s case, she threatens the land above with zombies, whereas Hades’ mere act in taking Persephone ruins the growth of plants and trees.
Or maybe this story is basically Mr. and Mrs. Smith.
My source for this myth is, once again, Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, The Flood, Gilgameth, and Others, translated and edited by Stephanie Dalley.