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Breaching the boundaries of being: metamorphoses in the Mesopotamian literary texts.

In the mythology of ancient Greece and Rome, the topos of physical transformation is pervasive: the boundaries between gods, humans, monsters, and animals, and occasionally plants and inanimate objects as well, are transgressed with ease in the service of seduction, punishment, escape, and reward. Zeus takes the form of a bull to seduce Europa, a swan to rape Leda, and a shower of gold to impregnate Danae. Artemis punishes the hapless Aktaion for his chance glimpse of her nudity by transforming him into a stag; the lovely Medusa is turned into a petrifying gorgon by an offended Athena; and the tyrant Lykaon becomes a ravening wolf, making visible the natural depravity of his character. More sympathetically, the sea goddess Thetis, a talented shape shifter, undergoes a brilliant if futile series of metamorphoses in the attempt to escape the embrace of the mortal Peleus; (1) Artemis saves the terrified nymph Daphne from Apollo's lust by turning her into a laurel tree; and Pygmalion's hopeless love for the statue he has carved from ivory is pitied by Aphrodite, who turns the frozen form into living female flesh. By and large, those transformations deliberately imposed by the gods on other entities, unlike instances of typically reversible divine self-metamorphosis, represent permanent and absolute rather than transitory changes of state: (2) "a departure from the norm often a transgression--is fixed forever by a change into a non-human state, frequently one (as with Lykaon) appropriate to the transgression or abnormality." (3) The ability to change shape or to confer a change of shape is not restricted to any single god but appears to be a universal divine prerogative exploited by most of the Olympian gods and some of the lesser deities at one time or another. (4)

The role of such alterations in the surviving literary texts of ancient Mesopotamia, a subject that has not yet been the subject of any comprehensive study, stands in stark contrast: the topos of metamorphosis, here defined specifically as radical physical transformation from one category of being to another (as from human to animal), is rarely invoked and is associated with only a few deities in a very restricted set of circumstances. This suggests a relative stability and immutability of the boundaries between different classes of being in Mesopotamia that diverges sharply from the apparent permeability of such boundaries in the ancient mythology of Greece and Rome. While at least some of the Mesopotamian gods are described as transforming themselves for specific purposes, as Enlil in Enlil and Ninlil and Enlil and Namzitara and also, perhaps, as Sin in The Cow of Sin, these transformations are reversed once the goals for which they were undertaken have been achieved. (5) Of rather more interest here are the instances of permanent metamorphosis, specifically physical transformations of anthropomorphic figures into theriomorphic beings or inanimate objects, conferred or imposed by the gods whether as punishment, in the course of rendering aid, or on some private whim. This study considers three such externally imposed metamorphoses from the surviving Sumerian and Akkadian literary texts. The turning of Dumuzid into a lizard or gazelle in several texts from the Inana and Dumuzid Cycle; the turning of Bilulu into a water-skin in Inana and Bilulu; and the turning of Etar's shepherd lover into a wolf in the Standard Babylonian' Epic are explored in the attempt to define the nature of the boundaries between different classes of being in Mesopotamia, the common elements involved in the transgression of such boundaries, and the meaning of such transgressions in the context of the Mesopotamian world view. (6)


Perhaps the best known of these metamorphoses is the first, the alteration of Inana's spouse Dumuzid as he attempts to escape the galla, the netherworld wardens who seek to take him off to the land of the dead. This episode appears, with slight variations, in several of the narratives from the Sumerian Inana and Dumuzid cycle, Inana 's Descent to the Neth-erworld (ID), Dumuzid and Gestinana (DG), and Dumuzid's Dream (DD) among them. (7)

