Semiramis: Tree of Life

The research I’m undertaking for my novel has moved me to look into very ancient Middle Eastern myths.  Anyone who has read or even heard of Joseph Campbell by now knows that myths repeat with infinite but subtle variations across time and space.  Nonetheless it’s still startling to me to find some very obvious, very ancient sources of myths that survive today in odd and interesting forms.

The mythological figure I’m going to focus on today is Semiramis, a mistress of war often depicted as being  promiscuous and  deadly. And because it is nearly impossible to separate her from her companion, who also changes names and roles through time, I will discuss her in context with his many changing identities.  I will start by listing the stories of her as Semiramis of the Assyrians as reported by the Roman and Greek writers, then moving to her various aliases, some historical, some mythical, many of them unconfirmed, but nonetheless suspected to be original sources of the current Semiramis myth by yours truly.

This is not intended to be a scholarly article, but rather an informed piece derived from years of reading and conjecturing on the evidence of that reading.


She is said to be an ancient Mesopotamian queen, wife to Ninus, or, according to some, Nimrod of the Bible (whose historical identity is as of yet unconfirmed, though scholars suspect it may have been either the founder of Uruk, king Enmerkar (cir. 2800 BC) or Ninurta, an ancient Mesopotamian god, or else an Assyrian king with unidentified origins.)

She is the daughter of a scandalous affair between a goddess of fish/sea and a human, and she is abandoned on the seashore at birth.  Doves raise her by feeding her and fanning her with her wings, until she’s discovered by a royal shepherd.  The shepherd brings her to a king, who adopts her, then later she is married to a powerful military commander, Onnes, who has the unfortunate idea of bringing her with him into war and to suggest to his regent, Ninus, that she has remarkable capacity for strategic warfare.  Ninus reluctantly agrees to have her take a look at the fortification that he’s had under seige, so far, with unimpressive results.  Semiramis, dressed in men’s clothes, walks the perimeter of the structure, observing, taking mental notes, and she discovers a weakness in the defense, which she reveals to Ninus, who is then able to wring victory by exploiting it.

Not content to have his loot, however, Ninus, in love with Semiramis’ startling beauty and smitten by her intelligence, demands that Onnes either give up  his wife to him, or else face execution.  The poor fellow is so overtaken with grief by this unappetizing choice that he hangs himself.  Semiramis then becomes Ninus’ wife.  They have a jolly good time together, and, according to Biblical students, she has undue influence on the regent, persuading him to adopt among other things, orgiastic ritual practices and the eating of animal meat, and goddess worship.  She is, however, highly promiscuous, and suspected of having affairs with many men. She becomes pregnant (some say with god Dumuzi, but unlikely, unless Ninus really is Enmerkar of Erech, in which case we would be speaking of Dumuzi the fisherman king, not Dumuzi the shepherd/god).  Ninus protests that the child can’t be his and demands she have an abortion.  Semiramis refuses.

In one version, in order to prevent Ninus from killing her baby son, she persuades the king to participate in an orgiastic ritual during which his priests intend to slaughter and cannibalize a sacrificial lamb.  Semiramis, however, manages to either drug the priests or enchant them into believing that Ninus is in fact the lamb. Thus the great regent becomes torn to pieces and eaten alive by his own priests!

In another version, she persuades Ninus to give her kingly powers for only one day.  He agrees, and the first thing she does with that power is have him executed.  So much for Mother’s Day presents.

In both versions, she lives long enough to give birth to a son (Nynias, Dumuzi or Zoroaster according to some, but I don’t put much faith in any of these suggestions) and to become a military power to be reckoned with.  She conquers innumerable territories and never again takes on another husband.  However, she has many young boy-toy lovers who have the disgrace of never living to see another dawn after Semiramis has had her way with them: they either disappear forever, or are found killed.

In some versions, mostly modern conjectures of religious students, she first marries and then is killed by her own son.

Some say that this version of Semiramis may have been a composite of the Assyrian queen Shamurramat, (who, contrary to the myth, actually loved her husband Shamshi-Adad and protected his kingdom for some years after he passed away, waiting for her son to become of age), and of the myth of Ishtar/Inanna.


The Armenian remix of Semiramis varies in that, already queen of a vast kingdom, Shamiram hears of a king known as Ara the Beautiful, who, true to his name, is delightful to look at, and she puts it in her mind to marry him.  Ara refuses her, and Shamiram sets upon conquering him — to be noted, in a rather masculine, Neandertahl, hit you over the head with a stick and drag you by the hair way — by setting her vast armies upon him.  He is killed in the battle (in most versions, accidentally, but in one version, he gives up his own life to put an end to the endless wave of battles with his people and the Armenians).

