Map of Greece

MYTHS OF THE OTHERWORLD: LOVE, GUILT AND MEMORY, a lecture by Prof. Ricardo Nirenberg. Fall 1996, the University at Albany Project Renaissance.

map of italy

The last three lectures dealt with myth. Prof. Isser talked about creation myths in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, and Prof Ng talked about Chinese and Japanese myths. Prof. Isser gave us a characterization of myth (from Frankfurt's book) as "a cloak for abstract thought," and a key term: "to demythologize" which means to take the cloak off, to show the naked underlying abstract thought—in other words, to explain a myth in philosophic and scientific terms. In her lecture Prof Ng's emphasized the role that myths played in establishing, maintaining and legitimizing political arrangements; how rulers used certain myths in order to secure their own position of power. Today I'll present a different view of myth, one very close to the basic theme of our course: human identity and the human condition. In this view, myth is a way of expressing, an attempt at communicating, the basic hard facts of our human condition. This lecture forms a unit together with the next two, and the other main theme we will study is how "abstract thought," that is, philosophy, branched out of mythical thought. We'll deal with the beginnings of Greek philosophy in the lecture after the next. Then, later in the semester, we'll deal with the origins of Western science out of Western philosophy.

Today, most of us live under the basic assumption that we are all in one universe, large and complex, to be sure, but one. From all we know about the life of our ancestors, though, we can say with certainty that since the earliest time human beings have lived in at least three different worlds: the world of the living which we experience with our senses while awake, the world of the dead and the spirits, and an intermediate world of dreams. Dreams often allow the living to communicate with the dead, or so it was believed. In previous lectures we have mentioned some brute facts of human nature, for example that we are born without being consulted, and we have seen that our thought, our beliefs, must somehow accomodate themselves to those facts. Well, no fact is more brutal than the death and the absence of a loved one. The offensive smell of a decomposing body may be one of the marvels of biological evolution, to ensure that the survivors don't cling on to the dead and instead carry on the important business of life; nevertheless it is a smell that conveys the full meaning of the word "brutal."

This brutal fact, the death of a loved one, is always pregnant with something else, for which our language, amazingly enough, doesn't have a word. This something else is not a fact, because it hasn't happened yet ("fact" etymologically means something which has been done, which has already happened), but it is more than a possibility, since it carries with it the necessity of an accomplished fact. The death of a loved one is always pregnant with this something which is neither fact nor possibility, yet partakes of both: I mean my own death. Often, language cannot show what pictures can: this dreadful pregnancy of the death of a loved one has been depicted by Piero della Francesca on a mural in the church of San Francesco, in Arezzo, Italy.

Death of Adam, by Piero della Francesca

Click here for Detail of Painting

Since the dawn of our species we have tried to make some sense of this most brutal fact. The ancients had many definitions of the species Man: the animal possessing language, reason and computing skills; the tool-making animal; the animal with two legs and no feathers, and there were still many other ingenious and funny definitions. Modern science defines Man in terms of anatomy, of genetic code and DNA. But the following is as rigorous a definition as any other, and perhaps more telling than any: what makes us human is that we care about death. This means that in one way or another, more or less explicitly, practically as well as theoretically, we ask ourselves the question: What happens to the dead? One of the possible answers to that question is: Nothing happens to the dead—being dead means precisely this: nothing happens. Among us, it is a pretty common answer, an answer at least as old as Greek philosophy, and it is precisely this answer that started philosophy, 5 or 6 centuries B.C. Don't fall into the error of taking it as a final answer which solves the problem once and for all, so that we can now forget about it; on the contrary, this answer begs and opens up the most difficult question of all: How can we think, how can we imagine this word, this concept, "nothing"? What is the meaning of negating being, of saying "this has been, but now is not"? Next week we will be talking about how the earliest Greek philosophers dealt with this most difficult question, but right now I want to dispel a possible misunderstanding: I am not saying that a philosopher's answer must be, "Nothing happens to the dead," or that he shouldn't believe in an afterlife; all I'm saying is that philosophers were concerned in various ways with that most difficult problem: the possibility of not being, of nothing (I advise you in this regard to read Plato's Apology). We may say, then, that ancient abstract thought, which is called philosophy, put the world of the dead and the spirits, as it were, between parentheses—it wasn't denied but just doubted, and philosophy went ahead without it. By the end of the semester, when we study Descartes, we will see that modern philosophy put the other, intermediate world, the world of dreams, between parentheses as well.

