Source: Harris, Rivkah (2000). Gender and Aging in Mesopotamia: The Gilgamesh Epic and other ancient Literature. University of Okahoma Press, Normal. © All rights reserved. Here reproduced for aid in research and studies purposes.
The myth of Nergal and Ereshkigal (polysemous like other myths) reflects, expresses and embodies views about human sexuality and the relationship between men and women. The goddess and god, I believe, are emblematic, possessing what the ancients considered to be feminine and masculine human traits and characteristics.
Two different versions of the myth of Nergal and Ereshkigal are extant. The earlier one, found at Tell El-Amarna in Egypt and dating from the fifteenth or fourteenth century BCE is a very abbreviated and probably incomplete story of some 90 lines. The much later seventh-century BCE Late Assyrian version from Sultantepe is much longer, perhaps consisting of some 750 lines. A later Neo-Babylonian fragment from Uruk restores some of the passages missing in this account. Both versions have many lacunae and present, therefore, numerous problems; at many important junctures in the text, the breaks leave one guessing. Nevertheless, the basic outline of the story and its themes and motifs are fairly clear.
The celestial gods decide to have a banquet. According to cosmic regulations, the gods of heaven cannot descend to the Underworld, nor can chthonic deities ascend to the heavens. So a messenger is sent to Ereshkigal, Mistress of the Great Land, to send a messenger to receive her "food portion" [from the table of the heavenly deities]. Her envoy ascends "the long stairway to heaven" to do so. The celestial gods gods respectfully stand to greet him [Namtar, Ereshkigal´s vizier] [or kneel in front of Namtar according to the Uruk version], as befits the messenger of the Great Goddess - that is all stand [or kneel] except for Nergal [god of war and diseases]. Nergal must then make amends for his insult.
In the earlier account, he is apparently summoned to be punished by execution. But the cunning god Ea [Enki in Sumerian, the god of the Sweet Underground Waters, Magick and Crafts] comes to Nergal´s rescue by giving him seven demons, personification of plagues, to accompany him for his defense. With their help, Nergal is able to reach Ereshkigal and he overpowers her and becomes her husband.
In the later version, far more elaborate and in some crucial passages very different, Nergal makes two visits to the Netherworld. It is unclear whether on the first visit he is to receive a pardon from the goddess or whether he attempts to defy her. Here too the wily Ea comes to Nergal´s aid. For the first occasion, Ea has him make a throne of chair of many different woods perhaps as a compensatory gift.
So Ea instructs Nergal not to accept the hospitality he will be offered as a guest - not to sit on a chair, not to eat bread or meat, not to drink beer, and not to wash his feet - and also tells him,
On the first visit, of which many lines are missing, Nergal apparently heeds Ea´s advice. But after a break in the text, the goddess is found stripping for her bath. This time
After six days of lovemaking, Nergal is eager to return to the Heights Above. He leaves Ereshkigal asleep and wins his way back to the Heights, no where to be seen while he ascends.
When Ereshkigal is told by Namtar, her faithful vizier, that Nergal has vanished, she sends Namtar to the Heights with the mission of bringing Nergal back to her. After one failure and a long break in the text, Nergal returns, this time out of his own free will. He is challenged this time by the guardians but defies them not to allow his entrance. He then seizes Ereshkigal and becomes king of the Underworld, ruling by her side.
Most Assyriologists view both accounts as etiological, explaining how Nergal, a celestial god, became the ruler of the Underworld. However, Stephanie Dalley, quite rightly in my view, questions whether the myth simply related "the transition of the rule in the Underworld from a solitary deity to a pair... for Nergal is called the Enlil of the Netherworld" in a composition from the late third or early second millennium, so it may be preferable to ascribe to the myth a different purpose, such as harmonizing two separate traditions. No Sumerian version of the story is known.
As to the chief difference between the two versions, the French Assyriologist Jean Bottéro remarks that in the Amarna story Nergal becomes rules via violence, whereas in the later account the conflict between go d and goddess leads to a love affair. In the earlier text, Ereshkigal demands that Nergal, who had offended her, be sent to her to be killed. Instead she ends up making him her husband. As Bottéro notes, "in a world where names and words had such an objective value this is not merely an amusing pun [Bottéro refers to the fact that Nergal´s name comes from the Sumerian and means Authority of the Great City, or the Underworld], but the ruse perpetrated by Ea by playing upon the homophony of the two terms. The later version suggests a more subtle and psychological interplay than the earlier one.
