Ereshkigal, the Queen of the Great Below, or the Sumerian Underworld, is less well known today than Her brighter sister Inanna. The Underworld is also called Irkalla. Sometimes Her name is given as Irkalla, in the same way that in Greece Haides could signify both the Underworld and its ruler. Ereshkigal is the daughter of Anu, God of sky, and His wife Nammu, Goddess of the primordial ocean. Her twin brother is Enki, God of Creation. When She was young a dragon named Kur carried Her off to the Underworld, from which She was never allowed to leave again. Sometimes the Underworld itself is called Kur. It seems to have a lot of names!
In the most famous story of Ereshkigal, She is the antagonist in the tale known as the Descent of Inanna. Ereshkigal’s husband was Gugalanna, called the Bull of Heaven. Gugalanna had been sent by Inanna to punish Gilgamesh. However, in the process He is killed and Ereshkigal is left a widow. Inanna decides to go visit Her sister at this time, to mourn with Her. But Ereshkigal is furious! It was Inanna’s fault that Gugalanna had died! And now She dares to enter Ereshkigal’s kingdom? Ereshkigal feared that Her sister was coming to take over the Underworld and learn the secrets of Irkalla, which belonged to Ereshkigal and Ereshkigal alone. Inanna already ruled the upperworld and held dominion over love, fertility, and war. Wasn’t that enough for Her? Now She came to invade Ereshkigal’s kingdom, after getting Her husband killed?
Inanna had to pass through seven gates to get to Ereshkigal’s palace at the bottom of the Great Below. Ereshkigal instructed the guardians of each gate to take an article of Inanna’s clothing as payment to pass through. Inanna was stripped of all Her symbols of authority. She entered Irkalla as naked as the day She was born – you can carry nothing into the afterlife with you but your memories and your person. When She finally stood in Ereshkigal’s throne room, the Queen of the Great Below struck Her sister dead with only a glare. She then hung Inanna’s lifeless body on a hook behind Her throne and returned to Her mourning, moaning aloud “like a woman in childbirth”.
For three days Inanna’s body hung there and rotted. When Inanna did not return, Her faithful manservant, , was worried. He had known She intended to descend into the Underworld, and knew something must have happened to Her. He went to Enki, the King of the Gods, and begged Him to do something about the situation. He could not leave Inanna in the Underworld. But no one, not even a God or Goddess, could descend into the Underworld and return. After thinking about it for a while, Enki made two sexless beings, called the kurgarra and the galatur. Since they were neither male nor female, man nor woman, God nor Goddess, they did not violate the rules of the Great Below. They passed through the seven gates without being stopped, and crept into Ereshkigal’s throne room. The Goddess was still wrapped up in Her mourning for Her husband, and She did not notice them. She moaned aloud in emotional pain, and the kurgarra and galatur heard Her and moaned with Her. Ereshkigal was surprised to see them and moved by their empathy for Her. She offered any gift they wanted. They asked only for the corpse of Inanna, which She gave to them. The kurgarra and the galatur revived Inanna with the Bread of Life and the Water of Life, and She ascended to the Upperworld.
In later times Ereshkigal is paired with a second husband, Nergal, Who rules Irkalla with Her. He is a God of war and pestilence. There are a few different versions as to how They become married. During a feast of the Gods, Ereshkigal sent Her messengers to collect Her portion (as ruler of the Underworld, She is ritually unclean and so cannot go to the Halls of the Gods Herself). When Her messengers entered the hall, all the Gods rose in respect of Ereshkigal, except for Nergal. When Ereshkigal learned of Nergal’s disrespect, She was enraged. She demanded that the Gods send Nergal to Her for punishment. They complied, but Enki gave Nergal advice on how to survive it. He was instructed not to sit in any chair, not to eat the food, and not to sleep with Ereshkigal, Who is very beautiful and was considered a temptation. Nergal did not sit and He did not eat, but He saw Ereshkigal getting ready for a bath and He could not resist. They spent six passionate nights together, but on the sixth night He snuck out while Ereshkigal was sleeping.
When She awoke, She was once again enraged. She demanded that Nergal be sent back to Her, and this time She threatened that if the Gods did not send Him back then She would raise dead and send them above to devour the living (thus making Her the Goddess of zombies?? heehee). This is where the tales diverge. The earlier ones says Nergal returned and They married. Later versions say He stormed into Ereshkigal’s throne room, dragged Her to the ground by Her hair, and prepared to cut off Her head. Weeping, Ereshkigal begged for Her life. She offered to marry Him and let Him rule half of Irkalla. This is a later variant and is not in keeping with Ereshkigal’s personality to me. Clearly, patriarchy was beginning to rear its head.
