Ereshkigal , Sumerian goddess of the underworld, was also called Irkalla, the name of her land, in the same way that in the Greek, Hades is both the name of the realm and its king. Compare to Hela in the Norse pantheon or Persephone or Hecate in the Greek.
Ereshkigal was the older sister of the beautiful Inanna, worshiped later by the Akkadians, Babylonians, and Assyrians under the name Ishtar. Inanna was called “the Queen of Heaven,” despite that she was not married to Anu, the sky god and supreme deity, for she was the goddess of love, beauty, sex, war, and power (as in political power), which tells you what the ancient Sumerians thought of those things. Inanna was famous for, among other things, going to war with a mountain because she feared it was more majestic and beautiful than she.
One day, Inanna showed up, as younger siblings do, outside the front door of her sister’s kingdom, demanding to be let inside, presumably with the aim of extending her dominion there. (This didn’t have to mean killing Ereshkigal. Maybe Inanna just wanted to strut around giving orders. Sadly, the text doesn’t say.) Unwilling to be humiliated in her own land, Ereshkigal orders the seven gates of the underworld sealed, but tells her gatekeeper, Neti, to open each, one at a time, if Inanna removes an article of clothing. The goddess does so, and after passing all seven gates, Neti brings Inanna naked and powerless before Ereshkigal, who calls forth the seven judges of the underworld, who weigh men’s souls. A trial is held, Inanna is found guilty, and her body is impaled on a hook, where it is left hanging for all to see — which pleased Ereshkigal, I’m sure.
Seeing this, Innana’s minister, the messenger goddess Ninshubur (sort of a cross between Hermes and Cupid), flies swiftly to Enki, god of creation, crafts, knowledge, water, and mischief, and begs him to free her queen. Enki, who had a wife but who always liked a pretty face, agrees and creates from clay two sexless beings who can pass through the seven gates unseen, and they retrieve Inanna’s body and steal it back to heaven, where the goddess of love and war comes to life again, in all her radiant glory.
Furious that the laws of her land — the laws of nature — have been broken, Ereshkigal orders Neti to throw open the seven gates so that Irkalla maybe emptied, and an army of demons and shades flies forth.
In the Sumerian tradition, as in the later Greek, a soul could not leave the underworld unless it could find another to take its place. Seeing the armies of the underworld screaming toward heaven, Inanna runs to her husband, only to discover that he has not, per tradition, been mourning the loss of his tempestuous wife. In a fit of anger, Inanna casts him down, into the hands of the demons, who drag him back to hell, where he forever takes her place.
According to Sumerian tradition, Inanna stands in heaven still, raining her capricious whims on mankind. Ereshkigal, however, is content with her dark dominion, for she knows — in time — she will be the queen of all.
cover image: Ereshkigal game art by Yigit Koroglu
Here are some other renditions.