• Email
  • Print

Sumerian Feminism

Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth: Her Stories and Hymns from Sumer

by Diane Wolkstein, by Samuel Noah Kramer
Harper and Row, 227 pp., $16.95; $7.95 (paper)

Most of this book consists of a version of, and commentaries on, the ancient Sumerian poem that describes the descent into hell of the fertility goddess, Inanna. On the day I read this new version, my local newspaper (The New Haven Register, July 27) carried an Associated Press dispatch out of Chicago under the headline FIRES OF HELL HOLD LESS FEAR, NEW POLL FINDS. The contrast between the mythologies of hell of these just-polled American Catholics and the Sumerians helped me to begin to apprehend just what remained so disturbing in the Sumerian mythology.

Responding to a questionnaire, 283 presumably representative American Catholics subscribed to the idea of the hereafter as a three-level house in a woodland setting where the rain never falls. Hell is the basement, limbo a detached garage. On the top floor, heaven, God answers questions and families are reunited. Hell has no flames or other inconveniences, except that God is not there to be queried. As for its inhabitants, they are rather few, and none of the nominees is particularly surprising (except perhaps for Hugh Hefner, who received a 5 percent vote). One could lament, with Wallace Stevens:

Alas, that they should wear our colors there,
The silken weavings of our after- noons,
And pick the strings of our insipid lutes!

Alas, indeed: there appear to be no lutes whatsoever on that upper floor. Rather than mourn the decline of heaven and of hell, I turn to the still vivid Sumerian underworld, as rendered by N.K. Sandars in Poems of Heaven and Hell from Ancient Mesopotamia:1

   …>it is a house
that smothers in clay the souls that come to it.
It is the house of the setting sun,
the pallid god in livid splendour;
   the sill
is a monster with jaws that gape
and the jambs of the doors are a sharp knife
to slash down wicked men. The two rims
of the river of hell are the rapier thrust
of terror, a raging lion guards it
and who can face his fury? Here also lie
the rainbow gardens of the Lady.

The Lady is Inanna, whose emblem is the planet Venus, the morning and evening star, the sphere that ought not to be touched by the shadow of mortality. A descent into hell is a shock in any tradition; the story of her descent, immolation, and shadowed resurrection takes on a peculiarly startling aura in Sumerian mythology. The earliest mythology that has been recovered in what must still be called our culture, Sumerian literature is unique in the belatedness of its modern discovery. It was totally lost until excavated at the end of the nineteenth century, and probably cannot yet accurately be described as found. There is a sense in which Sumerian poetry is the earliest we ever will know, or perhaps are capable of knowing. The prestige of ultimate origins therefore pervades Sumerian culture for us, particularly since it is in many respects quite unlike the Semitic world that displaced it.

Sumer today is southern Iraq, from contemporary Baghdad down to the Persian Gulf: windy, hot, dry, poor in resources except for oil. It seems a puzzle that urban culture should have begun in the Tigris and Euphrates valleys, and that writing on cuneiform tablets should have emanated from those urban centers to others all over the Near East. Samuel Noah Kramer, still the most eminent scholar of Sumer, dates its dominance from about 3000 BCE on, but the tablets of its literature seem to be of about 1750 BCE, which is still three-quarters of a millennium before the oldest crucial texts of the Hebrew Bible. Our imaginations have been so formed by the Hebrews and the Greeks that we have trouble trying to comprehend the stories of the Semitic precursors and enemies of the Hebrews—the Babylonians, Assyrians, and Canaanites. To go back even further can be mythologically bewildering, especially because the Sumerians were the prime cultural precursors of most of the other Semites, but not so much of the Hebrews. Sumerian literature is thus at once an origin, representing the first literacy, and an alien vision that has little in common either with the Bible or with Homer.

Sumerian literature, like the Semitic writings coming after it, clearly was intended for reciting, whether by priests or scholars, since presumably only they could read the cuneiform script. Few among us read aloud, even to ourselves, though the Bible (and Walt Whitman) truly demand such reading. The rationale for this new version of “Inanna’s Descent to Hell” is that the renderer, Diane Wolkstein, is a professional storyteller who has produced a text for her own repertoire. (She relies upon literal versions by Samuel Noah Kramer, and on his advice as consultant throughout.) Such a rendering, like any translation, is an interpretation, filled out here by Wolkstein’s explicit, extended commentary. Lacking Sumerian, I can judge Wolkstein’s verse translation only by comparing it to Kramer’s literal translation in his Sumerian Mythology2 and to the rival version by N.K. Sandars.

