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Descent into the underworld


Inanna, a Sumerian goddess who descends into the underworld, prefigures most other known myths and certainly all other underworld descent myths. The progression of the meme from the Sumerian Inanna to the Babylonian Ishtar,  the Greek Orpheus, the Norse Baldar, the Welsh Pwyll, the Hindu Sāvitrī, to up to andf including the Christian Jesus is fascinating. Mythological memes are beautiful to behold make their way through the viral legends of history.


The Return of Persephone

Orpheus in the underworld

Hermod pays respects to Hela

One of the most famous myths about Ishtar describes her descent to the underworld. In this myth, Ishtar approaches the gates of the underworld and demands that the gatekeeper open them. The gatekeeper hurried to tell Ereshkigal, the Queen of the Underworld. Ereshkigal told the gatekeeper to let Ishtar enter, but “according to the ancient decree”.

The gatekeeper let Ishtar into the underworld, opening one gate at a time. At each gate, Ishtar had to shed one article of clothing. When she finally passed the seventh gate, she was naked. In rage, Ishtar threw herself at Ereshkigal, but Ereshkigal ordered her servant Namtar to imprison Ishtar and unleash sixty diseases against her.

All sexual activity ceased on earth after Ishtar descended to the underworld. The god Papsukal reported the situation to Ea, the king of the gods. Ea created an intersex being called Asu-shu-namir and sent it to Ereshkigal, telling it to invoke “the name of the great gods” against her and to ask for the bag containing the waters of life.

Ereshkigal was enraged when she heard Asu-shu-namir’s demand, but she had to give it the water of life. Asu-shu-namir sprinkled Ishtar with this water, reviving her. Then, Ishtar passed back through the seven gates, getting one article of clothing back at each gate, and was fully clothed as she exited the last gate.

Formerly, scholars believed that the myth of Ishtar’s descent took place after the death of Ishtar’s lover, Tammuz: they thought Ishtar had gone to the underworld to rescue Tammuz. However, the discovery of a corresponding myth about Inanna, the Sumerian counterpart of Ishtar, has thrown some light on the myth of Ishtar’s descent, including its somewhat enigmatic ending lines.

According to the Inanna myth, Inanna can only return from the underworld if she sends someone back in her place. Demons go with her to make sure she sends someone back. However, each time Inanna runs into someone, she finds him to be a friend and lets him go free. When she finally reaches her home, she finds her husband Dumuzi (Babylonian Tammuz) seated on his throne, not mourning her at all.

In anger, Inanna has the demons take Dumuzi back to the underworld as her replacement. Dumuzi’s sister Geshtinanna is grief-stricken and volunteers to spend half the year in the underworld, during which time Dumuzi can go free. The Ishtar myth presumably had a comparable ending, Belili being the Babylonian equivalent of Geshtinanna.

Kumarbi is the chief god of the Hurrians. He is the son of Anu (the sky), and father of the storm-god Teshub. He was identified by the Hurrians with Sumerian Enlil, and by the Ugaritians with El.

Teshub (also written Teshup or Tešup; cuneiform dIM) was the Hurrian god of sky and storm. He is related to the Hattian Taru. His Hittite and Luwian name was Tarhun (with variant stem forms Tarhunt, Tarhuwant, Tarhunta), although this name is from the Hittite root *tarh- “to defeat, conquer”.

The Hurrian myth of Teshub’s origin—he was conceived when the god Kumarbi bit off and swallowed his father Anu’s genitals, as such it most likely shares a Proto-Indo-European cognate with the Greek story of Uranus, Cronus, and Zeus, which is recounted in Hesiod’s Theogony.

In the Hurrian schema, Teshub was paired with Hebat the mother goddess; in the Hittite, with the sun goddess Arinniti of Arinna—a cultus of great antiquity which has similarities with the venerated bulls and mothers at Çatalhöyük in the Neolithic era. His son was called Sarruma, the mountain god.

Hebat, also transcribed Kheba or Khepat, was the mother goddess of the Hurrians, known as “the mother of all living”. She is also a Queen of the gods. She is the wife of Teshub and the mother of Sarruma and Alanzu, as well mother-in-law of the daughter of the dragon Illuyanka.

It is thought Hebat is related to the Sumerian founder of the Third Dynasty of Kish. The name can be transliterated in different versions – Khebat with the feminine ending -t is primarily the Syrian and Ugaritic version. In the Hurrian language Hepa is the most likely pronunciation of the name of the goddess. The sound /h/ in cuneiform is in the modern literature sometimes transliterated as kh.

Hebat was venerated all over the ancient Near East. Her name appears in many theophoric personal names. A king of Jerusalem mentioned in the Amarna letters was named Abdi-Heba, possibly meaning “Servant of Hebat”. The mother goddess is likely to have had a later counterpart in the Phrygian goddess Cybele. In Aramaean times she appears to have become identified with the Goddess Hawwah.