Dumuzid, in each of these narratives (Table 1), appeals to the sun god Utu to endow him with specific theriomorphic features that will allow him to escape his netherworld pursuers: the sun god, in each case, hears the appeal and grants the requested boon. The interaction between Dumuzid and Utu follows a generally consistent pattern: the hapless shepherd begins his appeal by raising his hands, even if bound or fettered, to the heavens, a direct physical appeal to the sky where Utu appears. This is followed by a three-part verbal petition: 1) Dumuzid establishes his claim to aid from the sun god on kinship grounds, married as he is to Utu's sister Inana; 2) He bolsters this claim either by detailing the actions he has taken to establish and maintain this kinship, such as the providing of food for Ningal or for the E-ana and the bringing of wedding gifts to Uruk, or by appealing directly to Utu in the sun god's aspect as divine judge, presumably to recognize the injustice of his current plight and to aid him in escaping it; 3) He outlines the nature of the aid that he seeks, namely, the alteration of at least his hands and feet, plausibly read as shorthand for his whole person, into those of a lizard or of a gazelle that he might gain the speed and agility of the animals he references, (8) as well as, presumably, their forms as a disguise, and so escape his captors.
Table 1. The Metamorphosis of Dumuzid (25)

          Inana's Descent   Dumuzid and       Dumuzid s Dream

Text      (II. 369-80)      (II. 22-37)       (II. 164-79,

Physical  The lad raised    The lad raises    The lad raised his hands
Petition  his hands to      his hands         heaven- ward to Utu:
Verbal    heaven, to Utu:   heaven- ward to   Utu. you are my
Petition  Utu, you and 1    Utu: O Utu. I am  brother-in-law, I am
Pt. I     are brothers      your friend. I    your sister's husband!
          -in-law /1 am     am a young man
          your relation by  you recognize /
          marriage.         Your sister,
                            whom I married,
                            descended to the

Verbal    I brought butter  Because she       I am the one who carries
Petition  to your mother's  descended to the  food to Eanna. / I am
Pt. II    house / I         underworld. /     the one who brought the
          brought milk to   She had to hand   wedding gifts to Uruk, /
          Ningal's house.   me over to the    I am he who kisses the
                            netherworld as    holy lips, / I am he who
                            her substitute /  dances on the holy
                            O Utu, you are a  knees. the knees of
                            just judge,       Inana!
                            don't disappoint

Verbal    Change my hands   Change my hands,  Please change my hands
Petition  into snake's      alter my          into gazelle hands, /
Pt. III   hands / and       appearance / So   change my feel into
          change my feet    that I might      gazelle feet, / Let me
          into snake's      escape the        escape my galla. 1 Let
          feet / Let me     clutches of my    me escape alive to
          escape my galla,  galla: Don't let  Ku-bires-dildares (or
          don't let them    them seize me!    the house of old woman
          keep hold of      Like a sagkal     Belili or the holy
          me.               snake that        sheepfold).
                            slithers across
                            the meadows and
                            mountains / Let
                            me bring myself
                            alive to the
                            dwelling of my

Utu Acts  Utu accepted his  Utu accepted his  Utu accepted his tears /
          tears. / He       tears. / He       Like a merciful man he
          turned Dumuzid's  changed his       showed him mercy / He
          hands into        hands, he         changed his hands into
          snake's hands /   altered his       gazelle hands. / he
          He turned his     appearance.       changed his feet into
          feet into                           gazelle feet.
          snake's feet.

The       He [Dumuzid]      Then like a       He [Dumuzid] evaded the
Outcome   escaped his       sagkal snake      galla.
          demons.           thai slithers
                            across the
                            meadows and
                            mountains /
                            Dumuzid. like a
                            soaring falcon
                            that can swoop
                            down on a living
                            bird, / escaped
                            alive to the
                            dwelling of his

The shepherd's plea to the sun god is in each case heard and his tears accepted: Utu confers the desired transformation and Dumuzid escapes his captors. Once the purpose of his transformation has been achieved, however, he returns to his original state so that when the galla inevitably track him down again, the shepherd must repeat his appeal to Utu to regain the theriomorphic form and qualities with which he was briefly endowed and attempt another escape. This last point raises a final point of interest: why does Dumuzid fix on Utu specifically when he seeks to be transformed? Dumuzid, after all, is arguably at least nominally divine. The fact that he is forced to appeal to the sun god for aid in escaping his quandary rather than extricating himself from it suggests one of two possibilities: either Dumuzid's request requires the intervention of a more powerful deity than he, and Utu happens to be handy, or there is something about his appeal that requires the aid of the sun god specifically.

