Hermod pays respects to Hela
Orpheus in the underworld, Jan Brueghel the Elder 1594
Jacob van Swanenburgh “Aeneas and Sibilla in the Underworld” 1625 National Museum, Gdansk
The descent to the underworld is a mytheme of comparative mythology found in a diverse number of religions from around the world, including Christianity. The hero or upper-world deity journeys to the underworld, or to the land of the dead and returns, often with a quest-object or a loved one, or with heightened knowledge.
The ability to enter the realm of the dead while still alive, and to return, is a proof of the classical hero’s exceptional status as more than mortal. A deity who returns from the underworld demonstrates eschatological themes such as the cyclical nature of time and existence, or the defeat of death and the possibility of immortality.
Katabasis, or catabasis, (from Greek “down” βαίνω “go”) is a descent of some type, such as moving downhill, or the sinking of the winds or sun, a military retreat, or a trip to the underworld or a trip from the interior of a country down to the coast. There exist multiple related meanings in poetry, rhetoric, and modern psychology.
One meaning of katabasis is the epic convention of the hero’s trip into the underworld. In Greek mythology, for example, Orpheus enters the underworld in order to bring Eurydice back to the world of the living.
Most katabases take place in a supernatural underworld, such as Hades or Hell — as in Nekyia, the 11th book of the Odyssey, which describes the descent of Odysseus to the underworld. However, katabasis can also refer to a journey through other dystopic areas, like those Odysseus encounters on his 10-year journey back from Troy to Ithaca.
Pilar Serrano allows the term katabasis to encompass brief or chronic stays in the underworld, including those of Lazarus and Castor and Pollux. In this case, however, the katabasis must be followed by an anabasis in order to be considered a true katabasis instead of a death.
Hermóðr the Brave (Old Norse “war-spirit”, anglicized as Hermod) is a figure in Norse mythology, the son of the god Odin. Hermóðr appears distinctly in section 49 of the Prose Edda book Gylfaginning. There, it is described that the gods were speechless and devastated at the death of Baldr, unable to react due to their grief.
After the gods gathered their wits from the immense shock and grief of Baldr’s death Frigg asked the Æsir who amongst them wished “to gain all of her love and favor” by riding the road to Hel. Whoever agreed was to offer Hel a ransom in exchange for Baldr’s return to Asgard. Hermóðr agrees to this and set off with Sleipnir to Hel.
Hermóðr rode Odin’s horse Sleipnir for nine nights through deep and dark valleys to the Gjöll bridge covered with shining gold, the bridge being guarded by the maiden Móðguðr ‘Battle-frenzy’ or ‘Battle-tired’. Móðguðr told Hermóðr that Baldr had already crossed the bridge and that Hermóðr should ride downwards and northwards.
Upon coming to Hel’s gate, Hermóðr dismounted, tightened Sleipnir’s girth, mounted again, and spurred Sleipnir so that Sleipnir leapt entirely over the gate. So at last Hermóðr came to Hel’s hall and saw Baldr seated in the most honorable seat.
Hermóðr begged Hel to release Baldr, citing the great weeping for Baldr among the Æsir. Thereupon Hel announced that Baldr would only be released if all things, dead and alive, wept for him.
Baldr gave Hermóðr the ring Draupnir which had been burned with him on his pyre, to take back to Odin. Nanna gave a linen robe for Frigg along with other gifts and a finger-ring for Fulla. Thereupon Hermóðr returned with his message.
Hermóðr is called “son” of Odin in most manuscripts, while in the Codex Regius version – normally considered the best manuscript – Hermóðr is called sveinn Óðins ‘Odin’s boy’, which in the context is as likely to mean ‘Odin’s servant’. However Hermóðr in a later passage is called Baldr’s brother and also appears as son of Odin in a list of Odin’s sons.
In Mesopotamian mythology, Gugalanna (lit. “The Great Bull of Heaven” < Sumerian gu “bull”, gal “great”, an “heaven”, -a “of”) was a Sumerian deity as well as the constellation known today as Taurus, one of the twelve signs of the Zodiac.