Today we'll talk about the positive answer: Something happens to the dead. This opens up the rich realm of further answers about what happens to the dead and, just as the negative answer ("nothing") leads us into philosophy and abstract thought, the positive answer ("something") leads us into myth and religion.

When we say, "Something happens to the dead," almost immediately we imagine a place, a space and time, a world where they dwell: this is called "the otherworld." Archaeology shows that through the millenia our ancestors cared about their dead, kept with them the skulls and long bones of their loved ones, buried the corpses together with their jewels, ornaments, tools and domestic implements, and even sprinkled their bones with a red mineral, ocher, to simulate the blood of life. All this points to a belief in an afterlife, often conceived as similar to the life down here. The most impressive monuments still standing, the Egyptian pyramids and the huge stones erected in Western Europe from Spain to Sweden, most notably at Stonehenge and in Brittany, France, are memorials, silent but durable witnesses to the concern of ancient cultures for their dead. In China, at the time of the Eastern Han dynasty (AD25-220), so much wealth was lavished on tombs that many families were ruined competing with their neighbors in displays of tomb furnishings. (Remember that Prof. Ng spoke of the Chinese cult of ancestors).

The location of the otherworld depended on the culture: for hunter-gatherer nations it might have been located in the woods beyond their territory, or two islands away from their own island. Among agricultural peoples, who are used to bury the seed and to see the plant grow forth after a season, the otherworld was often a netherworld, that is, a world under the earth. The relations between the living and the dead differed from culture to culture too: among some peoples the space of the dead and that of the living had a lot of overlap—the living and the dead "lived together," as it still happens, for example, in Mexico, where people eat and drink on the graves of their loved ones. In other cultures there was a strict separation, enforced by ritual practice. One feature of the interaction between the two worlds is apparently universal: the dead are remembered, missed, cared for, payed all kinds of respects—but they are also feared. Ghosts can cause sickness and mischief among the living, and one important aspect of ritual is to ensure their "peaceful rest," to keep them in their proper place. But the dead may appear to the living in dreams: the world of dreams functions as an intermediate one, a connection between this world and the one of the dead. Humans have maintained for thousands of years what we might call a conflictual relation to their dead: both love and fear. One could spend a lifetime analysing the different interactions of the living and the dead in various cultures, but we will focus on just one ancient Sumerian text, the Descent of Inanna to the Netherworld, and we will try to make sense of it. One of the reasons I've chosen this myth is that it is probably the oldest one we have in written form.

The oldest civilization we know about, the Sumerian, was located in what today is southern Iraq, the locale of the recent military campaign called "Desert Storm," and was flourishing about 3,000 B.C. As far as we know, they built the first cities, each built around a central temple where the statue of the local god was adored, and their language was the first to be written down (on clay tablets). The Sumerian cities depended on agriculture and a complex irrigation system; initially they were governed by the free, adult male citizens divided into two groups, like our own bicameral legislatures: a kind of Senate, constituted by the old men, and another whose members were the young warriors. Eventually, the needs of warfare—cities warring against each other, and also against invading nations—gave rise to the institution of kingship: the king was the general of the army. Roughly by 2,000 BC the Sumerians were conquered by, and mixed with, the Akkadians, who spoke a Semitic language, related to modern Arabic and Hebrew; thanks to our knowledge of Semitic languages, and thanks to the finding of bilingual tablets (Sumerian and Akkadian face to face), Sumerian was deciphered in the 1900's. The Sumerian language is unrelated to any spoken today. Among the Akkadians, Sumerian survived as a learned and sacred language, much as Latin survived throughout the European middle ages and beyond.

For the Sumerians, the souls or ghosts of the dead were supposed to descend to the netherworld or world under the ground, where most agricultural cultures located the dwellings of the dead. The lives of the dead were similar to our lives here, only grayer, weaker, slower—less lively. Corpses were buried with their jewels and implements. Courtiers, wives, horses, etc., were slaughtered and buried with royal personages, to minister to their needs in the netherworld.

