Ishtar and the Underworld

At Spring time every year, posts are circulated online which point out the pagan roots of the Christian holiday of Easter. Indeed, the Christian festival which does occur each Spring has adopted symbols of fertility such as rabbits and eggs, and its story, the death and resurrection of Christ, is mirrored in many myths and legends of a dying and resurrected god or goddess.

One popular meme paralleling Easter with the Babylonian goddess Ishtar has been broadly panned as unscholarly and inaccurate.

However, according to the venerable Bede in the early 8th century, the Old English ‘Month of Ēostre’, or month of April is named after “a goddess of theirs [Old Germans] named Ēostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month”.

Christians remembered the passion of the Christ on the dates corresponding with the Jewish festival of the Passover, and while the dates move according to the lunar calendar, always falls in Spring. How then are we to integrate the ancient stories, myths and legends which prefigure and correspond to the Easter story and understand them in light of the New Testament gospels which claim historical veracity and eyewitnesses?

Following C.S.Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, I believe that ancient literature has MUCH to say in prefiguring history, pre-framing and pre-telling what occurred on Calvary, that Passover 2000 years ago.

The very myth of Ishtar mentioned above is a good starting point. It is a myth that celebrates spring and new life.

The Jewish festival Purim falls a few weeks prior to Passover and close to Persian New Year, a festival linked to the Spring Equinox. The festival of Purim celebrates the saving of the Jewish people from a decree to destroy them by the royal vizier, an Achaemenid Persian Official Haman, by the quick thinking actions of the Queen Esther during the reign of King Xerxes.

The ancient story of the goddess Ishtar might illuminate how the story of Esther tells of spring festivals and in turn informs our understanding of death and new birth.

Fairy Tales of the World delivers this wonderful summary of the story of Ishtar and the Underworld:

Ishtar was the Lady of the Gods, the Goddess of fertility. Her husband Tammuz, the great love of her youth, had died when he was still very young.

In Babylon, the dead were sent to the Underworld, a place of darkness ruled over by the Goddess Irkalla. It was said that in this place they lived on dust and mud. Ishtar became depressed and decided she would descend into the Underworld to be with Tammuz. So dressed in her finest garments, brilliant jewellery and her high crown, Ishtar entered the cave that leads into the Underworld. Irkalla’s realm was surrounded by seven walls, each with its own gate that had to be passed to get to the dark place where the dead resided.

Irkalla, the Queen of the Underworld had the head of a lioness and the body of a woman and behind her the dead gathered. There was no light in their eyes; they were dressed not in cloth but feathers, and instead of arms and hands they had the wings of birds. They lived in darkness.

Ishtar became frightfully anxious seeing them, and she wished she had never ventured in this dark place. She had expected to find Tammuz  here, but now she realised that this was a hopeless quest. Desperate, she begged Irkalla to allow her to return to the land of the living. Irkalla uttered a cold and contemptuous laugh. All memory of Ishtar’s past existence, of her great love Tammuz, disappeared with the light.

http://fairytalesoftheworld.com/quick-reads/ishtars-journey-into-the-underworld/

On earth a great change came when Ishtar descended into the Underworld. Love and desire became strangers to man and animal alike. Birds no longer sang. Bulls no longer searched out the cows. Stallions were no longer attracted to mares. Rams no longer cared for ewes. Wives no longer caressed their husbands when they returned from business or war.

Shamash, the sun god, was deeply perturbed when he saw the changes that had befallen earth. So Shamash went to see Ea, the great god, and told him that earth’s creatures were not renewing themselves. “How is this possible?” asked Ea. Shamash then related that Ishtar had descended to the Underworld, in search of Tammuz, and had not returned.

Ea then created a being he called Udushunamir, which he made devoid of all emotion or fear. With the power of all the gods, Ea sent him as an emissary to the Underworld court of Irkalla, where he would demand the water of life from the dark queen. Because Udushunamir had been created by Ea, the great god, Irkalla had no power over this creature, and could not stop it entering her realm.

So Udushunamir entered the Underworld, and stood before Irkalla, where he demanded in the name of the great gods that Irkalla provide him with the water of life, and that Ishtar be brought from the darkness. Of course Irkalla was furious at this demand. Irkalla could do nothing but submit, and she ordered the water of life be given to this creature, and so it was.

