Wednesday, 4 March 2020

Springing Out Of Winter

We’re beginning to get signs that spring is on its way. Many cultures have myths and legends about the coming of spring. The Greek version, in which Persephone is abducted into the underworld by Hades, is perhaps the most familiar. Her rescue and subsequent voluntary return to the underworld for six months of the year helped to explain the changing seasons.

There are many older myths that are so similar that it’s hard not to believe that they had no influence on the later ones. One of the oldest accounts of such a myth comes from the Sumerian empire of ancient Iraq some 6,000 years ago.

The myth tells the story of Inanna, Queen of the Heavens, who was also goddess of war, justice, fertility and sex. During the later Akkadian period 4,000 years ago Inanna became associated with another goddess, the more well-known Ishtar. The two goddesses quickly became merged into one (not unlike Zeus-Serapis, the merged Greco-Egyptian god I mentioned several weeks ago).

The earliest Sumerian version of the myth goes like this. Inanna had a sister called Ereshkigal who was the Queen of the Underworld. When Ereshkigal’s husband died Inanna decided to go and visit her. The underworld was a dark place and Inanna knew that going there was risky so she asked her servant to ask the gods to come and rescue her if she hadn’t returned in three days.

Three days passed and Inanna hadn’t returned. Her servant appealed to the gods for help and only Enki responded. Enki was aware that as goddess of fertility Inanna’s presence ensured that crops would grow. Without her nothing would grow, and plants were already beginning to die. He scraped the dirt from under his fingernails and shaped it into two intersex beings called a gala-tur and a kur-garra.

These beings need to be explained before we go any further. A gala-tur was a type of junior priest in a temple of Inanna, a sort of trainee gala or high priest. The original purpose of a gala was to sing laments, a profession traditionally carried out by women. By the time of the Akkadians men were gala and gala-tur as well, though they were feminine, intersex or eunuchs. A modern lgbt interpretation is that they were transgender, though perhaps the best identity to give them is third gender. The gala gained a reputation for same-sex activity, but this may be because the literal translation of the term gala (or ga-la) is “penis-anus”.
Statuette of two gala priests found in a temple of Inanna. It dates from around 2450 BC. The statuette is currently on display at the Louvre in Paris.
The kur-garra was another type of priest of Inanna. These were the leaders of religious processions and ceremonies and were usually seen carrying a dagger or sword. In later centuries the kur-garra came to be seen as bestowing luck, or providing charms to ward off evil. Like the gala and gala-tur the kur-garra was a female role that was performed by third gender individuals.

Looking at the attributes of the gala-tur and the kur-garra it is clear what Enki’s intention was in creating these beings. The gala-tur would offer laments to Ereshkigal in sympathy for the loss of her husband. The kur-garra would ward off evil spirits, which Enki knew they would encounter. This myth probably developed to explain the roles the real life gala, gala-tur and kur-garra had in the veneration of Inanna.

The mission was simple. The gala-tur and kur-garra would lull Ereshkigal into persuading her to let them take Inanna back to the surface. Well, to cut a long story short, the beings were successful. However, Ereshkigal sent her own demonic gala spirits to follow them to the surface to ensure that someone returned in Inanna’s place. The gala demons tried to seize Inanna’s servants, but Inanna refused to let them take them because they had mourned her absence. Inanna’s husband, on the other hand, hadn’t. The demonic gala seized him and dragged him back into the underworld.

Inanna soon felt guilty about letting her husband go so she planned a rescue of her own. Again, long story short, Inanna rescues her husband by arranging with Ereshkigal to let him return for six months of each year. This is how the Sumerians explained the seasons.

This myth of Inanna was transferred to Ishtar when the two goddesses became merged in the Akkadian period. The basic plot remained the same. The Queen of the Underworld was still called Ereshkigal but Enki is called Ea. He also created a third gender being from the dirt under his fingernails, a being called Asushunamir. It was a being of light and beauty and was clothed in stars. Rather than use sympathy to persuade Ereshkigal to release Ishtar-Inanna Asushunamir used his/her charm, and Ereshkigal yearned to have sex with him/her.

However, Asushunamir tricked the Queen of the Underworld and enabled Inanna to escape. Ereshkigal’s lust turned to hate and she cursed Asushunamir. But Inanna offered to give her protection and decreed that all those who were like Asusunamir, i.e. intersex or third gender, will be her priests – the gala, gala-tur and the kur-garra.

From these two variations of the same myth we see how the ancient Sumerian and Akkadian cultures explained the seasons and third gender priests of Inanna.

The cult of Inanna-Ishtar later became associated with the Phrygian goddess Cybele, whose own third gender priests were called galli. More about Cybele and some of her worshippers will be covered later this month in “80 More Gays Around the World” Part 8.

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