A quite different approach is taken by T. Frymer-Kensky, who interprets the myth as part of the general trend "towards total marginalization and privatization of goddesses" after Sumerian times. Ereshkigal is demoted to the position of spouse of Nergal, who then becomes the ruler of the Underworld. Frymer-Kensky believes that the Akkadian myth was written to account for this takeover.
Some attention has been paid to the "love story" aspect of the myth by E. Reiner and T. Jacobsen. The latter has described it "as a tale of sexual attraction between the wish to kill and passionate surrender... As a myth, the savage courtship it tells of seems somehow right for the forbidding powers of death". Especially insightful is the analysis by M. Hutter who focuses on the nuances and subtleties of its language and motifs in discussing the erotic component of food and drink the motif of seductive bathing and the sexual relationship between the deities, among other topics.
But what, to my knowledge, has not been explored in the myth is the issue of gender and sexuality and the information on those areas that a close examination of Nergal and Ereshkigal yields. I suggest that this myth can be considered as a reflexive discourse on gender relations and male/female sexuality in late ancient Mesopotamia. Borrowing from S. Crane, I would define gender as "the exterior, social interpretation of sexual practices, specific to a particular society. Sexuality, broadly understood as the generation, expression, and organization of desire, is the ongoing behavior that informs gendered identities". Moreover, from the perspective of gender differences, masculinity is a composite of traits that contrast with feminine ones.
I am well aware of the problematic of utilizing the genre of myth for recovering the attitudes, views and experiences of ordinary men and women of a long-dead civilization. The observation by B. Alster , who has done much seminal research on Mesopotamian literature, is relevant: "The common tendency in ancient literature is not to describe ordinary people directly, but only indirectly in the guise of deities". He adds, however, that this cannot be verified in Mesopotamia. I contend that those parts of both versions in which god and goddess confront one another, despite their important differences, inform us about the definitions of maleness and femaleness from a masculine perspective. And if the myth does not reflect how gender relations were actually structured in Mesopotamia, it reveals how gender relations ought to have been structured, according to the androcentric perspective of Mesopotamian literature.
Passages pertinent to our topic appear in both accounts and warrant a closer examination. In the Amarna version, Nergal - accompanied by seven demons, who take up positions at each of the seven netherworld gates - makes a rush to kill Ereshkigal:
Three times in this passage the verb to seize is used: he seized her by the hair, she offers to let him seize kingship, and he seized and kissed her. In the first and third instances Nergal is the active agent; in the second, Ereshkigal, still with some power, will permit him to act. In the first occurrence, Nergal acts in cave-man fashion. The iterative term is thus a key word underlining the power struggle between male and female, with the male emerging victorious. Its use highlights the aggressiveness of Nergal, though the aggression is mitigated by his kissing the goddess and tenderly wiping away her tears. A.L. Openheim suggests that Ereshkigal´s offer of the kingship "is made in order to give Nergal the appearance of a legitimate ruler and not a usurper". Yet the use of the verb to seize could only remind the reader/listener of the idiom "to usurp the throne". Nergal´s action against Ereshkigal graphically describe her humiliation and subjection. The verb here translated as pulled literally means "he bends her down, makes her fall prostrate". Nergal unequivocally renders Ereshkigal submissive, in a posture associated with both the conquered and the old.
Translators differ in their opinion as to who "wept and was overcome" after Nergal listened to Ereshkigal "and "relaxed his grip". Dalley is the minority assuming it is Nergal. Although men cried in Mesopotamia when overcome with emotion, it is more likely, in keeping with the spirit of the Amarna text and the evidence of the later one, that it is Ereshkigal who is so distressed. Nergal says little in this passage, in contrast to Ereshkigal, whose loquaciousness as a female trait is perhaps implied. Though Nergal´s violence is emphasized, he does stop to listen to her. His potential for consideration is carefully noted in his relaxing his grip on her, kissing her and wiping away her tears. His brief words at the end, though incomplete, imply that he would long before have complied with her wishes, if only he had known what they were.