Udushunamir guided Ishtar through the darkness to the seven gates of the Underworld, and when she emerged from the cave, the rams reared high. Soldiers and merchants alike made excuses to rush home to their wives’ fond embraces. All of creation rejoiced in the return of Ishtar. And all the gods rejoiced too, knowing that their creations would renew themselves and would survive to honour and serve them.

http://fairytalesoftheworld.com/quick-reads/ishtars-journey-into-the-underworld/

When we read the story of Esther, remembered each spring at Purim, we can understand better the ancient myths of death and rebirth. It was Esther, who descended into death, willing to face execution at the hand of the king in order to request her people be spared. Helpless to deliver her people alone however, she needed deliverance from a divine emissary. The King had to send someone immune to the laws of death, into death to retrieve his Queen. In this case, it is the king himself who vows to depose the wicked vizier and to create a new law which will spare the Jewish people from extermination.

So too at Easter we see a similar drama played out on the cross. Christ descended into death to demand the lives of people held in death be returned to life. God, the Father, sending his Spirit into the underworld with Christ, returns him to life and restores with him, life to earth again, renewal and rebirth. Each of the earlier stories pre-figured, pre-told and pre-framed the story of Christ which in turn, fulfilled’ mythological typology in history.

C.S. Lewis, in his ‘Essays on Theology and Ethics‘, addresses the fact that the story of Christ, brought myth into history:

The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens — at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle.

Myth became fact, essay published in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, C. S. Lewis, Walter Hooper (Editor), Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company; Reprint edition (October 1994; original copyright 1970 by the Trustees of the Estate of C. S. Lewis). 

Tolkien similarly wrote, in a letter to Christopher his son, clarifying his view that the gospels mirror fairy-tales:

Of course I do not mean that the Gospels tell what is only a fairy-story; but I do mean very strongly that they do tell a fairy-story: the greatest. Man the story-teller would have to be redeemed in a manner consonant with his nature: by a moving story. But since the author of it is the supreme Artist and the Author of Reality, this one was also made . . . to be true on the Primary Plane.

Letters’, 100–101

The glory of the gospel story therefore is that it is the ‘true’ myth, myth-become-fact, fairy-story incarnate in primary reality. As Tolkien concluded in his essay,

this story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men—and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused

‘On Fairy-stories’, 63.

This Easter, lets take and read again the fairy-tales and myths and legends of the world, and consider, how legend and history met and fused in Christ.

Ancient Stories and Enactment

A previous post, One Thousand and One Nights, looked at how the classic Middle Eastern tale had much in common with the Biblical account of Esther and the origin of the Feast of Purim. In both accounts, the protagonist, the Queen, artfully delays the king and his judgement across several nights. In doing so, she not only spares her own life but the lives of many others.

These ancient tales reveal something of the way narrative and embodied narrative, almost pantomime a significant part of oral cultures. Lessons are enacted rather than spoken directly as in literate or more linear cultures.

Oral cultures 2

Another biblical tale that illustrates this exact point in the narrative of Joseph. Genesis 42 recounts the journey of Joseph’s brothers to Egypt during a crippling famine. They travel to the court of Pharoah to beg for grain and are presented before Joseph their brother, a man they do not recognise. Joseph, seeing them bow before him is reminded of the dream he had as a young boy. A few chapters earlier, ch 37 tells:

Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him all the more. He said to them, “Listen to this dream I had: We were binding sheaves of grain out in the field when suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright, while your sheaves gathered around mine and bowed down to it.”

His brothers said to him, “Do you intend to reign over us? Will you actually rule us?” And they hated him all the more because of his dream and what he had said.

Then he had another dream, and he told it to his brothers. “Listen,” he said, “I had another dream, and this time the sun and moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me.”

10 When he told his father as well as his brothers, his father rebuked him and said, “What is this dream you had? Will your mother and I and your brothers actually come and bow down to the ground before you?” 11 His brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind.

 

This jealousy had led the ten brothers to conspire to kill Joseph. Rather than shed blood however, the sell the boy to slavers who take him to Egypt. There is becomes a servant to the Prime Minister of Egypt and eventually to Pharoah himself.

 joseph 2

When confronted with his brothers however, Joseph does not reveal himself immediately. Instead he decides to toy with them. After quizzing them about their father and other living brothers, he tells them they are liars – and puts them in jail!!

