Writing fiction can take you to some very strange places. I like to write about what fascinates me. Steve Almond says follow your obsessions: if you’re going to be married to a novel or a full length work for a year or so, it might as well be on something that really, really motivates you.
What fascinates me, still now, is what I discovered about the ancient and almost prescient wisdom of Sumerian mystics. Much of it is tied to the enigmatic working of their language and symbology. Although I can hardly claim to understand Sumerian language, I have browsed and studied several reputable journals, books, and sites that discuss it in depth, and made heavy use of the Online University of Pennsylvania’s Sumerian dictionary. I love to study the origin of names, and I was driven to uncover the etymology behind some of the names of Sumerian gods and kings. What I discovered is that those Sumerians were a very clever and wise people.
Sumerian language appears to be particularly suited to layered meaning. For instance, the most supreme god of the Sumerian pantheon is ENLIL. This is a name formed of two words, EN, which means master or lord (or perhaps force), and LIL, which is a tricky little word that has many Sumerologists tickled with delight. It is sometimes used to denote breath, sometimes to denote spirit, sometimes wind. It occasionally seems to suggest “ghost” but more in the sense of an “intelligent spirit” or the essence of someone’s being. Sumerologist Samuel Noah Kramer, an expert of Sumerian language, captured my imagination forever when he defined LIL as a word that, regardless of its content or nuance, always denotes a sense of movement or flow.
In other words, ENLIL, who rules supreme, is the master of FLOW.
Now that we know so much more about our universe and all its workings, we know that everything in the universe is, in fact, in constant flow, even at the molecular level, even in empty vacuum. It fascinates me to think that our ancestors six thousand years ago or earlier already understood the fundamental mechanics of all things living and nonliving, and knew to attribute to flow the most important role. Of course, it may all seem like coincidence, but our ancestor’s wisdom doesn’t stop at this lucky guess.
Sumerian creation myths tell us that ENLIL was not the creator of human kind. It was his brother, ENKI, a god of wisdom whose appearance was that of a human snake. ENKI also has interesting etymology. The word KI translates to earth, but it also indicates a fixed point, a home, so to speak, a point of reference. ENKI is the lord or master of the fixed. Enki is a wise and resourceful god. In many myths, he stands as protector of human kind against the sweeping cosmic powers of his more ethereal brother. For instance, when ENLIL decides to sweep the earth clean of humans by sending a great flood, it is ENKI who first advises his human servant Atra Hasis how to build a raft that will save him and his family, and later, when the wrathful ENLIL discovers that humans survived his punishment, it is once again ENKI who persuades ENLIL to relent on destroying them. Instead, he proposes, why not make humans mortal? Why not shorten their lives to a mere hundred years? ENKI then devises genetic modifications that drastically reduce human life from tens of thousands of years to less then one hundred years.
That is to say, ENKI is the orchestrator of evolution. He adapts, and shows humans how to adapt and survive.The fact that ENKI is represented as a snake has always floated me towards the idea that he in fact represents, quite literally, our reptilian brain.
We know that our brain is divided in three layers, and that the reptilian is the oldest. The reptilian brain is responsible for those “fixed” survival functions for which we do not need conscious awareness: movement, respiration, heartbeat, blood flow.
Also, the double helix of DNA does suggest a snake-like entity. ENKI is creator of all things earthly, and he also has great biological engineering skills, capable of designing a number of different living creatures. Sumerians could not have known about DNA, but the subconscious mind is a mysteriously vast and wondrous space. On some level, the snake-god seems to have a real biological correspondence to our survival on earth.
Poetic, isn’t it? But there’s more.
