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.

Tess of the D’Urbervilles and the Modernist “ache”

Upon reading Tess of the D’Urbervilles, one feels distinctly manipulated. The text is so melancholy, the characters so pitiable, society so repressive and unjust. One wonders “what essay is Thomas Hardy writing through his novel about his world”? Why does he wish to make his readers so miserable?

The story is set in the 1870s in county Wessex. Tess Durbeyfield is a saintly rural maiden, misunderstood by her poor parents. Her uneducated father believes they have connections to aristocracy through the name “D’Urberville”.  She is sent to “claim kin” and  finds work to help support her family and  watched over by the rather abrasive landowners son Alec Stoke.

tess of the D 2

Alec, on pretense of helping her one day, leads her into the woods where he rapes her. She returns home and  cannot talk of the crime or of the sickly child she bears and buries in an unmarked grave. Several years pass and she finds herself working as a milkmaid for a local farmer, and is courted by the parsons son, Angel Clare. Fearful to tell Angel the truth, she conceals it until the day of their marriage. On the night of their wedding,  he confesses to her a previous relationship with an older woman and so she in turn she tells him of the misdemeanour. He promptly disowns her and sails for Brazil, but not without propositioning Tess’ milkmaid friend to accompany him as his mistress. She declines.

Hard on her luck, Tess is forced to become the mistress  to wealthy Alec. In Brazil,  Angel suffers failures with his farming ventures and repents of his angry impulses. Sickly with yellow fever, he returns to England and confesses his love for Tess, She cannot have him and turns him away. As he leaves however, Tess murders Alec and pursues Angel. The novel closes with the couple at Stonehenge, where Tess rests upon an ancient altar. As the police descend to take Tess to prison and certain and death, she states she is glad, for Angel loves her and she him.

Hardy was an educated Victorian man concerned with the injustices of his day. Tess is almost an image of Hardy’s beautiful pastoral England, raped by the landed gentry, abused and managed by those using the name of the church. When she lies upon the pagan altar, she is at her happiest. The narrator concludes the novel with the statement:

“‘Justice’ was done, and the President of the Immortals (in the Aeschylean phrase) had ended his sport with Tess,”

Justice, however,  is not really just at all. What passes for “Justice” is in fact one of the pagan gods enjoying a bit of “sport,” or a frivolous game.  The fates are frivolous. This is the ache of the modern view – there is no dream. Just reality, bare and stark.

tess of the D

Not only is society in transition between an ancient pastoral land, to industrial urbanisation, but also from the enlightenment certainty to modern melancholy. Unlike classic tragedy, such as Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the tale does not allude to a “norm” against which the tragedy occurs. Romeo and Juliet’s families acknowledge that their warring houses could have prevented the deaths. The court of Macbeth acknowledge that powerlust and hubris brought about the decline of the kingdom and so forth.

One feels with Hardy, that with the decline of enlightenment certainty, comes a decline in confidence in redemption of any kind. The modernist ache is to contemplate society and its evils without affirming an alternative ending. Other than to aspire to compassionate humanism, we cannot ultimately hope but to avoid the sport of the gods.