Janet Munin, the editor of the Bibliotheca Alexandria devotional for Ereshkigal, Queen of the Great Below, speaks about the purpose of boundaries and Ereshkigal’s anger:
As I read and re-read the texts outlined above, I came to realize that Ereshkigal’s frequent anger was always the result of someone else violating her boundaries or transgressing against her person. Whether it is Inanna insisting on entering a realm where she has no business going or Nergal refusing the gestures of respect which every other deity offer, Ereshkigal refuses to let others take advantage of her or insult her. When she seeks justice, as in her cry to the gods to return Nergal to her, even her threats are phrased in terms of proper boundaries. Unless they return to her the one who is rightfully hers, she will allow the dead to re-enter the upper world and kill the living.
Ereshkigal herself remains within her boundaries. As the ruler of the dead she is ritually unclean and cannot approach heaven, nor can she walk the earth. Despite the loneliness and burden of her position (which she also describes in her cry for justice) she remains where she is.
When I was in my early twenties, I wrote an essay describing Inanna as the Goddess of the Holy Yes. She is always acting according to her own will, always getting her way, always winning, always enjoying her sexuality. I have come to see Ereshkigal as the Goddess of Holy No. She is the one who helps us hold the line when others would take advantage of us. She is the one who encourages our righteous anger when our rights are violated, and who helps us say “I’m sorry, but no” when others ask for more than we can – or wish – to give.
The Goddess of Boundaries can also help us when we need to protect ourselves on the spiritual or psychic level1.
Janet Munin goes on say that Ereshkigal is also the Mistress of the Descent, both the voluntary (ritual, spiritual) kind and the involuntary kind, which occurs when we fall into deep, lasting depression “when we feel overwhelmed and helpless in the face of problems that can’t be fixed by a positive attitude or money or intelligence or friends”.
This can be caused by many things. Janet says that her descent was when her beloved partner died, and it was through the ensuing depression that she came to know Ereshkigal. Ereshkigal is the great Mourner, Who is our companion in grief. Ancient sources says She mourns especially for stillborn children, who never got to know life. In the Greek Magical Papyri Ereshkigal was invoked in spells to draw a male homosexual lover. It seems strange the Ereshkigal’s worship continued into Alexandria under the Ptolemies while Inanna’s did not, but that is the way it seems to be. In the Greek Magical Papyri Ereshkigal is often related to Persephone, sometimes being invoked as Ereshkigal-Persephone. I have not yet had any contact with Her, but I find Her fascinating. She is not a Goddess to call on lightly. I greatly enjoyed the Bibliotheca Alexandria devotional to Ereshkigal, which is called Queen of the Great Below. I highly suggest it to anyone.
Another great devotional, this one published by Asphodel Press, is called Into the Great Below: A Devotional to Inanna and Ereshkigal, compiled and edited by Galina Krasskova. Ereshkigal is a different kind of Goddess, one Who most likely appeals to people (like myself) who have been scarred by life. In one of the essays in the devotional, Galina relates how She never felt much for Inanna, but was drawn instead towards Her darker sister:
Even the name speaks of beauty to me, a beauty born of loneliness, pain, and a quiet enduring strength like that of the phoenix fighting its way forth from the ashes of its own immolation. It is a beauty born not of joy but of suffering and resolution within the self. So many images come to mind when I whisper the name to myself. She is delicate and fragile in Her beauty yet at the same time, terrible and ravenous. Her grief and rage may shatter worlds and yet hold the key to healing the heart. More than any other Goddess I had encountered up to that point, She understood grief and pain and the terrible soul-twisting loneliness of being a woman unadorned and forgotten.
… [She] is a Goddess of the neglected, the cast-off, the unwanted, the discarded and disavowed. She is a Goddess for those who know what it is like to be unloved, uprooted, caught in conflict between strength and passion, of fear and hate. She is the ever infertile mother whose children are without number. She is a Goddess who can look at all of these things that we have learned to call ugly, to treat with shame, to hide away and Her only response is acceptance…. Ereshkigal embraces all these things and from them opens the door to immense strength2.
1Janet Munin. Queen of the Great Below. Bibliotheca Alexandria. 2o10.
2 Galina Krasskova. Into the Great Below: A Devotional to Inanna and Ereshkigal. Asphodel Press.