Kramer’s “Inanna’s Descent,” an enigmatic and incomplete poem (accurately reflecting the state of the cuneiform tablets), is nevertheless a grimly impressive story. For no stated reason, the Venus of the Sumerians resolves to journey down to Hades, where she has no authority, and where she anticipates being slain by her hostile older sister, Ereshkigal, goddess of death. Inanna prepares for her descent by dressing opulently and by warning her “messenger” Ninshubur that he is to fill heaven with complaints about her fate, directly she reaches the underworld. At hell’s gate, Inanna clearly tells an untruth when she insists that she has come to witness the funeral rites for Ereshkigal’s slain husband, Gugalanna. Allowed in at Ereshkigal’s command, Inanna is stripped of all her finery at gate after gate, until she stands naked, bowing low before her terrible sister, the “pure” Ereshkigal, who sits naked upon the throne of death.

Condemned by the judges of the underworld, Inanna is transformed into a corpse “hung from a stake,” killed by the glances and words of her sister. The various appeals of her messenger, Ninshubur, are rejected by the gods, except for Enki, god of wisdom and of water. Out of dirt, he fashions two uncanny creatures who descend to hell bearing the food and water of life. With these sprinkled upon her, Inanna is resurrected and ascends out of the nether world, but with many demons, large and small, clinging to her.

Here Kramer’s literal version ends, but the story is filled out both by Sandars and by Wolkstein, using related tablets. Inanna herself is free, but her attached demons are looking for someone to carry down to hell in her place. Refusing the demons her various ministers, Inanna instead gives them no less a personage than her husband, the shepherd god Dumuzi (who became the Tammuz of the Semites, even as Inanna became their Ishtar). Poor Dumuzi dies of his wife’s rejecting glance, and is carried down by the demons. Later, he is to be partly redeemed from hell by the voluntary sacrifice of his own sister, who will take his place below for half of each year. But in the story of Inanna, as both Sandars and Wolkstein retell it, the dying god owes his destruction to his enigmatic wife.

Sandars is sensible and direct when she indicates that the poem is hardly an exaltation of Inanna, but no reader could know this from Wolkstein’s version and commentary, which seek to tell “a ‘grand’ story of a woman—as inspiration, guide, and model—for ourselves as well as for our children.” Wolkstein finds that model in Inanna, and calls her own retelling “the world’s first love story…tender, erotic, shocking, and compassionate…. With Inanna, we enter the place of exploration: the place where not all energies have been tamed or ordered.” Her Inanna descends for mystical, vaguely Jungian purposes: “an understanding of all things…the knowledge of death and rebirth, life and stasis.” Sandars seems far closer to the letter and spirit of the text:

The underworld journeys of mortal, or semi-divine, heroes were always undertaken for some concrete purpose…. A recent commentator has translated the line in which Ereshkigal mounts her throne…in a sense in which a furious Inanna flings her sister from the throne and seats herself upon it. It follows from this interpretation that Inanna’s intention must, from the first, have been possession of her sister’s kingdom…. Kramer’s translation of…the last lines of all,

O Ereshkigal
Good is your praise!

tells us that the whole poem was made in honor of the Queen of Hell and not of Inanna.

This puts all of Wolkstein’s version into serious question, and explains its various oddities, which are produced by a kind of feminism rather inappropriate to Sumerian mythology. Following Nietzsche, we must indeed ask, “Who is the interpreter and what power does she seek to gain over the text?” One scarcely expects a verse translation these days to be in actual verse—and this one is merely printed as verse—but I do not think that an aesthetic objection would be altogether relevant anyway. This volume is of great interest because it aptly illustrates a current fashion or movement, social and academic, which ought not always be called literary or critical. As a political act of appropriation, Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth takes its place in a swelling cavalcade of revisions of tradition, not all of which qualify as phases in a cultural enlightenment. “I arranged to tell the Cycle of Inanna at Robert Bly’s Mother Goddess Conference in Maine in June, 1980,” this translator says, and one feels that the right context was certainly there.

Curious alterations of detail tellingly occur in Wolkstein’s text. Thus the faithful messenger Ninshubur, a male in the versions of Kramer and Sandars, is a female here, presumably for the same ideological reasons that cause Wolkstein to notice and italicize the fact that the one god who sends aid to Inanna in response to Ninshubur’s pleas is “Inanna’s mother‘s father.” Anxious to extenuate Inanna’s selection of her husband as a substitute in hell, Wolkstein hypothesizes the goddess as thinking: “Once I was his whole world; now he refuses to descend from his throne to help me.” This divine thought is meant to be justified by the relevant passage in Wolkstein’s translation:

He sat on his magnificent throne;
   (he did not move)….
Inanna fastened on Dumuzi the eye of death.
She spoke against him the word of wrath.
She uttered against him the cry of guilt:
“Take him! Take Dumuzi away!”