Gugalanna was sent by the gods to take retribution upon Gilgamesh for rejecting the sexual advances of the goddess Inanna. Gugalanna, whose feet made the earth shake, was slain and dismembered by Gilgamesh and Enkidu. Inanna, from the heights of the city walls looked down, and Enkidu took the haunches of the bull shaking them at the goddess, threatening he would do the same to her if he could catch her too. For this impiety, Enkidu later dies.
Gugalanna was the first husband of the Goddess Ereshkigal, the Goddess of the Realm of the Dead, a gloomy place devoid of light. It was to share the sorrow with her sister that Inanna later descends to the Underworld.
Taurus was a constellation of the Northern Hemisphere Spring Equinox from about 3,200 BCE. It marked the start of the agricultural year with the New Year Akitu festival (from á-ki-ti-še-gur10-ku5, = sowing of the barley), an important date in Mespotamian religion. The death of Gugalanna, represents the obscuring disappearance of this constellation as a result of the light of the sun, with whom Gilgamesh was identified.
In the time in which this myth was composed, the Akitu festival at the Spring Equinox, due to the Precession of the Equinoxes did not occur in Aries, but in Taurus. At this time of the year, Taurus would have disappeared as it was obscured by the sun.
“Between the period of the earliest female figurines circa 4500 B.C. … a span of a thousand years elapsed, during which the archaeological signs constantly increase of a cult of the tilled earth fertilised by that noblest and most powerful beast of the recently developed holy barnyard, the bull – who not only sired the milk yielding cows, but also drew the plow, which in that early period simultaneously broke and seeded the earth.
Moreover by analogy, the horned moon, lord of the rhythm of the womb and of the rains and dews, was equated with the bull; so that the animal became a cosmological symbol, uniting the fields and the laws of sky and earth.”
In the story of Inanna’s descent to the underworld, a relatively well-attested and reconstructed composition, Inanna descends to the underworld with gifts to pass through the seven gates of the underworld.
In Sumerian religion, the Underworld was conceived of as a drear y, dark place; a home to deceased heroes and ordinary people alike. While everyone suffered an eternity of poor conditions, certain behavior while alive, notably creating a family to provide offerings to the deceased, could alleviate conditions somewhat.
Inanna’s reason for visiting the underworld is unclear. The reason she gives to the gatekeeper of the underworld is that she wants to attend the funeral rites of Ereshkigal’s husband, here said to be Gud-gal-ana. Gugalana was the Bull of Heaven in The Epic of Gilgamesh, which was killed by Gilgamesh and Enkidu. To further add to the confusion, Ereshkigal’s husband typically is the plague god, Nergal.
In this story, before leaving Inanna instructed her minister and servant, Ninshubur, to plead with the deities Enlil, Sin, and Enki to save her if anything went amiss. The attested laws of the underworld dictate that, with the exception of appointed messengers, those who enter it could never leave.
Inanna dresses elaborately for the visit, with a turban, a wig, a lapis lazuli necklace, beads upon her breast, the ‘pala dress’ (the ladyship garment), mascara, pectoral, a golden ring on her hand, and she held a lapis lazuli measuring rod.
These garments are each representations of powerful mes she possesses. Perhaps Inanna’s garments, unsuitable for a funeral, along with Inanna’s haughty behavior, make Ereshkigal suspicious.
Following Ereshkigal’s instructions, the gatekeeper tells Inanna she may enter the first gate of the underworld, but she must hand over her lapis lazuli measuring rod. She asks why, and is told ‘It is just the ways of the Underworld’. She obliges and passes through. Inanna passes through a total of seven gates, at each one removing a piece of clothing or jewelry she had been wearing at the start of her journey, thus stripping her of her power.
When she arrives in front of her sister, she is naked. “After she had crouched down and had her clothes removed, they were carried away. Then she made her sister Erec-ki-gala rise from her throne, and instead she sat on her throne.
The Anna, the seven judges, rendered their decision against her. They looked at her – it was the look of death. They spoke to her – it was the speech of anger. They shouted at her – it was the shout of heavy guilt. The afflicted woman was turned into a corpse. And the corpse was hung on a hook.”