Shamiramis captures his corpse, and highly distraught by this predicament, attempts to revive him from the dead with her sorcery.  In the meantime, Ara’s battle-lusty army is getting tired of waiting.  One version has Shamiram cull from her army a pretty boy to stand on the ramparts of Ara’s battlements and pretend to be Ara, risen from the dead.  In some version, Shamiram actually brings Ara back from the dead.  It isn’t clear whether or not they lived happily ever after.


One of the oldest and most powerful goddesses of the Mesopotamian pantheon is Inanna or NinAnna (Lady of Heaven), sister of the sun god, UTU and daughter to the moon goddess.  She was a goddess of fertility but also fickle and easy to rouse, and therefore soon became worshipped as a goddess of war.  Most likely, she was an archetype of human passions, as revealed in one of the most interesting of the Sumerian myths, wherein she steals all the powers of civilizations from her grandfather, Enki, who is the god of reason and of wisdom.

Ninanna apparently also had a weakness for boy toys, after a human shepherd, Dumuzi (Tammuz in the oldest traditions) seduces her and brings on her sexual awakening.  Her brother Utu married her to Dumuzi against her will. Her preference was for Enkindum, the god of grain.  Nonetheless, her reluctance was short-lived.  There is a long, beautiful, and rather provocative poem about the sexual union between Inanna and Dumuzi dating back over 4,000 years, which clearly shows that the two had a rather favorable relationship, at least in terms of sex.  This union was thereafter celebrated in the “hieros gamos” rites or sacred marriage, wherein the goddess publicly has sex in a sacred ritual with the king, who represents the Dumuzi, a curious Sumerian word that literally translates to “the faithful son.”

But, proper to the prototype of Semiramis, Inanna’s honeymoon didn’t last too long.  For reasons unknown, she descends to the lower worlds to visit her sister Ereskigal, the queen of the dead, and also, her twin.  It is unclear what her motives were, but it looks like as though she may either have been intending to have an affair with her sister’s husband (empowered by the puzzling legalities of Ancient Mesopotamia in the 3rd millennium BC) or to overtake her sister’s realm.  Whatever the case may have been, Ereskigal didn’t take kindly to it.  To make a long story short, the queen of the dead dispatched her rival in a most unsavory way, finally crucifying her naked on a peg or a tree at the mouth of hell.

Nonetheless, Enki, the god of wisdom, came to her rescue, and charmed the queen of the dead with two handsome young droids who seduced the queen of the dead and persuaded her to release the body of Inanna. Enki then revived her by sprinkling “the waters of life”  upon her.  However, the rules of hell are very strict: Inanna cannot leave the underworld unless someone else takes her place. The choice for the unfortunate replacement falls on Inanna herself, who leaves hell accompanied by a cadre of hellish demons known as gallas (which was also a Sumerian term for what we would now a days call cops).

One by one, Inananna’s friend and relatives avoid the curse by falling at her feet and showing their grief for her temporary death, but Dumuzi must have failed to get the memo.  Inanna finds him glamorously sitting on the throne that Inanna, as goddess, made possible for him to sit upon (he was a mere human, remember, and she, a goddess).  He seems surprised to find her looking hellish and without makeup.  He himself is described as looking splendid.  This infuriates Inanna beyond reason, and she points her finger of curse upon him.  The demons then set off on him, and though he tries to hide, he’s eventually found out and torn to pieces by the demons-cops, who scatter his remains all over Sumer and take his soul to hell.

But Inanna eventually misses him enough that she sets off to look for him, and, gathering all the pieces, recalls him from hell.  Dumuzi’s sister agrees to take his place in hell for six months of the year.  For the other six, Dumuzi shares the throne with Ereskigal, his bride’s twin in hell.  What is most curious about this, though, is that although it is made amply clear in the ancient poems that Dumuzi’s sentence in hell is commuted, Dumuzi doesn’t again make an appearance in the life story of this particular goddess.  Some say that Dumuzi comes back, but not as his former self, but rather, as a young child, possibly as a son to Inanna, rather then as a lover husband.


Ninanna was worshipped by the Sumerian, which were soon overcome by the Semitic Akkadians, who had their own name for the goddess: Ishtar.  By the time Akkadians ruled, Ishtar was a fairly well established and dominant goddess of the Mesopotamian pantheon.  However, in this period (roughly second millennium B.C., rule of Sargon) the patriarchy is overwhelmingly taking over what appeared to be an already fast-waning gender-tolerant society.  Ishtar continues to be worshipped as the pre-eminent goddess of sexual love and war, believed to be both a prostitute and a holy mother (hmmm).