The first possibility leads us to consider the nature of Dumuzid's role in these narratives in his capacity both as god and as substitute, focusing here on the sequence of events as it is recounted specifically in Inana 's Descent. As the spouse of Inana, typically one of the highest order of gods, we might expect Dumuzid to be of comparable rank and power and to be capable of independently escaping his ultimate unhappy fate. His actual status, however, is somewhat ambiguous as he straddles the boundary between mortal and divine. (9) Further, even were he as powerful as his daring spouse, even Inana cannot independently escape from the netherworld or from its wardens, the galla, forced as she is to fall back upon a ruse devised by Enki for her resurrection and, ultimately, also upon the provision of a substitute to take her place among the dead. Regardless of Dumuzid's divinity or lack thereof, there is a clear limit to both his power and to that of Inana. (10) This limit takes the form of a stricture, well known from other Sumerian myths, that precludes any return from the netherworld: only traditional boundary-crossers such as viziers, messengers, and demons, who necessarily travel between realms in the course of their duties, are clearly exempted. (11) Gods, even those of the first rank such as Enlil, appear generally powerless to override or to ignore this imperative and those who escape the netherworld once having entered it do so only by exploiting a specific loophole whereby a substitute is handed over to take the place of the departing god. In this respect, the substitution specifically described and effected in Inana 's Descent is not so unusual, and is discussed above in the treatment of Enlil and Ninlil. What is remarkable is that the substitute, here Dumuzid, attempts to elude his pronounced fate. The fact that he focuses primarily on kinship as the basis of his claim to aid (ID 368-72), rather than on his innocence of any wrongdoing (only in DG 28 does Dumuzid explicitly invoke Utu's role as judge), suggests that his substitution is a matter of divine convention and not easily protested or overturned. That Utu does not behave as if he is bound by the same convention, actively aiding as he does Dumuzid's attempt at escape, is in such a context extraordinary. (12)

An explanation for this apparent anomaly is suggested by the very specific details of the request Dumuzid makes of Utu, involving the transgressing of boundaries, here specifically physical ones. Overseeing both the civilized center and the wild peripheral zones, traversing the heavens by day and the netherworld by night, Utu is a boundary-crosser extraordinaire, uniquely capable both of negotiating the path between different states of being and of functioning effectively in multiple realms. In Gilgames and Huwawa A (GH A), for example, Utu acts both as heroic patron, assisting the civilized man of the city Gilgameg as the latter embarks on a quest to the legendary cedar forest, and as sole custodian of Huwawa, lonely and friendless monster of the mountain periphery and designated guardian of the cedars. (13)

More telling is an episode from Gilgames, Enkidu, and the Netherworld (GEN), in which Gilgameg appeals to the god Enki for the restoration of his companion Enkidu. While Enki accepts this prayer, it is Utu who actually creates the opening into the realm of the dead that allows Enkidu's return. (14) That it is specifically the sun god to whom Dumuzid appeals for help in crossing the boundary between the anthropomorphic and the theriomorphic may thus be less an accident of kinship than a deliberate choice necessitated by the specific terms of Dumuzid's request, which requires the intervention of a legitimate or established divine boundary-crosser. (15)

This hypothesis, while necessarily speculative, is supported by the other instances of conferred or imposed metamorphosis discussed here, specifically the transformation of the old woman Bilulu into a waterskin and of Mar's shepherd lover into a wolf, both of which result from the intervention of perhaps the best known of the divine boundary-crossers, the goddess Inana/Istar.


In the case of Bilulu, who is punished for her son's theft of Dumuzid's cattle and her possible complicity in Dumuzid's death, it is Inana who is responsible for killing the old woman and for transforming her into a "waterskin for cold water" and a protective "goddess" of the desert in a conferred, if involuntary, metamorphosis: (16)
  Holy Inana entered the alehouse, stepped unto a seat,
  determined fate: "Begone [to Bilulu]! I have killed
  you; so it is verily, and with you I destroy (also)
  your name: May you become the water skin for cold
  water that (men carry) in the desert!" (17)

That Bilulu is killed and her name destroyed immediately prior to her transformation is significant, insinuating that not merely death but a wholesale eradication of identity is attendant on such a radical change in form or state: nothing of the original Bilulu is to remain when her metamorphosis is complete. This transformation is in striking contrast to those metamorphoses familiar from Classical mythology, in which, "throughout the change of man to wolf, woman to tree, youth to nightingale, something perdures, carried by the changing shape that never completely loses physical or behavioral traces of what it was." (18)

