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Fertility in Mythology

Akitu or Akitum (lit. “the barley-cutting”, “barley-sowing” or “head of the year”) was a spring festival in ancient Mesopotamia. The name is from the Sumerian for “barley”, originally marking two festivals celebrating the beginning of each of the two half-years of the Sumerian calendar, marking the sowing of barley in autumn and the cutting of barley in spring.

In Babylonian religion it came to be dedicated to Marduk’s victory over Tiamat (Akkadian: DTI.AMAT or DTAM.TUM, Greek: Thaláttē), who possessed the Tablet of Destinies. The principal theme of the epic is the justified elevation of Marduk to command over all the deities.

In the religion of ancient Babylon, Tiamat is a primordial goddess of the salt sea, mating with Abzû, the god of fresh water, to produce younger gods. She is the symbol of the chaos of primordial creation. She is referred to as a woman, and described as the glistening one. Some sources identify her with images of a sea serpent or dragon.

It is suggested that there are two parts to the Tiamat mythos, the first in which Tiamat is a creator goddess, through a sacred marriage between salt and fresh water, peacefully creating the cosmos through successive generations. In the second Chaoskampf Tiamat is considered the monstrous embodiment of primordial chaos.

In the Enûma Elish, the Babylonian epic of creation, she gives birth to the first generation of deities; her husband, Apsu, correctly assuming they are planning to kill him and usurp his throne, later makes war upon them and is killed. Enraged, she, too, wars upon her husband’s murderers.

Taking on the form of a massive sea dragon, she is then slain by Enki’s son, the storm-god Marduk, but not before she had brought forth the monsters of the Mesopotamian pantheon, including the first dragons, whose bodies she filled with “poison instead of blood”. Marduk then forms heavens and the earth from her divided body.

In the primordial battle she gave them to Kingu, the deity she had chosen as her lover and the leader of her host, and who was also one of her children. The deities gathered in terror, but Anu, (replaced later, first by Enlil and, in the late version that has survived after the First Dynasty of Babylon, by Marduk, the son of Ea), first extracting a promise that he would be revered as “king of the gods”, overcame her, armed with the arrows of the winds, a net, a club, and an invincible spear. Slicing Tiamat in half, he made from her ribs the vault of heaven and earth. Her weeping eyes became the source of the Tigris and the Euphrates, her tail became the Milky Way.

With the approval of the elder deities, he took from Kingu the Tablet of Destinies, installing himself as the head of the Babylonian pantheon. Kingu was captured and later was slain: his red blood mixed with the red clay of the Earth would make the body of humankind, created to act as the servant of the younger Igigi deities.

The Tiamat myth is one of the earliest recorded versions of the Chaoskampf, the battle between a culture hero and a chthonic or aquatic monster, serpent or dragon. Chaoskampf motifs in other mythologies linked directly or indirectly to the Tiamat myth include the Hittite Illuyanka myth, and in Greek tradition Apollo’s killing of the Python as a necessary action to take over the Delphic Oracle.

It is thought that female deities are older than male ones in Mesopotamia and Tiamat may have begun as part of the cult of Nammu, the goddess of the primeval creative matter and the mother-goddess portrayed as having “given birth to the great gods,” a female principle of a watery creative force, with equally strong connections to the underworld, which predates the appearance of Ea-Enki.

Nammu was the Goddess sea (Engur) that gave birth to An (heaven) and Ki (earth) and the first gods, representing the Apsu, the fresh water ocean that the Sumerians believed lay beneath the earth, the source of life-giving water and fertility in a country with almost no rainfall.

Nammu is the goddess who “has given birth to the great gods”. According to the Neo-Sumerian mythological text Enki and Ninmah, Enki is the son of An and Nammu. It is she who has the idea of creating mankind, and she goes to wake up Enki, who is asleep in the Apsu, so that he may set the process going. Reay Tannahill in Sex in History (1980) singled out Nammu as the “only female prime mover” in the cosmogonic myths of antiquity.