21 They said to one another, “Surely we are being punished because of our brother. We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen; that’s why this distress has come on us.”

22 Reuben replied, “Didn’t I tell you not to sin against the boy? But you wouldn’t listen! Now we must give an accounting for his blood.” 23 They did not realizethat Joseph could understand them, since he was using an interpreter.

Joseph understands that only a journey of personal discovery will help them feel what he felt, and bring them to not only a place of repentance for the wrong they did him, but of full understanding of the nature of the dream he had all those years ago.

joseph 3

He sends them back to their father, retaining one brother Simeon in jail, and demanding they bring the youngest Benjamin with them. On the journey home they discover the silver with which they had paid for their grain had been hidden in their sacks, making them feel more dread of the consequences of facing the Egyptian Vizier again.

Once home they plead with their father to release Benjamin to go with them. Jacob an old man, one broken hearted by the loss of Joseph will not release the youngest, further making the brothers suffer. They know their aged father will perish if Benjamin comes to harm. Reuben even pledges the lives of his own sons if anything happens to Benjamin; however Jacob refuses.  Until they have no more food…..

Upon returning to Jospeh, the brothers fear the wrath of this Egytpian noble because of the silver that had been returned into their sacks. Againt the brothers prostrate themselves before Joseph and this time he can barely handle his emotions at the sight of his brother Benjamin.

joseph 4

Joseph, according to custom, eats separately from the foreigners but he has them seated in birth order at the table leaving them to look at each other in astonishment.  He also has Benjamin presented with a portion five times larger than the others.

The following day, the brothers set off with the grain they have purchased, however Joseph has a silver cup hidden in the sack of grain on Benjamin’s donkey.

As morning dawned, the men were sent on their way with their donkeys.They had not gone far from the city when Joseph said to his steward, “Go after those men at once, and when you catch up with them, say to them, ‘Why have you repaid good with evil? Isn’t this the cup my master drinks from and also uses for divination? This is a wicked thing you have done.’”

When he caught up with them, he repeated these words to them. But they said to him, “Why does my lord say such things? Far be it from your servantsto do anything like that! We even brought back to you from the land of Canaan the silver we found inside the mouths of our sacks. So why would we steal silver or gold from your master’s house? If any of your servants is found to have it, he will die; and the rest of us will become my lord’s slaves.”

10 “Very well, then,” he said, “let it be as you say. Whoever is found to have itwill become my slave; the rest of you will be free from blame.”

11 Each of them quickly lowered his sack to the ground and opened it. 12 Then the steward proceeded to search, beginning with the oldest and ending with the youngest. And the cup was found in Benjamin’s sack. 13 At this, they tore their clothes. Then they all loaded their donkeys and returned to the city.

Joseph feigns fury at the theft and claims Benjamin as his slave. This is too much for the brothers and prompts a lengthy speech by Judah to intercede for his brother on behalf of their aged and frail father. Judah presents himself in the place of Benjamin, declaring that their father who had alreay lost a beloved son, would not survive if they return to tell him that Benjamin was also lost.

joseph

At this point Joseph knows that the Brothers have fully repented. They have been broken by the wrong they did him through the pain it brought their father. Several times they have bowed down to him, fullfilling the dream he had as a boy.

The tale shows an interesting feature of Ancient Near Eastern cutlure in which narrative and behaviour draw close together. Joseph acts out his message. He engages in a pantomime with his brothers, feigning fury, indignation, accusing them of being spies, thieves and liars. He imprisons them and sets them up as thieves, but he also honours them with feasts, silver and goods. Utterly confusing them, he confounds their pride and brings them to a place of contrite repentance for the evil they did against him.

Rather than wow them outright with his splendour and royal standing, he makes them take a journey in his shoes. He makes them face an ageing and grieving father and the pain they brought upon him by asking for Benjamin’s life as well. In all of this he does not seek to make them suffer, but to prepare them for the amazing revelation that it was not they that sent him to Egypt but God.

joseph 5

He was destined to save them. He had been raised up at the right time to be “father to Pharaoh, lord of his entire household and ruler of all Egypt”. With five years of famine remaining, Joseph could provide land for this family, now numbering over 70 people, and their flocks in Egypt.

