From Hades in Greek mythology to the Christian Hell, almost all religions throughout time have believed in an afterlife where the souls of the departed live in another world that is inaccessible to the living. In many religions, the afterlife was referred to as the “underworld” and was located beneath the physical plane. Unsurprisingly, this type of myth is as old as human civilization, and some of the first references to a subterranean afterlife come from the Mesopotamians. Unlike most ancient cultures, however, the underworld of Mesopotamian myth was ruled by a woman: Ereshkigal. Along with being an important part of Mesopotamian cosmology, this goddess was one of the most respected and feared deities in the pantheon.
Ereshkigal: Queen of the Underworld
The ancient Mesopotamians believed that individuals had a soul which resided in the physical body. After the person died, the soul left the physical body and went to the afterlife. In contrast to other religions, the Mesopotamians did not believe that people were judged based on their actions in life and sent to different worlds in the afterlife based on that judgement. Rather, Mesopotamian texts illustrate that all people, regardless of their economic class, social roles, or moral standing, went to the underworld after they died. Referred to by several names, such as Kur and Irkalla, the underworld of Mesopotamian mythology was a large, underground metropolis with residential buildings and even palaces. In addition to being populated by the souls of departed mortals, Kur was also home to supernatural beings such as galla demons. Ruling over it all from her palace, was the goddess Ereshkigal.
The name, Ereshkigal, roughly translates to “Queen of the Great Below” or “Lady of the Great Place”. It is unclear who her parents were in the Mesopotamian pantheon, as some texts refer to this goddess as the daughter of An, the supreme sky god in Mesopotamian religion. In contrast, other records list the queen of the underworld as the daughter of Nanna, the god of the moon, and Ningal, the goddess of the reeds. However, Mesopotamian texts do specify that this goddess was the older sister of Ishtar, the goddess of love and war, and Shamash, the god of the sun and justice. Ereshkigal had four different husbands, including the Gugalanna, the Bull of Heaven, and Nergal, the god of death.
Death in Mesopotamia and the Role of Ereshkigal
Although Mesopotamians believed that the souls of their departed loved ones lived on in the underworld, they did not consider the afterlife to be a utopian existence. Mesopotamian records described Kur, or Irkalla, as a dreary place devoid of sunlight, plants, animals, or even water. As a result, Mesopotamians believed that the only food or water the dead received was what was given to them by the living. This was done through rituals in which offerings of food and water would be placed on the graves of the dead by their living relatives. The Mesopotamians also believed that specific burial rites had to be conducted right after the person’s death in order for that individual to have a peaceful existence in the underworld.
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As the queen of Kur, Ereshkigal’s role as a deity was primarily focused on death and rituals connected to the ending of someone’s life. The main role of this goddess was to look after the souls of the dead and to act as a barrier between life and death, ensuring that the living and the dead did not interact. However, Ereshkigal was also tasked with guaranteeing that the dead were given proper burial rites and annual rituals. This aspect of her role was so important that she would forgo her responsibility to keep the living and the dead separate if death rituals were not being conducted properly. Most often, Ereshkigal would allow the dead to visit the living as ghosts in order to reprimand them for not conducting death rituals properly or to remind them that the dead depended on the living for a peaceful existence in the afterlife.
Two Goddesses in the Underworld
While Ereshkigal played an important role in Mesopotamian religion, archaeologists have not found as many records pertaining to the queen of Kur as they have about other Mesopotamian deities. However, we can gain some insight into the character of this goddess, as well as her significance in Mesopotamian culture, through surviving myths about her interactions with other Mesopotamian gods. One tale that scholars have found particularly informative is Inanna’s Descent into the Underworld.
Inanna’s Descent begins with Ishtar, who is also referred to as Inanna, descending into Irkalla to attend the funeral of Ereshkigal’s first husband, Gugalanna. Before she goes, Ishtar clothes herself in garments of great power. At the gates of the underworld, Ishtar demands to be let in. The gatekeeper, Neti, hesitates because he fears that Ishtar has actually come to conquer Irkalla. When Ereshkigal is informed of her sister’s arrival, she instructs Neti to have Ishtar remove a piece of her outfit at each of the underworld’s seven gates to ensure that the goddess will enter the land of the dead stripped of her power. While Ishtar acquiesces to this, she breaks the rules of the underworld after entering by sitting on her sister’s throne and is killed for her transgression.
When Ishtar’s servants learn of her death, they ask the queen of Kur to let them view her corpse and they are able to resurrect the goddess. However, the goddess of love is still trapped in the underworld because, as someone who died, she is forbidden from returning to the world of the living. Ishtar learns that she can escape the underworld if she provides a replacement who will be trapped in her stead. The goddess of love and war ultimately chooses her consort, Dumuzi the shepherd god, as her replacement and he is dragged to the underworld by demons while Ishtar goes free.
The Queen of Kur and the God of Death
Another Mesopotamian tale that provides crucial information on the queen of Kur is the story of her marriage to Nergal, the god of death and pestilence. When the story begins, the Mesopotmian gods are having a feast. Ereshkigal, being the queen of the underworld, could not leave the realm of the dead. Unable to attend the feast, Ereshkigal sends her advisor, Namtar, to go as her representative. When Namtar arrives, most of the gods show him deference as a Ereshkigal’s representative. However, Nergal refuses to show Namtar the same respect. When the queen of Irkalla learns of this, she demands that Nergal answers for his actions by coming to her in the underworld.