Nammu was the mother of Enki, and as the watery creative force, was said to preexist Ea-Enki. With Enki it is an interesting change of gender symbolism, the fertilising agent is also water, Sumerian “a” or “Ab” which also means “semen”. In one evocative passage in a Sumerian hymn, Enki stands at the empty riverbeds and fills them with his ‘water'”.

It has also been suggested that the original non-anthropomorphic divinity at Eridu was not Enki but Abzu, the name for fresh water from underground aquifers which was given a religious fertilising quality in Sumerian and Akkadian mythology.

Lakes, springs, rivers, wells, and other sources of fresh water were thought to draw their water from the abzu. In this respect, in Sumerian and Akkadian mythology it referred to the primeval sea below the void space of the underworld (Kur) and the earth (Ma) above.

In the city of Eridu, Enki’s temple was known as E-abzu (house of the deep waters) and was located at the edge of a swamp, an abzu. Certain tanks of holy water in Babylonian and Assyrian temple courtyards were also called abzu (apsû). Typical in religious washing, these tanks were similar to Judaism’s mikvot, the washing pools of Islamic mosques, or the baptismal font in Christian churches.

The Sumerian god Enki (Ea in the Akkadian language) was believed to have lived in the abzu since before human beings were created. His wife Damgalnuna, his mother Nammu, his advisor Isimud and a variety of subservient creatures, such as the gatekeeper Lahmu, also lived in the abzu.

The emergence of Enki as the divine lover of Ninhursag, and the divine battle between the younger Igigi divinities and Abzu, saw the Abzu, the underground waters of the Aquifer, becoming the place in which the foundations of the temple were built.

The cosmogenic myth common in Sumer was that of the hieros gamos, a sacred marriage where divine principles in the form of dualistic opposites came together as male and female to give birth to the cosmos. In the epic Enki and Ninhursag, Enki, as lord of Ab or fresh water (also the Sumerian word for semen), is living with his wife in the paradise of Dilmun.

Despite being a place where “the raven uttered no cries” and “the lion killed not, the wolf snatched not the lamb, unknown was the kid-killing dog, unknown was the grain devouring boar”, Dilmun had no water and Enki heard the cries of its goddess, Ninsikil, and orders the sun-god Utu to bring fresh water from the Earth for Dilmun.

The subsequent tale, with similarities to the Biblical story of the forbidden fruit, repeats the story of how fresh water brings life to a barren land. The story thus symbolically reflects the way in which life is brought forth through the addition of water to the land, and once it grows, water is required to bring plants to fruit. It also counsels balance and responsibility, nothing to excess.

Enki, the Water-Lord then “caused to flow the ‘water of the heart” and having fertilised his consort Ninhursag, also known as Ki or Earth, after “Nine days being her nine months, the months of ‘womanhood’… like good butter, Nintu, the mother of the land, …like good butter, gave birth to Ninsar, (Lady Greenery)”.

Ninti, the title of Ninhursag, also means “the mother of all living”, and was a title later given to the Hurrian goddess Kheba. This is also the title given in the Bible to Eve, the Hebrew and Aramaic Ḥawwah, who was made from the rib of Adam, in a strange reflection of the Sumerian myth, in which Adam – not Enki – walks in the Garden of Paradise.

The myth of Enlil and Ninlil is about Enlil’s serial seduction of the goddess Ninlil (DNIN.LÍL”lady of the open field” or “Lady of the Wind”), also called Sud, in Assyrian called Mulliltu, in various guises, resulting in the conception of the moon-god Nanna and the Underworld deities Nergal, Ninazu, and Enbilulu.

Her parentage is variously described. Most commonly she is called the daughter of Haia (god of stores) and Nunbarsegunu (or Ninshebargunnu (a goddess of barley) or Nisaba). Another Akkadian source says she is the daughter of Anu (a.k.a. An) and Antu (Sumerian Ki). Other sources call her a daughter of Anu and Nammu.

