Erishkegal (also Ereshkigal or Irkalla) was the Sumerian goddess of the Underworld. She was the older sister of Inanna (Ishtar) and probably her Shadow-self as well. Her name means “great lady under the earth”, and since Inanna was the “Queen of Heaven”, this would make an appropriate balance for their light/dark aspects. Erishkegal is probably one of the most misunderstood goddesses, and she has asked me to research her story for the truth.
There are very few images of Erishkegal available to us; I have been unable to find any from ancient times that are definitely identified as her. She is described by Patricia Monaghan as a huge, sleeping, black-skinned naked woman who lived in an empty palace of blue lapis. Sometimes she appears as a lion-headed woman suckling cubs, or on a boat, sitting on the horse of death and looking across the river that separates the land of the living from her own realm, called Irkalla, or the House of Dust.
Erishkegal was once the Goddess of Grain; she became the Queen of the Netherworld because none of the other Sumerian deities wanted it. With only clay to eat and dirty water to drink, she took the souls of the dead into herself by swallowing them. It was a dark and dismal place to the Sumerians, who described it as being without light, full of dust and clay, and “without exit for him who enters therein.” The dead wore feathers and would “moan like doves”, and they would eat the living if they managed to escape. Obviously NOT a place anyone wanted to go, certainly not a former grain goddess! But she went anyway, because the souls of the dead needed someone to care for them, and all the other gods refused and told her to do it.
The ancient story of Erishkegal is somewhat one-sided; in many versions, it is told only from Inanna’s point of view. However, we can figure out a lot of things by reading between the lines, and by examining several different versions of the stories.
In Tablet VI of the Epic of Gilgamesh (Wolkstein-Kramer translation), Ishtar (Inanna) was spurned by the hero Gilgamesh when she asked him to marry her, because she had been cruel to all her past lovers when she tired of them. In a rage, she demanded that her father dispatch Gugalanna, the Bull of Heaven, who was also Erishkegal’s husband, to kill Gilgamesh, and threatened to tear down the gates of the Netherworld and release the dead to come and eat the living if he did not. However, Gilgamesh killed Gugalanna, and Erishkegal had to swallow his soul as she did all the rest. She was now truly alone, and understandably she put the blame squarely on Inanna. When Inanna descended to the Netherworld for Gugalanna’s funeral, Erishkegal extracted her vengeance.
In Morris Jastrow’s translation of Ishtar’s (Inanna’s) descent, Ishtar arrived at the gates of the Netherworld and threatened to smash them open unless she was admitted; no reason is given for this. Erishkegal trembled and shook, and asked, “What has moved her heart, what has stirred her liver?” Erishkegal then told her gatekeeper to admit Ishtar and “deal with her according to the ancient decree”. The stripping of her regal trappings was the law of the Netherworld, not just pique on Erishkegal’s part. When Ishtar arrived, Erishkegal was angered by her presence, and Ishtar “without reflection, threw herself at her [in a rage]”. For this lack of respect in her own palace, Erishkegal ordered that Ishtar be stricken with disease; there is no mention that Ishtar actually died. When the gods sent their messenger to retrieve Ishtar, they said, “May Erishkegal at sight of thee rejoice! After her heart has been assuaged, her liver quieted…” This suggests they knew she was upset and why. When the messenger arrived, Erishkegal agreed to release Ishtar (Inanna) to him. Once again, the fault was truly Ishtar’s (Inanna’s) for her reckless behavior.
In another text (translated by Black, etal.), “The Marriage of Nergal and Ereshkigal”, the gods held a feast. Ereshkigal was not invited, as she could not ascend to the heavens because she was ‘unclean’ (probably because of her association with the dead), and the other gods could not descend to the Netherworld or they would be unable to leave. However, Ereshkigal was told to send a messenger up who would bring back a gift from the feast table for her. When her messenger arrived in the halls of heaven, he was offended by Nergal (possibly another name for Gugalanna), described as the son of Ishtar (Inanna), who refused to rise in respect when he arrived, although all the other gods did so. Nergal then decided to make a visit to Ereshkigal. He was warned not to sit, eat, drink or bathe there, and especially not to become Ereshkigal’s lover; however, he slept with her anyway. Then he left secretly and returned to heaven. In her anger and pain, Ereshkigal demanded that he be returned to her or she would open the gates of the Netherworld and turn the dead loose to eat the living. In the Amarna version of this text, she demanded he be brought to her so she could kill him for his offense to her messenger. He then went to the Netherworld to kill her, but spared her when she offered to marry him and make him king of the Netherworld.
The texts refer in several places to Erishkegal’s compassion for the souls she cares for. She says, “I weep for the men who have left their wives. I weep for the wives torn from the embrace of their husbands; for the little ones cut off before their time.” (Jastrow) When the messengers of Enki came to retrieve Inanna’s body, they found her moaning and crying, “Oh, my inside! Oh, my outside!”, as though she were in pain. They had been told she would be in this state by Enki himself, so her unhappy condition in the Netherworld was a fact already known to the gods. Since she took all the souls of the dead into herself, she must have been truly in agony, especially when there were wars and thousands were dying.
