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David Castriota
Ancient Near Eastern Mythology
Liz Rich

After looking at the SUmerian goddesses Ereshkigal and Inanna, I
became interested in the connection between the other cultures of the
ancient Near East to Sumeria. Were the other goddesses similiar and
have similiar functions, both as goddesses and as women?

I began looking into it and the first thing I noticed is the
very striking similarities between Inanna and Ereshkigal and Ashera
and Anat. The similarity between the two pantheons is very apparent,
coming to light mostly so far in the actions of the goddesses Ashera,
Anath, Inanna and Ereshkigal. There are some inconsistencies I would
like to look further into however, the interchange between the two
Canaanite goddesses Anath and Ashera being the main one. While they
both have major differences, they seem to serve the same purpose in
relation to Ba’al. Both intercede on his behalf, they only seem to
split off when he needs something that is more in hand with the
individual aspect of the goddesses.

I also wondered how the image of a powerful goddess figure played into
the idea of an early matriarchal society. Did the powerful goddess
show that society used to be run by women? Was the empowered deity
representative of an empowered woman, or merely a decorated icon
of womanly duties thought of and designed by the partriarchy?

I've come to the conclusion that the female deities do not
represent an earlier matriarchal society, instead they portray
how women were expected to act within the male dominated society. Men
were the ones in charge, they had the glory of free thought and the power
to act on their own, while women, though seeming to hold more power
were actually relegated to a place beneath the men as they could not
start an action on their own volition. The one goddess who seems to
be outside of this is Inanna, but she ends up entrapped by her actions
and needs to be rescued by a male god.

There are striking similarities in the Canaanite myth and
the Sumerian myths. Both have very similar goddess as well as the
image of a dying and reborn god. The Canaanite goddesses Anath,
goddess of war and savagery, and Ashera, goddess of fertility are
strikingly similar to both Ereshkigal, goddess of death, and Inanna
goddess of fertility, of the Sumerian religion. ALl of the goddesses
serve the same function under the male gods; to suit their needs and
complete the tasks which they started but were unable to complete.
Ba’al, god of thunder and fertility, is also very similar to Dumuzi,
god of fertility and grain. Both gods die and are condemned to the
realm of death: Dumuzi by Inanna for his feasting and lack of
mourning after her death; and Ba’al because he threatened Mot the
god of death, but both are rescued after their inability to free
themselves and reborn through the efforts of a goddess; Dumuzi by
his sister Amageshtinanna and Ba’al by his sister Anath.

The major difference in the two myths is that when Dumuzi is
released from the land of the dead, Ereshkigal is merely tricked into
letting him go, whereas Mot, the Canaanite god of death and sterility
is killed by Anath. After Amageshtinanna goes for help when the allotted
time is up for Inanna to return from the underworld, ENki creates two
demons to do a favor for Ereshkigal and as repayment ask for the body
of Inanna. They then throw the water of life on Inanna and she is
returned to life. Mot on the other hand, kills Ba'al when Ba'al
challenges him. After Anath finds the body of Ba'al she falls into a
blood rage and kills Mot. A possible reason for this difference is
that Mot, representing despair and sterility, is overcome because
Ba’al as fertility and the harbringer of spring must be set free and
overcome sterility. The fight to overcome sterility becomes the
coming of spring and life and the banishment of the infertility of winter.

Mot reigns in the underworld amidst ruin and darkness, and there he
is Death. As the adversary to whom Ba’al eventually succumbs in the
summer heat he is Sterility. (Gray, 72)

As spring approaches and Ba’al is expected to help with the land’s
fertility, he and Anat his sister and another fertility goddess must
overcome the sterility of winter.

Ashera is remarkably similar to Inanna. Both are goddesses
of sex and fertility, consorts to gods of fertility, Inanna married
to Dumuzi lord over crops, and Ashera to Ba’al god of thunder. The
two goddesses Anath and Ashera have a lot of similarities and seem to
be almost interchangeable; tending to go hand in hand with their
actions in relation to Ba’al. Both offer to be Ba’al’s cupbearer
when he gains his house, both rebuke him for his smiting of Yam’s
messengers and holding Yam captive, and both intercede for him when
he asks El for permission to build his house. Seemingly in return
for this power however, the two goddesses, are tied together. Anath
is unsuccessful on her own, El refuses to listen to
Ba’al’s pleas until the two goddesses unite their efforts and plead
together, only then does El give in to their pleas to let Ba’al
build a house they feel is more worthy of a god. Anath does as well,
however, bring to mind Ereshkigal’s joyful slaying of Inanna when she
locks warriors into the feasting hall and lustfully slays them all
and wades in their blood:

