4 The Mythology of Sumer


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This myth is the original form of the great Tammuz-Ištar myth widely celebrated in the Ancient Near East. As it appears here it is unfinished but the ending has been preserved in the myth ‘The Death of Dumuzi’. The most notable feature is that Inanna does not go down to the Nether World to save Dumuzi but, as we shall learn, condemns her mate to death while she herself is rescued from an unexplained visit to the ‘Land of No Return’. This is the reverse of the story as preserved in the ‘Tammuz Liturgies’ where Dumuzi is recalled from death by Inanna.185

Dumuzi is a vegetation god and Inanna is a goddess of fertility. The myth describes the failure of fertility and the retreat of vegetation in the yearly cycle. However, just as in other interpretive myths, the story does not contain the cycle within itself but may be supposed to represent a continuing process, one that is evidenced at the appropriate season of each year (c.f. the lunar cycle in ‘Enlil and Ninlil’). Whatever may have been the function of the later, resurrectionist, account of this myth, there is no evidence that the Sumerian Dumuzi-Inanna tale was associated with a fertility ritual.

  1. The Anunnaki are invoked as a group without necessarily contradicting the belief that Inanna was one of their number.

  2. That the creatures are sexless appears to be important for their function – in the Akkadian rescension a ‘eunuch’ appears.186 Presumably this infertility allows them to operate without hindrance in the Nether World which is to be understood here as a stage in the process of fertility.
  3. This is a peculiar description of Ereškigal, Queen of the Nether World, but fits well with her derivation from Ki, the great Mother. It also highlights her relationship with Inanna, the fertility goddess, that they are both aspects of that same goddess. It is possible that the ill will between the two sisters was proposed in consciousness of their ambiguous opposition. At this point it seems that Ereškigal has usurped Inanna’s function, has brought it into the Nether World where it has no place to be. Such an usurpation perhaps indicates that the purpose of Inanna’s descent was to take control of the functions of the Nether World.187

  4. This is possibly some form of sympathetic magic whereby their healthy but infertile bodies are used to correct the illegitimately fertile Ereškigal.

  5. Offerings from deities are often problematic. In this case the water and grain should be seen in opposition to the ‘water of life’ and the ‘food of life’ which the pair have from Enki. Coming as they do from the Netherworld they have no power of life.

  6. The ‘water of life’ and the ‘food of life’ are sprinkled here in a fashion which suggests ritual usages, Inanna/Ereškigal is propitiated by an offering of the necessities of life’s bounty. This, though suggestive, cannot force the conclusion that this myth was the accompaniment of a ritual.

  7. As an animal which emerges from the earth, much as plants are seen to do, the snake is a common chthonic motif. It is often seen as a symbol of fertility (c.f. the Khafajah Bowl188). How identification with this animal is imagined to assist Dumuzi in this situation is unclear, and the snake has been replaced by a gazelle in the corresponding section of the myth ‘The Death of Dumuzi’.

Dumuzi and the Gallas


Dumuzi has a premonition of his own death and wanders in the plain lamenting his fate. He lies down amongst the buds and dreams a dream. This dream so disturbs him that he calls for his sister Geštinanna, to interpret it for him. This she does, revealing a most ominous message. His dream is not favourable, his life is in danger, the gallas, demons from the Nether World, are hunting him and he must flee their clutches[a]

Dumuzi determines to hide amongst the plants[b] and in the ‘ditches of Arali’. He implores his sister and a friend to keep his secret. When the gallas come seeking Dumuzi they attempt to bribe Geštinanna with grain and water but she does not weaken. The friend, however, betrays him, whereupon the gallas seize him, beat him, bind him. As they prepare to take him off to the Nether World Dumuzi cries out to Utu to give him the hands and feet of a gazelle that he might take his soul to Kubireš [c]. Utu grants this wish and so Dumuzi escapes.