The myth recounting the rape of Ninlil by her consort, the wind god Enlil, reflects the life cycle of grain: The myth seems to represent the process of wind pollination, ripening, and the eventual withering of the crops and their subsequent return to the earth (corresponding to Ninlil’s sojourn in the underworld).

Enlil, who saw Ninlil bathing in a canal, raped and impregnated her. For his crime he was banished to the underworld, but Ninlil followed. In the course of their journey Enlil assumed three different guises, and in each incident he ravished and impregnated Ninlil.

After her death, she became the goddess of the wind, like Enlil. She may be the Goddess of the South Wind referred to in the story of Adapa, as her husband Enlil was associated with northerly winter storms. As “Lady Wind” she may be associated with the figure of the Akkadian demon “Lil-itu”, thought to have been the origin of the Hebrew Lilith legend.

In ancient Greek religion and mythology, Demeter is the goddess of the grain, agriculture, harvest, growth, and nourishment, who presided over grains and the fertility of the earth. Demeter was often considered to be the same figure as the Anatolian goddess Cybele, and in Rome she was identified as the Latin goddess Ceres.

Though Demeter is often described simply as the goddess of the harvest, she presided also over the sacred law, and the cycle of life and death. Her cult titles include Sito, “she of the Grain”, as the giver of food or grain, and Thesmophoros (thesmos: divine order, unwritten law; phoros: bringer, bearer), “Law-Bringer”, as a mark of the civilized existence of agricultural society.

She and her daughter Persephone were the central figures of the Eleusinian Mysteries, a religious tradition that predated the Olympian pantheon, and which may have its roots in the Mycenaean period c. 1400–1200 BC.

It is possible that Demeter appears in Linear A as da-ma-te on three documents (AR Zf 1 and 2, and KY Za 2), all three apparently dedicated in religious situations and all three bearing just the name (i-da-ma-te on AR Zf 1 and 2).

It is unlikely that Demeter appears as da-ma-te in a Linear B (Mycenean Greek) inscription (PY En 609); the word da-ma-te, probably refers to “households”. On the other hand si-to-po-ti-ni-ja, “Potnia of the Grain”, is regarded as referring to her Bronze Age predecessor or to one of her epithets.

Demeter’s character as mother-goddess is identified in the second element of her name meter derived from Proto-Indo-European *méh₂tēr (mother). In antiquity, different explanations were already proffered for the first element of her name. It is possible that Da, a word which corresponds to Ge in Attic, is the Doric form of De, “earth”, the old name of the chthonic earth-goddess, and that Demeter is “Mother-Earth”.

This root also appears in the Linear B inscription E-ne-si-da-o-ne, “earth-shaker”, as an aspect of the god Poseidon. However, the dā element in the name of Demeter is not so simply equated with “earth” according to John Chadwick.

The element De- may be connected with Deo, an epithet of Demeter probably derived from the Cretan word dea, Ionic zeia – variously identified with emmer, spelt, rye, or other grains by modern scholars—so that she is the Mother and the giver of food generally.

Wanax (wa-na-ka) was her male companion in Mycenaean cult. The Arcadian cult links her to the god Poseidon, who probably substituted the male companion of the Great Goddess ; Demeter may therefore be related to a Minoan Great Goddess (Cybele).

An alternative Proto-Indo-European etymology comes through Potnia and Despoina, where Des- represents a derivative of PIE *dem (house, dome), and Demeter is “mother of the house” (from PIE *dems-méh₂tēr).

Virgo (Greek: Parthenos), is the sixth astrological sign in the Zodiac. It spans the 150-180th degree of the zodiac. Under the tropical zodiac, the Sun transits this area on average between August 23 and September 22, and the Sun transits the constellation of Virgo from approximately September 16 to October 30.