That it is Inana, legendary for treading where she ought not and for traveling between different realms and states of being, going down to and returning from the netherworld and experiencing both death and resurrection, (19) who is responsible for Bilulu's transformation here is significant. Physical transformation appears best--or perhaps most effectively--mediated by an experienced boundary-crosser. (20)


The third and final account of imposed metamorphosis to be discussed here is one recorded in Tablet VI of the Standard Babylonian Gilgames Epic. Gilgames, having caught the eye of Mar thanks to his great beauty, is made an offer of marriage by the goddess, with attendant promises of great power and prosperity. Far from being impressed, the hero responds with a caustic recounting of Mar's treatment of her former lovers, both anthropomorphic and the-riomorphic, who have been universally transformed to their detriment through their association with her (Table 2): Dumuzid has transitioned from the realm of the living to that of the dead; the speckled allallu-bird is left with a broken wing; the lion and horse suffer physical mortification and discomfiture; the shepherd is turned into a wolf to be continually driven from his flock; (21) and Isullanu, the gardener, is struck and turned into a dwarf. (22) While only the shepherd in this passage experiences the sort of definitive physical metamorphosis from one class of being to another with which this paper is primarily concerned, all of the six lovers of Istar referenced by Gilgames experience transformation into lesser or less capable states of being, suffering mortification, disability, physical mutation, and--at the far end of the spectrum--death, at her hands. In his caution, and his final derisive rejection of her attentions, the hero explicitly references Istar's peculiar association with metamorphosis and his own determination not to be so altered: "And you would love me and [change me] as (you did) them?" (23)
Table 2. The Metamorphoses of Istar's Lovers (26)

Figure        Category         Suffers           SB Gilgames Epic
                                                 Tablet VI

Dumuzid       Anthropomorphic  Death             "To him you have
                                                 weeping, year on

allallu-bitd  Theriomorphic    Physical Damage   "You struck him
                                                 and broke his
                                                 wing, / (now) he
                                                 stands in the
                                                 woods crying, 'My

Lion          Theriomorphic    Victimization     "Seven and seven
                                                 pits you have dug
                                                 for him."

Horse         Theriomorphic    Abuse /           "To him you have
                               Enslavement       allotted a whip,
                                                 spurs and lash. /
                                                 To him you have
                                                 allotted a
                                                 gallop, / to him
                                                 you have allotted
                                                 muddy water to
                                                 drink. / To his
                                                 mother Silili you
                                                 have allotted

Shepherd      Anthropomorphic  Physical          "You struck him
                               Transformation    and turned him
                                                 into a wolf, / so
                                                 his own shepherd
                                                 boys drive him
                                                 away, / and his
                                                 dogs take bites
                                                 at his thighs."

Isullanu      Anthropomorphic  Physical          "You struck him,
(Gardener)                     Transformation    you turned [him]
                                                 into a dwarf. /
                                                 You sat him in
                                                 the midst of his
                                                 labours, / he
                                                 cannot go up to
                                                 the ..., he
                                                 cannot go down to
                                                 the ... [...]"

Gilgames      Anthropomorphic  (Fears) Physical  "And you would
                               Transformation    love me and
                                                 [change me] as
                                                 (you did)

Described by Bahrani as "the superlative sign of difference ... Mesopotamian culture's figure of the chaotic and marginal and as such ... a figure of alterity or otherness," (24) Mar violates cultural boundaries, breaching especially gender codes and expectations as easily as she defies the borders delimiting different cosmic realms. Associated with her own descent to and return from the netherworld, she is peculiarly well positioned, as are Utu and Inana, to mediate physical transformation and Gilgames is right to fear any close association with her.