With Hebat was later assimilated the Hittite sun goddess Arinniti. A prayer of Queen Puduhepa makes this explicit: “To the Sun-goddess of Arinna, my lady, the mistress of the Hatti lands, the queen of Heaven and Earth. Sun-goddess of Arinna, thou art Queen of all countries! In the Hatti country thou bearest the name of the Sun-goddess of Arinna; but in the land which thou madest the cedar land thou bearest the name Hebat.”

Hannahannah (from Hittite hanna- “grandmother”) is a Hurrian Mother Goddess related to or influenced by the pre-Sumerian (Hurrian) goddess Inanna. Hannahannah was also identified with the Hurrian goddess Hebat.

Christopher Siren reports that Hannahannah is associated with the Gul Ses (Gul-Shesh; Gulshesh; Gul-ashshesh) in Hittite mythology, equivalent to the Norns of Norse mythology or the Moirai of ancient Greece. In Hurrian mythology, the Hutena are goddesses of fate.

The mother of all the gods in the mythology of the Hittite empire was Hannahannah or Hannahannas. “Hannas” is a Hittite word for grandmother, but no reference is provided for that etymology or term. It’s not clear whether Hannahannah is originally a Hittite or a Hurrian name for the all-Mother.

Inara, in Hittite–Hurrian mythology, was the goddess of the wild animals of the steppe and daughter of the Storm-god Teshub/Tarhunt. She corresponds to the “potnia theron” of Greek mythology, better known as Artemis. Inara’s mother is probably Hebat and her brother is Sarruma.

Potnia Theron (“The Mistress of the Animals”) is a term first used (once) by Homer (Iliad 21. 470) and often used to describe female divinities associated with animals. The word Potnia, meaning mistress or lady, was a Mycenaean word inherited by Classical Greek, with the same meaning, cognate to Sanskrit patnī.

Homer’s mention of potnia theron is thought to refer to Artemis and Walter Burkert describes this mention as “a well established formula”. An Artemis type deity, a ‘Mistress of the Animals’, is often assumed to have existed in prehistorical religion and often referred to as Potnia Theron, with some scholars positing a relationship between Artemis and goddesses depicted in Minoan art and “Potnia Theron has become a generic term for any female associated with animals.”

They sometimes also have male equivalents, the so-called Lord of the Animals (also known as Master of (the) Animals), a generic term for a number of deities from a variety of cultures with close relationships to the animal kingdom or in part animal form (in cultures where that is not the norm). Shiva has the epithet Pashupati meaning the “Lord of cattle”. It is possible that we are dealing with an Proto-Indo-European deity or archetype.

The implication being these all has a Stone Age precursor who was probabably a hunter’s deity. The classic example of which is the ‘horned god of the hunt’, typified by Cernunnos, Herne the Hunter and Arnon, and a variety of Stag, Bull, Ram and Goat gods.

Horned gods are not universal however, and in some cultures Bear gods, like Arktos might take the role, or even the more anthropomorphic deities who lead the Wild Hunt. Such figures are also often referred to as ‘Lord of the forest’* or ‘Lord of the mountain’.

The story of the missing god appears in various versions. In some, the missing god is Telipinu, the Hittite god of farming, son of the weather and fertility god. In one version it is the Weather-god who is missing. In the Yuzgat fragment several deities, including the Sun god are missing.

The beginning of the ancient Hittite myth about Telepinu, the Telepinu Myth, is missing, but begins with Telipinu departing in haste in a temper. A blight follows in which no conception occurs, plants don’t grow and animals reject their offspring. Gods, men and animals begin to starve. His disappearances cause all fertility to fail, both plant and animal, resulting in havoc and devastation.

The gods start to search for Telipinu, and the Sun-god sends out the eagle, saying “Go, search the high mountains, search the hollow valleys, search the dark-blue waters.” The eagle returns with no news.

His father, the Storm-god Tarhunt (also called Teshub), goes to the All-Mother Hannahannah for advice, and she tells him to search for Telipinu himself. The Weather-god arrives at a town where the gates are shut and breaks the shaft of his hammer trying to enter.

He gives up and returns to Hannahannah, who now proposes to send out her bee to find Telipinu and to sting and purify him. The Weather-god protests doubting that since the gods have failed that the bee can find Telipinu. The bee goes out and finds Telipinu, according to one text, sleeping in a meadow near Lihzina (a cult center of the Weather god).

The bee stings Telipinu, and then purifies and strengthens him by stinging his hands and feet and wiping his eyes and feet with wax. Telipinu awakes and goes off in a fresh rage, destroying people, crops and livestock. The text is fragmentary, but in the end Telipinu is returned home on the back of the eagle.

The goddess of healing and magic, Kamrusepa, performs rituals to exorcise the wrath of Telipinu by giving his anger to the Doorkeeper of the Underworld, and Telipinu returns to his temple and restores fertility to the land. In other references it is a mortal priest who prays for all of Telepinu’s anger to be sent to bronze containers in the underworld, of which nothing escapes.

