We, the feminist remainder of the equation, often like to brag that once upon a time societies were matriarchal, religions were goddess-based, and lineage was traced through mothers. However, whenever you ask anyone to give you a specific example in history, the answer is almost invariable, Errr… Hmmm. Let’s see. Juno? Hera? At most you’ll get one or two venturous Venus of Milos and/or Inanna. Since Inanna was quite the popular figure in 3,000 B.C., she is a pretty good guess. But, as it turns out, Inanna wasn’t the only mythical babe to reckon with in literature. Her sister, Ereskigal, was the original Bitch From Hell, and she, not Inanna, held the kind of power that made both gods and goddesses tremble.
Ereskigal was the original Queen of The Dead, the keeper of the underworld of Sumerian literature. Married twice, she enjoyed absolute power over the dead – and the living, since once you descended to hell there was no way in hell (no pun intended) that you ever got out. No god or goddess dared to defy Ereskigal, and the ones who did, lived to pay the price.
The first to try was her sister, Inanna, who was the goddess of fertility and war. She didn’t hold a candle to Ereskigal. In fact when Inanna descended to the underworld (it is said, to dethrone Ereskigal) she was forced to relinquish her garments one by one, from the crown she wore on her head, to the lapis lazuli necklace that symbolized her goddess power, to the very loin cloth she wore. But even this strip-naked humbling was not enough for Ereskigal. Inanna’s body ended up hanging on a peg outside Ereskigal’s main cave, while Inanna’s soul had to suffer the curses of her now enraged underworld sister. It wasn’t until Inanna’s sexy husband, Dumuzi, came down to hell as a substitute that Inanna’s corpse was retrieved and revived, and the goddess set free.
And just in case you’re thinking, yes, that’s fine, but Goddessess of Sex and Fertility have all the fun, think again: who ended up with Dumuzi? Not Inanna. In one version of the myth, not only did Ereskigal get the handsome, seductive Dumuzi, but also a drone created by the wise god Enki, a drone called “Good Looking” who looked something like Leonardo di Caprio and a young Arnold Swartzennager sans the accent. Good Looking was created with the express purpose of charming Ereskigal into giving up Inanna’s body. Well, it didn’t work. But Ereskigal got to keep Good Looking all the same… and Dumuzi!
Turns out Ereskigal had her own turn at a whirlwind love affair, besides.
Once, when the gods of heaven had a feast, Ereskigal sent her servant to collect her share of food. All the gods bowed to the servant, recognizing Ereskigal’s great power over all of the gods, but one god refused to bend his knee before the representative of the Underworld: Nergal. The gods were quite upset over this because they didn’t want Ereskigal to get upset and do something like, oh, I don’t know, release all the undead upon the earth? As Ereskigal warned, not only do the dead outnumber the living, but their hunger is great.
So, the gods sent Nergal/Erra, the god of war and pestilence, to offer his apologies in person. This god got a good prepping before he went down to hell. He was told not to eat bread, nor to drink the wine he was offered. But most especially he was NOT supposed to glimpse Ereskigal while she exposed herself and took a bath. Most importantly, he was not supposed to do “that which men and women do” when they get together without clothes in a bath tub. Well, poor Nergal resisted the food, he resisted the wine, he resisted that southern hospitality that hell is known for (you know, you can check out any time you want, but nobody ever leaves). In the end, though, he could not resist Ereskigal’s taking off of her clothes, and he jumped into bed with her.
There he remained for the next seven days and nights, doing precisely “that which men and women do” when they get together without clothes in bed. On the eighth morning, though, Nergal/Erra, feeling dirty and used, snuck out of bed muttering “I’ll be back,” and climbed up the “stairway to heaven,” promising that he’d call and send roses or something. Well, he didn’t call. He didn’t send roses. When Ereskigal sent up a messenger to inquire after him, all the gods, afraid of repercussions, hid him like in that scene in Life of Brian, the Monty Python film: imagine Nergal standing with a lampshade on his head, and that is pretty much what happened.
The servant of hell went back, saying, “Sorry, I didn’t see that god that was here for seven days” (I didn’t get a good look at him, being that he was… well, you know, darkly engaged). But Ereskigal knew better than to get fooled by a silly lampshade and she sent the servant back upstairs. This time, the servant was armed with a speech written by Ereskigal herself. When the servant was done delivering it, Nergal was moved to tears. He decided he was going to act his age and give Ereskigal a call, after all. He climbed down to the underworld and grasped Ereskigal by her tresses. Laughing, he threw her on the bed, and proceeded to do “that which men and women do” when they are reunited in bed without clothes. Then they got married.
So when you wonder about who to look to when finding the female equivalent of the mythical hero, by all means, consider the beautiful, powerful, seductive Inanna, but don’t forget her sister Ereskigal. She’s the one who holds all the strings, who can be both the leader, the tough punshing wielder of justice, or even the seductive bather who wins the heart of the otherwise fierce and heartless “bull of heaven” Nergal/Erra.
Another thing about Ereskigal. In Sumerian the word Gal means great, large, big, abundant. It is likely that Ereskigal was a “great” lady in more ways than one. Remember that next time you start a diet!