To sum up, if one can assume that we have in the story a picture of how relations between men and women ought to have been, the following picture emerges. A significant binary opposition existed between the two: active male as against passive female. The man, if necessary, could use aggressiveness to subdue the woman, but the aggression should have been restrained and even mitigated once the goal of domination was achieved. Concern and tenderness were components in a good relationship between the sexes. Nergal´s readiness to listen to what Ereshkigal has to day may well mirror the regard men often had for women´s understanding and prudence.
Far more detailed and informative are the details of the later version, which is replete with subtleties and psychological insights. B. R. Foster proposes that the "expansion and revision of the story developed its motif of sexuality, and in fact makes this the cause of Nergal´s triumph rather than his derring-do. But that matter is far more complex than Foster´s suggestion implies.
On Nergal´s first visit to the Land of No Return, he knelt down, kissed the ground before Her (Ereshkigal), in deference to her position as ruler of the Netherworld. He thus acknowledges her superior status at this point in the story.
On Nergal´s second visit, after a break of some 13 lines, according to Dalley, "The two embraced each other and went passionately to bed". The wording of these two lines is significant: the use of each other implies a mutual and egalitarian sexual relationship between the two gods. The term passionately comes from the verb to surge, to become spirited, excited, to rage, and is frequently used to describe water, horses, lions, storms and warfare. It denotes the intensity and high pitch of the gods´ encounter. The details of their sexual intimacy are few; more is conveyed indirectly than explicitly. For six days the two lay in bed. Each time Ereshkigal is named, she is referred to as queen; significantly, no epithet precedes Nergal´s name, but he is referred to by his other name, Erra. In the following poorly preserved lines, Nergal on the 7th day asks Ereshkigal to permit him to return home, promissing to return later. She becomes enraged (literally "her lips become as dark as the edges of a bowl"). But he manages to leave without her knowledge. He succeeds in deceiving the gatekeeper, saying that he is acting as messenger for Ereshkigal. In the morning, the goddess "rises in a leisurely way, enjoys a bath and calls that the rooms be freshened and breakfast served". She assumes Nergal is somewhere about. Namtar then informs her of Nergal´s disappearance:
Highly charged, vivid language describes Ereshkigal´s response to Nergal´s desertion. In the Amarna version, Nergal pulls her down from the throne; here she falls down, symbolically foreshadowing what will take place later.
Foster differs somewhat in his translation of the first four lines. His heightens the picture of Ereshkigal´s utter devastation:
Hutter has pointed out the semantic relationship between eating and sexual relationship in the text´s use of the verb "to become sated, to be satisfied". Though Nergal may not have been able to resist Ereshkigal´s charms, he was sexually satisfied after six days . Though Nergal may not have been able to resist Ereshkigal´s charms, he was sexually satisfied after six days. Ereshkigal obviously was not. The very repetition of her lament underlines her ongoing craving for the god. What may well be expressed here is the view that women have voracious appetites for Sex, a not-uncommon view about women.
Namtar responds to her cries and plaint, prepared to forcibly return Nergal to her. But she first carefully tells him what to say:
Her speech, in my view, may well reveal the masculine view of female discourse. But before proceeding, note should be taken of a recent different and preferable suggested reading of the line "I am unclean and am not pure enough to perform the judging of the great gods". Instead, read: " Or else I (Ereshkigal) will not decree death at all. I will not pass judgement for the great gods". Much has been written about Ereshkigal´s impurity here, which raised many questions that may now be resolved with the new reading. The goddess´ s instructions to Namtar consist of two parts - an appeal for pity and two threats.
First she bewails her lonely childhood, mentioning her status as daughter, thus calling on kingship ties to strengthen her appeal for a favorable response. Foster´s translation of "he had intercourse with me" is far better than Dalley´s "he has impregnated me". Ereshkigal asks for only one more night with the god. She also puts the onus of responsibility for her plight on the gods by saying that they sent Nergal to her.
