The Epic of Gilgamesh
The Descent of Inanna to the Netherworld
Baal and the Underworld
The Descent of Ishtar
The Vision of Kummâ
The earliest extant literary evidence for the Ancient Near Eastern underworld realm are found on the clay tablets that preserve the region’s written culture: “The Dream of Enkidu” and “The Huluppu Tree” episodes in the Sumerian epic Gilgamesh (20001400 BCE), the Sumerian Descent of Inanna to the Netherworld (c.19001600 BCE), the Canaanite/Ugaritic story of Baal and the Underworld (16751545 BCE), the Akkadian Descent of Ishtar (c.1100 BCE), and the Assyrian Vision of Kummâ (mid-seventh century BCE).
The Epic of Gilgamesh (Sumerian, 20001400 BCE). This work recounts the heroic exploits of Gilgamesh and his friend Enkidu, which end with the death of the latter. Before Enkidu dies he dreams of the underworld, Kur, and awakes to tell Gilgamesh of the horror of the gray, dusty world of the dead. He tells how he is brought to the Palace of Irkalla and characterizes it as “the house from which none who enters ever returns…the road from which there is no coming back.” He saw there the kings and princes who “sit in darkness; dust is their food and clay their meat. They are clothed like birds with wings for covering, they see no light, they sit in darkness.” They serve the gods and bring them water and cooked meats, but there is none for them. From Enkidu’s description of Kur, Gilgamesh understands that “misery comes at last to the healthy man, the end of life is sorrow.”
Before Enkidu dreamt of Kur, he had visited the place in an attempt to retrieve some things lost by Gilgamesh. His visit is recounted in the legend referred to as “The Huluppu Tree.” He warns Gilgamesh that he will weep when he hears of the existence there, then tells him how his loved ones sit in crevices of dust and are devoured by vermin.
“The Huluppu Tree” provides some evidence that the fate of the dead in the Sumerian otherworld is connected to burial rituals: Enkidu explains that a man whom Gilgamesh saw burned to death could not be found in the otherworld because his smoke went up into the sky, obviously leaving nothing to bury.
Also despite the diet of dirt and dust in Kur, the still-born children that Enkidu sees there “play at a gold and silver table laden with butter and honey” and some seem to enjoy bread or water, probably burial gifts from relatives.
The Epic of Gilgamesh is preserved on eleven clay tablets from the seventh century BCE library of King Ashurbanipal, which was excavated by A. H. Layard at the site of Kuyunjik (ancient Nineveh) in Iraq in 1849 and thereafter. The tablets are now housed at the British Museum, London.
The Descent of Inanna to the Netherworld (Sumerian, c.19001600 BCE). In an effort to restore life to the land above Inanna, the Sumerian goddess of fertility, descends to the netherworld to the seven-gated place of Ganzir, the domain of her sister Ereskigal, a land of dust from which there is no return. The text of the legend provides little else in the way of actual description, but hints that in the netherworld things are split with the mason’s stone, chopped with the carpenter’s lumber and also that beings are subjugated there.
In this fertility legend involving descent to the underworld, we find early traces of the element of judgment so intrinsic to notions of hell. After she has been stripped of an article of her dress at each of the seven gates of Ganzir, the seven demon-judges, the Anunnaki, judge Inanna. They shout at her with “a shout of guilt” and turn her into a corpse.
In the otherworld, Inanna encounters demons who are threatening agents of death, but they are not responsible for any punishment other than seizing the living and carrying them off to Kur. They themselves are not dead mortals, but described as demons who neither eat nor drink; nor are they gods, for they accept no offerings or libations. Neither do they “enjoy the pleasure of sexual intercourse” nor “have any sweet children to kiss.”
Approximately thirty-two clay tablets, found at various sites and housed in various locations, preserve parts of the text of “The Descent of Inanna.”
Baal and the Underworld (Canaanite/Ugaritic, 16751545 BCE). The legend of Baal and the Underworld was discovered on tablets that date from reign of Niqmaddu II who reigned from 13751345 BCE; the texts, however, date from two to three centuries before they were written down for the library of Attanu-Purlianni, the chief priest of Baal’s temple at Ugarit.
Baal, a fertility god and the principal god of the Ugaritic tradition, overcame El the supreme god. Later El’s son Mot (Death), summoned Baal to the underworld to answer for his destruction of the sea. In a story that otherwise provides little by way of underworld description, elements emerge from Baal’s charge to two messengers when he sends them to the underworld to invite Mot to visit him instead. He describes how they will find the entrance to the underworld at the base of the mountains at the end of the barren dessert. In the underworld they will find a city: Swamp; its palace: Muck, and its lands: Phlegm. As these names imply, it is a damp, dark and unpleasant place, like a grave. Those who enter the underworld are crushed by Death.
Baal is eventually required to journey to Mot and lays dead in the underworld until he is rescued by his sister/wife/lover, Anat, and returns to earth to restore life. However, the fertility cycle for the Canaanites was neither a daily one, like the cycle of the Egyptian god Re, nor an annual cycle associated with seasonal change, but a broader seven-year cycle associated with cyclical patterns of catastrophic weather drought or flood and the subsequent rebirth afterwards.
The Descent of Ishtar (Akkadian, c. 1100 BCE). This is a later retelling of The Descent of Inanna. The earlier work describes the underworld only as a land of dust without return, where the dead are crushed. The later work, where the underworld is called Kurnugi, fills out the description: the food is dust, the bread is clay and the drink is muddy water. The dead are clothed in feathers like birds. Kurnugi is a place of darkness, totally deprived of light. Dust covers everything. This tale also describes Ereshkigal as weeping over the dead, but nevertheless, she has Ishtar stripped of her clothing and inflicts sixty diseases on her. Eventually Ereshkigal is tricked into allowing Ishtar to return from the land of no return.
There are Late Bronze Age clay tablets from both Babylonia and Assyria containing parts of the text of “Descent of Ishtar,” as well as tablets from the palace library at Nineveh.
The Vision of Kummâ (Assyrian, mid-seventh century BCE). Of the descriptions of the otherworld to survive from Mesopotamia, The Vision of Kummâ, like “The Dream of Enkiddu” in The Epic of Gilgamesh, reveals the otherworld in a dream or vision. This device is found again and again throughout the literature of the otherworld. Kummâ, a bold Assyrian prince, seeks a vision of the world of Ereshkigal and her consort Nergal, lord of Kur. In a dream-like way, Kummâ describes the fifteen monstrous gods he encounters there whose bodies are composites of humans, birds and other animals. After being exposed to the terror and utter stillness of the place, Kummâ finally meets Nergal who, on the brink of killing Kummâ, shrieks at him in wrath. Nergal’s counselor negotiates with Nergal to spare Kummâ so that he is sent back to the world to spread Nergal’s fame. This prose poem is inscribed on a large tablet from Ashur, dating from the middle of the seventh century BCE.