Gilgamesh was a Sumerian king whose legendary strength and exploits are the subject of the oldest epic tales know to us—Prof. Isser has talked about these in a previous lecture. Observe that for Gilgamesh the death of his friend Enkidu was pregnant with his own death. You may remember, too, that Enkidu died because he dared insult a powerful goddess. Who was she? Inanna, the Sumerian goddess of love and war and of the morning and evening star (our planet Venus), later identified with the Ishtar of the conquering Akkadians and, even later, with the Astarte of the Cananeans and Phoenicians. She was the same fertility goddess for whom King Solomon the Wise built a high place in Jerusalem. There was an annual rite, the Sacred Marriage, in which a female servant or priestess of the goddess had sex with the king, to assure the prosperity of the kingdom and the fertility of life. We hear an echo of this rite in the Bible, in the Song of Songs.

The goddess Inanna's first love was Dumuzi, called in the Semitic language Tammuz. The Sumerian texts are ambiguous about the identity of Dumuzi: although clearly a shepherd, he also appears in the lists of kings as king of the city of Uruk. Dumuzi-Tammuz was always identified with the reigning king, and "shepherd" became a regular metaphor for "king". He apparently started his life being human and his divinity was a gift of Inanna, who declares, "It's Dumuzi I have called to be 'the god of the land'." He, like many ancient gods and goddesses, hovers ambiguously between being mortal and immortal.

The ancient Sumerian myth known as "Inanna's Descent to the Netherworld," begins with Inanna's decision to go to the land of the dead. Why? Her motives are nowhere suggested. At first, when the myth was known only in its Akkadian version, scholars assumed that the goddess was motivated by her desire to rescue her dead husband. But, after the first reading of the older Sumerian tablets in the 1940's, this became untenable. The only imaginable explanation is Inanna's ambition, which made her wish to become goddess of the underworld, as well as of the upperworld—in order to abolish Death. Here, in this oldest of texts, we have the goddess of love intent on conquering the land of the dead for no discernible reason other than because it is in the nature of Love to try to conquer Death.

So she puts on her finery and makeup, her most precious jewels and talismans, the emblems and engines of her powers. When she arrives before the gates of Hell, Inanna tells the gate-keeper that she is there for the funeral of Ereshkigal's husband, who has just died (try to explain this logically!). The gate-keeper doesn't trust her, and goes to consult with his mistress, Ereshkigal, the queen of the Underworld. Ereshkigal understands that Inanna has come to conquer; fearful and furious, she orders Beti, the gatekeeper, to strip Inanna of all her finery and bring her in. As Inanna goes through the seven doors of Hell, Beti removes her crown and, one by one, all her other clothes, jewels and talismans, and finally takes the naked Inanna before the throne of Queen Ereshkigal, who is assisted by the seven judges of the Underworld. Ereshkigal then

fastened her gaze upon her: the gaze of death;
she said against her the word of wrath,
and cried at her the cry of damnation: guilty!

Inanna dies, and her corpse is hung from a peg. Meanwhile Inanna's faithful helper, Ninshubur, having waited three days and three nights, goes to plead for her mistress before the other gods. Enlil, the first god, is unwilling to help. The same happens with Nanna, the god of the moon. Finally, Enki, god of the waters and the most resourceful of all gods, who possesses the "food of life" and the "drink of life," devises a way of delivering those vivifying items to Inanna. For this, "out of the grime under his nails," he creates two creatures; to the first he entrusts the food of life, to the second the drink of life, then gives them precise instructions on how to be admitted to Ereshkigal and how to win her good will. Finally Enki enjoins them to refuse all food and drink from Ereshkigal, and to sprinkle on Inanna's corpse the food and the drink of life, which shall revive the goddess.

The sexual nature of the two creatures is uncertain; they seem to be gay, perhaps because only gays could easily reach Ereshkigal. The only fact that seems clear is this: to rescue the goddess of love and fertility from death, the resourceful Enki creates and sends two creatures whose love style is turned away from fertility. Searching all over our bodies, we could hardly find something more infertile than the grime under our nails. Anyway, following Enki's instructions, the two creatures gain admittance to the land of the dead and find Queen Ereshkigal lying on her bed, in pain. She's about to give birth. We can only speculate about what kind of dreadful pregnancy tormented the Queen of Hell. Perhaps she was delivering evil spirits, perhaps she was constipated. In any case, the two creatures mimick Ereshkigal's cries of pain: every time she says, "Ah, my insides!" they repeat after her, "Ah, your insides!," and the same when she cries for the pain in her limbs. Grateful Ereshkigal promises to give the two creatures anything they want, and they make her first take a solemn oath that she will honor their request. This is, of course, to be given the corpse of Inanna which hangs from the peg. They sprinkle on her the food and the draught of life, and the Goddess of Love is resurrected, ready to ascend to life and the upper world.