Ereshkigal, in the revised reading, then threatens to withhold the death entrances for humans in accordance with cosmic norms. And more terrifying still, identical to Ishtar´s threats in the Descent of Ishtar, she will raise the dead, who will eat the living. The importance of this speech by the imperious goddess is underlined by its verbatim repetition by Namtar to the gods. He is told to find the wrongdoer and take him. But Namtar fails to recognize the disguised Nergal. He returns and tells his Mistress, "My lady, there was only one god who sat bareheaded blinking and cringing". Ereshkigal, much shrewder than her messenger, immediately realizes that this is Nergal. She orders Namtar to return heavenward again and bring him back. He does, but only after Ea again instructs Nergal not to sit on a chair. Once more Nergal descends "the long stairway of heaven". At each of the seven gates he strikes down its gatekeeper. Nergal enters Ereshkigal´s wide courtyard:
embraced each other
And went passionately to bed.
They lay there, queen Ereshkigal and Erra, for a first day and a second day.
They lay there, queen Ereshkigal and Erra, for a third day.
They lay there, queen Ereshkigal and Erra, for a fourth day.
They lay there, queen Ereshkigal and Erra, for a fifth day.
They lay there, queen Ereshkigal and Erra, for a sixth day.
seventh day arrived,
Anu made his voice heard and spoke,
Addressed his words to Kakka, his vizier,
"Kakka, I shall send you to Kurnugi,
To the home of Ereshkigal who dwells within Erkalla,
To say, "That god, whom I sent you,
Forever [ ]
Those above [ ]
Those below [ ]
(about 20 - 25 lines missing at end) (extracted from Before the Muses, by Foster, Yale)
Nergal enters laughing. As Hutter has noted, the term to laugh has a sexual connotation, this intimating what is soon to come. In language somewhat similar to that of the Amarna account, Nergal once again seizes Ereshkigal by the hair, pulling her down from the throne. The retention of this action, though the Akkadian differs, highlights in my view its significance in understanding a central theme of both versions: the proper hierarchical relationship between male and female; the male must aggressively subdue the female.
Their sexual encounter is phrased exactly as it was on the first occasion. When the seventh day comes, Anu speaks to his vizier giving him a message to be relayed, presumably to both Ereshkigal and Nergal. Though very little is preserved of what follows, we are cued into the heart of its contents in the word forever. Nergal is to remain forever in the Land of No Return to rule over it with Ereshkigal beside him.
Thus, in the myth Nergal and Ereshkigal the male is characterized as aggressive and violent and, despite constraints, doing by and large as he pleases. Men were to stick together and support one another, as Ea does in instructing Nergal how to face the wrath of Ereshkigal and the dangers of the Underworld. It is interesting that he resists hunger and thirst, but cannot resist Ereshkigal´s appeal. Therefore, Sex may be a far more powerful appetite to be satiated. However, despite the inherent aggressiveness of the masculine personality of Nergal, he shows tenderness towards Ereshkigal, especially in the Amarna version, when he wipes away the goddess´ tears....
Nergal and Ereshkigal highlights perhaps the essential desirable characteristic of males, that of mastery and dominance. As A. K. Guinan comments, "masculine aggressiveness is a prized trait." She describes "the concept of male dominance as a "vivid behavioral pattern". Sheer aggressiveness makes a man "foremost among his brothers and colleagues". Significant too is her conclusion that "a sexually aggressive woman represents surrender of power by the male. It is questionable whether Ereshkigal is sexually aggressive, because the two versions of Nergal and Ereshkigal describe an egalitarian sexual relationship. Until she is compelled to share hegemony of the Underworld, the goddess is depicted as a powerful and autonomous woman. However, Ereshkigal as queen with sole power is intolerable and unacceptable. She must, because she is a woman, cede the throne to Nergal, or, at any rate, share it with him. Similarly, in the central myth of Enuma Elish (dating mainly from the first millennium and later), Tiamat, wife and then widow of Apsu, must not rule. She marries Kingu and appoints him as ruler; it is he who then leads the army though unsuccessfully against Marduk. As Oppenheim has suggested, Ereshkigal offers Nergal "unconditional surrender and her hand in marriage": the two go hand in hand.