She makes a most startling appearance in the Epic of Gilgamesh, believed to be the oldest extant complete work of literature in writing.  Ishtar here is still represented as a ruling goddess, but Gilgamesh, the hero, seems to have an aversion to her, refusing her when she tries to seduce him and preferring instead the company of his friend (and possibly lover) Enkidu.  She is furious for his refusal and unleashes upon him a thing called “The Bull of Heaven” which is some kind of great horned blue monster.  Gilgamesh and Enkidu kill it, but Enkidu gets too arrogant and throws the carcass at Ishtar. For this offense, he will pay later, when the gods decree that Enkidu should die an undignified death by slow illness.  Gilgamesh survives, but he is severely humbled thereafter.

What interests me about this particular epic and its connections to the Semiramis/Ishtar myths is a prevalent and most suspect contradiction in the epic, of which there exists versions and copies in almost every ancient language known to man.  The most respected (and most recent) of these version, the Akkadian version, makes a clear distinction between the character of Gilgamesh and the character of Dumuzi. They are not one and the same. In fact, one of the reasons Gilgamesh unceremoniously kicks Ishtar out of his bed is because he’s afraid that she’s going to curse him to hell like she did her first lover, Dumuzi — and, according to him, she also cursed or killed all other lovers thereafter.  (I told you she liked the boys).

And yet, in tablet 12, there appears an incongruous ending to the epic. It suddenly focuses on Ishtar, and how, after the flood (the Sumerians and Akkadians had flood myths) she rescued a tree from the river and tried to grow it, but could only bring to life a lilitu demon (a predecessor of Lilith in the Jewish sacred texts, first wife of Adam), and a “snake that could not be charmed” (???? One could read all sorts of erotic possibilities there).

She cried and despaired and could not find any god to assist her, until the hero Gilgamesh showed up (yes, one and the same), axed the tree to pieces, fashioned a matrimonial bed out of it, and married her, setting up a worship of her.  In gratitude, Ishtar fashioned a scepter and a ring, symbols of kingship, which she bestowed upon the hero.  But, being careless with the objects, and being too oppressive in his rule, he angers the gods, who play a trick on Gilgamesh causing his scepter and ring to tumble in a vent that goes down to hell.  His friend Enkidu (who died in tablet 11) is suddenly and inexplicably alive again, and very willing to go retrieve it for Gilgamesh. He unfortunately never comes back from hell.  The epic ends in some mysterious rambling about how people in hell who have no children to carry on their legacy in life are more unfortunate then those who do.

In case you missed it: it is especially clear to me that Gilgamesh is the same character as Dumuzi in that last  tablet.  He is the one who marries the goddess by favor of Utu, and he is the one who turnes their sexual practice into a worship.  He is also the one who is sent to hell, if not by direct decree of the goddess, by his carelessness with her gifts to him.  I also bring to light the fact that it was perfectly common for Sumerians and Akkadians to refer to the same kings, heros and gods, with different names. Through the hundreds of versions of this epics translated and re-translated in various languages, is it possible that a change was made later to distinguish Gilgamesh as a different character from Dumuzi? And is it possible that it may have been done so as to empower the emasculated Dumuzi from the undignified loss of throne and dignity to a woman?


Fast forward to the Babylonian era, same geographic area (ancient Iraq, Iran, part of Caucasus and parts of the Hindu Kush).  We have a new set of conquerers, and a new set of despots requires a new king. A new king requires a new god and goddess.  But why reinvent the wheel when you can merely remix the old traditions?

We are now in full blown patriarchal hegemony, and Marduck makes his appearance in the Pantheon, a freshly minted god who is at first said to be the son of Enki, but later becomes so popular that he takes over even the all might ENLIL (possibly ALLAH, EL, ELOHIM). Beyond the fact that the scribes of the temples all over the Babylonian empire are now very active rewriting creation history by crediting Marduck with all the heroic deeds committed by gods in the beginning of time,( with the simple caveat that Marduck has “fifty names” and therefore, whether you call him Tammuz or Enki, you’re really talking about the same god… )–  besides that all too familiar religious rhetoric, we now have another religious innovation:

Serpanitum, Marduk’s wife, is no longer a goddess, but a human and the first of the wives of the gods to be that, whereas Marduck is fully a god, son of the great Enlil and surpassing him in strength, beauty, and glory. (Marduck, curiously enough, can be translated to mean either lamb of god or son of the demon).