Ereshkigal’s hate for Inanna could be referenced in a few other myths. Ereshkigal, too, is bound by the laws of the underworld she can’t leave her kingdom of the underworld to join the other ‘living’ deities, and they can’t visit her in the underworld, or else they can never return. Inanna symbolized erotic love and fertility, and contrasts with Ereshkigal.
Three days and three nights passed, and Ninshubur, following instructions, went to Enlil, Nanna, and Enki’s temples, and demanded they save Inanna. The first two deities refused, saying it was her own doing, but Enki was deeply troubled and agreed to help.
He created two asexual figures named gala-tura and the kur-jara from the dirt under the fingernails of the deities. He instructed them to appease Ereshkigal; and when asked what they wanted, they were to ask for Inanna’s corpse and sprinkle it with the food and water of life.
However, when they come before Ereshkigal, she is in agony like a woman giving birth, and she offers them what they want, including life-giving rivers of water and fields of grain, if they can relieve her; nonetheless they take only the corpse.
Things went as Enki said, and the gala-tura and the kur-jara were able to revive Inanna. Demons of Ereshkigal’s followed (or accompanied) Inanna out of the underworld, and insisted that she wasn’t free to go until someone took her place.
They first came upon Ninshubur and attempted to take her. Inanna refused, as Ninshubur was her loyal servant, who had rightly mourned her while she was in the underworld. They next came upon Cara, Inanna’s beautician, still in mourning. The demons said they would take him, but Inanna refused, as he too had mourned her. They next came upon Lulal, also in mourning. The demons offered to take him, but Inanna refused.
They next came upon Dumuzi, Inanna’s husband. Despite Inanna’s fate, and in contrast to the other individuals who were properly mourning Inanna, Dumuzi was lavishly clothed and resting beneath a tree. Inanna, displeased, decrees that the demons shall take him, using language which echoes the speech Ereshkigal gave while condemning her. Dumuzi is then taken to the underworld.
In other recensions of the story, Dumuzi tries to escape his fate, and is capable of fleeing the demons for a time, as the deities intervene and disguise him in a variety of forms. He is eventually found.
However, Dumuzi’s sister, out of love for him, begged to be allowed to take his place. It was then decreed that Dumuzi spent half the year in the underworld, and his sister take the other half. Inanna, displaying her typically capricious behavior, mourns his time in the underworld.
This she reveals in a haunting lament of his deathlike absence from her, for “[he] cannot answer . . . [he] cannot come/ to her calling . . . the young man has gone.”
Her own powers, notably those connected with fertility, subsequently wane, to return in full when he returns from the netherworld each six months. This cycle then approximates the shift of seasons.
Additionally, the myth may be described as a union of Inanna with her own “dark side”, her twin sister-self, Ereshkigal, as when she ascends it is with Ereshkigal’s powers, while Inanna is in the underworld it is Ereshkigal who apparently takes on fertility powers, and the poem ends with a line in praise, not of Inanna, but of Ereshkigal.
It is in many ways a praise-poem dedicated to the more negative aspects of Inanna’s domain, symbolic of an acceptance of the necessity of death to the continuance of life. It can also be interpreted as being about the psychological power of a descent into the unconscious, realizing one’s own strength through an episode of seeming powerlessness, and/or an acceptance of one’s own negative qualities, as is discussed by Joseph Campbell.
Another recent interpretation, by Clyde Hostetter,Star Trek to Hawa-i’i(San Luis Obispo, California: Diamond Press, 1991), p. 53) indicates that the myth is an allegorical report of related movements of the planets Venus, Mercury, and Jupiter; and those of the waxing crescent Moon in the Second Millennium, beginning with the Spring Equinox and concluding with a meteor shower near the end of one synodic period of Venus.
Joshua Mark argues that it is most likely that the moral of the Descent of Inanna was that there are always consequences for one’s actions. “The Descent of Inanna, then, about one of the gods behaving badly and other gods and mortals having to suffer for that behavior, would have given to an ancient listener the same basic understanding anyone today would take from an account of a tragic accident caused by someone’s negligence or poor judgment: that, sometimes, life is just not fair.”
Bad-tibira, “Wall of the Copper Worker(s)”, or “Fortress of the Smiths”, identified as modern Tell al-Madineh, between Ash Shatrah and Tell as-Senkereh (ancient Larsa) in southern Iraq, was an ancient Sumerian city, which appears among antediluvian cities in the Sumerian King List.
