The Queen of Heaven mourns her loss
Nothing sums up the meaning of the Christian Good Friday like Michelangelo’s gorgeous sculpture of Mary grieving over her crucified son. Scenes like this, called pietas, or lamentations, became popular especially among women in 14th century Europe. Perhaps without even realizing it, the artists who created these images were restoring the Queen of Heaven to one of her oldest roles – that of the one who sheds tears over the loss of the dying god who will conquer death. This is a very old motif, far older than Christianity.
Before Mary and Jesus entered the roles, Isis wept in Egypt over the broken pieces of her husband Osiris, whose subsequent rebirth from death was aided by her reassembly of the pieces of his corpse and whose presence in the afterlife helped assure Egyptians that they too would live beyond death.
In a similar vein, the grain goddess Demeter wept over her daughter Persephone, who was kidnapped and taken to the underworld by Hades, the god of the dead. Demeter mourned so heavily that she refused to allow the crops to grow. All mankind were in danger of dying from the famine when the gods of Olympus finally intervened. Unfortunately for her, Persephone ate six seeds from a pomegranate, an act which prevented her escape under the obscure rules of the underworld. The best deal even old Zeus himself could broker was for her to spend six months above ground with her mother each year. Rules are rules and even the king of the gods cannot break them, apparently. Ever afterward Persephone visited her mother above ground in the summertime. In winter, she remained below ground and became the queen of the dead.
This Greek version of the dead-and-reborn deity theme formed the central myth of the Eleusinian Mysteries. This was a cult in which devotees practiced rites probably intended to help ensure they would experience a pleasant afterlife rather than waste away in gloomy Hades with the other shades. The mysteries, which were practiced in the time of Christianity’s birth as a religion and may have significantly impacted its traditions, were a carefully guarded secret. Naturally, then, a number of exciting theories have sprung up about their nature. Some scholars believe they conjured visions of the afterlife by taking drugs with psychedelic properties and some believe that the mysteries predate classical times, extending backward to the Bronze Age pre-Greek Myceneans or even to the Minoans who came before them. Since the latter were a culture whose religion appears to have been heavily dominated by goddesses and female priestesses, this myth could represent a holdover of feminine religion in a fairly severely patriarchal culture. Greek women were allowed into the mysteries, providing another parallel with early Christianity. Whatever the big secret was, the mysteries clearly combined themes of death and rebirth of a goddess and accompanying themes of that event being tied to the agricultural cycle, fertility, and the fate of the dead.
In the Near East, the dying-and-reborn god was Tammuz, who was worshiped well beyond the borders of his original Mesopotamian homeland. The Hebrew Bible reports that even the women of Israel were mourning for the dying god Tammuz in the time of the prophet Ezekiel, just before Babylon conquered Judah and took over the holy city of Jerusalem. Tammuz, like Persephone, spent half the year in the underworld, returning with the vegetation. Why? He was ordered to do so by the Queen of Heaven herself, the goddess Ishtar.
Tammuz was the Babylonian version of the even earlier god Dumuzi, a shepherd and farmer god who ancient hymns tell us married the great Sumerian Queen of Heaven Inanna, daughter of the moon and sister of the sun. Inanna’s accomplishments were many. She had stolen the tablets of wisdom from the god of wisdom himself, Enki. She was a fierce War Goddess and she was the Goddess of Love, linked in ritual and hymn with the life giving force of fertility. When Inanna and Dumuzi made love they were allowing the crops to grow, the herds and flocks to thrive and people to carry on through their children. The Sumerians did not share our embarassment about sex and were quite explicit in using it as a religious metaphor.
Says Inanna, calling Dumuzi to the marriage bed:
My vulva, the horn,
The Boat of Heaven,
Is full of eagerness like the young moon.
My untilled land lies fallow.
As for me, Inanna,
Who will plow my vulva?
Who will plow my high field?
Who will plow my wet ground?
His marriage to Inanna confers upon him the kingship of the land, a fact made clear by the speech of Inanna’s servant Ninshubur:
My queen, here is the choice of your heart,
The king, your beloved bridegroom.
May he spend long days in the sweetness of your holy loins.
Give him a favorable and glorious reign.
Grant him the king’s throne, firm in its foundations.
Grant him the shepherd’s staff of judgment.
Grant him the enduring crown with the radiant and noble diadem….
Let his shepherd’s staff protect all of Sumer and Akkad.
Ninshubur continues, making the new king’s role as a fertility god clear:
As the farmer, let him make the fields fertile,
As the shepherd, let him make the sheepfolds multiply,
Under his reign let there be vegetation,
Under his reign let there be rich grain.