What links her indubitably to the legacy of Inanna/Ishtar is the sacred marriage rights, which are performed for her, to celebrate her union with her husband Marduck, thereby making her a clear replacement of the Akkadian Ishtar.  Marduck is also a chthonic god of death and resurrection, like Dumuzi.  In the creation myth of the Babylonians, Marduck is credited with slaying the primordial demonness, Tiamat, but is later betrayed and accused of crimes he didn’t commit. He is buried alive, or crucified or hung on a peg or some other variation of that favorite execution style of the ancient human, and spends some time battling demons in hell, until he’s rescued by his son, Nabu, the god of writing. (Rescued by propaganda in the form of writing?).

There isn’t as much literature out there on Serpanitum as there is on Inanna/Ishtar, and I haven’t ventured very deeply with my research beyond the Dynasty of Sumerian kings of the third millennium BC, but there are a couple of curious things to note about the Babylonian Serpanitum that links her with the more modern Assyrian Semiramis, as well as to her ancient sisters, Ishtar and Inanna.  The etymology of her name is debated, but there are several possibilities for it.  Her name in the ancient Babylonian signs form the words for crescent moon, dove, and branch or live blossom.  Some say that it means the shining silver brightness, and yet some more pragmatic others say it’s merely a corruption of Serpan entu, or “the girl from Serpa,” the latter being, apparently, an ancient city now lost to us.  She is represented as a dove, and as a crescent moon, more importantly because she’s often represented as pregnant, and at this point, she embodies once again the two opposite roles of female archetype: the holy whore (as manifested through the hieros gamos with the public sex rites between the priestess who leads the rites in her name, and the king who embodies Marduk) and the holy mother, whose part-man, part-god offspring delivers the one true god, literally, from hell.

She is also the reason for which Babylon is built, like the Assyrian Semiramis, who is credited for the hanging gardens.  Her husband, Marduk, builds the gates of Babylon for her (as Enmarkar built Erech, and Gilgamesh built Ishtar’s throne).


I will skip this one, as most are familiar with this Egyptian myth.  Suffice it to say that there is obvious evidence that Egypt and ancient Sumer, simultaneous civilizations, where in contact and very well aware of each other.

Note: the flight to hell of the god, and the gathering of the pieces from the goddess.


I’ll be brief on this one.  Ariadne is recruited to give her military expertise on the dungeon-maze of the Minotaur (bull of heaven?), and used thus by her first husband, Theseus, is later abandoned on an island, some say because Dyonisius made it clear in no uncertain terms that he was claiming Ariadne for his own and would brook no contradictions, others believe merely because Theseus was a lout.

She is also a goddess associated with the sea, with doves, and with serpents.

Nonetheless, Ariadne had a jolly good time with her underworld-battling Dionysus, who is represented in Roman murals as being so subdued by her beauty as to collapse at her feet in a position reminiscent of a son to his mother.


I hope to surprise the most erudite of the myth followers here, by taking a controversial leap.  The Ancient Sumerian civilization spread all the way up to modern Turkey in the north, and to the Hindu Kush and Norther India in the East.  In fact, there is now fairly ample evidence that the cities of the Hindu Kush were in frequent trade with the civilizations surrounding them, from East to West being Elam/Gutia and Sumeria.

There is an obvious problem with the time period, but without getting into too many caveats, I want to point out that India’s civilization has been very poorly recorded, and mostly by prejudiced Westerners who translated the cultural history with what seems not a decidedly mistaken understanding of Indian ways.  Most of India’s mythology and history remains untranslated from their very complex languages.

Dravidian language, however, or Tamil, is believed by the Dravidians to be the oldest language, preceding Sumerian by over 4,000 years.  If this is correct, than it’s possible to conjecture that many of the myths of the Sumerians may have well been sourced from the more ancient Dravidian civilization.  To this day, the writings of Indu Kush has not yet been deciphered.

Nonetheless, to Sarpanakha, who is the sister of the demon Ravaana, and the cause of the great war between the prince/king/god-avatar Rama and the demon detailed in the Ramayana is what interest me here.  The story goes that Rama is having a jolly good time with his brother Lakshama and his beautiful young wife Sita in the forest, playing the lyre and splashing about in the chilled brooks, when Sarpanakha happens by.  Dazzled by Rama’s beauty, she tries to seduce him.  Sarpanakha was a queen, who in her youth had been considered beautiful.  She was described as having fish-shaped eyes and long beautiful hair, but her name means long claws, reminiscent of Ishtar’s representation as being eagle-taloned in the iconography of ancient Akkad.