The symbol of the maiden is based on Astraea. In Greek mythology, she was the last immortal to abandon Earth at the end of the Silver Age, when the gods fled to Olympus – hence the sign’s association with Earth.

The constellation Virgo has multiple different origins depending on which mythology is being studied. Most myths generally view Virgo as a virgin/maiden with heavy association with wheat. In Greek and Roman mythology they relate the constellation to Demeter, mother of Persephone, or Proserpina, the Roman goddess of the harvest. Virgo has the equivalent sign in Indian astrology as the Kanya (which also means “maiden”), and has even been connected with the Virgin Mary.

Shala was an ancient Sumerian goddess of grain and the emotion of compassion. The symbols of grain and compassion combine to reflect the importance of agriculture in the mythology of Sumer, and the belief that an abundant harvest was an act of compassion from the deities.

Traditions identify Shala as wife of the fertility god Dagon, or consort of the storm god Hadad, Adad, Haddad (Akkadian) or Iškur (Sumerian), the storm and rain god in the Northwest Semitic and ancient Mesopotamian religions.

Though originating in northern Mesopotamia, Adad was identified by the same Sumerogram dIM that designated Iškur in the south. He is identified with the Anatolian storm-god Teshub, whom the Mitannians designated with the same Sumerogram dIM. Occasionally Adad/Iškur is identified with the god Amurru, the god of the Amorites.

In ancient depictions, she carries a double-headed mace or scimitar embellished with lion heads. Sometimes she is depicted as being borne atop one or two lionesses. From very early times, she is associated with the constellation Virgo and vestiges of symbolism associated with her have persisted in representations of the constellation to current times, such as the ear of grain, even as the deity name changed from culture to culture.

Demeter’s daughter Persephone was abducted to the underworld by Hades. Demeter searched for her ceaselessly, preoccupied with her loss and her grief. The seasons halted; living things ceased their growth, then began to die.

Faced with the extinction of all life on earth, Zeus sent his messenger Hermes to the underworld to bring Persephone back. Hades agreed to release her if she had eaten nothing while in his realm; but Persephone had eaten a small number of pomegranate seeds. This bound her to Hades and the underworld for certain months of every year, either the dry Mediterranean summer, when plant life is threatened by drought, or the autumn and winter.

There are several variations on the basic myth. In the Homeric hymn to Demeter, Hecate assists in the search and later becomes Persephone’s underworld attendant. In another, Persephone willingly and secretly eats the pomegranate seeds, thinking to deceive Hades, but is discovered and made to stay.

Contrary to popular perception, Persephone’s time in the underworld does not correspond with the unfruitful seasons of the ancient Greek calendar, nor her return to the upper world with springtime. Demeter’s descent to retrieve Persephone from the underworld is connected to the Eleusinian Mysteries.

The myth of the capture of Persephone seems to be pre-Greek. In the Greek version, Ploutos (wealth) represents the wealth of the corn that was stored in underground silos or ceramic jars (pithoi). Similar subterranean pithoi were used in ancient times for funerary practices. At the beginning of the autumn, when the corn of the old crop is laid on the fields, she ascends and is reunited with her mother Demeter, for at this time the old crop and the new meet each other.

According to the personal mythology of Robert Graves, Persephone is not only the younger self of Demeter, she is in turn also one of three guises of the Triple Goddess – Kore (the youngest, the maiden, signifying green young grain), Persephone (in the middle, the nymph, signifying the ripe grain waiting to be harvested), and Hecate (the eldest of the three, the crone, the harvested grain), which to a certain extent reduces the name and role of Demeter to that of group name. Before her abduction, she is called Kore; and once taken she becomes Persephone (‘she who brings destruction’).

Pluto (Latin: Plūtō; Greek: Ploutōn) was the ruler of the underworld in classical mythology. Pluto’s Roman equivalent is Dis Pater, whose name is most often taken to mean “Rich Father” and is perhaps a direct translation of Plouton.