Although the wives and daughters of rulers had high officials in Mesopotamia were important in various administrative and economic activities, no woman, with one exception, ruled in Mesopotamia. The only woman who ruled was Ku-Bau of Kish, a barmaid who in Early Dynastic times according to late legend, "became king and ruled for one hundred years". Not surprisingly, her reign was viewed as an ominous anomaly that did not augur well for Mesopotamia.: "If an anomaly has both penis and vulva - omen of Ku-Bau who ruled the land, the land of the king will become waste." Interestingly, she is also described as having seized the throne, in short a usurper. Indeed, one might say that Ereshkigal´s last act of dominion is handing over the tablet of wisdom (in the Amarna version) to Nergal after first proposing marriage, a masculine act. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the hero rejects the goddess Ishtar´s proposal of marriage, which would have compromised his masculinity. A woman sitting on the throne was behavior unbecoming for a woman, just as bearded woman was an unnatural phenomenon. But a man usurping the throne was neither uncommon nor a heinous event in Mesopotamian history.
Mastery was thus seen as a masculine aptitude, dependent on an ideological differentiation between gender roles. Once Ereshkigal begins to love Nergal, she becomes emotionally dependent on him for her happiness, and she loses her capacity to rule. There was probably a general concern about men spending too much time with women. In one Mari letter sent by Shamshi-Adad, the great ruler of Shubat-Enlil, to his son Yasmah-Adad, he chides the latter for dallying with the women and thus being deflected from matters of state. In short, Yasmah-Adad demonstrates an excessive interest in sexual pleasure. As Guinan notes, any excessive, uncontrollable act or incidents of excessive sexual indulgence was an augury of misfortune... By its very nature sexuality involves surrender of control and ... sexual expression must be subject to restraints." Nergal, in contrast to Ereshkigal, has his full of sexual congress after six days. His love-them-leave-them attitude has him in control and in charge of the situation. As already noted, few details describe the sexual encounter between god and goddess: "The two embraced each other / And went passionately to bed". There is no description of the body or of sexual intimacies. It is reminiscent of an Old Babylonian love text discussed by M. Held in which, similarly, the woman is the faithful lover; the young man whom se loves passionately "has no regard for true love". But there is mutuality in the relationship, a matter to which I return below.
What is especially striking about the later account of Nergal and Ereshkigal is its focus on feminine psychology as seen from an androcentric perspective. One might say that the last part of this version has its main point the issue of female desire. Described graphically and in detail are the goddess´ s reactions, words and actions in response to Nergal´s leaving her. In contrast, not a single word describes Nergal´s response to their encounter. Ereshkigal, like women generally, places high value on relationship and bonding. Nergal, characteristic of men, values carnal passion, short-term emotion and the need for autonomy. For women, love is not divorced from sexuality, as it frequently is for men. J. S. Cooper in a stimulating essay states that Sumerian "love poetry was an expression of female sexuality, and that the activities described therein have more to do with recreation than procreation". He found that "sexual intercourse is hardly ever mentioned by name nor is the male organ". In contrast, the Sumerian myths of the god Enki refer to his sexual exploits and his sexuality in terms that as "raw, often violent, phallocentric and ... reproductive on both the metaphoric and concrete level" . Cooper believes that the "explanation for these contrasting sexualities is to be sought in the 'woman´s voice' that pervades the Inanna and Dumuzi material".
The study of Mesopotamian sexuality is barely in its infancy, so my comments are perhaps premature. Then too, there is the question of possible change from Summerian to Akkadian historical periods. But the observations by Guinal cited above are relevant here. Mastery and domination characterized ideal masculine behavior whether Sumerian or Akkadian. More difficult is the issue a woman´s voice in Sumerian love poetry, where the focus is on women´s sexuality. That women composed love poetry in ancient Egypt is attested. But was it so in Mesopotamia? To my knowledge, no such evidence has been found. Do we have then in Sumerian love poetry what I suggest is the case for Nergal and Ereshkigal: female sexuality as viewed from a male perspective? Is not the emphasis on unabashed sexuality perhaps more revealing of the masculine view of (or fantasy about) female concupiscence and voracious insatiability?
