Sunday, 19 June 2011

The roles assigned to deities of the Underworld.

The two main roles given to underworld deities are:
  • Guardian/ judge of the dead.
    • Persephone,
    • Hades,
    • Ereshkigal,
    • Hel.
  • Personification of life force.
    • Kore,
    • Dumuzi,
    • Adonis,
    • Geshtinanna.
    • Inanna.
    • Ninhursag/ Nintur.
    • Demeter.

    The duality of the roles taken by Underworld deities is represented in the doubling of the name, Persephone (which no one seems able to translate- but is usually taken to mean something terrible that it can't be said) and Kore meaning young girl; Persephone representing the Queen of the dead, a figure rather like the Viking Hel, and Kore representing the force of nature, the green shoots springing from the earth.

    In other stories the sexes are reversed: Hades or Nergal replace Persephone as ruler of the Underworld, whilst Dumuzi or Adonis take Kore's place, hunted and chased down into the dark earth.

    In Sumerian stories, Ereshkigal is queen of the dead, whilst Geshtinanna (Lady of the grape-vine) and Dumuzi (almost John Barleycorn; Damu -the power in the sap in trees and plants) both take the role of Kore. When Dumuzi of the grain disappears underground in the spring, or early summer, his sister, the wine goddess, searches for him. Finally, in autumn she descends into the earth and takes his place allowing him to return.

    Inanna is both Persephone when she answers the call to visit the Great Below and then plays a role not too dissimilar to that of Demeter, as she laments the loss of her husband, Dumuzi.

    In Greek mythology; in the older Homeric works of The Iliad and The Odyssey, Persephone is a dread Queen of the dead, very similar to Ereshkigal. Yet in the latter Homeric hymn to Demeter, Persephone is portrayed as less powerful, personified now as the abducted child.

    The power to make things grow in Hesiod's version, is given to her upper-world mother, Demeter.

    In Hesiod's theogeny, Persephone is simply the stolen girl, given by her father to her uncle..and now powerless, robbed of her role as life-force, and subject to Zeus's whim. Zeus is the real power in this story, likewise Demeter must plead with him for her daughter's return.

    Rather confusingly the Romans combined the two names and two roles into one: Proserpina from "proserpere", "to shoot forth" and simplified the Greek story.

    But if I go back to the oldest stories I know of, Ninhursag 'The Lady of Birth' [Nin -Lady. Hur-sag -hill-country; mountainous region ('holes, valleys' + 'points, peaks') is Kore as Wild Woman, a mistress of animals and responsible for the gift of life. Thorkild Jacobsen in The Treasures Of Darkness describes her as mother of summer and winter (when Enlil in the form of a great bull copulates with the 'foothills' [the hursag]).

    In another story her husband is Shulpae, king of the wild beasts of the desert. She loses her children to the hunters and farmers when they are killed, captured or tamed; yet domestic animals may die if they wonder into her territory.

    When the storytellers told of Inanna's descent to 'The Great Below' and her sister Ereshkigal, queen of the dead, something of Ninhursag's connection with hills and mountains was given to Ereshkigal. The story describes Ereshkigal crying out as if giving birth, as if restoring life to the dead?

    Ereshkigal [e-ri-iš -Queen, Lady. ki-gal -Great Earth (as opposed to an-gal great heaven] described as taken by the Kur [Kur -mountain] to become Queen of the Underworld, taking care of the dead and administering justice. Ereshkigal seems to be the major, permanent power of the under ground, representing its capacity to hold and re-home the dead. In the latter story "Nergal and Ereshkigal" (approximately 1500 BC) the focus of the tale is power, who actually rules the Underworld: Ereshkigal or the god of war, Nergal.

    The Lady of the Foothills is also The Lady of the Birth Hut; the term 'birth hut' seems to have been used in Sumerian to mean, amongst other things, the womb. Her emblem is an elongated Omega symbol.

    The interesting part of all this for me is to note how power shifts in the myths to represent what feels right (reflects society) and addresses anxieties within that society.