I mentioned a while back that I tend to think about there being two major magical diasporas flowing out of Mesopotamian antiquity, a celestial and Magian one and a cthonic and Goetic one. I have been rereading Dina Katz’s excellent The Image of the Netherworld in the Sumerian Sources with some of that in mind. Appendix 4, a translation of Edina-Usagake (“In the Desert by the Early Grass”) has me thinking I may be missing a third element of that world, the feminine aspect of it.
Katz makes clear that we don’t have a single coherent narrative, but several overlapping but sympathetic ones. These are framed as laments by a woman for the dead lover, brother, or child, and often entail the lover going to the mountain (kur) of the underworld to demand from it the body of the beloved. Katz emphasizes the role this plays in the mythology of the dying god, but she notes that elements mitigate against a strictly mythological reading.
In several verses, the woman (sometimes names “Ereshkigal”) addresses herself to state administrators, not just to supernatural forces. She makes a case for them to return to her the body of her lover/child/brother in order that it may be properly settled into the underworld, that it might dwell with the anointed. In an especially poignant verse, the child is described as a mere infant who “lies cast in water and blood,” freshly born but dead.
One of the figures to whom she addresses herself is a strange figure referred to as “the lord of prayer,” and if we think of the goetic stream as a kind of prayer, one wonders if we are looking at a conflict between a mother and a powerful cultic figure, a proto-goes. It puts the cult of the mother-mourner at odds with another that would make use of the dead for their own ends.
That opens some comparative avenues for consideration. Think of this woman as Isis, and Set as a proto-goetic necromancer who has made off with her husband-brother’s corpse. The rivalry here between necromancy and burial here becomes pitched and fierce. It also opens up a horizon in which we can read Sophocles’ Antigone as one more account of this old conflict.