The story of Inanna and the halub tree makes up the first half of the Sumerian myth of Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Netherworld. The story seems to stand on its own, opening with a cosmological creation, and ending with the death of the halub tree (often interpreted as a willow). Indeed, the two halves of the myth appear joined in the middle, with a shift in focus from Inanna to Gilgamesh. The deep symbolism of the halub tree gives way to secular and moral concerns. Let us examine the narrative more closely.
In the earliest times, with the separation of sky and earth, An claims the heavens, Enlil takes the earth, and Ereshkigal receives the Netherworld as a gift. Then Enki sets sail for the Netherworld but is attacked by a turbulent storm along the way. The force of the south wind also uproots a sapling halub tree growing along the banks of the Euphrates River. The young goddess Inanna, who is walking along, finds the tree and transplants it to her garden in Uruk, with the intention of one day carving the wood into furniture. The tree grows to a massive size, though over the years, presumably through Inanna’s neglect, a serpent makes a nest in the roots, an Anzu settles with its young in the branches, and a phantom maid (possibly a demoness, or an owl) builds a house in the trunk. Upon discovering this, Inanna appeals to her brother, the sun god Utu, without success, then she calls upon Gilgamesh, the ruler of Uruk, to take care of the problem. The hero-king slays the serpent and scares away the Anzu and the phantom maid. Then he uproots the tree and has a chair and a bed made for Inanna— ‘luxuriant’ objects which exalt her status as the goddess of fertility and sexual love.
In the second half of the myth, the goddess Inanna leaves the scene completely, and Gilgamesh becomes the central character of the narrative. With leftover wood from the branches and the roots of the tree, Gilgamesh has two special objects made, an ekidma and an ellag (often interpreted as a stick and a ball). He uses the objects in some kind of game or ritual with the young men of Uruk. In the morning, there are cries of lamentation from the women, and the objects fall into the Netherworld, to Gilgamesh’s great sorrow. His friend Enkidu offers to fetch the objects, but he disregards the rules and is ‘seized’ by the Netherworld. The distraught Gilgamesh first approaches Enlil for help, to no avail, then he journeys south to Eridu to present his case before Enki. The water god orders Utu to open a hole in the earth to allow Enkidu’s shade to ascend. The story ends with a long dialogue in which Gilgamesh questions Enkidu’s shade about his experiences in the Netherworld, reinforcing the importance of mourning rites for deceased ancestors.
The Sumerian myth of Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Netherworld has come down to us on clay tablets dating from the late third to early second millennium BCE. (ECSTL’s composite text was drawn from close to 80 fragments.) The earliest texts date from the Ur III period, when the myth was likely composed, though parts of the story may have been in oral circulation long before. Four other Sumerian myths about Gilgamesh also survive, attesting to the popularity of the hero-king in the royal court and scribal schools of Ur III rulers, particularly Shulgi. The Neo-Sumerian kings promoted their ancestral ties with the early rulers of Uruk and viewed Gilgamesh as one of their patron deities. In reviewing the scholarship, I could not help wondering what other tales about Inanna and the halub tree might have existed prior to that time. Was Gilgamesh always the hero of the story?
For further reading: Annus and Sarv (2015), Gadd (1933), George (2003), Kramer (1944), Kramer (1944/1961), Shaffer (1963).
Image Source: Sumerian cuneiform text from Gilgamesh, Enkidu and the Netherworld on clay tablet from Nippur (Ni 2270), published in H.V. Hilprecht (ed.), The Babylonian Expedition of the University of Pennsylvania. Series A: Cuneiform Texts, Vol. XXXI: Stephen Langdon, Historical and Religious Texts from the Temple Library of Nippur, Munich, 1914 (Public Domain), Plate 46, No. 55.