Ancient Mesopotamian Underworld
The ruler of the Underworld was the goddess Ereshkigal, who lived in the palace Ganzir, sometimes used as a name for the underworld itself. Her husband was either Gugalanna, the “canal-inspector of Anu”, or, especially in later stories, Nergal, the god of death. After the Akkadian Period (c. 2334 – 2154 BC), Nergal sometimes took over the role as ruler of the underworld. The seven gates of the underworld are guarded by a gatekeeper, who is named Neti in Sumerian. The god Namtar acts as Ereshkigal’s sukkal, or divine attendant. The dying god Dumuzid spends half the year in the underworld, while, during the other half, his place is taken by his sister, the scribal goddess Geshtinanna, who records the names of the deceased. The underworld was also the abode of various demons, including the hideous child-devourer Lamashtu, the fearsome wind demon and protector god Pazuzu, and galla, who dragged mortals to the underworld.
The Sumerians had a large number of different names which they applied to the Underworld, including Arali, Irkalla, Kukku, Ekur, Kigal, and Ganzir. All of these terms were later borrowed into Akkadian. The rest of the time, the underworld was simply known by words meaning “earth” or “ground”, including the terms Kur and Ki in Sumerian and the word erṣetu in Akkadian. When used in reference to the underworld, the word Kur usually means “ground”, but sometimes this meaning is conflated with another possible meaning of the word Kur as “mountain”. The cuneiform sign for Kur was written ideographically with the cuneiform sign 𒆳, a pictograph of a mountain. Sometimes the underworld is called the “land of no return”, the “desert”, or the “lower world”. The most common name for the earth and the underworld in Akkadian is erṣetu, but other names for the underworld include: ammatu, arali / arallû, bīt ddumuzi (“House of Dumuzi”), danninu, erṣetu la târi (“Earth of No Return”), ganzer / kanisurra, ḫaštu, irkalla, kiūru, kukkû (“Darkness”), kurnugû (“Earth of No Return”), lammu, mātu šaplītu, and qaqqaru.
Nonetheless, funerary evidence indicates that some people believed that the goddess Inanna, Ereshkigal’s younger sister, had the power to award her devotees with special favors in the afterlife.During the Third Dynasty of Ur (c. 2112 – c. 2004 BC), it was believed that a person’s treatment in the afterlife depended on how he or she was buried; those that had been given sumptuous burials would be treated well, but those who had been given poor burials would fare poorly. Those who did not receive a proper burial, such as those who had died in fires and whose bodies had been burned or those who died alone in the desert, would have no existence in the underworld at all, but would simply cease to exist. The Sumerians believed that, for the highly privileged, music could alleviate the bleak conditions of the underworld.
The entrance to Kur was believed to be located in the Zagros mountains in the far east. A staircase led down to the gates of the underworld. The underworld itself is usually located even deeper below ground than the Abzu, the body of freshwater which the ancient Mesopotamians believed lay deep beneath the earth. In other, conflicting traditions, however, it seems to be located at a remote and inaccessible location on earth, possibly somewhere in the far west. This alternate tradition is hinted at by the fact that the underworld is sometimes called “desert” and by the fact that actual rivers located far away from Sumer are sometimes referred to as the “river of the underworld”. The underworld was believed to have seven gates, through which a soul needed to pass. All seven gates were protected by bolts. The god Neti was the gatekeeper. Ereshkigal’s sukkal, or messenger, was the god Namtar. The palace of Ereshkigal was known as Ganzir.
At night, the sun-god Utu was believed to travel through the underworld as he journeyed to the east in preparation for the sunrise. One Sumerian literary work refers to Utu illuminating the underworld and dispensing judgement there and Shamash Hymn 31 (BWL 126) states that Utu serves as a judge of the dead in the underworld alongside the malku, kusu, and the Anunnaki. On his way through the underworld, Utu was believed to pass through the garden of the sun-god, which contained trees that bore precious gems as fruit. The Sumerian hymn Inanna and Utu contains an etiological myth in which Utu’s sister Inanna begs her brother Utu to take her to Kur, so that she may taste the fruit of a tree that grows there, which will reveal to her all the secrets of sex. Utu complies and, in Kur, Inanna tastes the fruit and becomes knowledgeable of sex.The hymn employs the same motif found in the myth of Enki and Ninhursag and in the later Biblical story of Adam and Eve.
Ereshkigal and family
Gugalanna is the first husband of Ereshkigal, the queen of the underworld. His name probably originally meant “canal inspector of An” and he may be merely an alternative name for Ennugi. The son of Ereshkigal and Gugalanna is Ninazu. In Inanna’s Descent into the Underworld, Inanna tells the gatekeeper Neti that she is descending to the underworld to attend the funeral of “Gugalanna, the husband of my elder sister Ereshkigal”. During the Akkadian Period (c. 2334 – 2154 BC), Ereshkigal’s role as the ruler of the underworld was assigned to Nergal, the god of death. The Akkadians attempted to harmonize this dual rulership of the underworld by making Nergal Ereshkigal’s husband. Nergal is the deity most often identified as Ereshkigal’s husband.He was also associated with forest fires (and identified with the fire-god, Gibil), fevers, plagues, and war. In myths, he causes destruction and devastation.