The boundaries between different classes of being in the literary accounts of Mesopotamia, if less easily transgressed than in the mythology of Greece and of Rome, are not, then, utterly immutable. While the surviving incidents of imposed physical metamorphosis are both few in number and briefly developed, there are yet several elements common to the episodes discussed here that point towards some preliminary conclusions. Perhaps the most salient of these is the locating of metamorphosis and death on the same continuum in the Gilgames Epic, echoing not only the pairing of Bilulu's death with her physical transformation in Inana and Bilulu, a pairing that results in her essential annihilation, but also Dumuzid's temporary metamorphosis prior to his death at the hands of the galla. This suggests that a permanent change in form, the shifting from one class or category of being to another--as from human to animal or plant or inanimate object--and the transgressing of the very firm borders delimiting each of these, is to be understood as the complete effacement of what had previously existed, so that nothing of the original remains in the new form. This is a striking divergence from those transformations so familiar from Classical antiquity, in which something of the original, whether of the form, the behavior, or even the whole of the mind transported traumatically into a new and alien body, endures. This may explain, too, why Dumuzid's metamorphosis at the hands of Utu is in all instances a transient one, accomplishing a temporary escape only: a permanent physical transformation, while it would place Dumuzid forever beyond the reach of the galla, would likely be all too akin to the netherworld banishment, death, that he seeks so desperately to escape. Certainly it suggests the need for intervention in the process of metamorphosis by a powerful divine boundary-crosser who is, as are Utu, Inana, and Mar, already well experienced in negotiating those treacherous paths between different realms and states of being.

An earlier version of this paper was presented at the American Oriental Society Meeting in 2009 and portions of this work were presented also at the Capturing Metamorphosis workshop held at the Allard Pierson Museum in Amsterdam in 2010. Thanks are due to the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World and to a New Faculty Fellows award from the American Council of Learned Societies, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which allowed the completion of this work.

(1.) Gods and other entities associated with or residing within the sea are especially closely associated with shape shifting or monstrous forms not only in Greek mythology, as in the case of Proteus and Thetis, but also in numerous other contexts, as mariners and adventurers claim the existence of strange creatures in the vast and turbulent depths. See, for example, Beowulf (548-75), in which the hero alludes to his successful battling of sea-beasts (monsters?) even prior to taking on the mere-dwelling Grendel: "My flesh was not for feasting on, / there would be no monsters gnawing and gloating / over their banquet at the bottom of the sea. / Instead, in the morning, mangled and sleeping / the sleep of the sword, they slopped and floated / like the ocean's leavings," Seamus Heaney, Beowulf: A New Verse Translation (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2000), 36-39.

(2.) If temporary transformations are rare, they are not unknown: Circe, whose own status as minor goddess, nymph, or other minor supernatural entity is unclear, uses a magic potion and spell to turn Odysseus' men briefly into swine in the Odyssey Book X, though these are restored at Odysseus' request after he proves himself immune (through a little help from Hermes) to Circe's powers. The visual manifestation of this metamorphosis is distinguished from comparable but irreversible transformations; see Annetta Alexandridis, "Shifting Species: Animal and Human Bodies in Attic Vase Painting of the 6th and 5th Centuries B.C.," in Bodies and Boundaries in Graeco-Roman Antiquity, ed. Thorsten Fogen and Mireille M. Lee (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2009), 270-74. Another famous temporary transformation from Classical antiquity is recorded in Apuleius' Golden Ass, or Metamorphoses, in which is recorded the hero Lucius' metamorphosis into a donkey and, through the intervention of the goddess Isis, his ultimate restoration to human form.

(3.) Richard Buxton, "Wolves and Werewolves in Greek Thought," in Interpretations of Greek Mythology, ed. Jan Bremmer (Kent: Croom Helm Ltd, 1987), 74; for a more recent discussion of the Lykaon myth and its implications and reception in Classical antiquity, see Jan N. Bremmer, "Myth and Ritual in Greek Human Sacrifice: Lykaon, Polyxena and the Case of the Rhodian Criminal," in The Strange World of Human Sacrifice, ed. Jan N. Bremmer (Leuven: Peeters, 2007), 55-80.

(4.) For a broad-ranging and recent treatment of metamorphoses in ancient Greece, see Richard Buxton, Forms of Astonishment: Greek Myths of Metamorphosis (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2009).

