Mesopotamian Myths
of the Underworld
Mr. Henderson
The Underworld
• The underworld in Mesopotamian myth is
called Irkalla or Kurnugi. It was ruled by the
goddess Ereshkigal.
• Thought to be below the earth, it was guarded
by seven gates, each with a gatekeeper who
would not allow the living to pass inside.
• All souls traveled to Kurnugi after death, there
was no “heaven” for mortals.
The Goddess Ishtar
• Ishtar, the sister of Ereshkigal, was the
goddess of love and fertility.
• Ishtar was married to a mortal shepherd
named Tammuz, who Ishtar later made king
over the city of Uruk, before he became a god
• “Ishtar” is the goddess’ Babylonian name, she
is also called by “Inanna”, which was her
Sumerian name.
Ishtar’s Descent into the Underworld
• The myth begins with Ishtar descending into
the underworld for some uncertain reason to
visit her sister Ereshkigal.
• Ishtar passes through the seven gates of the
underworld. At each gate the gatekeeper
removes an item from such as her crown,
bangles, then finally her robe.
• At last when, Ishtar reaches her sister, she is
naked and powerless.
Ishtar’s Descent into the Underworld
• Nevertheless, Ereshkigal fears the presence of
her sister in the underworld.
• She instructs her vizier, Namtar to inflict sixty
diseases upon Ishtar.
• Meanwhile, with Ishtar trapped in the
underworld, all procreative action has ceased
on earth.
• This concerns the god Ea, who hatches a plan
to get Ishtar released from Kurnugi.
Ishtar’s Descent into the Underworld
• Ea creates a intersex being named Asu-shunamir who is told to invoke the name of the
great gods against Ereshkigal and to request
the waters of life.
• Asu-shu-namir does so, and though Ereshkigal
is angry, she hands over a bag containing the
waters of life.
• Ishtar is revived by the waters, and departs
from the underworld.
Ishtar’s Descent into the Underworld
• Ishtar leaves through the gates reclaiming each of
her lost items on the way.
• The tablet at this point breaks off, but an early
Sumerian version (where Ishtar is called Inanna
and Tammuz is called Dumuzi) does survive.
• It seems that a condition for her release is to find
someone willing to take her place in the
underworld, demons follow her to ensure
someone is sent in her place.
Ishtar’s Return to the Earth
• Inanna encounters several friends following her
release, but they rejoice to see her and she is
unwilling to send any of them to the underworld in
her place.
• However when she arrives at Uruk and to her
husband Dumuzi, she finds her him seated on his
throne, not dressed in mourning for her.
• Enraged she has the demons seize Dumuzi, who
takes her place in the underworld.
Dumuzi in the Underworld
• However Dumuzi’s sister, Geshtinanna, is grief
stricken by her brothers imprisonment in the
• She volunteers to spend half the time in the
underworld so that he can be free for six months
of the year.
• In this way the release of Dumuzi, who was
worshipped as a fertility god, represents the
coming of the growing season
Mention of Tammuz in the Bible
"Then he brought me to the entrance of the
north gate of the house of the LORD, and I saw
women sitting there, mourning the god
Tammuz. He said to me, "Do you see this, son
of man? You will see things that are even
more detestable than this."”
-Ezekiel 8:14-15 (NIV)
Ishtar in Mesopotamian Art
Myth of Nergal and Ereshkigal
• Another myth of Ereshkigal deals with her
marriage to Nergal (also known as Erra), the
god of war and plague.
• The Igigi, the gods of heaven, are holding a
feast but Ereshkigal cannot attend due to her
responsibilities in the underworld.
• Her servant Namtar is sent for to carry her
share of the feast to her in Kurnugi.
Myth of Nergal and Ereshkigal
• Namtar arrives to fetch his mistresses portion,
at which point the surviving tablet is
damaged. Neverthess it seems that in the
danaged section Nergal, does something to
offend Namtar.
• Nergal is sent to the underworld to pay
penance, he carries his own chair and is
warned to accept no hospitality in the
Myth of Nergal and Ereshkigal
• Ereshkigal is smitten with Nergal, though he
resists her offer of food, drink, and a place to sit.
• However she allows Nergal to catch sight of her
bathing, though he initially is able to resist,
eventually he gives in and lies with her.
• Nergal then leaves and Ereshkigal becomes
distraught. She threatens Ea in heaven, saying she
will raise the dead unless Nergal is returned to
Myth of Nergal and Ereshkigal
• Nergal is compelled to return to the
underworld, since her did partake of her
hospitality when her lay with Ereshkigal.
• He returns as a conqueror, smashing past the
seven gatekeepers and pulling Ereshkigal from
her throne.
• Nergal marries Ereshkigal and becomes her
king and lord of the underworld.
Alternate Version
• An alternate (and much shorter) version of the
myth begins with Ereshkigal unable to attend
the banquet on account of her fear of the sun.
• Ea, offended by her absence, sends Nergal to
bring back her head.
• Nergal however, upon reaching her, is moved
by her pleas for mercy and marries her rather
than kill her.
Images of Nergal and Ereshkigal

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