In Kubireš the gallas catch him again. Again he calls to Utu, but this time he wishes to take himself to the house of Belili, ‘the wise old lady’. This he achieves and there he asks her to allow him to drink the libated water and eat the sprinkled flour[d]. Having done so he is again taken by the gallas. Escaping once more in the familiar way he removes to the sheepfold of Geštinanna[e]. There five of the gallas enter and strike him on the cheek with a piercing nail and a shepherd’s crook kills him[f]. Thus ‘the sheepfold is given to the wind’.

Inanna[g] laments for her lost husband. Sirtur[h] laments for her lost son. Geštinanna laments for her lost brother[i]. Inanna would save Dumuzi for herself and Geštinanna but does not know his whereabouts. Then a holy fly appears and tells Inanna where to find Dumuzi. At Arali[j], at the edge of the steppe, they will find Dumuzi, weeping. Inanna declares that Geštinanna and Dumuzi will alternate in the Nether World, each spending half the year there.


This myth clearly concerns itself with the final episodes missing from the myth ‘Inanna’s Descent to the Nether World’. In fact there seem to be two myths included here which have been artlessly edited together (just as ‘Dumuzi’s Death’ was grafted onto ‘Inanna’s Descent’). Both the myths are parts of a cycle of myths concerning gods dying and being reborn. The absence of Inanna from one of these suggests that the Dumuzi myth had a well established separate existence – as we might expect from a myth which seems relevant to the disappearance of vegetation at a particular time of the year. The form of that myth given here would be well suited to ritual accompaniment, yet rituals were more usually enacted to bring about a situation190 which seems unlikely in this case.

The second element is unusual in that it explicitly defines a natural cycle. An interesting possibility is proposed by Jacobsen.191 The god Dumuzi is here to be understood as the grain god responsible for beer and his sister is the grape goddess responsible for wine. Geštinanna means ‘leafy grapevine’ and her epithet ama-geštinna is ‘root-stock of the grapevine’. The myth is motivated by the placing into underground storage of harvested grain in spring/summer while the grape harvest occurs in autumn.

  1. The point of this prologue is somewhat obscure though there are several possibilities. It may be merely a literary device, it may be a preface to the ritual enactment if such existed, or it may motivate Dumuzi’s escape from the gallas without requiring a reference to Inanna’s displeasure.

  2. This is an appropriate refuge for the vegetation god.
  3. The identity of Kubireš, formerly read Šubirila, has not been determined192 but from comparisons with Dumuzi’s other refuges it is quite likely that it was a mythical location in some way connected with his fertility aspects.

  4. The libated water and the sprinkled flour which Dumuzi requests is the strongest argument for the ritual nature of this myth. The rôle-playing sacerdote would naturally answer Dumuzi’s request at this point. We should also note the echo of the ‘water of life’ and the ‘food of life’ sprinkled ritually upon Inanna in the myth ‘Inanna’s Descent to the Nether World’. It is an offering of the elements of life to bring forth life. Note also that the bribe offered to Geštinanna and the friend prefigured this.

  5. Dumuzi is the shepherd of Uruk and we have seen that Enki assigned the sheepfolds to the shepherd-god Dumuzi in the myth ‘Enki and the World Order’. We might also remark that sheepfolds were commonly associated with Inanna.193 This refuge is again connected with Dumuzi’s characteristic functions.

  6. The behaviour of the gallas at this point is quite different from previously. Now Dumuzi is killed quite unceremoniously. It seems that the ritual itinerary of Dumuzi’s refuges is completed and that his death is now required to be accomplished. It is accompanied by various signs prophesied in Dumuzi’s Dream. A cup falls from a peg and lies shattered and a holy churn is removed from its stand and lies shattered. Dumuzi’s death by a shepherd’s crook seems paradoxical.

  7. With the appearance of Inanna the second mythical element begins.

  8. Sirtur is another name for Ninsun194, the ‘lady of the wild cows’, (claimed also as the mother of Gilgameš).

  9. In Jacobsen’s version of the myth195 Dumuzi is found in the brewery with the brewers. In Kramer’s version the holy fly is offered the company of brewers, scholars and minstrels as reward for information.

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