"Inanna and the Huluppu Tree":
One Way of Demoting a Great Goddess
a Sapling at the Base of Another Tree in a Garden, with Wilderness
Outside. From a relief vessel found at Mari. Steatite. Dated around
© 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
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.
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.
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?
Anzu, an eagle-like bird with lion's head and outstretched wings.
Detail of a relief plaque from Girsu, Mesopotamia. Stone. Around
© 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).
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
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).
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
- 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.
- The Huluppu Tree
poem is part of the Sumerian tale known as "Gilgamesh, Enkidu,
and the Netherworld" (Frayne 2001:129-143).
- 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.
- For example, the snake
who stole the plant of youth from Gilgamesh lived in or near a spring
(Foster 2001: 94-95).
- 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).
- A drawing of this seal
was published in the Beltane
- 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).
- Ausubel, Nathan, ed. 1979. A Treasury
of Jewish Folklore. New York: Crown.
- Campbell, Joseph 1965. The Masks of
God: Occidental Mythology. New York: Viking.
- Campbell, Joseph 1964 (1949). The Hero
with a Thousand Faces. NY: Meridian..
- Chicago Assyrian Dictionary 1956.
Chicago: University of Chicago.
- Foster, Benjamin R., translator/editor.
2001. The Epic of Gilgamesh. New York: Norton.
- Frayne, Douglas, translator/editor 2001.
"Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Netherworld," 129-143 in The Epic of
Gilgamesh, translator/editor B.R. Foster. New York: Norton.
- Frymer-Kensky, Tikva 1992. In the Wake
of the Goddesses: Women, Culture, & the Biblical Transformation of
Pagan Myth. New York: Free Press.
- Graves, Robert & Raphael Patai 1964. Hebrew
Myths: The Book of Genesis. London: Cassell.
- Heidel, Alexander, translator 1967 (1951).
The Babylonian Genesis: Second Edition. Chicago: Phoenix Books,
University of Chicago.
- Henshaw, Richard A. 1994. Female &
Male, the Cultic Personnel: The Bible & the Rest of the Ancient Near
East. Allison Park, Penn.: Pickwick.
- Hutter, M. 1995. "Lilith." 973-976 in
Dictionary of Deities & Demons in the Bible, edited Karel van
der Toorn et al. Leiden: Brill.
- Jacobsen, Thorkild 1976. The Treasures
of Darkness: A History of Mesopotamian Religion. New Haven, CT:
- Kovacs, Maureen Gallery, translator 1989.
The Epic of Gilgamesh. Stanford: Stanford University.
- Kramer, Samuel Noah 1967 (1963). The
Sumerians: Their History, Culture, & Character.. Chicago: University
- Neumann, Erich 1970 (1955). The Great
Mother: An Analysis of an Archetype. Princeton, NJ: Princeton
- Patai, Raphael 1990. The Hebrew Goddess:
Third Enlarged Edition. Detroit: Wayne State University.
- Sefati, Yitschak 1998. Love Songs in
Sumerian Literature: Critical Edition of the Dumuzi-Inanna Songs.
Ramat Gan, Israel: Bar-Ilan University.
- 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.
- Widegren, George 1951. The King & the
Tree of Life in Ancient Near Eastern Religion. Uppsala: Lundquist.
- Williams-Forte, Elizabeth 1983. "Annotations
of the Art," 174-199 in Inanna, Queen of Heaven & Earth: Her Stories
& Hymns from Sumer edited/translated Diane Wolkstein and Samuel
N. Kramer. New York: Harper Colophon.
- Wolkstein, Diane and Samuel Noah Kramer
editors/translators 1983. Inanna, Queen of Heaven & Earth: Her
Stories and Hymns from Sumer. New York: Harper Colophon.