But here something strange comes up, a regulation of Hell: anyone who wants to leave must bring down a replacement. The judges and guards of the Underworld tell Inanna that either she finds a substitute, or she can't go back. One could see here merely a simple case of tit for tat, but there is a strange element: Inanna is no common goddess, being the powerful goddess of love and fertility; according to Hell's rule, however, any living human being, or any minor deity, can function as her substitute. It is a strange kind of bookkeeping, even if it might appear natural to our democratic mindset: regardless of the quality of the person, only the number counts. Now, the interesting thing is, numbers were very important for the Sumerians; as far as we know, they were the first bookkeepers ever, and it was for this bookkeeping that number symbols were devised: these symbols were, apparently, the oldest instance of writing. Thus, Sumerian bookkeeping is of great importance: it is nothing less than the beginning of writing and therefore of history!

Going back to our story: under the condition that she bring down a replacement, Inanna is left free on parole: a band of cruel, unloving and inflexible demons go with her to make sure she'll live up to her end of the agreement. They first come across Ninshubur, Inanna's faithful helper, in deep mourning: she throws herself on the dust at her mistress' feet. The demons want to carry her off, but Inanna refuses: Ninshubur has always been efficient, obedient and faithful, and, as a matter of fact, has just now saved Inanna from Hell. Then they meet Shara, a local god, who prostrates himself at the feet of Inanna: he too mourns for his mistress; he has been, says Inanna, her faithful servant, manicure and coiffeur, and she will never let him be taken to Hell. A third god they meet has also been mourning for Inanna: he is her "faithful captain, always at her sides," and Inanna is not willing to let him die. Finally they arrive at Uruk, Inanna's city, where they come upon Dumuzi, her lover and husband. In contrast to Inanna's three faithful devotees, Dumuzi, far from mourning, is having a good time, regally sitting on Inanna's throne and carousing. Upon seeing this, with the same words Ereshkigal had hurled against her in Hell, Inanna condemns her husband:

"She fastened her gaze upon him: the gaze of death;
she said against him the word of wrath,
and cried at him the cry of damnation: guilty!"

The remainder of the story has been gathered from different sources. Briefly, Dumuzi is seized by the demons; he prays to his brother in-law, the sun god, asking to be turned into a serpent so as to escape his tormentors. His request is granted, and Dumuzi escapes, but only for the time being. He goes into hiding in the house of his sister, with the demons after him. Finally, Dumuzi is seized, but before he's hurled into Hell, his sister prays that she may take his place. Inanna acceeds, and a bargain is struck, typical—as we'll explain below—of myths of agricultural societies: Dumuzi and his sister will each spend half of the year in Hell.

Let us sum up and try to make sense of all this. When, after a summary trial, Ereshkigal and her judges pronounce Inanna guilty and kill her, the guilt she has incurred is cosmic, for she has trespassed, trying to conquer the Underworld which since the time of Creation was meant to be strictly separate from the world of life. The laws of the Underworld are clear, algebraic, very similar to our modern physical laws: certain numbers, measures and boundaries must be conserved and respected. All this is perfectly natural. The second time around, when Inanna uses the same deadly words to condemn her faithless lover, we are confronted with a totally different kind of guilt, and with the unnatural laws of love. What is Dumuzi's sin? He's been forgetful, has not held on to his dead wife, has not made for her a new life inside his mind. The words of condemnation are exactly the same, but in between those two utterances—"guilty!"—lies the long road from nature to human nature, to human love and hatred. Just as loving memory and fear of the dead, as we have seen, go hand in hand, true love is—even in the greatest goddess—doubled with hatred.

