le 18 octobre 2015
This book is an essential tool if we want to understand the Sumerian religion and culture, but also if we want to assess what happened in Neolithic times, what tradition came up to an end in that period. These tales have been recuperated from original tablets dug out of the soil of old Sumerian towns. They are all datable between 3500 and 2500 BCE. The first interest is of course the fact that this is the first assessed and documented writing system in the world, which does not mean it necessarily was the first. An older writing system could have been only used on a material medium that was not durable and as such decayed with time or it was used by a civilization that had the mishap of being destroyed at some time in history leaving no traces behind. We must always remember that what we find from those distant civilizations is a very small portion of what was actually produced by that civilization.
The second remark on which we have to insist tremendously is that it took a tremendous amount of time for that civilization to invent that writing system. The origin is today considered to be around 8000 BCE (asserted point that was preceded too by a long gestation and that leads us to right after the Ice Age probably somewhere around 12000 BCE. As for the 8000 BCE origin we can accept the following hypothesis as being probable:
“Sumerian cuneiform is the earliest known writing system. Its origins can be traced back to about 8,000 BC and it developed from the pictographs and other symbols used to represent trade goods and livestock on clay tablets. Originally the Sumerians made small tokens out of clay to represent the items. The tokens were kept together in sealed clay envelopes, and in order to show what was inside the envelopes, they press the tokens into the clay in the outside.” (Omniglot, http://www.omniglot.com/writing/sumerian.htm, Copyright © 1998-2015 Simon Ager | Hosted by Kualo).
But we would not know about this probable origin and the subsequent writing system if the Sumerian had not invented the material medium which is clay and the clay tablets, and further on we have to say that without the invention of the stylus to write on the clay tablets and their subsequent hardening we still would have nothing at all. That is why I suggest to go as far as 12000 BCE to state the mental movement that evolved and constructed that new medium: writing is a totally new medium to communicate and transport the medium that language itself is that had been in existence for more than 200,000 years before cuneiforms starting from nothing more than the code of signals and calls inherited from previous Hominins and from Hominids beyond and before them.
Having said this we can move to the next question that has to be asked here. Inanna is a goddess and she carries with her a gender determination that opposes her to male gods. In Sumerian religion there are three basic male gods: An, god of heavens; Enlil, god of earth; and Enki god of wisdom. But we should include one woman with the first two, Ereshkigal goddess of the underworld. That gives us a spatial trilogy, trinity if you prefer: heavens – earth – the underworld. And an abstract god who is not over a territory but over a human capability, a human ability, wisdom, seen thus as divine in a way. This Enki can definitely be seen as the “spirit” of God and even beyond as the Sophia of later religions and philosophies. Enki is in fact a precursor of philosophy. To this double trinity (heavens-earth-underworld and An-Enlil-Enki) we have to add another goddess, Inanna, the daughter of Nanna and Ningal, the god and goddess of the Moon. And note the sun is not that basic since he is the son of the same Nanna and Ningal and the brother of Inanna. We should probably wonder about the initial vowel or vowels of these names. They are all connected and go back to /a/ water or sperm (seen as genetic and fertile water), to /e/ that means a water irrigating canal on top of levees that separate and limit fields, /é/ that is connected to /a/ water and is also /é/ a house, an estate, and eventually a temple, and /en/ lord, high priest and high priestess. The goddess of the underworld is built on /eresh/ lady or queen, often compounded to designate the consort of a god (erish-digur).
That at once raises the question of the status of women but what is more important the spiritual (religious) role of women in competition with male gods.