When the story opens, in both versions, Ereshkigal is depicted as neither lover nor wife nor mother, as a ruler with power. Both accounts end with Ereshkigal as wife, or about to be wife, submissive and subordinate to Nergal, with whom she will share a far lesser role as consort. Love transforms her into a needy, dependent female. And yet as it was for the heroine of Jane Austen´s Pride and Prejudice, so for Ereshkigal marriage is represented "as the capstone of success... After constructing gender by demarcating the rules of behavior for the male and the female, the romance plot unites the sexes... The reward for proper differentiation is marriage. Full autonomy is not an option for women.
Although wives were ideally to be submissive, prepared to be mastered by their husbands, Mesopotamian men hoped for a passionate response from their wives. To quote one Sumerian proverb:
Both versions of Nergal and Ereshkigal end in marriage. Ereshkigal in both gives up her dominant sole rule of the Underworld. Their joint passion lays the foundation for a faithful marriage, based on mutuality. Ereshkigal domesticates Nergal.
In Mesopotamian marriage, the husband was the master of his wife. This is articulated very clearly in a bilingual Sumerian and Akkadian proverb: "A house without an owner is like a woman without a husband". But his rights were restricted and subject to the control of the courts. In case of adultery, for example, which was brought only against a wife and never against a husband, the husband had to prove his change before punishment was meted out. Though Nergal and Ereshkigal appears to condone, indeed, even presuppose the right to control women through their sexuality, violence is unacceptable. This myth is a far cry from the Sumerian myths in which Enki is the "incestuous abuser of his daughters (in Enki and Ninhursag), which are rampant with violence and rape".
The myth is also in sharp contrast with what is found in ancient Greek and Roman poetry, in which "there is a .... near total absence of conjugal passion and there are pervasive differences in status between lover and beloved... Sexual passion for one´s wife was not the norm in ancient Greece". Indeed, "interest in Sex on a wife´s part was considered potentially dangerous and, thus, was discouraged. In Mesopotamia, a woman´s erotic feelings were regarded as the basis for strong nuptial ties. There was an acceptance of desire, but at the same time there existed a highly developed sense of sexual propriety.
The mutuality and love between husband and wife resonates in a moving elegy, from which unfortunately the beginning lines are missing. E. Reiner observes that it "represents a specifically Assyrian sensitivity" which I suggest is perhaps found in the later story of Nergal and Ereshkigal. This is the lament of a woman who has died in childbirth, a not uncommon occurrence. The story is told as if she were herself narrating it:
It is noteworthy that the term delight found in this lament also appears in Ereshkigal´s description of Nergal as "the lover of my delight". It has a strong sexual nuance. So too does the word husband and lover, which appear in the same phrase of Ereshkigal´s. Husband and lover mesh together, the two are one and the same person.
Although extramarital liaisons, in the case of some husbands at least, were a fact of life at all times, were a fact of life, there is evidence that public authorities might have intervened to restrain such relationships when, R. Westbrook suggests, they were contra bonos mores. He examines three cuneiform sources from different periods to prove his view. Moreover, Mesopotamian men, like men in other patriarchal societies, were ambivalent toward marriage, a view that found expression in the he proverbial literature "Who has not supported a wife or child has not borne a leash" or "For his pleasure - marriage; on his thinking it over - divorce". This ambiguity is strongly put in the so called Dialogue of Pessimism:
(See the full text and analysis in The Dialogue of Pessimism and Transcendence- a tribute to Assyiologist Jean Bottéro)
For the ancient Mesopotamians, the body was not regarded with disgust; nor was it the source of sin, but rather the locus of erotic desire for both men and women. The love lyrics of the Sumerians and Akkadians, whether cultic (Inanna-Dumuzi) royal or secular, amply attest to this. At the same time, they saw differences between men and women as desiring subjects - women being more dependent on desire than were men. Asymmetry, the domination of women by men (an almost universal phenomenon), also characterized Ancient Mesopotamia. But a careful examination of Nergal and Ereshkigal affords a more sensitively nuanced understanding of gender and sexuality of that time and place.