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Goddess in the Spotlight
by Ruth Temple
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Lammas 2003, Vol 2-4
MatriFocus, a Cross-Quarterly Web Magazine for Goddess Women Near & Far
administrative clay tablet, Uruk Era, circa 3000 BCE
Administrative clay tablet, Uruk Era
Courtesy of Images from History

A powerful goddess of the air, Ninshubar is a Sumerian queen and goddess in her own right who takes her place as Inanna's right-hand sukkal or vizier, a high-level government administrator.

Ninshubar's moments of glory are recorded in the story of Inanna's return to Uruk (Sumer) from her visit with her grandfather Enki, the sky-god.

Inanna¹s visit with her grandfather is a delightful story in and of itself. On her arrival, Enki welcomes her and pours out honey-beer. He gives her the me -- the 'memes' or 'how-to viruses' -- of the arts and sciences of civilization. Inanna formally accepts Enki's gifts and then basically drinks him under the table.

Later, the holy me, the instructions on setting up civilization, are loaded on the barge of heaven to go back home to Sumer, and Inanna and Ninshubar are on their way. When Enki wakes up hung over and wonders what he did that for; he moves to either get it all back or to stop Inanna from reaching Sumer. Here's where Ninshubar shines:

Inanna called to her servant Ninshubar, saying:
"Come Ninshubar, once you were Queen of the East
Now you are the faithful servant of the holy shrine of Uruk.
Water has not touched your hand,
Water has not touched your foot.
My sukkal who gives me wise advice,
My warrior who fights by my side,
Save the Boat of Heaven with the holy me!
(Wolkstein & Kramer, 1983, 21)

lunar ship
Lunar Ship
Copyright © 1999, Elizabeth Ross. Used with permission.

Seven times, Enki sent his servant Isimud to send the enkum-creatures, the fifty flying uru-giants, the fifty lahama-monsters, the sound-piercing kugalgal, the enunun and finally the watchmen of the Iturungal Canal. Ninshubar guarded the boat physically and magically, conjuring monsters and spirits to counteract Enki's attacks on the barge of heaven. Each time monsters and spirits were sent by Enki, Ninshubar protected the boat and its cargo for Inanna. Once the boat made its way safely to the White Quay at Uruk, the holy me was unloaded and Enki blessed Inanna again and confirmed his gifts to her.

In Diane Wolkstein¹s essay, Interpretations of Inanna¹s Stories and Hymns, she posits that "a sukkal who carries out orders often has powers superior to his or her master. Inanna¹s sukkal Ninshubar, often referred to as the servant of the holy shrine of Uruk, seems to represent the inner spiritual resources of Inanna, which are for the greater good of Sumer. In other Sumerian literature Ninshubar acts as the sukkal of the Sky God, An, the creator and oldest of the gods. As his sukkal, she would have access to his heavenly, numinous powers. (Wolkstein & Kramer, 1983, p. 149)

Ninshubar acts again on Inanna's behalf when She makes her descent to the underworld. Before Inanna visits the underworld, She makes provisions for getting help if she doesn't come back in three days, and it's Ninshubar who follows through, going to the gods for help, demanding it until she gets it. While she's taking care of this business, Inanna's consort-king Dumuzi is lolling about in luxury on Inanna's throne and toying with the idea of just becoming king on his own.

These stories were old when Gilgamesh was a new tale and weren't translated from the cuneiform until the 1970s. They are strong and poetic action-hero legends, including the queen-goddess Ninshubar in her sackcloth and ashes at the city gates of Sumer, getting the necessary help from one of the sky-god uncles, or greeting Inanna as She returns fom the dead/underworld, with demons prowling after to take someone in her place. As it turns out, that someone will be Dumuzi, whose sister Geshtinanna volunteers to stay in his place in the underworld for half of each year. (Wolkstein & Kramer, 1983, 85-89)

Interestingly enough, Ninshubar's gender changes depending on who is telling the stories. In the passage quoted above it is clear that Inanna is speaking to Ninshubar about her queenship. Further, the name segment "nin-" means "female ruler" (Beck, 1998-2003). There are also translations from the Sumerian that indicate Ninshubar¹s gender as female, male, or neither (Black, et al, 1998- ). Your investigations may vary.

References/Further Reading
+ Beck, S. (1998-2003), "Sumer, Babylon and Hittites," in Ancient Wisdom and Folly.
+ Black, J.A., Cunningham, G., Fluckiger-Hawker, E, Robson, E., and Zólyomi, G. (1998- ). The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature.
+ Wolkstein, D. (1983). "Interpretations of Inanna¹s Stories and Hymns," in Inanna: Queen of Heaven and Earth, D. Wolkstein and S.N. Kramer, eds.
+ Wolkstein, D. & Kramer, S.N. (1983). Inanna; Queen of Heaven and Earth, Her Stories and Hymns from Sumer. New York: Harper & Row.

Graphic Credits
+ Administrative clay tablet, Uruk Era, courtesy of Images from History.
+ Lunar Ship, Copyright © 1999, Elizabeth Ross. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Contributors retain the copyright to their work; please do not take art or words without permission. All other graphics and reference materials are used and attributed as per the Fair Use Provision of The Copyright Act and individual terms of use.
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