If we consider religion as a mental and spiritual invention of man, we have to consider it comes from the material evolution of the human kind, hence of Homo Sapiens. The oldest pictorial representations of the world produced by man and left behind are the rock paintings of various civilizations. Some studies of the hand prints that accompany these paintings seem to indicate the painters were women and young teenagers. How come women could have that position in pre-Ice Age societies? For a very simple reason which is called division of labor. If the human species was to develop in order to migrate and occupy the whole world, which it did, the women who were fertile from 13 to 29, due to all kinds of mishaps during the pregnancies, at delivery time, during the infancy and childhood of the children who are dependent on their mothers for food and protection up to the age of five at least, plus of course adult deaths before the age of 29, a woman had to have at the very least 8 pregnancies, which could lead two children to adult life and procreation age, and yet I would think it probably was closer to ten. That means very clearly that in sixteen years a woman had to be pregnant 8 or 10 times, at the most every two years and more probably every 18 months. This means from 13 onward a woman had a child in her womb, a child on her hip or back and a child close at hand to be looked after. Of course women probably organized themselves so that some of them could be for short periods of time be relieved. But this is a basic natural division of labor. And since women were close to the settlement of the group for long days and nights while men were out hunting, gathering and fishing, they had plenty of time to do these paintings, to invent and carry the spiritual work of inventing religions and dealing with supernatural beings and spirits.
So what happened after the Ice Age that changed this?
The warmer weather and the thawing of the ice caps meant a lot of water (the flood) and a complete change of climate which determined all over the world (without any Internet communication) the development of agriculture and herding with local cereals and plants and with local animals. If we can say that cattle was imported into Europe from the Middle East, we cannot say it was exported to all other areas in the world where they domesticated local species. It is even strange to see buffaloes being domesticated for agricultural work in the Indian subcontinent while the cow, the “European” cattle is sacred and is roaming around unexploited and unused. This development of agriculture started a long time before the supposed Neolithic revolution. In fact it probably used after the Ice Age techniques and technologies invented during and before the Ice Age to survive it. It’s what Stephen Mithen calls taking care of the natural garden: clear the land around an interesting plant and it will yield more fruit or stronger roots because it will have more air and sunshine. Water it; etc. The invention of agriculture must have taken many millennia under the pressure of extinction if new means of sustenance were not invented. It happened on a wide scale after the Ice Age because of the full change of climate and natural circumstances (fauna and flora). This is only a sketch of the long and complex procedure.
The whole social organization in Sumer was based on the control and use of irrigation water with the levees limiting the fields, the irrigation canals at the top of these levees, the circulation, distribution and sharing of water and this same root of water is the root of the irrigation canals and the root of the estate-home-household. From some kind of collective organization based on hunting parties and gathering campaigns humanity had to move to another collective organization no longer based on the natural child-rearing division of labor but on the work to be done in the fields, with the cattle and in the community to produce the tools and other instruments and appliances. Pottery developed in the same period. A potter can’t make pots and go plowing. Women no longer had the main role to play in the rearing of children in a more urban and collective environment and for the future of the community that started being ruled by some “lugal” in Sumerian, some “big man” that we generally translate as king, which is probably both true and false. Men became dominant and the invention of bronze is going to develop men into the fighting individuals we know. That’s the basis of the change with Inanna. She does not bring the change. She resists it in all possible ways and these poems or tales are the very direct incarnation of this struggle of the woman god to keep her dominant position. Since it is no longer “natural” it has to be conquered and so Inanna does by luring the God of Wisdom into drunkenness and then charming him into giving her all his divine powers, what he called his “me.” In other words the domination of male gods, and here the most abstract god, the one mostly invented by the intellectual being man was becoming, is stated as being in full possession of this god at first and losing it all then. In other words Inanna is inverting the normal movement of things. She is fighting and she wins for the time being.