She prepares seats for the warriors....
she makes great slaughter and gloats,
Anat cuts and thrusts and gazes on what
she has done, her liver swells with mirth,
her heart is filled with joy, the liver of
Anat with triumph. (Gray, 81)

This is very similar to when Ereshkigal moans because her
heart, and liver and insides hurt after she has killed Inanna. It is
interesting to note the similarity with how the two pantheons
portray the goddesses’ power. Ashera, Anath and Inanna at first glance
seem to have more power than the male gods. Ba’al is overcome when he
fights Mot and killed, but Anath leaps at Mot and is able to almost
easily slay him. Inanna cheats death to return to the world of the
living from Ereshkigal’s realm. But looking closer, all of their
actions are caused by actions of the gods. Ba’al is killed, so Anath
kills Mot. Inanna seems to be an exception to this, however, acting
on her own she is trapped and does not gain her power to return until
Enki sends his messengers down to trick Ereshkigal into letting her
leave. The male gods, however decide on an action and then do it.

Anath is the goddess of savagery, so when Ba’al is killed it
is up to her to kill Mot and avenge his death, which she does as is
her wont, with utter abandon and complete efficiency. One wonders
how effective the gods themselves were, when compared to her
efficiency. Ba’al was immediately thrown to the ground, while she
however, quickly and easily cuts Mot down.

The major figure of the Goddess in ancient religion does not
necessarily mean that ancient culture was matriarchal. In fact, if
one looks closely at how the female goddesses hold power, it is more
likely that instead, the goddesses were not representing a female
power in society so much as they were representing what females places
were and the actions which a woman is supposed to take. The major
goddesses are not goddesses known by themselves, but are known as and
empowered as wife of, or sister to. Of the Canaanite gods, Ashera is
known as sister to Ba’al, and Anat is sister to Ba’al. Looking to
the Sumerians, we see Amageshtinanna the sister of Dumuzi, and Uttu,
wife of Enki. (Frymer-Kensky, 16)

The purposes behind the female goddesses are to portray how
women are expected to perform in society. They are sisters to men,
wives of men, and mothers of men. As sisters, they are to mourn the
loss of their brothers when they are killed as in the death of Dumuzi.
Amageshtinanna wails so endlessly for Dumuzi when he is cast into the
underworld and mourns his loss so frantically that the gods listen to
her plea and let her take his place in the underworld so that he can
once again come into the realm of the living. Ashera and Anat, both
powerful goddesses as well perform their sisterly duties for Ba’al
when he is in need, representing him with El when he wants to build
his house. El will not grant him leave to build a new house befitting
a god until they intercede on his behalf. Anat, the powerful goddess
of sex and war, is more powerful than Ba’al and shows her sisterly
place when she slays Mot after Ba’al is slain, but she only does so
after Ba’al has made the attempt and is killed. She fulfils her duty
as woman by finishing what he started and left uncomplete.

As wives of men they are expected to keep the house and care
for the children of men. The one exception to this rule being Inanna,
wife of Dumuzi in Sumerian myth. She refuses to learn how to spin
cloth and make the house when he offers to wed her, and thus
represents the unmarried female, the available woman.
(Frymer-Kensky, 26)

As mothers of men, women are to care for their sons as well
as lamenting their loss if they should happen to die. The
goddesses of cities are represented as being the mothers to the city,
and they mourn and wail when the city is destroyed. After Ninurta
goes to fight Azag, Ninlil his mother worries for him until she goes
to see if he is all right. Ninurta, representing men and pleased
with her worry, rewards her for coming to see him by gifting Ninlil
with rule over the new foothill region that he has just gotten from
defeating Azag, and Ninlil becomes identified with Ninhursag. Her
devotion to her son is shown in her new identification, and she is
elevated in station, coupled with a more powerful goddess Ninhursag.
(Frymer-Kensky, 15)

The Goddesses aren’t actually powerful goddesses in their own
right. They react to what the gods have done. They wield their power
in response to what the male gods have done. Ba’al decides to go and
slay his enemy, Mot. And instead he gets slain, prompting Anat to get
up and slay Mot in anger and retribution. Amageshtinanna’s main
action is her taking Dumuzi’s place in the underworld when he is cast
down by Inanna, and that again, is a response to Dumuzi’s actions.
The one notable exception to the goddesses not initiating is again
Inanna, when she decides for herself to go down to the underworld and
face Ereshkigal.And for that she is punished by the male gods, all
but Enki refuse to go after her in the underworld, saying that she
chose to go down to the realm of her sister and she can pay the price
for that desire as none can defy death.