(5.) For an early suggestion that Enlil and Ninlil contains "the first known example of the metamorphosis of a god," see Samuel Noah Kramer, Sumerian Mythology: A Study of Spiritual and Literary Achievement in the Third Millennium B.C., revised ed. (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1972), 43. Enlil, having been banished from Nippur for the "rape" of Ninlil, takes the forms of three different figures on his journey to the netherworld, that of the city gatekeeper, that of the man of Id-kura (river of the netherworld), and that of the man of the ferryboat, having intercourse with Ninlil and siring a child in each of these forms. The three new netherworld gods created in this manner are presumably intended as ransom for Enlil himself, for Ninlil, and for the god Sin (sired by Enlil in his original form prior to his journey), allowing these three to depart the netherworld. In Enlil and Namzitara, Enlil features again, this time taking the form of a raven and appearing to the gudu-priest Namzitara, while in The Cow of SIn, it is Enlil's son Sin who features as the bull that impregnates the cow Geme-Sin; see, for considered discussions of these texts, Jerrold S. Cooper, "Puns and Prebends: The Tale of Enlil and Namzitara," in Strings and Threads: A Celebration of the Work of Anne Draffkorn Kilmer, ed. Wolfgang Heimpel and Gabriella Frantz-Szabo (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2011), 39-44; and Niek Veldhuis, A Cow of Sin (Groningen: Styx, 1991).

(6.) Various other types of metamorphosis, including the homologous transformation of Tiamat's corpse in Enama elig Tablets IV and V, the various parts of which are used by Marduk to mold the familiar features of the Mesopotamian landscape; the transformation of the divine Nergal into a bald god with a tic in Nergal and Ere.fkigal; and the magical contest (involving a series of apparent transformations) between the witch and the sorcerer in Enmerkar and Ensubgirana, are not treated here but are the subject of a forthcoming publication. A fine distinction between homologous, aspectual, and radical metamorphoses, the lattermost being the type with which this paper is concerned and applying specifically to "drastic changes in form and/or substance," is explicated in William Hansen, "Foam-Born Aphrodite and the Mythology of Transformation," American Journal of Philology 121 (2000): 1-19. For a more general discussion of transformation and its impetus in Enama elis, see Karen Sonik, "Gender Matters in Enuma elis," in In the Wake of Tikva Frymer-Kensky, ed. R. H. Beal, S. W. Holloway, and J. Scurlock (Piscataway: Gorgias Press, 2009), 85-101.

(7.) For ID and DG, see William R. Sladek, "manna's Descent to the Netherworld" (Ph.D. diss., Johns Hopkins University, 1974); Bendt Alster, "manna Repenting: The Conclusion of manna's Descent," Acta Sumerologica 18 (1996): 1-18. For DD, see Alster, Dumuzi's Dream: Aspects of Oral Poetry in a Sumerian Myth (Copenhagen: Aka-demisk Forlag, 1972). See also, for a recent treatment of all three texts, Dina Katz, The Image of the Netherworld in the Sumerian Sources (Bethesda: CDL Press, 2003), 251-88,289-300,301-8.

(8.) Dumuzid is not the only character from the Mesopotamian literary compositions to seek--and gain--the boon of extraordinary speed: Lugalbanda begs the gift of superhuman swiftness from the monster Anzud, ruler of the highlands, after gaining the latter's goodwill in the Return of Lugalbanda; see Claus Wilcke, Das Lugalbanda-epos (Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1969); H. L. J. Vanstiphout, Epics of Sumerian Kings: The Matter of Aratta (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003). While Lugalbanda neither names any animals in his request nor undergoes any sort of visible physical metamorphosis, he is nonetheless transformed through his encounter with the terrifying hybrid: the latter, notably, is a boundary-crosser both in form (composite) and function (as a monster serving the cause of Enlil and of order), and so may be unusually well suited to help Lugalbanda transcend the limits of his humanity. Lugalbanda is permanently altered, becoming something more than a man, if still less than a god, through his interaction with the monster.

(9.) Alster discusses Dumuzid's role as a boundary-crosser, a mediator between human and divine, life and death, desert and sown, in Dumuzi's Dream: Aspects of Oral Poetry in a Sumerian Myth, 14.

(10.) The peculiarly human aspect of Inana and Dumuzid in this cycle of narratives has been elsewhere noted, as by Esther J. Hamori, ("When Gods Were Men": The Embodied God in Biblical and Near Eastern Literature, ed. John Barton et al. (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2008], 129-30), who comments that "these deities are so human that they engage in divination. Elsewhere in the Dumuzid myths, they also worship their tutelary gods. The larger theme of a dying god is of course anthropomorphic; the details of this are more so, as Dumuzi's spirit is apparently separable from his body after death."

