While Ereškigal (or Ereshkigal), a goddess said to rule the underworld, now ranks among the best-known Mesopotamian (Sumero-Akkadian) deities, in antiquity, her worship was never very prominent – not dissimilarly to how Hades, who received very little veneration among the ancient Greeks, is much more popular in the devotions of modern polytheists. On this page, I will set such modern developments aside, and attempt to sketch a picture of the goddess as she was seen by the ancients.
2 The meaning and spelling of the name Ereškigal
Ereškigal, like very many Sumerian theonyms, is very transparent in its etymology. It is written using four signs (DINGIR.EREŠ.KI.GAL), each representing one concept:
- 𒀭 (DINGIR) is a determinative: it is not pronounced, but indicates that what follows is a deity’s name.
- 𒊩𒌆 (NIN / EREŠ) is read ereš, meaning ‘lady’.
- 𒆠 (KI) is read ki, meaning ‘earth’ or ‘underworld’.
- 𒃲 (GAL) is read gal, meaning ‘great’.
Taken together, the meaning is ‘Lady of the Great Earth’, or more specifically, ‘of the underworld’. Compare to this the names Enki (EN.KI, ‘Lord of Earth’) or Nikkal (NIN.GAL, ‘Great Lady’); but despite similarities in formation, these deities have no close relation to each other.
In the Greek Magical Papyri, texts from some two millennia after Sumerian ceased to be a spoken language, the name appears as Ereschigal (ερεσχιγαλ), where the ch is pronounced as a hard k. This is treated as a powerful name of Hekate (see, e.g., the Rites of Hekate Ereschigal). Here, s stands in for š (sh) because Greek does not distinguish the two sounds, while the use of the letter Chi (χ), transliterated as ch, is a little more complicated to explain, but reflects no divergence in pronunciation.
Briefly put, ancient χ (transliterated as ch or sometimes as kh) originally, and also in this case, represents the same sound as k in English – an aspirated voiceless velar consonant /kʰ/. The Greek letter Kappa (κ), which we transliterate as k, represents the unaspirated equivalent, /k/, which does not really exist in English.
In short, this is the best representation of the Sumerian pronunciation that is possible in Greek letters, and the fact that the pronunciation was still accurately preserved so late is a testament to the continuity of Sumero-Akkadian learning.
3 Other names of the goddess
allatu, ammatu erşetu, irkalla, irnina
Vgl. den späten Weisheitstext O 175 Vs. 2.4 (s. u.), wo sich die Gleichsetzungen die See = Ereškigal und die See = Asakku, “Tabu” zu finden sind.
4 The family of the goddess
Nungal, Ninazu + family, nerigal