Ninazu is the son of Ereshkigal and the father of Ningishzida. He is closely associated with the underworld. He was mostly worshipped in Eshnunna during the third millennium BC, but he was later supplanted by the Hurrian storm god Tishpak. A god named “Ninazu” was also worshipped at Enegi in southern Sumer, but this may be a different local god by the same name. His divine beast was the mušḫuššu, a kind of dragon, which was later given to Tishpak and then Marduk.
Ningishzida is a god who normally lives in the underworld. He is the son of Ninazu and his name may be etymologically derived from a phrase meaning “Lord of the Good Tree”. In the Sumerian poem, The Death of Gilgamesh, the hero Gilgamesh dies and meets Ningishzida, along with Dumuzid, in the underworld. Gudea, the Sumerian king of the city-state of Lagash, revered Ningishzida as his personal protector. In the myth of Adapa, Dumuzid and Ningishzida are described as guarding the gates of the highest Heaven. Ningishzida was associated with the constellation Hydra.
Other underworld deities
Geshtinanna is a rural agricultural goddess sometimes associated with dream interpretation. She is the sister of Dumuzid, the god of shepherds. In one story, she protects her brother when the galla demons come to drag him down to the underworld by hiding him in successively in four different places. In another version of the story, she refuses to tell the galla where he is hiding, even after they torture her. The galla eventually take Dumuzid away after he is betrayed by an unnamed “friend”, but Inanna decrees that he and Geshtinanna will alternate places every six months, each spending half the year in the underworld while the other stays in Heaven. While she is in the underworld, Geshtinanna serves as Ereshkigal’s scribe.
Lugal-irra and Meslamta-ea are a set of twin gods who were worshipped in the village of Kisiga, located in northern Babylonia. They were regarded as guardians of doorways and they may have originally been envisioned as a set of twins guarding the gates of the underworld, who chopped the dead into pieces as they passed through the gates. During the Neo-Assyrian Period (911 BC–609 BC), small depictions of them would be buried at entrances, with Lugal-irra always on the left and Meslamta-ea always on the right They are identical and are shown wearing horned caps and each holding an axe and a mace They are identified with the constellation Gemini, which is named after them
Neti is the gatekeeper of the underworld. In the story of Inanna’s Descent into the Underworld, he leads Inanna through the seven gates of the underworld, removing one of her garments at each gate so that when she comes before Ereshkigal she is naked and symbolically powerless. Belet-Seri is a chthonic underworld goddess who was thought to record the names of the deceased as they entered the underworld. Enmesarra is a minor deity of the underworld. Seven or eight other minor deities were said to be his offspring. His symbol was the suššuru (a kind of pigeon).In one incantation, Enmesarra and Ninmesharra, his female counterpart, are invoked as ancestors of Enki and as primeval deities. Ennugi is “the canal inspector of the gods”. He is the son of Enlil or Enmesarra and his wife is the goddess Nanibgal. He is associated with the underworld and he may be Gugalanna, the first husband of Ereshkigal, under a different name.
See also: Demonology
Lamashtu was a demonic goddess with the “head of a lion, the teeth of a donkey, naked breasts, a hairy body, hands stained (with blood?), long fingers and fingernails, and the feet of Anzû.” She was believed to feed on the blood of human infants and was widely blamed as the cause of miscarriages and cot deaths. Although Lamashtu has traditionally been identified as a demoness, the fact that she could cause evil on her own without the permission of other deities strongly indicates that she was seen as a goddess in her own right. Mesopotamian peoples protected against her using amulets and talismans. She was believed to ride in her boat on the river of the underworld and she was associated with donkeys. She was believed to be the daughter of An.
Pazuzu is a demonic god who was well-known to the Babylonians and Assyrians throughout the first millennium BC. He is shown with “a rather canine face with abnormally bulging eyes, a scaly body, a snake-headed penis, the talons of a bird and usually wings.” He was believed to be the son of the god Hanbi. He was usually regarded as evil, but he could also sometimes be a beneficent entity who protected against winds bearing pestilence and he was thought to be able to force Lamashtu back to the underworld. Amulets bearing his image were positioned in dwellings to protect infants from Lamashtu and pregnant women frequently wore amulets with his head on them as protection from her. Ironically, Pazuzu appears in The Exorcist films as the demon that possesses the little girl.
Šul-pa-e’s name means “youthful brilliance”, but he was not envisioned as youthful god. According to one tradition, he was the consort of Ninhursag, a tradition which contradicts the usual portrayal of Enki as Ninhursag’s consort. In one Sumerian poem, offerings to made to Šhul-pa-e in the underworld and, in later mythology, he was one of the demons of the underworld.