(11.) Katz (Image of the Netherworld, 41) concluded that the path to the netherworld runs only in one direction: "Except for a few divinities who managed to leave the netherworld in exchange for a substitute as ransom, only evil spirits could leave the realm of the dead and move freely back and forth." The case of Enkidu in the Sumerian composition Gilgama Enkidu, and the Netherworld may pose an explicit exception to this rule; see n. 14. In the Akkadian literary texts, the situation is somewhat different: in Nergal and Erakigal, for example, of which an abbreviated Middle Babylonian copy is known, Anu sends his messenger Kakka to the netherworld to tell Eregkigal of a divine banquet; Eregkigal sends her vizier/messenger Namtar (here apparently not functioning as the harmful daimon Namtar) to the heavens to receive her portion of the banquet; and the god Nergal, sent to the netherworld as punishment for slighting Eregligal, tricks the netherworld's gatekeeper into releasing him on the pretense that he is acting as Eregkigal's messenger. Viziers and messengers are here depicted as overtly capable of negotiating otherwise firmly established boundaries. A fragmentary and problematic Old Babylonian account of Ningiszida's(?) descent to the netherworld appears to record the payment of a bribe as figuring in the god's release; see W. G. Lambert, "A New Babylonian Descent to the Netherworld," in Lingering over Words: Studies in Ancient Near Eastern Literature in Honor of William L. Moran, ed. Tzvi Abusch, John Huehnergard, and Piotr Steinkeller (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1990), 289-300.

(12.) This is apparent elsewhere in narratives in which Utu appears as the patron of underdogs and hopeless cases, and in GEN 238-41, in which Utu is instructed by Enki to bring up (at least) the shade of Enkidu: "Father Enki helped him (Gilgameg) in this matter, / he spoke to Young Hero Utu, the son born of Ningal: / Now when you make an opening in the Netherworld, / bring his servant up to him from the Netherworld!" translated in A. R. George, The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic: Introduction, Critical Edition and Cuneiform Texts, vol. 2 (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2003), 773-74.

(13.) See Dietz Otto Edzard, "Gilgames und Huwawa A. I. Teil," Zeitschrifur far Assyriologie 80 (1990): 165-203; "Gilgames und Huwawa A. H. Teil," Zeitschrift fur Assyriologie 81(1991): 165-233.

(14.) The manner in which Enkidu emerges from the netherworld in GEN has been the subject of some debate: while the companion of Gilgames has generally been understood as returning as a ghost or a dream figment, a cogent case for his return as a living being is suggested by Alhena Gadotti, "Gilgamesh, Enkidu and the Netherworld' and the Sumerian Gilgames Cycle" (Ph.D. diss., Johns Hopkins University, 2005), chapter 5.

(15.) The transformation of the hero Lugalbanda from a simple mortal to a mediator between the human and divine similarly appears to be a transformation conferred by a confirmed boundary-crosser (in physical form and in status), the monster Anzud.

(16.) Noteworthy in this context is the waterskin (halziqqu) referred to in the myth of Istar' s descent to the netherworld, which may well represent the corpse of the goddess; see Stephanie Dalley, Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1989), 161 n. 14; see also A. Kilmer, "How Was Queen Ereshkigal Tricked?" Ugarit-Forschungen 3 (1971): 299-309. If Istar (or her corpse) actually undergoes a physical transformation, it is one that is, clearly, reversible.

(17.) Inana and Bilulu 98-103; see Thorldld Jacobsen, "The Myth of Manna and Bilulu," Journal of Near Eastern Studies 12 (1953): 160-88; Jean Bonero and Samuel Noah Kramer, Lorsque les dieux faisaient l'homme: Mythologie mesopotamienne (Paris: Gallimard, 1989), 330-37.

