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NERGAL was a Mesopotamian god of the underworld. Nergal (properly, Nerigal) is a phonetic rendering of the Sumerian Enirigal(a) ("lord of the big city [i.e., the underworld]"). Nergal was also called Meslamtaea ("one who comes out of the Meslam [temple]"). His consort was Ereshkigal ("queen of the big place [i.e., the underworld]"). How he came to be king of the underworld is described in the Akkadian myth Nergal and Ereshkigal. His cultic center was Cuthah, in central Babylonia, where his consort was Laz (Akk., la asu, "no exit [i.e., the underworld]"), also called Mamma, Mammi, and Mammitum. Because of the complete identity of Nergal with Cuthah, that city's name became synonymous with the underworld.

The myth of Nergal and Ereshkigal is preserved in three versions, the first coming from Tell El-Amarna, with two later versions from Sultantepe and Uruk. The story of how Nergal became the husband of Ereshkigal begins with the decision of the heavenly gods to hold a banquet and to send their messenger Kaka to the underworld, so that Ereshkigal (for whom it is impossible to go up to heaven, just as it is impossible for the heavenly gods to descend to the underworld) can receive her due portion of the banquet foods. Kaka makes the journey, presents himself to the gatekeeper, and asks him to open the gate. The latter welcomes him, lets him pass through the seven gates of the underworld, and takes him to see Ereshkigal. Kaka bows before the queen of the underworld and passes on the message he has been given.

Ereshkigal is given greetings from the heavenly gods, and Kaka tells her that the gods of the heavenly pantheon are well. After these conventional greetings the queen of the underworld appoints Namtar to go to heaven to retrieve her portion of the food. After a lacuna in the text, the god Ea severely chastises Nergal for being disrespectful to the messenger from the underworld by not bowing down before him like all the other gods. After another lacuna, we are told Nergal's reply, which is unfortunately fragmentary, but which seems to concern a plan by which Nergal must descend to the underworld, where he would "split his divine character in two." Ea agrees that Nergal should go to the kingdom of Ereshkigal, and advises Nergal not to enter the underworld with hostile intent, but to go to the forest beforehand and cut down various kinds of wood to make a throne to offer to the gods Anu, Ningizzida, and Ea himself. Nergal carries out the orders, builds a throne, and decorates it green, gold, and yellow. Not satisfied with this, Ea further advises Nergal to accept nothing that is offered to him in the underworld, no throne, no food, and no drink, but above all not to look lustfully upon Ereshkigal.

After a gap in the text, there is a description of Nergal's journey to the underworld, which is portrayed as a dark, terrifying place. When he arrives, the gatekeeper makes Nergal wait while he gets instructions. Despite the fragmentary state of the text it is clear that Ereshkigal directs Namtar to identify the newcomer; Namtar looks at the god and recognizes that it is the same one who had offended him. For the first time, Namtar calls the newcomer Erra rather than Nergal, and speaks about him not in the singular but the plural. Expressing unease, Ereshkigal orders Namtar to let "the gods Erra" enter. Erra passes through the seven gates of the underworld, then comes into the presence of Ereshkigal, immediately bowing down before her. Following his greeting, she offers him a throne, as well as food and drink, and finally, after taking a bath, she shows him her beautiful body. Mindful of Ea's advice, Erra refuses the various offers and does not allow himself to be seduced by the beauty of the goddess.

The next passage is fragmentary and difficult to reconstruct. When the text becomes readable again, the situation is completely reversed: Nergal/Erra gives in to the seductions of Ereshkigal and lies with her for six days. On the seventh day the god tells his lover that he wants to return to heaven for a short time, much to her disappointment. After he has decided upon this course of action, Nergal/Erra goes to the gates of the underworld and gains his freedom through trickery. He returns to heaven, where the gods ask Ea to give him a deformed body, so that Ereshkigal, who will certainly look for him, will be unable to recognize him.

Meanwhile Ereshkigal, unaware that her lover has fled, orders that her house be cleaned in preparation for the wedding, by which the "imprisoned" god will be given a specific role in the underworld. Namtar informs her that all these preparations are pointless because the god from heaven left her realm at dawn. Ereshkigal is in complete despair and laments at length for the love she has lost and the outrage she has suffered. She then orders Namtar to go to heaven and bring back her lover, and furthermore to convey to the gods of heaven the threat that, if this does not happen, she will open the gates of the underworld and let the dead emerge and overrun the earth.

When Namtar enters heaven for the second time, he is welcomed by Ea and the gods bow down before him, but he is unable to identify the sacrilegious god from those present. Namtar returns to the queen and tells her of a strange, bald, cross-eyed, deformed god amongst the divine assembly. Ereshkigal realizes that this is a trick by Ea and sends her herald to seize and bring back the deformed god. The previous scene is repeated: Namtar looks at the gods, one by one, but without success. Meanwhile, Nergal/Erra tries to persuade Ea to have Namtar drink divine water and clean his body, obviously intending to make him one of the heavenly gods.

After another lacuna the text resumes with a conversation between Nergal/Erra and Namtar, from which we learn that the fate of the heavenly god is sealed and he must return to the underworld. Ea apparently chooses the talismans that the god should take with him. Nergal/Erra descends the long stairway of heaven and requests entrance to the underworld, but at each gate the gatekeeper takes a talisman from the visitor. As soon as the god arrives in the presence of Ereshkigal, he smiles at her, then he pulls her from the throne and lies with her again for six days, just as he did during the first visit. On the seventh day, the heavenly gods realize that Nergal/Erra is inextricably bound to the underworld, and An summons his envoy and sends him to Ereshkigal with a message that seems to confirm the new arrangement for the future.

Based upon careful study of two versions of the story, Silvia Maria Chiodi (1998) draws the conclusion that Nergal never actually enters the underworld, but rather his twin brother Erra does so. When the god from heaven goes back to the underworld for the second time, Namtar carefully examines the newcomer, and at this point the scribe inserts a very important piece of information. The god whom Namtar is looking at is not called Nergal, as might be expected, but Erra: "Namtar went and from behind the gate he looked at Erra." Namtar becomes as pale as a tamarisk cutting when he sees Erra, the god who had offended him and had not bowed down before him when he visited heaven. Namtar then rushes to Ereshkigal and reveals the newcomer's identity with these words: "The gods who offended me, now went down to the land of no return."

The use of the plural in reference to Erra in the Uruk version is problematic. This is not an error, however, but probably a device to allow the audience to understand that a god, who is in fact a double, is crossing the threshold of the underworld. In other words, Nergal, in order to try and escape the laws of the underworld, was split in two and became "the Erra," even if he apparently remains a single being. Furthermore, the name that the writer chooses for the god is interesting. He could easily have said that the "gods Nergal" were crossing the threshold of the underworld, but instead prefers, at this precise point in the story, to change the name, as if he wanted to indicate further the change in the status of the god. Besides, if Erra were simply a synonym for Nergal, it would be hard to understand why the person responsible for the myth should swap the two names at this critical moment of the narrative. The Uruk editor uses the plural at this point as well, which fits what was stated previously when he described "the gods" who turned up in the underworld: "now they went down to the land of no return."

See Also

Heaven and Hell; Mesopotamian Religions, overview article; Underworld.


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von Weiher, Egbert. Der babylonische Gott Nergal. Neukirchen-Vluyn, Germany, 1971.

David Marcus (1987)

Giovanni Pettinato (2005)

Translated from Italian by Paul Ellis