Gloranthan Readings: Poems of Heaven and Hell from Ancient Mesopotamia

There stands a house under the mountain of the world,
a road runs down, the mountain covers it
and no man knows the way. It is a house
that binds bad men with ropes
and clamps them into a narrow space.
It is a house that separates the wicked
and the good; this is a house from out of which
no one escapes, but just men need not fear before its judge,
for in this river of spent souls the good
shall never die although the wicked perish.

– The Sumerian Underworld, from Poems of Heaven and Hell.

This week on Gloranthan Readings is the Poems of Heaven and Hell from Ancient Mesopotamia, translated by N. K. Sandars. This is one of the essential collections of Mesopotamian mythology, containing the Babylonian Creation (the Enūma élish), The Sumerian Underworld, Inanna’s Journey to Hell, Adapa: the Man, and A Prayer to the Gods of Night.

Of these, the Enūma élish is probably the best known. It tells of the creation of the world out of chaos, a two-staged cosmogony with the first being the fecund powers of chaos that gave birth to generations of gods and monsters, and the second being the creation of the ordered world through the defeat of Tiamat by her distant descendant Marduk, who becomes king of the gods. This is Orlanth’s defeat of Sh’harkazeel or Yelm’s defeat of Nestenos or Umath’s defeat of Predark. The Enūma élish was likely connected to the Babylonian New Year festival, and like Glorantha’s Sacred Time, held at the advent of spring. Actually, “like Glorantha’s Sacred Time” understates the matter – this is Sacred Time, and the description of the Babylonian New Year festivals in this book is the basis for Glorantha’s Sacred Time.

As cool as the Enūma élish is, Inanna’s Journey to Hell is even more interesting for the Glorantha-phile. Inanna, Goddess of Fertility and War, goes to the Underworld to challenge her sister Erishkigal, Queen of the Underworld. She goes through the Seven Gates, each time being required to give up part of her divine regalia. Each time she protests, “Why do you do this?” And each time, she is told “Quiet, Inanna, this is the law of the underworld, which must be fulfilled. Do not question the rites of hell.” After she passes through the seventh gate, she is naked and on her knees before grim Erishkigal and her Seven Judges. They sentence the goddess of Life to death and her body was a corpse that hung on a spike.

Inanna had already prepared a plan, and after some effort she is revived. But the Judges said:

“Who has ever returned out of hell unharmed?
To escape the pit alive she must leave 
another who shall wait in her place.”

And so Inanna leaves the pit to find her replacement – her lover Dumuzi, who is seized by demons who drag him down to the Dark City. The poem ends with Dumuzi being mourned by his sister, his mother, and by Inanna.

This is raw heroquesting material for any Glorantha GM. The hero goes to the Underworld, dies, finds a way to be revived, but must pay the price. Superb stuff.  Other poems give us some of the geography of the Underworld, a paean to the gods of Night, and more.

Go over to Gloranthan Readings and check out what else we’ve got up? As of today, we have 20 books, with more coming.