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"Inanna and the Huluppu Tree": One Way of Demoting a Great Goddess[1]

gardener planting a sapling

Gardener Planting a Sapling at the Base of Another Tree in a Garden, with Wilderness Outside. From a relief vessel found at Mari. Steatite. Dated around 2500 B.C.E.
© S. Beaulieu, after Wolkstein and Kramer 1983:5.

As a result of her control of fecundity and her centrality in the "Sacred Marriage," Inanna kept her high standing among the Sumerian deities even as society increased in male-dominance (Wakeman 1985: 8). The poem "Inanna and the Huluppu Tree" gives a mythic explanation of how the throne and the bed used in the "Sacred Marriage" came into existence and, in the process, records a drastic demotion in Inanna's status.[2]


The poem begins at the beginning, "when what was needful had first come forth," when bread first started to be baked in ovens of shrines, and when the first separation occurred, that of sky and earth (Frayne 2001:130; Wolkstein & Kramer 1983: 4). A violent storm uprooted a huluppu (poplar?) tree. Inanna rescued it and planted it in her "sacred grove" at Uruk (Frayne 2001: 131). She waited for it to get large enough to be made into a chair and a bed. Unfortunately, three creatures settled in the tree: in its roots "a snake which fears no spell"; in its trunk a lilitu, a female spirit; and in its branches the Anzu bird. Unable to rid herself of these intruders, tearful Inanna requested her brother Utu, the sun god, to help. He refused, but Gilgamesh, Uruk's warrior king, did not. After the heavily armed hero "smote" the snake, the others fled. Gilgamesh cut down the tree, took the branches for himself, and gave the trunk to Inanna.


Perhaps the huluppu was the World Tree, which connects heaven, earth, and underworld.

Inanna rescued the huluppu tree at the time of beginnings, "when what was needful had first come forth." Is it possible that the huluppu tree was among the "needful"? Perhaps the huluppu was the World Tree, which connects heaven, earth, and underworld (Campbell 1965: 486-89). In other mythologies, the World Tree usually has a serpent in its roots and often a bird in its branches (Campbell 1964: 41).

Anyway, the huluppu flourished in "pure Inanna's fruitful garden" in the sanctuary at Uruk (Kramer 1967: 200; Shaffer 1963: 30, n.1). Many ancient precincts had sacred groves complete with sacred trees. In male-dominated Mesopotamia, a king usually held the title "Gardener" (Widegren 1951: 9, 11, 15). Indeed, gardening and plowing could be metaphors for taking the male part in sexual intercourse. For example, in one Sumerian love poem Inanna sings of her vulva, her "uncultivated land," and asks, "Who will plow it?" Dumu-zi answers that he will plow it for her (Sefati 1998:224-225). Metaphorically, then, the fertile grove is the goddess, particularly her womb, her vulva. In the huluppu poem, however, the garden, the womb, was "fruitful" in and of itself. Inanna did no more than tamp the tree into place with her foot and water it with her foot! Clearly, her garden did not yet have a gardener, a plowman to plow it, to control its fertility. Not surprisingly, in a world where a gardener was beginning to be necessary for ordered and controlled cultivation, untended plants had to be incapable of normal progress. So the tree acquired what, in a male-dominated world (garden, womb), would have been considered parasites.[3]

If the huluppu was the World Tree, we would expect a serpent in its roots. Also, snakes had connections with earth and fecundity goddesses (Henshaw 1994: 173; Wolkstein & Kramer 1983: 3). Indeed, these beings of earth and underworld often lived under such goddesses's shrines. Snakes are also boundary creatures, able to move in several elements. They often live at wells and springs, entrances to the netherworld.[4] From the roots the serpent "which fears no spell" could have connected with the underworld (Wolkstein & Kramer 1983: 180). Interestingly, Inanna tended the tree with her foot, her roots. Could the snake have been Inanna's underworld self?

eagle-like bird with lion's head and outstretched wings

Probably the Anzu, an eagle-like bird with lion's head and outstretched wings. Detail of a relief plaque from Girsu, Mesopotamia. Stone. Around 2450 BCE.
© S. Beaulieu, after Kramer and Wolkstein 1983:8.
larger view of image

