Ninurta and How He Killed Asag
This introduction departs radically from openings of the previous myths. Instead of a narrator’s initial scene-setting, a set of second person paragraphs in which he explains the general context of the story, we are brought into the tale with a lengthy exaltation of Ninurta. This does much to convey tone, and gives this story a sense of darker and more profound grandiosity than the ones that came before. I wish that there was more of a dramatic question in the exaltation itself, but there is perhaps a hint of one in the inevitable irony which comes with saying, “Your foes have no chance against you.” We, knowing the cyclical inevitability of the universe’s rises and falls, understand that this proclamation will soon be tested.
As the story continues, this understanding is proven correct. In the terrible battle between Ninurta and the Asag, more care is given to explaining the utter scope of the battle than anything else. “This was large,” the author seems to say, “and if you forget everything else, remember that. This battle was incredibly enormous in size and power.” Supporting this, the details of Armageddon-like destruction come into play. One soon realizes they’re not unlike the details of various natural disasters, which I don’t doubt were the basis of the celestial chaos presented in the text. If a volcano were embedded in the Sumerian cultural memory, even a few thousand years before the time of writing, wouldn’t those tales of horror and awe and darkening skies linger in the oral tradition?
I also must say, rolling up the entire sky like a club and beating someone with it is pretty badass. It walks the line of surreal destruction somewhere between Oppenheimer and Looney Tunes.
In great expenditure of effort against the Asag, Ninurta is victorious. He delays his own demise, and delays the turning of the wheel with which civilizations rise, then fall fall to others in turn. One can’t help but compare it to the Near Eastern cities themselves, with Babylon and Assur yoking each other through various golden ages. Perhaps in this way Ninurta is Sumer, and the Asag is a narrowly defeated challenger force. With victory, the city lives to fight another day, but an ominous calculus begins to appear across a long enough timespan. If victory is only a maintenance of the status quo, while defeat is total obliteration, any encounter with a hostile force becomes a dice-roll against oblivion. With enough of those rolls, you’re almost deterministically guaranteed to lose.
The Myth of Kur
Here we are introduced to another idea which will come to define Western storytelling — that of the scheming, overpowerful vizier. We’re also reminded of the craftiness of Inanna, and her delightful mix of coy flirtation mixed with stone-cold ambition. Reflecting on this tale, I realize it must be set some time in the middle of The Journey of Inanna, as that would be the only time that she was living in the underworld. That is yet another layer of complexity added to these myths, and the relationships between them, since one would ordinarily imagine them happening in fairly linear sequence.
Also amusing in this story is the ultra-fast, bald, nude, magically gifted court messenger. He seems to be written almost as a conceit, to explain how Kur and Inanna were communicating fairly quickly across great distances. Kur was the one doing the ‘reaching,’ and so it would not have made sense for Inanna to use her godly powers to initiate or aid communication. That is, unless she felt the urge more keenly than usual to ensnare and murder some poor, fawning man.
Aside from proving Gilgamesh wise for rebuffing a lady goddess, this story does little to advance the broader theme of the Sumerian mythology. It’s almost trite, with a short and uncomplicated fable’s ending, and does little to impart meaningful wisdom on the reader. After all, when will any of us be in the position to court a goddess? One could argue that the broader message is to not let oneself be blinded by affection, but this is perhaps even more trite and too general to really hold value.
The Journey of Inanna
This was an utterly unexpected rollercoaster of a tale. To me, it far surpassed The Epic of Gilgamesh in several respects, and was totally delightful in its off-the-wall evil antics and hairpin turns.
Entering the story, we again see the Sumerian theme of women, or at least goddesses, being domineering and crafty in their relations with men. Inanna has a clear desire, and a relatable one at that. She wants to explore, and to learn of the world, and to never be denied anything by anyone at any point ever. Implicit within that is her desire for power, and to establish herself as superior by doing what no one else has done. These are the traits of a spectacularly watchable villain.
Immediately, her character is revealed through her directions to Nincubura. We feel his shock as our own, and we feel powerless against her as she continues with her schemes. From this point on, nothing she does should really be surprising, yet somehow she continues to surprise. Inanna is doubtlessly, absolutely the most intelligent and crafty character in all of Sumerian mythology. Despite missteps, and an ultimate defeat, she politics and schemes in a way that Gilgamesh could never have hoped to.
Continuing the the underworld, Inanna’s conversation with Neti is completely delightful. The fact that he sees through her disguise is charming, and adds layers to her relationship with Ereckigala. Of course, Ereckigala’s own scheme soon removes Inanna’s layers, leading to the starkly iconic moment when Inanna appears naked before her sister in the underworld and murders her on the spot.
From there, things really get down to business. Inanna hangs her sister up on a meathook, has her entire wardrobe burned, and sits on the underworld throne stark naked for three days while new clothes are sewn. In this time, she organizes a massive restructuring of the underworld, garnering respect and loyalty from its citizens despite her sudden and violent coup. If that’s not a testament to leadership ability, I don’t know what is.
Of course, the blithe overconfidence of a satisfied sociopath is Inanna’s fatal flaw. After winning control of the underworld, she returns to the court of Enlil, and is so unable to empathize with others that she’s genuinely surprised by the fury of the gods above. I’m sure it’s that same pathological lack of remorse which allowed her to kill her sister in cold blood. This only goes to show how some aberrant, competitive traits such as a lack of empathy can also possess grave downsides which limit their ability to increase one’s social fitness.
In the end, the charm which Inanna wielded so readily is the tool which delivers her from danger. With Enki’s guidance, she hardballs her dead sister into granting her further abilities. Combining this with the plant of eternal life, Inanna becomes too powerful for the other gods to contain, but still faces the prospect of social ostracism because of all the godly norms she had to break to get here. Considering this, Inanna turns to Earth, the realm between the heavens and the underworld which she has not yet explored.
On Earth, we are treated to yet another one of the abrupt and bizarrely un-earned endings which have become signature in these Sumerian myths. Reading of Inanna’s marriage, and the details of her diet on Earth, I realize that I expect an ending to be the culmination of events and plot points established throughout the text. Clearly, the Sumerians do not agree, and are content to finish any grand tale with a brief, oddball summation of subsequent events. Perhaps there is some sort of cultural poetry to the fates of Inanna and Gilgamesh which I’m simply not seeing, but I’m left a bit bewildered by these resolutions after my initial reading.
Lopez bookends these tales with an elegant, polite, succinct summation of his experience as a historian and curator of ancient texts. He addresses the similarities between Uta-napishti and Noah, seemingly speaking to a Christian audience when he encourages the reader not to dismiss Uta-napishti’s tale as a ‘cheap knockoff.’ Given the chronological origins of thes two tales, it seems a bit absurd to think that anyone would take that view. Wouldn’t Lopez expect the reader to become disenchanted with the Biblical tale after learning that there was such a similar predecessor? Regardless, Lopez goes on to end his conclusion with a perfect touch of warmth and magic, implying with the slyest of winks that he hopes the Sumerian myths were once real.