Goddesses are not holders of power themselves. They don’t
initiate actions on their own, instead they react to what the male
gods do. They are the representatives of how women’s places are
viewed by society. What a goddess does is most likely to be
representative of what women are supposed to do in society. They are
not women so much as wives, sisters and mothers. How they act is
defined by the roles in which they find themselves. Inanna is the
main exception to all of the rules that seem to govern women. She
refuses to be the picture of the wife when she won’t spin cloth as
Dumuzi proposes to her. She represents both war and love, presiding
over the marriage bed and familial happiness, as well as the
unmarried women when she is the goddess of the sacred prostitute.

Canaanite religion seems to go hand in hand with Sumerian
religion. The male god as the head of the pantheon, with major female
goddess below him who intercede on the behalf of the lesser male
divinities. It is interesting to note that while the males seems to
hold the real power, in actuality it is the women who get things

Anat seized Mot, the divine son,
with a sickle she cut him,
with a winnow she winnows him,
with a mill she crushes him,
she scatters his flesh in the field to be eaten by the birds,
(Schaeffer, 72)

As when Anat intercedes for Ba’al when he wants to build his house,
and when he fights Mot and gets slain, but Anat kills Mot easily.
After Ba’al had tried to fight Mot he had gotten himself killed, so
at first glance it may seem that Anat has more power than he does,
however she would never have attacked Mot in the first place had Ba’al
not been killed. Her whole reason to slay Mot is to finish the job
her brother had started in revenge for his death.

Does this however prove that the ancient near eastern society
used to be matriarchal? One can contrast Crete with Sumeria and
Ugarit. Crete had a definite matriarchal society, women are the most
frequently shown in art, “the women alone are fully drawn, in the
foreground....In the background are a large number of small
conventional squiggles representing eyes, noses and hair. These are
the men.” (Leavitt, 47) What is pictured in art is what the society
thinks about. Women being focused on in the murals to the almost
exclusion of men portrays a society in which the women are in the
forefront of the social structure. That they held the power in
society can be safely stated as most of the art shows women in
positions of power; they were portrayed tending fruit trees, a sacred
plant; they held learned positions, were doctors, and potters.
“On one seal, a seated woman is holding three poppy seed heads, and
a late figurine shows a woman wearing three seed heads, cut as for
the extract of opium, in a crown above her head....a doctor involved
in healing or a priestess performing rituals.” (Leavitt, 48) If it
were a male society in which the women could hold no positions of
power, they would not be shown on seals in those various positions
unless they were goddesses.

However, the same reasons that make Crete a matriarchal
society show why Ugarit and Sumer didn’t necessarily stem from a
matriarchal society. The excavations from Ras Shamra show a marked
interest in Ba’al. There is a significant lack of feminine deities
represented in the images that have been excavated. “So far no image
which can be attributed to the great goddess of the Ugarit Canaanites
has been found at Ras Shamra.” (Schaefer, 63) If the society at Ras
Shamra put focus in the women, there would be at least a few images
of women along with the images of Ba’al. The fact there are not says
that women were not the main focus of the religion.

The ties between death and fertility, shown in the Sumerian
goddess sisters Ereshkigal and Inanna, are present in Ugarit.
”Certain symbols, like the pierced stones, were used in the magic well as in the funerary vaults. In either cult the
apparatus for the libations is arranged in the same fashion.”
(Schaefer, 49) The shared use of certain symbols can show either
the same cult practicing the rituals for both death and fertility,
or a similar meaning in the objects, if not both. Another main
similarity between the two is the thirst of the dead. Water is a
common fertility symbol, associated with major goddesses such as
Asherat of the Sea, and Enki the god of wisdom. It is also necessary
for the dead to be given water or they will rise as angry shades to
harm the living. Assurbanipal the assyrian king says “And I have
broken up their kings’ graves. I have allowed their souls no rest,
and I have refused them the funeral offerings and libations of water.”
(Schaeffer. 49)

There are a lot of similarities between Sumerian and
Ugaritiic culture and religion, however those similarities also point
out the differences. Both have the image of a goddess, who
intercedes on the behalf of the male gods before the god who sits
at the head of the pantheon.

Amiet, Pierre; Art of the Ancient Near East, Harry N. Abrams, New York; 1977 Frymer-Kensky, Tikva; In The Wake Of The Goddess: Women, Culture and the Biblocal Tranformation of Pagan Myth; Fawcett Columbine, New York, 1992. Higgins, Reynold; Minoan and Mycenaean Art; Thames and Hudson, London; 1967 King, Chris; The Gospel of Miriam; Moscati, Sabatino; The Phoenicians: Abville Press, New York; 1988 Gray, John; Near Eastern Mythology; Bedrick Books, New York; 1985 Schaeffer, Claude; The Cunieform texts of Ras Shamra; Oxford University Press, London; 1936