Contrast Sandars, who is closer to the literal translation of the tablets, and it becomes more difficult to ascribe guilt to Dumuzi, or to emphasize his stasis as his wife returns:

But in Kullab the young shepherd,
Dumuzi, put on a beautiful robe,
he mounted the throne high up above,
and the seven devils gripped his thighs like mortal sickness.
The flute-song of the shepherd
is broken, the pipes are shattered in front of him,
for on him Inanna has fastened the eyes of death,
she has spoken the sentence
   of the accused,
she has uttered the cry
   of the accursed,
As for that one, carry him off!”

That was how holy Inanna gave up her shepherd into the power of the devils.

Sandars’s version of this episode in the war between men and women is hardly less bitter, but it returns us, as Wolkstein does not, to the caprice and brutality of a goddess who may not be the best “role model” for ourselves and our children. The definitive judgment upon this is given by the hero Gilgamesh in the epic cycle bearing his name, which was translated by the Akkadians from a Sumerian original. Gilgamesh, rejecting the advances of the goddess Ishtar (who, as I have said, is the Semitic Inanna), calls her

a cooking fire that goes out in the cold,
a back door that keeps out neither wind nor storm,
a palace that crushes the brave ones defending it,
a well whose lid collapses,
pitch that defiles the one carrying it,
a waterskin that soaks the one who lifts it,
limestone that crumbles in the stone wall,
a battering ram that shatters in the land of the enemy,
a shoe that bites the owner’s foot!3

That seems appropriate also for the Inanna condemned by the other gods in “The Descent of Inanna” as being an “insatiable” usurper, a manifest liar, and the unhesitant betrayer and murderer of her husband. Inanna does have an extraordinary imaginative appeal, but perhaps more in literature than in life. She may be thought of as an incarnate spirit of female vitalism, desired and feared by Sumerians and moderns alike, a figure somewhat resembling Walter Pater’s High Decadent vision of the Mona Lisa. It is inevitable that Wolkstein, in her commentary, goes so far as to call Ereshkigal, queen of hell, “the neglected side of Inanna,” with qualities similar to Lilith’s, because Lilith is the hidden goddess of all feminism, whenever feminism turns theological. Lilith appears first as a Sumerian demoness, but her later career was Hebraic and finally Kabbalistic, where she came to personify everything in female sexuality that patriarchal religion feared most. Inanna doubtless takes on some of that aura given by the male dread of origins in “Inanna’s Descent,” but the text in its present stage of recovery does not let us make any unequivocal judgments about her moral status.

I began this review by citing a recent poll of Catholics whose results indicate again our contemporary repression of the idea of hell and our consequent idealization of the afterlife. It seems appropriate to close on the theme of the clear superiority of the Sumerian mythology of death to our current popular mythologies. What is most disturbing and impressive about the poem of Inanna’s descent has vanished wholly from the book under review, and this lost quality seems to me dominant throughout Sumerian literature. It is a quality well brought out in the translation and commentary by Sandars. As she says, “In this land of the dead the idea of heat and fire is notably absent, but water and dust are there; Inanna’s great fear is to be drowned under the dust of hell.”

That seems the ultimate Sumerian fear also: to die either by the flooding of the rivers or by the dust and sand of drought and wind. Dumuzi dies always, under Inanna’s terrible glance, of the sorrows that afflict the flocks in the dead land: sorrows of whirlwinds of dust, afflictions of the desert. It is emotionally valuable to be returned to the Sumerian vision of death and hell, because the poetry of that vision concerns the terror of what Freud called the reality principle. Primordially, we fear catastrophes: flood and drought, psychic and physical. Inanna, whatever contemporary feminism might care to make of her, is neither the goddess of that fear nor a goddess immune from the reality such fear confronts. Her doomed attempt to usurp her sister, true goddess of catastrophe, exposes her to the reality principle, and touches a limit that contemporary feminism idealizes and evades, as does every other popular mythology of our moment.

Letters

Sumerian Goddess January 19, 1984

  1. 1

    Penguin, 1972.

  2. 2

    Revised edition, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1972.

  3. 3

    Translated by John Gardner, Richard Henshaw, and John R. Maier,Aramco World Magazine, July-August 1983, pp. 5-6.

  • Email
  • Print