Gods, Up to a Point, by Roberto CalassoTranslated by Tim Parks

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From The Tablet of Destinies, which was published in July by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Translated from the Italian.

Inanna had desired to leave the Great Above and go down to the Great Below to see her older sister Ereshkigal, who was queen there. The Anunnaki were appalled. They were staid gods who never did more than pass from one to another of their temples, on certain days, in nine cities, all contained between the two great rivers. They knew nothing of travel. The very idea would have been abhorrent. For Inanna, war itself was a kind of travel. Every battle was one stage of a larger exploration, a drive to expand her territory. Now she had decided to descend to the one place whence no return is permitted.

Inanna said she wanted to go down to the Underworld to take part in the funeral rites for the Bull of Heaven, Ereshkigal’s husband, whom Gilgamesh had killed and cut to pieces. But that was an alibi. You can’t kill a constellation.

All Inanna really wanted was to set foot in the Underworld. And come back. Then she could say the Underworld was part of her territory. Only the rash and insolent Inanna could have thought she could go to see Ereshkigal as if it were no more than a family visit. Gorgeously made-up, with earrings, necklaces, bracelets, rings, a corset, and a cloak, Inanna set forth. She came to seven gates whose bars were thick with dust. At each gate, she had to surrender one of her ornaments, her powers. When at last Inanna entered her sister’s kingdom, she had no defenses left.

No one knows what happened next. She reappeared hanging from a butcher’s hook like a carcass. Naked, dead—and so she remained for three days and three nights. None of the supreme gods felt inclined to go to her aid, except Ea, her father, who quickly fashioned two demons to take her water and wine to revive her. They told her she could return to the place whence she had descended. She would be escorted by the Galla, seven demons like sharp-pointed canes. But there was a condition: a substitute must take her place in the Underworld, forever.

The first to come to meet her was the faithful Ninshubur, her protecting shadow. Bowing to the ground, Ninshubur at once offered her- self as Inanna’s substitute. The demons would have agreed. Not Inanna, though; she didn’t want to lose her. The same thing happened with Shara, Inanna’s hairdresser and poet. “I will never let you have him,” Inanna told the Galla. And again with Lulal, her shield bearer. Inanna couldn’t do without these loyal supporters and their skills.

Finally, they came to the Great Apple Tree, where Inanna usually lived. There were shepherds playing their flutes. Dumuzi was sitting, motionless. Facing a large stage. Apparently unperturbed. But how could he be unaware of his lover’s predicament? Had he forgotten her? Inanna’s eyes became daggers. She said: “He’s the one, take him!” The Galla quickly grabbed him by the legs. They tied him up and beat him. Dumuzi called on Utu, the Sun, to save him. He slipped through the Galla’s hands like a snake and took refuge with his sister, Geshtinanna. But the Galla found him and caught him again. He couldn’t escape. Dumuzi ceased to be Inanna’s lover and became her substitute in the Underworld. Inanna herself had chosen him.

The one goal of the seven Galla demons was to capture more and more inhabitants for the Underworld. For them, the young god Dumuzi was the most precious of prizes. They tormented him, pursued him, laid siege to him, yet never were sated. They wanted him dead. In the end, Dumuzi was trapped and killed in the place where he felt most at home: his shepherd’s hut.

They covered his lifeless body with a linen cloth, like a basket of dates. Next to it was a dog who ate something then curled up at Dumuzi’s feet. There was a crow in the hut as well. And the crow, too, was eating something. Then it flew off. In the night, Inanna came. She repeated the same words over and over: “Oh, you who lie here, you watched over me!” She left a gift by the body stretched on the ground: a goatskin full of water. “Essential in the desert,” Inanna muttered to herself.

Descending to the Underworld, Inanna threw down a challenge no other god had dared to make. But the result was her first and only defeat. Those three days and nights hanging ignominiously from a meat hook in a place crawling with feathered, dust-eating larvae amounted to a last warning. No longer would she be able to proclaim her unlimited capacity for expansion. But for the other gods, too, her descent to the Underworld opened wounds that would never heal. In the past, they had thought to fashion men as their substitutes. It was a strategy that lightened their burden without requiring any great effort. All they had to do was kill a rather obscure god and mix his blood with some clay.

Now everything was different. If the gods meant to expand to encompass everything, they could no longer deny the fact that the Underworld was beyond them. They could not cohabit with death and the dead. And this left them diminished. They refused even to talk about it. The Anunnaki realized they were gods only up to a point.

Substitution had insinuated itself among the gods. It was no longer merely an expedient to make life easier and more powerful. It was also the breach that death had opened among the gods. Death was impervious to them. Something else was required: a substitute, a living being. If life were to expand to its furthest limits, substitution was a must, but substitution brought death. Or rather, it was death that brought about substitution. Whether as killing or disappearance.

The gods were not the only ones devoted to order; so were men, or Black Heads, as they were called. They studied what went on, whatever went on, seeking out omens. Ill omens for the most part. Their kings lived in perpetual fear of an eclipse or a misshapen liver or an abnormal birth. “When order was threatened, they, too, saw substitution as a necessary expedient. If some ill omen cast a shadow on the king—astral events were always the most frightening—a substitute had to be found to take his place at all regal functions, hold his scepter, sit on his throne, sleep in his bed beside the queen, who was also a substitute. Meanwhile the real king disappeared to a safe place known only to a few. This state of affairs would go on for a while, but not too long, until a prophetess or a minister of court announced to the substitute that he must meet his destiny. Meaning, in his case, that he was to be killed. And his temporary queen with him.

After which, solemn funerals were held. When at last the substitute was about to be buried, people whispered: “Take all evils down to the land of no return.”

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