According to the tale, Ereshkigal originally intended to kill Nergal for disrespecting her representative. Interestingly enough, there are two versions of what happens when Nergal goes to Kur. In one version, Nergal succeeds in seducing Ereshkigal and the two deities become lovers. After staying in Irkalla for six days, Nergal returns to the world of the living. Ereshkigal, pining for her new lover, demands that Nergal return to her in the underworld and he acquiesces. In the other version of this story, Nergal arrives in Kur and overpowers its queen, dragging her from her throne. As Nergal prepares to kill the goddess, Ereshkigal convinces him to spare her life by promising to marry him. Both versions of the story end with the two deities getting married and Nergal equally sharing Ereshkigal’s power as the new king of the underworld.
The Power of Death
A prevalent aspect of Ereshkigal, highlighted in both narratives, is the significant amount of power she appears to wield as queen of the underworld. When Ishtar arrives at the gates of Kur, the queen is able to remove Ishtar of her power, then the goddess of love is killed for sitting on her sister’s throne. Even when Ishtar is resurrected, Ereshkigal keeps her trapped in the underworld until she provides a replacement. Similarly, in the story of Ereshkigal’s marriage to Nergal, we see the queen of Kur holds indirect power over the other deities which is demonstrated through how the gods treat her representative. When Nergal disrespects her representative, Ereshkigal is able to forcibly exert that indirect power by making the god come to her in the land of the dead.
Arguably, the power that Ereshkigal wields portrays a view of death as inevitable and final. So much so that even the Mesopotamian gods were not exempt from death. Ishtar, though an extremely important and powerful goddess, was unable to keep her power or even her life once she entered the underworld. Although she was resurrected, Ishtar still had to give death what it was owed before she could regain her freedom. Similarly, Nergal could not refuse the goddess when she had summoned him to Irkalla. Although he was able to avoid being killed or trapped in the land of the dead, he was only able to do so by becoming a part of the underworld through his marriage to Ereshkigal. As such, it could be argued that Nergal could not escape death either. The power of the underworld was so overwhelming that Ereshkigal herself was trapped in the land of the dead as well. In this way, death is presented as an inevitable force that cannot be cheated or escaped.
Ereshkigal the Enforcer
Along with embodying the power of death, another prevalent aspect of Ereshkigal is that she often acts as an enforcer of rules and social norms. In the story of Inanna’s Descent, the queen of Kur tells Neti to strip Ishtar of her power because everyone must “bow low” when entering the land of the dead, and even deities are not excluded from this. Similarly, Ereshkigal does not kill Ishtar until after she breaks the rules of the underworld, even though both the queen and her advisor suspected that Ishtar had come to conquer her realm. After Ishtar is resurrected, the divine queen allows her younger sister to go free once she provides a replacement because she followed the rules of Irkalla.
In addition to enforcing explicit rules related to death and the underworld, Ereshkigal also upholds social norms related to her sphere of influence. When Nergal disrespects a representative of Irkalla, the goddess makes him answer for his transgression by coming to her in the land of the dead. In both instances, Ereshkigal serves to uphold cultural norms associated with death and the underworld. In doing so, it can be argued she ensures that the dead, for whom she is responsible, will be appropriately respected. Correspondingly, this portrays death as an aspect of life that should be treated with respect and deference. As demonstrated in the story of Ereshkigal and Nergal, those who disrespected death would answer for it.
Echoes of Ereshkigal: The Underworld in Later Myths
Records indicate that the queen of Kur had temples in several Mesopotamian cities such as Kutha, Assur, and Umma. Worship of this goddess also extended beyond the Cradle of Civilization, and scholars have found evidence of Ereshkigal cults in Asia Minor, Egypt, and Arabia. However, this goddess was rarely mentioned in Mesopotamian texts outside of mythological narratives, and scholars have not been able to definitively identify any images of Ereshkigal. Some scholars have speculated that the Mesopotamians avoided depicting the queen of Irkalla, or mentioning her outside of mythological accounts because they feared drawing her attention to them. This was due to the belief that gods could be invoked through their images, and the Mesopotamians feared that invoking the queen of the underworld would cause someone to die prematurely.
Similarly, experts have not been able to identify a direct connection between Ereshkigal and the underworld myths of later societies, such as the Egyptians and the Greeks. However, some scholars have pointed out that there are similarities between the Ereshkigal mythos and later myths about the afterlife. The Greek myth of Persephone, for example, also features deities who become trapped in the underworld and are allowed to temporarily return to the world of the living for half of every year. The underworld mythos of ancient Greece also resembled the Mesopotamians in that both cultures would often refer to the underworld and its ruler with the same name, the Greek Hades and the Mesopotamian Irkalla.
Similarly, Egyptian mythology shares aspects of the Ereshkigal mythos in that the deity who ruled the underworld, Osiris, also could not visit the world of the living. In addition to the similarities between Mesopotamian myths about the underworld and the myths of other cultures, experts have found evidence of Egyptian and Greek myths being influenced by Mesopotamia in other ways. As such, it is not impossible that the underworld myths of these later civilizations may have originated from the stories of Ereshkigal, the first ruler of the underworld.