Incidentally, who do you think was the earliest writer in history whose name we know? It is not Moses, nor Homer. It's earlier and it is a woman, Princess Enheduanna of Akkad, born around 2300 BC, composer of songs in honor of Inanna—we know her name because she signed her clay tablets. Many poems, hymns and lamentations have survived in which we hear Inanna-Ishtar weeping and mourning the death of her husband. And not only Inanna, but whole nations have lamented, for millenia, the death of Dumuzi-Tammuz on the month named after him. In the Bible, God took Ezekiel in a vision to Jerusalem, where, at the gate of the Lord's house, women sat weeping for Tammuz. To Ezekiel and to his Lord, the scene was an abomination, something loathsome. The goddess of love killing her husband then mourning him may seem an abomination to us too, even though we have often seen similar things in literature and art—Othello killed Desdemona then mourned for her, Rogozhin killed Nastaya Filippovna in Dostoevsky's The Idiot, then cried for her, and Don José's last cry in Bizet's opera is: "Yes. I have killed her, I — my adored Carmen!". In the next lecture we'll see how Clytemnestra killed her husband Agamemnon but did not mourn for him. One can go on and on multiplying the examples. Those terrible crimes, those crimes of passion, can perhaps be explained by the unnatural laws of love, the imperatives of faithfulness and memory, of vengeance and retaliation, though, I'm afraid, they are totally unintelligible from the strictly logical point of view of the demons of the Underworld.

This is the end of the story, a story which is the most ancient written myth we have. The word "myth," originally, in Greek, meant just that: a story. Prof. Isser has mentioned a theory (in the book by Frankfurt and others) that says that myths are "a cloak for abstract thought," and he has explained that abstract thought means philosophical and scientific thought. What are we to say about the myth just told? Does it fit Frankfurt's theory? Certain parts of the myth can be easily translated into abstract thought: for example, the alternation between Dumuzi and his sister in Hell has been related to the alternation of the fertile and the arid seasons in agricultural Mesopotamia. Dumuzi above, grain grows, Dumuzi below, the land is scorched. But how about the core of the myth? Does our word "love," which we use so often, as in "I love New York," capture what the goddess of love felt for her husband, that fatal love doubled with hatred? And how about death? As we have seen, we don't even have a proper word for our own death, a fact which is not a fact. The truth is, abstract thought can go only so far. Where does it stop? Right when we meet the brutal givens of our human condition. We have talked about three such. That we are born by accident and without being consulted. That we cannot communicate our uniqueness in language, because language is social, historical, contingent. And finally, that we die. Confronted with those brutal givens, abstract thought is impotent. As we have seen in my lecture on Euclid, even mathematicians have abandoned the ambition to define everything: you must start from some things which are undefined, just given.

We cannot define human love. Worse: reason is based on logic, and logic, as we'll see in my coming lecture on the birth of philosophy, is based on the principle of non-contradiction. But human feelings are contradictory —true love is mixed with fear and hatred, and desire coexists with repulsion.

When abstract thought, philosophy, science, can't go on, myth takes over and weaves a story or paints a picture to try to communicate how human beings feel about their human predicament. Inanna is no floozy; she is a great goddess, the goddess of both love and war; she tries to conquer Death but cannot; she loves her husband, kills him, then weeps and mourns. Great myths, of course, are still being created today, but are usually called with different names: poems, novels, plays, works of art. Shakespeare's "Othello," Dostoevsky's "The Idiot," Bizet's "Carmen," Piero della Francesca's "Death of Adam," are simply some of the famous myths of our time. So, when Frankfurt says myth is a cloak for abstract thought, we may reply: well, then works of art are, too, a cloak for abstract thought, nothing but philosophy clothed in attractive robes. This is, no doubt, a way of viewing art, but I think it is an empoverished view. The truth is, myths and art are no mere cloak: they venture where abstract thought cannot.

Required Readings:

You should purchase the package of xeroxed copies, containing the myth of the Descent of Inanna and a summary of the Sumerian views of the otherworld.

Optional Readings:

Samuel Noah Kramer, The Sacred Marriage Rite, Indiana U. Press, 1969. (Prof. Kramer was the first to decipher and put Inana's myth into modern language).

For a wider collection of myths, songs and other texts from Mesopotamia, you may consult:

Stephanie Dalley, Myths from Mesopotamia, Oxford U. Press, 1989, or Benjamin R. Foster, Before the Muses, CDL Press, 1993 (2 volumes). The epic of Gilgamesh is available in many popular editions.

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