According to Christopher B. Siren, Hannahannah also disappears for a time, contributing to the general dissolution until her anger is banished to the underworld. The story is also connected with Inaras’ disappearance.

The story of the bee appears in only some fragments, but healing power of honey and the bee sting are extant in folklore. For example, in the Finnish epic, the Kalevala, Lemminkainen is slain and brought back to life by magic honey sent by the hero’s mother from the ninth heaven. The bee also appears in the cults of Cybele and Artemis whose devotees were known as melissai or bees.

Hannahannah appears in various versions of the Myth of the Missing God. Her daughter, the goddess Inaras, is prominent in the Slaying of the Dragon.

After the dragon Illuyanka wins an encounter with the storm god, the latter asks Inara to give a feast, most probably the Purulli festival. Inara decides to use the feast to lure and defeat Illuyanka, who was her father’s archenemy, and enlists the aid of a mortal named Hupasiyas of Zigaratta by becoming his lover.

The dragon and his family gorge themselves on the fare at the feast, becoming quite drunk, which allows Hupasiyas to tie a rope around them. Inara’s father can then kill Illuyanka, thereby preserving creation.

Inara built a house on a cliff and gave it to Hupasiyas. She left one day with instructions that he was not to look out the window, as he might see his family. But he looked, and the sight of his family made him beg to be allowed to return home. It is not known what happened next, but there is speculation that Inara killed Hupasiyas for disobeying her, or for hubris, or that he was allowed to return to his family.

The mother goddess Hannahannah promises Inara land and a man during a consultation by Inara. Inara then disappears. Her father looks for her, joined by Hannahannah with a bee. The story resembles that of Demeter and her daughter Persephone, in Greek myth.

Hannahannah also recommends to the Storm-god that he should pay the Sea-god the bride-price for the Sea-god’s daughter, so she can wed Telipinu.

After Inara consulted with Hannahannah, she gave her a man and land. Soon after, Inara is missing and when Hannahannah is informed thereof by the Storm-god’s bee, she apparently begins a search with the help of her female attendant. Apparently like Demeter, Hannahanna disappears for a while in a fit of anger and while she is gone, cattle and sheep are stifled and mothers, both human and animal take no account of their children.

After her anger is banished to the underworld, she returns rejoicing, and mothers care once again for their kin. Another means of banishing her anger was through burning brushwood and allowing the vapor to enter her body. Either in this or another text she appears to consult with the sun god and the war god, but much of the text is missing.

In Norse mythology, Hel is a being who presides over a realm of the same name, where she receives a portion of the dead. Scholarly theories have been proposed about Hel’s potential connections to figures appearing in the 11th century Old English Gospel of Nicodemus and Old Norse Bartholomeus saga postola, potential Indo-European parallels to Bhavani, Kali, and Mahakali, and her origins.

Jacob Grimm theorized that Hel (whom he refers to here as Halja, the theorized Proto-Germanic form of the term) is essentially an “image of a greedy, unrestoring, female deity” and that “the higher we are allowed to penetrate into our antiquities, the less hellish and more godlike may Halja appear.

Of this we have a particularly strong guarantee in her affinity to the Indian Bhavani, who travels about and bathes like Nerthus and Holda, but is likewise called Kali or Mahakali, the great black goddess.

In the underworld she is supposed to sit in judgment on souls. This office, the similar name and the black hue […] make her exceedingly like Halja. And Halja is one of the oldest and commonest conceptions of our heathenism.”

One of the stories involving Hel is the decent of Balder into Helheim. The Prose Edda details that Hel rules over vast mansions with many servants in her underworld realm and plays a key role in the attempted resurrection of the god Baldr, which Loki arranged for to die by tricking him into a rigged contest. Because the contest was hosted in Asgard Balder could not return to that place in death. His relocation sent him to the only other realm for the dead, Hel’s domain. His arrival to Helheim was welcomed with banquet and festival, proof that not all of Hel’s realm was torturous.

The goddess Frigg asks who among the Æsir will earn all her love and favour by riding to Hel, the location, to try to find Baldr, and offer Hel herself a ransom. The god Hermóðr the Brave (Old Norse “war-spirit”, anglicized as Hermod), the son of the god Odin, volunteers and sets off upon the eight-legged horse Sleipnir to Hel.

Hermóðr arrives in Hel’s hall, finds his brother Baldr there, and stays the night. The next morning, Hermóðr begs Hel to allow Baldr to ride home with him, and tells her about the great weeping the Æsir have done upon Baldr’s death.

Hel says the love people have for Baldr that Hermóðr has claimed must be tested, stating: “If all things in the world, alive or dead, weep for him, then he will be allowed to return to the Æsir. If anyone speaks against him or refuses to cry, then he will remain with Hel.”

Later in the chapter, after the female jötunn Þökk refuses to weep for the dead Baldr, she responds in verse, ending with “let Hel hold what she has.”

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