In one peculiarly memorable myth, ENKI is outwitted by a young and attractive goddess by the name of (N)INANNA (Mistress of Heaven). She is ENKI’s granddaughter, but apparently in those days there were no overt sexual taboos about incest or close family relations because ENKI is completely smitten by her. INANNA, who rules war and romantic love, has a secret agenda. She wants to become ruler of civilized life and to do this, she must steal from ENKI the decrees of civilization. She gets ENKI drunk and eventually cajoles him to relinquish his powers to her. At first he attempts to fight her and regain them, but soon enough he admits that she proved herself superior and has rightly earned her role as mistress supreme of human civilization.
(N)INANNA’s role in Sumerian culture is that as a goddess of war, love and passion. She is so passionate, in fact, that in most of Sumerian literature she figures as either seducing young gorgeous warriors, or screaming bloody hell at them in unbelievably wild shifts of moods.
Inanna, in other words, represents human passions — the limbic brain. Advances in neuroscience tell us that the limbic brain kicks in when we feel threatened or aroused, overpowering the cerebral cortex, which is the “thinking” brain. ENKI’s impulsive, regulated functions that served as adaptive forces for the prehistoric human are outwitted by the limbic brain (INANNA), which in turn also exerts power and influence over our cerebral cortex, as if claiming for herself absolute control over all human behavior.
Here is what McGill University says about the functions of the limbic brain:
The limbic brain emerged in the first mammals. It can record memories of behaviours that produced agreeable and disagreeable experiences, so it is responsible for what are called emotions in human beings. The main structures of the limbic brain are the hippocampus, the amygdala, and the hypothalamus. The limbic brain is the seat of the value judgments that we make, often unconsciously, that exert such a strong influence on our behaviour.
There is another parallel to be noted here, that leads me to discuss another entity in the pantheon. Just as ENLIL is the all encompassing universal flow, infusing the cosmos with movement, and his brother ENKI is his counterpart on earth, regulating breath and movement at the human level, so there is a cosmic parallel for INANNA’s earthly human passions in ERESKIGAL’s primitive, destructive, uncontrollable force in the underworld.
ERESKIGAL is a goddess that has been too readily and simplistically defined as the queen of the dead, but there may be much more to her than just her role as a prehistoric Satan. The etymology of her name is different from the usual EN/NIN variations indicating master or mistress (or else, force, or essence). Her title is ERES which means shrine. She also takes the KI for earth/fixed, and GAL to mean large, great. In other words, she is no mistress. She is the SHRINE OF THE GREAT EARTH. She is fixed, as she belongs to the biological world, to termination, to earth-bound life and invariable death, but she is of the living world. Unlike TIAMAT, the destructive dragon of the cosmic abyss, ERESKIGAL is earth’s core. She is, in fact, the violent earth, the magma — and the dust from which we rise and to which we return.
It is curious, and fascinating, that she is INANNA’s twin sister.
When the two goddesses meet face to face in EREKIGAL’s underworld, it doesn’t bode well for INANNA who is stripped of all the powers that she stole from ENKI, is slain and then hung on a peg. Curiously, as soon as her sister, the goddess of life, is dead, ERESKIGAL becomes inexplicably pregnant with a child she never does seem to deliver. ENKI, worried for the fate of humanity, persuades ERESKIGAL to resurrect and release INANNA, and when she does, ERESKIGAL is released from her endless labor. In return for INANNA, however, ERESKIGAL demands a ransom, INANNA’s handsome beau, DUMUZI, quite literally, SON OF LIFE.
I believe that myths have to be pondered like koans, not so much for their literal meaning, but for the suggestions, connotations, and possibilities that break down our logical barriers and enable us to connect with that archetypal wisdom that Carl Jung would say is the Collective Subconscious. I believe that on a mystical level, the Sumerian ancestors who first conceived these gods and their creation stories were in touch with that primordial wisdom in ways that we no longer have access to: even though they may not have been able to define things like reptilian brain, cosmic flow, or any of the science speak we flaunt around now, I have read too much of their work and have been immersed in too much of their wisdom to dismiss all that they have left behind as mere stories. They knew something about what we are. They sensed it in a deep, visceral level. And they were correct.