(18.) Caroline Walker Bynum, Metamorphosis and Identity (New York: Zone Books, 2001), 32. Bynum, discussing metamorphosis in the context of twelfth-century thought, notes an attempt by Gerard of Wales to determine the varieties of mutatio, "inner and outer, nature or substance and appearance, illusion and transformation, metamorphosis and hybrid," distinguishing the lattermost two especially as breaching categorical boundaries in fundamentally different ways, employing and expressing quite different rhetorical strategies and ontological visions (pp. 18,28-33). The distinction between transformations of nature/substance and those of physical form (appearance), though they may be expressed across a spectrum rather than as a polarity, are important considerations in the treatment of the metamorphoses from the Mesopotamian literary texts.

(19.) Inana's descent and death should not be equated: Inana is specifically killed in the netherworld and resurrected there before she is allowed to return to the realm of the living.

(20.) Inana/Istar is capable of navigating gender boundaries, among others; see Rivkah Harris, Gender and Aging in Mesopotamia: The Gilgamesh Epic and Other Ancient Literature (Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 2000), 165-66. It has been suggested also that the gala-tura and the kurgarra, capable of penetrating the netherworld in search of Inana, similarly transcend gender boundaries (one of two impassible boundaries, the other being that between the living and the dead), enabling them to "mediate between and the world of the divine or the dead"; see Mary R. Bachvarova, "Sumerian Gala Priests and Eastern Mediterranean Returning Gods: Tragic Lamentation in Cross-Cultural Perspectives," in Lament: Studies in the Mediterranean and Beyond, ed. Ann Suter (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2008), 35.

(21.) The transformation of the unnamed shepherd into a wolf recalls the cruel transformation of the hunter (or, alternately, shepherd) Aktaion in Classical mythology: Aktaion stumbled upon the naked Artemis and was punished for his visual transgression by being transformed into a stag to be torn apart by his own hounds. In Ovid's Metamorphoses (III 252-58), however, Aktaion's mind is explicitly left intact even as his body is altered, rendering his punishment all the more cruel: "But when he stopped and looked into a pool/at the reflection of his horns and muzzle--/ "Poor me!" he tried to say, but no words came ... only his mind/was left unaltered by Diana's wrath"; translated in Charles Martin, Metamorphoses: A New Translation, Contexts, Criticism (New York: W. W. Norton, 2010), 71. It is not clear from the passage in the Gilgames Epic that the shepherd retains a similar consciousness.

(22.) While the exact physical defect suffered by the gardener is not clear, George constructs a persuasive if circumstantial case for it being a form of stunted growth or dwarfism; see The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic, vol. 2, 835-36 n. 64 on Isullanu, 838 n. 76 on dallalu. This transformation, a disabling of the body, may be compared to the disguise of Namtar as a bald (and lame ?) god with a tic in Nergal and Erelkigal C 31'-32'; see Benjamin R. Foster, Before the Muses: An Anthology of Akkadian Literature (Bethesda: CDL Press, 2005), 519, both cases representing negative modifications of the body.

(23.) Gilgames.f Epic VI 79, translated in George, The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic, vol. 1,623.

24. Zainab Bahrani, Women of Babylon: Gender and Representation in Mesopotamia (New York: Routledge, 2001), esp. 149-50. Istar's threat to tear down the netherworld and allow the dead to devour the living, made subsequent to Gilgameg' rejection of her in the epic, is strikingly convincing in this context: "I shall smash the underworld together with its dwelling-place, /I shall raze the nether regions to the ground. /I shall bring up the dead to consume the living, /I shall make the dead outnumber the living," Gilgames Epic VI 97-100, translated in George, The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic, 624-25.

(25.) ID, translation (slightly modified) from Sladek, "manna's Descent to the Netherworld," chapters 8 and 9; see also Samuel Noah Kramer, "Sumerian Literature and the British Museum: The Promise of the Future," Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 124, 4 (1980), esp. 308; Black, Cunningham, and Robson, The Literature of Ancient Sumer, 65-76. DG, translation (slightly modified) from Sladek, "Inanna's Descent to the Netherworld," 232-33. DD, translation (slightly modified) from Alster, Dumuzi's Dream: Aspects of Oral Poetry in a Sumerian Myth, 72-81; Black, Cunningham, and Robson, The Literature of Ancient Sumer, 77-83.

(26.) All translations from George, The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic, vol. 1, 620-23.


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Author:Sonik, Karen
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:7IRAQ
Date:Jul 1, 2012
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