Sharpanakah is also a widow. Her beloved first husband died at the hands of Ravaaana, demon of the underworld, who was afraid of her husband’s growing power, and she seeks revenge.  But by the time she happens upon Rama, she’s already at least middle age, and Rama, seeing her as an old hag, thinks the whole thing is a joke and refuses her, but is cruel enough to tease her that maybe her brother might want her.  Sarpanakah, believe herself too powerful to be jested with, tries then to seduce Lakshama, who, like Enkindu in the Gilgamesh epic, is nearly identical to Rama in looks, (the way Enkidu was nearly a twin to Gilgamesh).

When Sarpanakah realizes that Rama and Lakshama are simply having fun with her, and that they have no intention of making love to her, she apparently attacks Sita.  This infuriates Lakshama, and once again, recalling to mind how Enkidu in the Gilgamesh epic kills the bull of heaven that Ishtar sets upon him and then throws the carcass at her, Lakshma likewise repeals Sarpanakah’s fits of rage by cutting off her nose (probably a euphemism for raping or shaming her in some other lasting way).  The angry, scorned goddess runs to her brother Ravana and persuades him that Sita, Rama’s wife, is so beautiful that he should kidnap her.  He does so, and in this way, Sarpanakah gets her revenge on both her brother (who killed her husband) and on Rama who shamed her, and the epic war between the kingdoms thus starts because of her.


There is much controversy here that I won’t tread upon lightly, and I realize that to a lot of people this may sound as far reaching.  Nonetheless I appeal to the imagination here as to the also very obvious fact that religious beliefs have always been manipulated for the sake of power, and, more consistently, against and away from the power of women.  The debate with the scholars is whether or not the ancient Hebrew God of the first millennium BC had a wife.  Interestingly, the root word for Ashera is “tree” or “live tree” believed by some to have been contrived as a replacement from an actual goddess of the trees and serpents (see Ishtar and her tree) to reduce her to an inanimate “tree of life” secondary to the worship of the Hebrew god.

Another interesting Hebrew reference is to the Shekinah, translated as dwelling or divine presence, which has an eery reminiscence to the Shakti in Sanskrit sacred scriptures both in sound and meaning, and though there are no controversies in Indian mythology that the Shakti is Shiva’s wife, a goddess as well as a divine charge, there is no consensus on whether the Shekinah of early Hebrew scriptures was actually a goddess or merely a charge of divine presence.  I also bring to attention that the Hebrews were not a people or a race until very late in the history of religion, and that their beliefs did not spring from nowhere.  They were a Semitic people derived from the Semitic Akkadians and who consciously chose to be separated from (but could not help but be influenced by) their Babylonian oppressors.

Similarly, in Christianity, the once repetitive theme of Mother, Father and Son was replaced with Father, Son and Holy Spirit, which, interestingly, is represented either by a branch or a dove.  Because it is obvious that the patriarchal hegemony of the religion of the Levant was not women friendly (there is ample evidence of this in the Bible, with a politheistic conflict revealed in Paul who scolds women for still worshipping the Goddess, etc.), that the image of NinAnna or the Queen of Heaven gradually degraded from the keeper of all the arts of civilization (see Enki and Inanna myth), to merely a term for a feeling of joy, sometimes accompanied with vague and contradictory images of an altar or tabernacle curiously shaped as a bed, and often described as such in the Hebrew Bible. Thus there is a sort of opaque rendition of the whore/holy mother — in the best of cases.  In the worst of cases, through the profane mythologies, the “Creatrix of The Gods” (Ashera) of the pre-Hebrew religions is degraded to a man-killing, man-cannibalizing, war-mongering whore. Semiramis.  The serpent.

I know some people may be appalled by these connections. I don’t mean to offend anyone. I am involved in the mysteries of these connections with nothing but earnest curiosity. I invite you to do your own research and draw your own conclusions.  This is not a scholarly article, merely information I gathered over several years of reading anthropoligical records, myths and other sundry information that set my mind to thinking.  There are many more references and far too much evidence to list in this short blog, but I hope to fire your imagination with the mysteries that ancient civilizations have been hiding in the sands of the past, not to start a controversy, but to find answers to the questions that I have had ever since: what is our human obsession with this trio of gods? Why does the story keep surviving?

Published by laura

I'm the author of two short story collections, a story cycle, and a collection of short memoirs. I am an educator, literary translator, journal editor, and writing coach.

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