The Scorpion Twins

November 13, 2015
8th century BCE Assyrian seal. Source: Walters Art Museum/Wikimedia Commons
8th century BCE Assyrian seal. Source: Walters Art Museum/Wikimedia Commons

In The Epic of Gilgamesh, the hero encounters scorpion people on his quest for eternal life. Scorpion men, called Girtablullu, are depicted in Akkadian and Assyrian drawings as composite human/scorpion/bird figures, reflecting a complex understanding of animal deities.

Gilgamesh encounters a male/female pair of scorpion deities at the “Twin Mountains,” probably in the Zagros range to the east of his Mesopotamian city of Uruk. The pair are guarding the tunnel through the underworld, which the sun travels at night. As Gilgamesh approaches, the Girtablullu remarks:

“This one who has come to us, his body is flesh of a god!”
The wife of the scorpion monster answered him:”Two-thirds of him is divine, one-third is human.”

The scorpion pair are usually depicted as husband and wife in English translations, but the text literally defines them as “scorpion-man” and “scorpion-woman.” Logic would categorize the two as brother and sister, not husband and wife, since the opening they guard is between mountains characterized as “twins.”

Why is this important? In pre-patriarchal societies sibling bonds are paramount and marital bonds are relatively unimportant, since the organizing principle of society is the mother-child relationship rather than that of husband-wife. The Akkadian culture where this myth was first recorded in written form was unquestionably patriarchal, yet vestiges of a pre-patriarchal culture can be gleaned within this story that unquestionably arose at an earlier time. Modern scholars impose a more rigid patriarchal framework when translating these myths, however, rendering the pre-patriarchal vestiges invisible to the reader.

So if Girtablullu is the Akkadian word for scorpion-man, what is the equivalent for scorpion-woman? I had to search for a transliteration of the Akkadian text for this one. I think it is Girtablullu-sinnistu.

Sources

Foster, Benjamin R., ed. The Epic of Gilgamesh. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2001.

Gardner, John and John Maier, eds. Gilgamesh.New York: Vantage Books, 1985.

Mitchell, Stephen. Gilgamesh: A New English Version. New York: Free Press, 2004.

The Cedar Forest

August 3, 2012

Ishtar

They stood at the edge of the Cedar Forest,
marveling at the great height of the trees.
They could see, before them, a well marked trail
beaten by Humbaba as he came and went.
Far off they saw the Cedar Mountain,
sacred to Ishtar, where the gods dwell,
the slopes of it steep, and rich in cedars
with their sharp fragrance and pleasant shade.
Gilgamesh, Stephen Mitchell, trans.

Extensive cedar forests once covered Lebanon, Western Syria and parts of Turkey. Cedars in this region are known as Lebanon Cedars and are not closely related to the many other trees around the world called cedar, such as the White Cedar, which is a cypress, or the Red Cedar, which is a juniper. What trees bestowed with the name cedar seem to have in common is an aromatic wood resistant to insects and to rot. They may also have a fine resin; the Lebanon Cedar resin was exported to Ancient Egypt for embalming.

Cedar forest in Lebanon. Photo by Jerzy Strzelecki.


It was to the great cedar forests west of Mesopotamia that the hero Gilgamesh and his partner Enkidu journeyed on what was essentially a timber raid. In order to take the trees, the giant tree guardian Humbaba, servant of the god Enlil, had to be vanquished. Humbaba is a protective deity whose image is displayed in Mesopotamian seals and wall plaques. Gilgamesh relished the thought of slaying Humbaba, at least at the onset of the journey. He did have attacks of cowardice as the confrontation grew near, yet he overcame his terror and killed the giant.
Humbaba. Circa 1700 b.c.e.


With Humbaba out of the way, the heroes cut choice trees from the forest, binding the logs together to make a raft. They decided to set aside the best cedar for a giant door in Enlil’s temple — a good move, since Enlil was displeased about the slaying of his servant. Interestingly, the deity who did not seem miffed with the lumber thieves and giant murderers was Ishtar, the one whose forest had been plundered. When Gilgamesh returned to his city, she asked him to be her lover, offering him jewels, a chariot and a large cedar house.

Ishtar is the Mesopotamian deity who brought prosperity, technology, music, dancing, writing and many other gifts to humanity. She is a generous goddess, unlike her father Enlil who can sometimes be stingy or destructive. She delights in helping civilization to flourish. Ishtar is usually categorized as a fertility goddess, or a goddess or sexual love, which is certainly true, but it does not capture her complete essence. She is like cedar wood, a pervasive fragrance instinctively drawn in. With her concern for providing well for her cities, she would have naturally choosen to bestow a tree with a long lasting wood ideal for building.
Cones of Lebanon Cedar. Photo by Line1.



Sources

Black, Jeremy and Anthony Green. Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1992.

George, Andrew, trans. The Epic of Gilgamesh. London: Penguin Books, 1999.

Jewell, Eleanor. Facts About Cedar Trees.

Ketchledge, E.H. Forests and Trees of the Adirondack High Peaks Region. Lake George, NY: Adirondack Mountain Club, 1996.

Mitchell, Stephen, trans. Gilgamesh: A New English Version. New York: Free Press, 2004.

World Biomes. Lebanon Cedar.