The Anzu was an eagle-like, powerful bird-monster with a lion's head. When it flapped its wings, it caused whirlwinds and other kinds of storms. Inanna may also have had some connection with storms, making the bird's presence understandable (Williams-Forte 1983: 180, 194; Wolkstein & Kramer 1983: 95-96, 102; Jacobsen 1976: 136-137). In the branches of Inanna's tree, the bird was also at the boundary between earth and sky. It too was able to move across thresholds. Is it possible that the Anzu was Inanna's heavenly self?

From Mesopotamian writings going back into the third millennium BCE comes evidence of spirits like the one in the tree trunk (Hutter 1995: 973).[5] She was a member of the lilu family of demons (feminine lilitu) (Chicago Assyrian Dictionary 1956). Lilu demons manipulated "stormy winds," and the lilitu could fly like a bird. They also had negative sexual characteristics, especially the females. Unmarried, they roamed about looking for men to ensnare, and they got into buildings through windows. More important, lilu sexuality was not "normal," so that men could not have sex with lilitus in the way they did with their wives (Hutter 1995: 973).

The lilitu sounds very much like Inanna and Ishtar, Inanna's Semitic counterpart. Ishtar "stands at the window looking for a man in order to seduce him, love him and kill him" (Hutter 1995: 973-4). Inanna too displayed herself provocatively in windows and doors (Jacobsen 1976: 140), and, like Ishtar, she was called "sahiratu, 'the one who roams about.'" In hymns she goes "from house to house and street to street," a phrase later used to describe demons (Frymer-Kensky 1992: 28).

Such paralleling of independent women and demons suggests that, in increasingly patriarchal culture, Inanna's independence was slowly being isolated from her other characteristics, and the hard-to-assimilate independence was assigned to two separate functions: prostitute and demon. The prostitute was useful, if marginalized, and the demon was feared and rejected. The fact that many translators render the word lilitu as "Lilith" may indirectly support such a theory (Kramer 1967: 200; Wolkstein & Kramer 1983: 6). The lilitu was antecedent to Lilith, the first wife of Adam, vilified in later Jewish texts (Ausubel 1979: 393-4; Graves & Patai 1964: 68).

winged goddess with lions and owls

Queen of Heaven, Earth, and the Underworld, almost certainly the Goddess Inanna/Ishtar. Terracotta relief. Dated around 2000 B.C.E.
© S. Beaulieu, after Neumann Plate 126.
larger view of image

According to Raphael Patai, an image on a Babylonian baked-clay plaque, dated as "roughly contemporary with the [huluppu-tree] poem," depicts a lilitu (Patai 1990: 222 & Plate 31; Wolkstein & Kramer 1983: 6). He thought that the nude figure, standing on lions and flanked by owls, was a night goddess and lady of wild animals. However, she wears the multi-horned crown and carries the ring-and-rod symbol of power (Henshaw 1994: 240; Williams-Forte 1983: 181; Jacobsen 1976: 38). She is most unlikely to be merely a lilitu. Rather she is the goddess Inanna with the wings and the death-dealing talons of an owl (?), perhaps indicating a connection with the netherworld (Williams-Forte 1983: 189). This suggestion gains support from a cylinder seal dated 2000-1600 BCE.[6] The head of a winged goddess with many-horned crown reaches its top register, and her clawed feet are firmly planted in the bottom one. Above the line are deities and human worshipers, while below it are "demonic creatures." Some scholars interpret this winged goddess as Lilith and so a lilitu, but she too is probably Inanna (Williams-Forte 1983: 189; Wolkstein & Kramer 1983: 51). This seal provides another part of Inanna's nature. Not only does its arrangement present the goddess's duality — of both of the upper world and the underworld — but it suggests that she joins the two. Like the huluppu tree, she stands with feet, roots, in the underworld and head, branches, in the heavens, her body, the trunk, joining them. She herself could be interpreted as the "cosmic tree of life" and death (Campbell 1965: 64).