Its Akkadian name was Dûr-gurgurri. It was also called Pantibiblos by Greek authors such as Abydenus, Apollodorus of Athens and Berossus. This may reflect another version of the city’s name, Patibira, “Canal of the Smiths”.
According to the Sumerian King List, Bad-tibira was the second city to “exercise kingship” in Sumer before the flood, following Eridu. These kings were said to be En-men-lu-ana, En-men-gal-ana and Dumuzid the Shepherd (Sumerian: Dumu, “child, son” + Zi(d), “faithful, true”).
“Dumuzid the Shepherd” is also the subject of a series of epic poems in Sumerian literature. However, in these tablets he is associated not with Bad-tibira but with Uruk, where a namesake, Dumuzid the Fisherman, was king sometime after the Flood, in between Lugalbanda “the Shepherd” and Gilgamesh.
Dumuzid (Sumerian: Dumu, “child, son” + Zi(d), “faithful, true”) “the Fisherman”, originally from Kuara in Sumer, was the 3rd king in the 1st Dynasty of Uruk, and Gilgamesh’s predecessor, according to the Sumerian king list.
The king list also states that he singlehandedly captured Enmebaragesi, ruler of Kish, and it claims he ruled in Uruk for 100 years — far fewer than the 1200 years it ascribes his predecessor, Lugalbanda “the Shepherd”.
There may have been some confusion in the early Sumerian compositions between this figure and that of “Dumuzid the Shepherd”, whom they call the king of Uruk, and who appears as a deity (Tammuz) in later works. However, the Sumerian king list says that Dumuzid the Shepherd ruled before the flood, and in Bad-tibira, not Uruk.
The early Sumerian text Inanna’s descent to the netherworld mentions the city’s temple, E-mush-kalamma. In this tale, Inanna dissuades demons from the netherworld from taking Lulal, patron of Bad-tibira, who was living in squalor. They eventually take Dumuzid king of Uruk instead, who lived in palatial opulence.
This Dumuzid is called “the Shepherd”, but on the King List it is Dumuzid, the Fisherman, who reigns in Uruk, sometime after the flood, between Lugalbanda and Gilgamesh.
The “brotherhood text” in cuneiform inscriptions on cones plundered from the site in the 1930s records the friendship pact of Entemena, governor of Lagash, and Lugal-kinishedudu, governor of Uruk. It identifies Entemena as the builder of the temple E-mush to Inanna and Dumuzid, under his local epithet Lugal-E-mush.
Later poems and hymns of praise to Dumuzid the Shepherd indicate that he was later considered a deity, a precursor of the Babylonian god Tammuz. In Tablet 6 of the Standard Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh rebuffs Ishtar (Inanna), reminding her that she had struck Tammuz (Dumuzid), “the lover of [her] youth”, decreeing that he should “keep weeping year after year”.
In a chart of antediluvian generations in Babylonian and Biblical traditions, William Wolfgang Hallo associates Dumuzid with the composite half-man, half-fish counselor or culture hero (Apkallu) An-Enlilda, and suggests an equivalence between Dumuzid and Enoch in the Sethite Genealogy given in Genesis chapter 5.
The Hurrians (Ḫu-ur-ri) were a people of the Bronze Age Near East. They spoke a Hurro-Urartian language called Hurrian, and lived in Anatolia and Northern Mesopotamia.
The Hurrians had a reputation in metallurgy. The Sumerians probably borrowed their word for ‘coppersmith’ (tabira, tibira) from proto-Hurrian. Hurrian tab-li means ‘copper founder’, while tab-iri means ‘the one who has cast (copper)’. Copper was traded south to Mesopotamia from the highlands of Anatolia.
The Khabur Valley had a central position in the metal trade, and copper, silver and even tin were accessible from the Hurrian-dominated countries Kizzuwatna and Ishuwa situated in the Anatolian highland.
Gold was in short supply, and the Amarna letters inform us that it was acquired from Egypt. Not many examples of Hurrian metal work have survived, except from the later Urartu. Some small fine bronze lion figurines were discovered at Urkesh.