None of these texts actually present Erishkegal as bad or evil, yet she is always compared to Inanna as a kind of ‘evil twin’ who is jealous of and mean to her younger sister. How did this come about?
Neither Inanna nor Erishkegal are completely good or completely bad; they are, I believe, the light and shadow sides of the Great Goddess. Inanna is described in some texts as being immature and nervous about assuming her role as Queen of Heaven, and she appears to need to learn many things before she can truly fulfill this role. One of these learning experiences is dealing with her Shadow. Inanna is portrayed as dealing harshly with her lovers when she tires of them; Erishkegal is either given a husband who has been exiled from heaven for cruelty or is treated badly by her lover or husband, depending on the story. Perhaps Inanna is acting as she does out of fear that she will be treated cruelly by any man who has power over her; by facing her shadow as Erishkegal and being killed for her arrogance, she can overcome her tendency to strike first before she is struck, and learn to feel respect for herself in all her aspects. She also needs to learn that death has different rules, and they are fixed and unchangeable, regardless of how much power one has.
According to Elinor Gadon in her book, The Once and Future Goddess, the stories of Inanna and Erishkegal are about the rise of patriarchy and the overthrowing of the Great Goddess religions. After reading the various translations of the original texts, I agree that this is very likely the case. The Sumerians appeared to have no real idea of an afterlife, but only envisioned a miserable existence as a spirit in dreary Irkalla. Perhaps this was because their culture focused entirely on this life and what one could accumulate, or perhaps it was because they had become so warlike that they clung to this life as the only good thing there was. In either case, they relegated one part of the Great Goddess to the Underworld and made her as dark and frightening as possible, and made the other half dependant on the male gods to save her from her darker half. See how terrible is the place ruled by a woman, they said. The only way to be safe is to allow male gods (and men) to have the REAL power. Only we can protect you from the darkness. Erishkegal probably represented the place inside women that men cannot not control, the line that, when crossed, turns a fearful woman into a raging Fury. The dreary land of the dead was the perfect place to banish a goddess one wished to be rid of, or at least discredit, but who refused to go away entirely.
I worked with Erishkegal for quite some time as a matron deity. She really isn’t a scary, horrible goddess; in fact, most women are drawn to her at some point in life, although they usually don’t realize it. Elizabeth Barrette gives her the titles of ‘She Who Complains’ and ‘Goddess of Thankless Tasks’; I feel these are both very apt. As She Who Complains, she is the voice inside of us that says, “Are you going to TAKE that?? You don’t have to! You need to stand up and say you’ve had enough!” And when we finally do say “ENOUGH!”, it is Erishkegal’s voice we use to make our complaints effective. She is also the matron deity of those who do all the yucky and/or boring but necessary tasks that constantly require someone’s attention. Think of cleaning a greasy, dirty oven, doing seemingly endless laundry and grocery shopping, changing diapers, washing dishes, cleaning the toilet and the cat’s litter box. How often are you thanked or appreciated for doing these tasks? How often do you feel what you do is overlooked? Do you see Erishkegal in your life?
I learned that I could come to her altar and meditate on accepting the stuff I had to do even when I didn’t want to. Erishkegal took on a task no one else wanted but that needed to be done, so she understands. I found that by putting representations of those tasks on her altar, I can scream, yell and complain about them, then accept them and let go of the anger. I also learned that I can take my grievances to her, lay them at her feet, and practice how to tell people that I wasn’t going to put up with that any more.
To honor Erishkegal is to honor some of the difficult things in life that we cannot avoid, but that will make us stronger if we face them. Miriam Harline says in her essay on crone goddesses, “Despair, depression and death can be honored as a gift, and not just in a superficial chirpy way that assumes they can thus be placated and avoided… It’s also true that only once we truly honor Ereshkigal can we, like Inanna, get off the hook and return to the upper world.” While I’m not sure I can ever consider despair or depression as ‘gifts’, I can appreciate that they are valid feelings we all have, and that going through them makes me more appreciative of the good things in my life and helps me be more understanding when others go through them.
How can we honor this goddess? Easy. We can say “thank you” to people who do the nasty, dirty jobs that need doing in order for us to function in a clean environment. (I ran through the mud in our community garden last year to thank the driver of the sewage truck for keeping our portable toilets so clean and to wish him a Merry Christmas – he was VERY surprised and pleased!) We can honor her by honoring ourselves and learning to say ‘no’ when people ask us to do more than we can reasonably take on. We can sign petitions, write letters and publicly protest spending money on unnecessary wars and new weapons, and recommend instead that it be put into finding cures for AIDS, cancer and other major diseases. (If we try to lighten Erishkegal’s load of death, she will help us lighten our own loads.) And we can weep with and comfort those who mourn, sharing their sorrow because we are all in this world together. As John Donne said, “No man is an island, entire of itself… Every man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind…” While we will probably never be able to eliminate the need for Erishkegal’s presence in the world, we can take her out of the House of Dust and give her the acknowledgment and respect she deserves.
Ritual for Erishkegal
To view the Coven of the Ancient Mother Shadow Ritual – “Mourning with Erishkegal," please click here.
1997  “Erishkegal: Goddess of Thankless Tasks.” In SageWoman, Vol. 31,
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