When Gilgamesh had disposed of the huluppu tree's inhabitants, he uprooted it, thus eliminating, finally, any natural connection between earth and underworld.[7] He then gave the wood to Inanna to make into a bed and a throne, the furniture used in the "Sacred Marriage." However, the furniture, which was essentially constructed from her body, was no longer entirely hers. The institution of kingship had appropriated it and, with the furniture, Inanna herself. What is more, the poem presents her as willingly co-operating in her own demotion. Both she and the furniture would henceforth serve a male monarchy in a male-dominated society. In this way, society was able to circumscribe her and direct her undoubted power into channels that would be useful to the male-dominated city.

sacred tree, horned goddess, priest(ess)

Sacred Tree, Horned Goddess, and Priest(ess). Cylinder seal impression. Dated about 2330-2150 B.C.E.
© S. Beaulieu, after Wolkstein and Kramer 1983: 3.
larger view of image

A powerful goddess subject, the sacred World Tree, had, over the centuries, been reshaped into limited goddess objects, a bed and a throne, while the goddess herself was co-opted into seeing this limited role as powerful.

Inanna was now goddess only of the heavens and the earth, and the cycle of life had suffered irreparable damage. The destroying of the huluppu tree meant that human beings could no longer count on Inanna and the World Tree to maintain the cycle of life and death. Instead, they were now facing a terrifying, linear world. The old cyclical understanding of death as merely one stage in the eternal round of birth, death, and renewal, symbolized by the tree, had been replaced by a linear perception of life with death and the underworld as the end (Kovacs 1989:59-75; Wolkstein & Kramer 1983:51-89).

The seemingly innocent poem "Inanna and the Huluppu Tree," then, constitutes an androcentric account of the reasons for Inanna's involvement in the "Sacred Marriage," both as herself and as furniture. It shows well how myth can be remade to serve ideology! A powerful goddess subject, the sacred World Tree, had, over the centuries, been reshaped into limited goddess objects, a bed and a throne, while the goddess herself was co-opted into seeing this limited role as powerful. Independent Inanna had become feminine, a woman reliant on males to get her out of trouble. The extant poem probably echoes an earlier story, one in which Inanna and the World Tree had very different roles. We can only imagine what they were.


  1. This column represents a shortening, rewriting, and updating of my article on the same topic which appeared in Feminist Poetics of the Sacred: Creative Suspicions, eds. Frances Devlin-Glass and Lyn McCredden. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. Pages 91-105.
  2. The Huluppu Tree poem is part of the Sumerian tale known as "Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Netherworld" (Frayne 2001:129-143).
  3. Elsewhere in Mesopotamian myth, a goddess who created alone without the assistance of a male partner gave birth only to aberrations: Ti'amat, who, with her male consort Apsu, produced all the other gods, gave birth to only monsters after her consort's demise (Heidel 1967: 23-4, lines 132-45). This pattern also occurs in mythologies of other cultures, for example, that of ancient Greece: When Hera, Queen of Heaven, bore a child not fathered by her husband Zeus and perhaps even unfathered, she gave birth to the physically deformed Hephaistos.
  4. For example, the snake who stole the plant of youth from Gilgamesh lived in or near a spring (Foster 2001: 94-95).
  5. The Sumerians called her ki-sikil-lil-la, in Semitic Akkadian, (w)ardat-lilla or ardat-lili; both phrases mean "Young Woman Spirit" (Douglas Frayne, personal communication, 10 December 1996).
  6. A drawing of this seal was published in the Beltane issue, 2005.
  7. It is ironic that Gilgamesh was the hewer-down of the huluppu tree, for, in the Epic of Gilgamesh, he is so appalled by death and the netherworld that he undertakes a quest for immortality (Foster 2001).


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  • Shaffer, Aaron 1963. Sumerian Sources of Tablet XII of the Epic of Gilgamesh. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania PhD Dissertation (University Microfilms 1974).
  • Wakeman, Mary K. 1985. "Ancient Sumer & the Women's Movement: The Process of Reaching Behind, Encompassing & Going Beyond," Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 1/2:7-27.
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