The earlier name for the god was Hades, which became more common as the name of the underworld itself. In ancient Greek religion and mythology, Pluto represents a more positive concept of the god who presides over the afterlife.

Ploutōn was frequently conflated with Ploutos (Plutus), a god of wealth, because mineral wealth was found underground, and because as a chthonic god Pluto ruled the deep earth that contained the seeds necessary for a bountiful harvest.

The name Ploutōn came into widespread usage with the Eleusinian Mysteries, in which Pluto was venerated as a stern ruler but the loving husband of Persephone. The couple received souls in the afterlife, and are invoked together in religious inscriptions. Hades, by contrast, had few temples and religious practices associated with him, and he is portrayed as the dark and violent abductor of Persephone.

Pluto and Hades differ in character, but they are not distinct figures and share two dominant myths. In Greek cosmogony, the god received the rule of the underworld in a three-way division of sovereignty over the world, with his brother Zeus ruling the Sky and his other brother Poseidon sovereign over the Sea. His central narrative is the abduction of Persephone to be his wife and the queen of his realm.

Plouton as the name of the ruler of the underworld first appears in Greek literature of the Classical period, in the works of the Athenian playwrights and of the philosopher Plato, who is the major Greek source on its significance. Under the name Pluto, the god appears in other myths in a secondary role, mostly as the possessor of a quest-object, and especially in the descent of Orpheus or other heroes to the underworld.

Pluto was also identified with the obscure Roman Orcus, like Hades the name of both a god of the underworld and the underworld as a place. The borrowed Greek name Pluto is sometimes used for the ruler of the dead in Latin literature, leading some mythology handbooks to assert misleadingly that Pluto was the Roman counterpart of Hades.

Dīs Pater was a Roman god of the underworld. Dis was originally associated with fertile agricultural land and mineral wealth, and since those minerals came from underground, he was later equated with the chthonic deities Pluto (Hades) and Orcus.

In De Natura Deorum, Cicero derives the name of Dīs Pater from the Latin dives (“wealth, riches”), suggesting a meaning of “father of riches” (Pater is “father” in Latin), directly corresponding to the name Pluto, Pluto simply being how Plouton is spelled is Latin. Alternatively, he may be a secondary reflex of the same god as Jupiter (Proto-Indo-European Dyeus Ph₂ter or “Zeus-Pater”).

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” (“The Mistress of the Animals”) of Greek mythology, better known as Artemis. Inara’s mother is probably Hebat and her brother is Sarruma.

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

Many depictions in ancient art present a widespread ancient motif of the mistress of Animals, showing a central figure with a human form grasping two animals, one to each side. The oldest depiction has been discovered in Çatalhöyük.

Cybele (Phrygian: Matar Kubileya/Kubeleya “Kubileya/Kubeleya Mother”, perhaps “Mountain Mother”) is an Anatolian mother goddess; she may have a possible forerunner in the earliest neolithic at Çatalhöyük in Anatolia dated to the 6th millennium BC, where statues of plump women, sometimes sitting, have been found in excavations and identified by some as a mother goddess.

She is Phrygia’s only known goddess, and was probably its national deity. Her Phrygian cult was adopted and adapted by Greek colonists of Asia Minor and spread to mainland Greece and its more distant western colonies around the 6th century BC. In Greece, as in Phrygia, she was a “Mistress of animals” (Potnia Therōn), with her mastery of the natural world expressed by the lions that flank her, sit in her lap or draw her chariot.

In Greece, Cybele met with a mixed reception. She was partially assimilated to aspects of the Earth-goddess Gaia, her possibly Minoan equivalent Rhea, and the harvest–mother goddess Demeter 

She was readily assimilated to the Minoan-Greek earth-mother Rhea, “Mother of the gods”, whose raucous, ecstatic rites she may have acquired. As an exemplar of devoted motherhood, she was partly assimilated to the grain-goddess Demeter, whose torchlight procession recalled her search for her lost daughter, Persephone.

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