The Enigmatic Bent Tree

The Sumerian myth of Gilgamesh, Enkidu and the Netherworld may have been illustrated by Akkadian cylinder seals depicting an enigmatic bent tree motif. Three examples include a female and male deity interacting within the curvature of the tree, while another god vigorously attacks the top of the tree with an axe. If this scene represents the Sumerian myth, as some scholars have proposed, the kneeling goddess would then be Inanna, and the figure chopping the tree would be the semi-divine Gilgamesh. However, the images predate the earliest texts of the myth, and the connection cannot be confirmed.

Unknown Mythological Scene, Modern impression of a serpentine cylinder seal (BLMJ 2788) in the collection of the Bible Lands Museum Jerusalem. Late Akkadian, 2254-2154 BCE. Image Credit: Bible Land Pictures. Courtesy of the Bible Lands Museum Jerusalem.

Other scholars have proposed various readings of the scene in relation to myths of seasonal death and rebirth, with the curvature of the tree suggesting the cavernous opening of the Netherworld. Interpretations have included Nergal’s violent conquest of Ereshkigal/Allat; Inanna/Ishtar’s raising of Dimuzi/Tammuz from his mountain grave, as the sun god kills the vegetation in high summer; and Akkadian fertility deities joined in conflict against the sun god. The images might also refer to popular oral tales, now lost, which inspired the Sumerian myth about Gilgamesh.

Indeed, it is tempting to consider the cylinder seals in light of later texts. The central scene appears to depict a gift or transfer of power—an important theme in many ancient Mesopotamian myths. In the example pictured here, two young goddesses, dressed identically, kneel on either side of the tree: one uncrowned but holding a scepter of authority under an eight-pointed star; the other crowned and receiving something from a male deity, whose torso rises from the base of the tree trunk. On a similar seal in the Louvre (T 100), she extends her hands to accept a scepter or mace from the god.

If we read the female figures to be the same goddess, they could portray Inanna in two different episodes of the same story. Perhaps by uprooting the tree, and having prestigious objects made from the wood, Inanna gained power and a crown for herself. However, the female figures could instead represent two different goddesses, Inanna and Ereshkigal, highlighting the rivalry between the powerful sisters. Would Enlil’s gift of the Netherworld to Ereshkigal have spurred Inanna’s jealousy? Another myth tells of Inanna’s descent to the Netherworld to challenge her older sister.

What’s your interpretation of the enigmatic bent tree?

For further reading: Porada (1948), Kramer (1944/1961), Ward (1910), Frankfort (1939), Steinkeller (1992).

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