Sumerian Feminism

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

by Diane Wolkstein and 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,…

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