Then Inanna will have to get married and the choice between a farmer and a shepherd is difficult and yet will be the same as in the myth of Abel and Cain: the shepherd will win like Cain who survived, even if he is banned and cursed. Why is the shepherd the one who survives in the Bible and the one who marries the Goddess Inanna. Any reason could be good, from the idle ease of looking after a herd and the closeness with human beings in the mammal delivery of young ones. There is also the blood that leads to sacrifice and many other reasons. Why did Inanna prefer the farmer at first? Same kind of reasoning. Farming is hard work from sunup to sundown, in the field and the sunshine, with the problem of irrigation. There is no animal dimension, no blood, no delivery. It is static in a way and it could be seen as trite but it is steady and regular and there are no predators. What is interesting here is how the husbandry of animals is preferred to the cultivation of plants and that idea is present in many civilizations, particularly those coming from the Middle East. Think of the Song of Songs and how The woman was made black because she did not take care of her vineyard and her brothers punished her by sending her to their vineyards. The interpretation that the vineyard of the girl is her virginity makes it difficult to understand the punishment as if the sister was supposed to look after the virginity of her brothers. It is a punishment because she was idle and did not do what she had to do for the plants she was supposed to grow. I would even say that herding in a society that is as for herds itinerant, seems to be a boy and young teenager’s task, a male task in other words and shepherdess seems to be a more recent – and romantic? – invention or development.
Inanna’s descent to the underworld to challenge the goddess of that underworld is most surprising but it is not rare. Orpheus and Eurydice is quite similar in a way. The myth of going down into the underworld for any reason whatsoever is quite common. Even Jesus went down to limbo to recuperate Adam and a few others. And yet it is a male who is going down and not a female even if Eurydice was already dead when Orpheus went down to get her. Inanna’s getting saved is another story but she will be saved by males, and yet when she is brought back she has new power though she had been condemned to decay on a butcher’s hook down there by Erishkigal. So there is no surprise then when she gets even with her husband of a shepherd who did not come to save her. Dumuzi was no Orpheus.
I will insist on only one more detail that shows an essential dimension that is not stated properly. In the poems, Inanna marries Dumuzi and they were happy ever after though they did not get any children and the end became very sour. But Diane Wolkstein in her commentary of the poems quotes another source, another version of this episode: It is a passage of another poem known as “Anmerkar and Ensubkesdanna.” When the newly wed husband lies on Inanna’s bed two lions are stated, one at the back and one at the head of the bed. They are called the ug-lion and the pirig-lion, and the two lions are chasing each other. What is strange is that neither Diane Wolkstein nor Mason Wilkes who quotes the same passage of this poem in a similar study “There Will Be Neither Fear nor Trembling: A Hermeneutic of Neo-Sumerian Epic” explain that “ug4” has to do with death and “pirig” has to do with light. In other words Inanna is a double character she is both light and death, life and darkness, etc. and yet she becomes ternary in that scene since she has just been having intercourse with Dumuzi: Inanni is herself and the two lions. It would be interesting to further examine “ug4” in the light of “ugu4” that means to give birth, which makes death and birth the two sides of one coin and that makes Inanna the association of three dimension in herself, in one. Inanna is not a simple goddess but even in her marriage and on her wedding bed she is the strange mixture or association of light-life, darkness-death and still birth somewhere. She is a triple goddess, the archetype of the triple goddess. The daughter of the moon god and goddess, the sister of the sun and the conqueror of the underworld. We are so close to the Greek triple goddess: Hecate goddess of the underworld, Selene goddess of the moon and Diana or Artemis goddess of life, birth and animals in the forest.
I must say that the commentaries are too often trying to reduce everything to pairs and that is wrong. There is a deep ternary pattern in this goddess and story which makes it one of the matrices of our triple goddess if not the only or first one, and thus of our triple god in the Christian tradition. The binary tradition is in the Jewish binary pattern of God and his spirit roaming over the dark water immensity under the dark sky immensity before genesis. A very precise study of this mythological tradition would show how Judaism moved from the basic ternary pattern of all “pagan” religions and Christianity will reintegrate the ternary pattern but with the male omnipotent and omniscient god instead of exploded over three male gods and conflictingly integrated in one female goddess.
Very good introduction anyway to this field of spiritual thinking.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU