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Tag: Descent of Ishtar

Nether Cuthah

” … In the Descent of Ishtar the Babylonian Underworld is called Cuthah.

This city had a famous cemetery, like Abydos in Egypt, where many pious and orthodox worshippers sought sepulture. The local god was Nergal, who symbolized the destructive power of the sun and the sand storm; he was a gloomy, vengeful deity, attended by the spirits of tempest, weariness, pestilence, and disease, and was propitiated because he was dreaded.

In Nether Cuthah, as Ea-bani informed Gilgamesh, the worm devoured the dead amidst the dust and thick darkness.

It is evident that this Underworld was modelled on the grave. In early times men believed that the spirits of the dead hovered in or about the place of sepulture. They were therefore provided with “houses” to protect them, in the same manner as the living were protected in their houses above the ground.

The enemies of the human ghosts were the earth spirits. Weapons were laid beside the dead in their graves so that they might wage war against demons when necessary.

The corpse was also charmed, against attack, by the magical and protecting ornaments which were worn by the living–necklaces, armlets, ear-rings, &c.

Even face paint was provided, probably as a charm against the evil eye and other subtle influences.

So long as corpses were left in their graves, the spirits of the dead were, it would appear, believed to be safe. But they required food and refreshment. Food vessels and drinking urns were therefore included in the funerary furniture, and the dead were given food offerings at regular intervals.

Once a year the living held feasts in the burial ground, and invited the ghosts to share in the repast. This custom was observed in Babylonia, and is not yet obsolete in Egypt; Moslems and Coptic Christians alike hold annual all-night feasts in their cemeteries.

[ … ]

According to Babylonian belief, the dead who were not properly buried roamed through the streets searching for food, eating refuse and drinking impure water.”

Donald A. Mackenzie, Myths of Babylonia and Assyria, 1915.

Hades, Nifelhel, Put, Underworld.

“There was no Heaven for the Babylonian dead.

All mankind were doomed to enter the gloomy Hades of the Underworld, “the land of darkness and the shadow of death; a land of darkness, as darkness itself; and of the shadow of death, without any order, and where the light is darkness,” as Job exclaimed in the hour of despair, lamenting his fate.

This gloomy habitation of the dead resembles the Greek Hades, the Teutonic Nifelhel, and the Indian Put. No detailed description of it has been found.

The references, however, in the Descent of Ishtar and the Gilgamesh epic suggest that it resembled the hidden regions of the Egyptians, in which souls were tortured by demons who stabbed them, plunged them in pools of fire, and thrust them into cold outer darkness where they gnashed their teeth, or into places of horror swarming with poisonous reptiles.

Ishtar was similarly tortured by the plague demon, Namtar, when she boldly entered the Babylonian Underworld to search for Tammuz. Other sufferings were, no doubt, in store for her, resembling those, perhaps, with which the giant maid in the Eddic poem Skirnismal was threatened when she refused to marry Frey, the god of fertility and harvest:

Trolls shall torment thee from morn till eve

In the realms of the Jotun race,

Each day to the dwellings of Frost giants must thou

Creep helpless, creep hopeless of love;

Thou shalt weeping have in the stead of joy,

And sore burden bear with tears….

May madness and shrieking, bondage and yearning

Burden thee with bondage and tears.

In like manner, too, the inhabitants of the Indian Hell suffered endless and complicated tortures.”

Donald A. Mackenzie, Myths of Babylonia and Assyria, 1915.

The Attis Cult and the Baptism of Blood

“Tammuz died with the dying vegetation, and Diarmid expired when the hills apparently were assuming their purple tints. The month of Tammuz wailings was from 20th June till 20th July, when the heat and dryness brought forth the demons of pestilence. The mourners chanted:

He has gone, he has gone to the bosom of the earth,

And the dead are numerous in the land….

Men are filled with sorrow: they stagger by day in gloom …

In the month of thy year which brings not peace hast thou gone.

Thou hast gone on a journey that makes an end of thy people.

The following extract contains a reference to the slaying of the god:

The holy one of Ishtar, in the middle of the year the fields languish…

The shepherd, the wise one, the man of sorrows, why have they slain?…

In his temple, in his inhabited domain,

The child, lord of knowledge, abides no more…

In the meadows, verily, verily, the soul of life perishes.

There is wailing for Tammuz “at the sacred cedar, where the mother bore thee,” a reference which connects the god, like Adonis and Osiris, with tree worship:

The wailing is for the herbs: the first lament is, “they are not produced.”

The wailing is for the grain, ears are not produced.

The wailing is for the habitations, for the flocks which bring forth no more.

The wailing is for the perishing wedded ones; for the perishing children; the dark-headed people create no more.

The wailing is also for the shrunken river, the parched meadows, the fish pools, the cane brakes, the forests, the plains, the gardens, and the palace, which all suffer because the god of fertility has departed. The mourner cries:

How long shall the springing of verdure be restrained?

How long shall the putting forth of leaves be held back?

Whither went Tammuz? His destination has already been referred to as “the bosom of the earth,” and in the Assyrian version of the “Descent of Ishtar” he dwells in “the house of darkness” among the dead, “where dust is their nourishment and their food mud,” and “the light is never seen”–the gloomy Babylonian Hades.

In one of the Sumerian hymns, however, it is stated that Tammuz “upon the flood was cast out.” The reference may be to the submarine “house of Ea,” or the Blessed Island to which the Babylonian Noah was carried. In this Hades bloomed the nether “garden of Adonis.”

The following extract refers to the garden of Damu (Tammuz):–

Damu his youth therein slumbers …

Among the garden flowers he slumbers; among the garden flowers he is cast away …

Among the tamarisks he slumbers, with woe he causes us to be satiated.

Although Tammuz of the hymns was slain, he returned again from Hades. Apparently he came back as a child. He is wailed for as “child, Lord Gishzida,” as well as “my hero Damu.”

In his lunar character the Egyptian Osiris appeared each month as “the child surpassingly beautiful;” the Osiris bull was also a child of the moon; “it was begotten”, says Plutarch, “by a ray of generative light falling from the moon.”

When the bull of Attis was sacrificed his worshippers were drenched with its blood, and were afterwards ceremonially fed with milk, as they were supposed to have “renewed their youth” and become children.

The ancient Greek god Eros (Cupid) was represented as a wanton boy or handsome youth. Another god of fertility, the Irish Angus, who resembles Eros, is called “the ever young;” he slumbers like Tammuz and awakes in the Spring.

Apparently it was believed that the child god, Tammuz, returned from the earlier Sumerian Paradise of the Deep, and grew into full manhood in a comparatively brief period, like Vyasa and other super-men of Indian mythology. A couplet from a Tammuz hymn says tersely:

In his infancy in a sunken boat he lay.

In his manhood in the submerged grain he lay.

The “boat” may be the “chest” in which Adonis was concealed by Aphrodite when she confided him to the care of Persephone, queen of Hades, who desired to retain the young god, but was compelled by Zeus to send him back to the goddess of love and vegetation.

The fact that Ishtar descended to Hades in quest of Tammuz may perhaps explain the symbolic references in hymns to mother goddesses being in sunken boats also when their powers were in abeyance, as were those of the god for part of each year.

It is possible, too, that the boat had a lunar and a solar significance. Khonsu, the Egyptian moon god, for instance, was associated with the Spring sun, being a deity of fertility and therefore a corn spirit; he was a form of Osiris, the Patriarch, who sojourned on earth to teach mankind how to grow corn and cultivate fruit trees.

In the Egyptian legend Osiris received the corn seeds from Isis, which suggests that among Great-Mother-worshipping peoples, it was believed that agricultural civilization had a female origin.

The same myths may have been attached to corn gods and corn goddesses, associated with water, sun, moon, and stars.”

Donald A. Mackenzie, Myths of Babylonia and Assyria, 1915.

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