Moreover, the strict mores of Egyptian life, meant the Israelites would not intermarry with the Egyptians, a segregated culture who would not even eat with foreigners. Here in safety, the Israelite people could truly grow to become a nation.

One Thousand and One Nights – (Arabic: كتاب ألف ليلة وليلة‎ Kitāb alf laylah wa-laylah)

One Thousand and One Nights  is a collection of Middle Eastern and South Asian stories and folk tales compiled in Arabic during the Islamic golden age, 7th – 13th century AD. The tales themselves trace their roots back to ancient and medieval Arabic, Persian, Indian, Egyptian and Mesopotamian folklore and literature.  I detect some parallels with the Hebrew and Biblical account of the book of Esther and the origins of the Feast of Purim.

1001 Arabian Nights 2

The versions of One Thousand and One Nights vary, but what is common throughout all the editions is the initial frame story of the ruler Shahryar (from Persian: شهريار‎, meaning “king” or “sovereign”) and his wife Schehrezade (from Persian: شهرزاد‎, possibly meaning “of noble lineage”).  The main frame story concerns a Persian king and his shock to discover his wife’s infidelity. He has her executed and in his bitterness and grief, decides that all women are the same. The king, Shahryar, begins to marry a succession of virgins only to execute each one the next morning, before she has a chance to dishonour him. Eventually the vizier, whose duty it is to provide them, cannot find any more virgins. Schehrezade, the vizier’s daughter, offers herself as the next bride and her father reluctantly agrees. On the night of their marriage, Scheherazade begins to tell the king a tale, but does not end it. The king, curious about how the story ends, is thus forced to postpone her execution in order to hear the conclusion. The next night, as soon as she finishes the tale, she begins a new one, and the king, eager to hear the conclusion, postpones her execution once again. So it goes on for 1,001 nights. It ends with the king giving his wife a pardon and sparing her life.

The biblical account of Esther is set during the reign of King Ahaserus [Xerxes, 5th C. BC] and  the story was likely composed sometime in the 3rd or 2nd century BC. It tells of the King of Persia whose wife refuses his command to appear before his banquet of noblemen and so he deposes her for fear that women throughout the kingdom would disobey their husbands. Not long after Xerxes seeks for a new wife by bringing virgins from all around the kingdom into the palace. The girls are prepared for the Royal House over one year and then are brought to the king for one night. After one night they are moved into the royal harem and not called again unless by name.  The story tells of an orphaned Jewish girl in the kingdom, raised by her cousin Mordecai, who was brought in before the king. She is favoured her among all the virgins and chosen to be his bride.

1001 Nights Esther

Not long after this Haman, the vizier [Prime Minister] brings charges against the Jewish people for not honouring the customs of the nation. Haman requests the King decree the Jews should be exterminated. Mordecai, Esther’s cousin,  passes news of the decree to Esther in the palace and urges her that she will not be spared by the decree and must intercede for her people. She tells him that anyone who comes to the king unbidden will be executed, except those he extends his golden scepter to. She resolves to fast and pray and then approach the king without invitation. After three days, she approaches the king, who extends his sceptre to her and asks her what she wishes, up to half his kingdom. Instead of laying her case before the king, she instead invites him and Haman to attend a banquet. During the banquet again the king asks what she wishes, up to half his kingdom. Again instead of laying forth her request, Esther invites them both to a second banquet.

The next day at the second banquet the king again asks what Esther’s petition may be up to half the kingdom. This time she asks for the lives of herself and her people be spared. The king seeing that it was Haman who had established the decree, is furious and he walks out onto the balcony. In the meantime Haman pleads with Esther by falling upon her couch. When the king returns he perceives  Haman to be molesting the queen and immediately orders his execution.  Mordecai, Esther’s guardian, is given Haman’s place as vizier and he promptly writes another decree for the Jews to defend themselves. The occasion is celebrated to the present day in the feast of Purim, the day the Jews were spared anhialation by a faithful womans’ courage and her ability to artfully delay the king.

1001 Nights

While elements are conflated and details changed, in both stories, the clever queen saves her own life and the lives of others by knowing how to go about matters of national and international diplomacy with subtle grace. Both women engage in theatrical delays across a series of nights, creating intrigue and enticing the King to change policies and preserve lives.