Lesser known deities can offer us great insight, not only just to a culture’s mythology, but to their culture, their identity and their history as a whole. In our contemporary society, major deities such as Zeus, Isis and Odin are the figureheads of their culture’s mythology and religion. However, lesser known deities can offer us just as much information has their better known counterparts.
This can be seen with the goddess Ereshkigal. Ereshkigal was a Sumerian goddess of the Underworld whose temple, according to one Sumerian text, was made from lapis lazuli. She was also the sister of the well known goddess Ishtar.
One of her most famous myths is the account which tells of how the god Nergal, living in heaven, became the god of the underworld at the expense of Ereshkigal and eventually married each other. There are a few versions of this myth, with the Amarna version consisting of 88 lines. In contrast to this, “the Sultantepe version, with its elaborate main characters, colourful scenes, literary devices, and patterns to introduce direct discourse, is a piece of sophisticated literature that has to be read” (Vogelzang, p.65).
The text was engraved onto a tablet, known as the Sultantepe Tablets, which was imported from (generally believed) Syria into Egypt and found among the diplomatic archives of Tell El Amarna. The Sultantepe tablet remains the sole authority for the late Assyrian version of the tale, not a single fragment having come to light from any other source (Gurney, p.105).
One of her lines in the Sumerian text states, “When Ereshkigal heard this, Her face grew livid as cut tamarisk, Her lips grew dark as the rim of a kuntnu-vessel: -“What drove her heart to me? What impelled her spirit hither?” (Vogelzang, p.67) This is an interesting passage as it deals with the goddess’ contemplation on why her sister would venture down into the underworld.
Ereshkigal was the mother of Namtar, the god of plague and pestilence. He was known as ‘sukallu irsiti’, the ‘vizier of the underworld’ (Burns, p.363). He was also the vizier to Ereshkigal, as the first-born (if male), were generally given this role.
The study of lesser known deities can offer us great insight into ancient cultures and eventually, into the history and culture of our entire world.
Burns, John Barclay (1987) The Identity of Death’s First-Born (Job XVIII 13), Vetus Testamentum, BRILL.
Gurney, O. R. (1960) The Sultantepe Tablets (Continued): VII. The Myth of Nergal and Ereshkigal, Anatolian Studies, British Institute at Ankara.
Vogelzang, Marianna E. (1990) Patterns Introducing Direct Speech in Akkadian Literary Texts, Journal of Cuneiform Studies, The American Schools of Oriental Research.