In the marshland may the fish and birds chatter,
In the canebrake may the young and old reeds grow high,
In the steppe may the mashgur-trees grow high,
In the forests may the deer and wild goats multiply,
In the orchards may there be honey and wine,
In the gardens may the lettuce and cress grow high,
In the palace may there be long life.
May there be floodwater in the Tigris and Euphrates,
May the plants grow high on their banks and fill the meadows,
May the Lady of Vegetation pile the grain in heaps and mounds.
O my Queen of Heaven and Earth,
Queen of all the universe,
May he enjoy long days in the sweetness of your holy loins.
–excerpts from “The Courtship of Inanna and Dumuzi,” in Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth: Her Stories and Hymns from Sumer, by Diane Wolkstein and S.N. Kramer, a book I highly recommend for those interested in learning more about this ancient goddess.
Sadly, the two had a rather terrible falling out later, which led to Inanna’s literally telling her husband to go to Hell.
To the Babylonians, Inanna’s name was Ishtar, and traveling westward, she became the Canaanite/Phoenician Astarte, the Queen of Heaven and Ashtoreth in the Bible, and ultimately probably became Aphrodite to the Greeks and Venus to the Romans. By all these names she was also known as the planet we call Venus, also known as the Morning and Evening Star.
She was extolled in hymns as the great lady of heaven, the holy torch, and called “mighty, majestic and radiant.” She was the “Proud Queen of the Earth Gods” and “Supreme Among the Heaven Gods,” and so on. She brightened the night and the morning and could make the earth tremble.
One of her greatest accomplishments, however, may have been her role as the original victor over death. Before she ever condemned Dumuzi to the underworld, she visited the place herself. Thousands of years before the Christian era, Inanna decided to face the ultimate challenge: she descended into Hell, died for three days, and returned to tell the tale. But there was a catch. She was tailed by demons upon her return because even a goddess could not just leave the underworld in Sumer any more than she could in Greece. In order to be allowed to remain above ground, she must provide a substitute to appease the demons. When she arrived home to find her faithless lover all gussied up in fine robes and celebrating in her absence, she chose him to pay her price: ever after he was to take her place in the underworld. Even so, the Sumerians said Inanna wept for her lost husband.
The place where Inanna and Dumuzi were beloved was the land between the lower Tigris and Euphrates rivers, up to the point where they empty into the Persian Gulf. It is now home to the troubled and arid Muslim nation of Iraq. But thousands of years ago this land supported the first ever complex city-based civilization. Sumer was basically a nation made up of allied and culturally related city states which formed in the lush and fertile green section between the rivers (known as Mesopotamia) beginning about 3,500 B.C. To give a little historical perspective, that’s about 5,500 years ago, about 3,500 years before Jesus’ lifetime, about 2,500 years before the nation of Israel came into being, and about 1,000 years before the Great Pyramids were constructed. There in Sumer, humans first invented writing and the wheel and first wrote the original versions of many of the stories still preached from the pulpit today (including the creation of humans from clay and the original version of Noah’s Ark). Their land may have been the source of the Eden legend, as its boundaries included four rivers and two of these were the Tigris and the Euphrates. Abraham is also said to have come from the city-state of Ur in Sumer. So the stories of this ancient place are deeply related to our stories. Its history is our history. Once upon a time there was Jesus, yes, but once upon a time much longer ago, there was Dumuzi. And in both times there was a Queen of Heaven. In her later incarnation she is pure and sorrowful, a mother who has lost a god-son. In her earlier incarnation, she was a bit more…feisty.
Inanna’s Trip to Hell
Inanna’s trip to Hell begins for no clearly stated reason. Perhaps she was bored; perhaps she just wanted to visit her sister Erishkigal, who as queen of the underworld was always trapped below the earth with the shades of the dead; or perhaps, as is implied by some of the other gods’ reactions to her behavior, she hoped to take over the underworld and become a goddess of both Heaven and Hell. Whatever the case, the realm she entered was conceived as a gloomy one, even though the sun shone by night there after it descended below the horizon. Access to the underworld came by grave or by descent through special portals, one of which was apparently in Inanna’s home city of Erech. The underworld was reached by crossing the river of the dead and passing through seven successive gates.
As she arrived at each gate, Inanna met with guardians who removed articles of her finery until finally she reached the inner level completely naked. Here she was in the realm ruled over by her sister, the fierce and gloomy Erishkigal, goddess of the dead. Erishkigal welcomed her sister less than warmly. She had her judges give Inanna the look of death, whereupon Inanna was turned to a corpse and hung on a meat hook. This dysfunctional family gathering might have ended on this sour note but for Inanna’s cleverness. She held no illusions about her sister’s gruesome tendencies apparently. Before leaving she instructed her servant Ninshubur to seek the aid of her above-ground relatives should she fail to return. Accordingly, once three days had passed, the dutiful Ninshubur visited Grandpa Enlil, the chief god, Inanna’s father Nanna, the moon god, and finally her great uncle Enki, god of wisdom, in search of aid. The first two refused her, but good old uncle Enki, apparently holding no grudge over Inanna’s theft of his tablets of wisdom, stepped in. Enki gave Ninshubur two sexless entities made out of the dirt in his fingernails. He gave them the water of life and the food of life and ordered them to accompany her to the underworld to aid in the rescue of Inanna. These two entities, apparently immune to the ordinary effects of the death goddess’ realm, carried the food and water of life to the lowest level of Hell where they used them to revive Inanna. Thus released from the grip of death, Inanna was allowed to return from the underworld, but only on condition that she send back a substitute. Demons accompanied her, ready and willing to haul her back underground should she fail to procure a replacement.
Arriving back in the upperworld, she was pleased to find many gods properly mourning her passing by wearing soiled sackloth. Her husband Dumuzi rather starkly contrasted with the others in that he was dressed in glittering finery, sitting on her throne, and generally giving the appearance that he was not exactly torn up over his wife’s recent demise. When he discovered too late that reports of Inanna’s death had been greatly exaggerated, he found himself dragged off by the demons to serve as a substitute for his wife.
Dumuzi’s sister Geshtinanna offered to spend half the year underground for Dumuzi. And so a pattern was established in which Dumuzi went underground when the earth was barren and returned with the vegetation in the growing season.The annual descent of Dumuzi/Tammuz was accompanied by the wailing of women throughout the Near East in the Bronze Age and well into the Iron Age.
Their tears joined those of Inanna for her lost husband. Even though it was she who condemned him, we are told:
Inanna wept for Dumuzi:
Gone is my husband , my sweet husband
Gone is my love, my sweet love.
My beloved has been taken from the city.
O, you flies of the steppe,
My beloved bridegroom has been taken from me
Before I could wrap him with a proper shroud.
In the same ancient text, we are told that Inanna’s mourning is accompanied by that of Dumuzi’s mother and of his sister and even that the whole city laments with her. Dumuzi even cries for himself and, stumbling about on the steppe, his “heart filled with tears” he begs nature to mourn for him as well:
Oh steppe, set up a wail for me!
O crabs in the river, mourn for me!
O frogs in the river, call for me!
O my mother, Sirtur, weep for me!
–quotes from Wolkstein, Inanna Queen of Heaven and Earth (see also above)
There is no evidence I am aware of which suggests that human participation in the rituals commemorating these events was believed to carry the promise of an afterlife. Sumerians already expected that they would live on in the afterlife, though they seem to have viewed this afterlife as a gloomier, paler reflection of life on earth. Those who had ruled in life were still kings below and the dead were judged by the sun god (or goddess in the western variation on the theme) and assigned an appropriate fate. People in the afterlife ate and drank and lived in houses and carried out their duties just as did those above ground.
So in this most ancient of cosmologies, the individual’s shot at life after death was not at stake in the death of the goddess. What happened if Inanna (or her spouse) didn’t return was that fertility failed. We are accustomed to hearing the term “fertility cult” bandied about as if it were a somewhat insignificant, if titillating, religious oddity. But fertility is no small thing. It is life itself. Without fertility, there is no life. It is interesting to note there is also an obscure reference in the myth to Erishkigal being a mother who has just given birth. It is through offering her their sympathy that the fingernail-dirt creatures are able to obtain permission to take Inanna’s corpse off the hook so they can bring it back to life.
Humans participated in the rituals of the dying-and-reborn gods because they were the stuff of nature. Returning from the underworld in his appropriate agricultural season Dumuzi brought the Sumerians (or became?) their food. I can’t help but think of the eucharist as something of a parallel here. The people remembered Inanna’s and Dumuzi’s journeys below and their return to the earth and the heavens because their presence among the living was necessary to ensure that the cattle, and donkeys, and people shared the gift of love and made little copies of themselves. It brought nothing less than the continuation of life on earth. In that unending cycle of death and rebirth lay all their hopes for the future.