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Storytime from Ancient Sumer

After another story, the Queen of Heaven was brooding. Her ego had gotten ahead of her, her pride a thing stronger than humans can understand, she made a mistake. And her mistake caused her sister pain. Her mistake killed her brother in law. Her mistake was a mistake that her brothers and nephews could have made and gone utterly unpunished. When a man seeks power, or avenges his own ego, he is praised. When a woman does? Well. Don’t we all know.

And so the Queen of Heaven sulked.

Then she opened her ear to the Underworld. The place from which no one returns. She heard from down there the sound of her sister suffering. Her sister moaned without comfort. Her sister wept without succor, because her sister was the Queen of Hell and hated for her part of the natural order. Her kingdom, within the belly of a great beast, the corpse of a dragon, was a place of sorrow and dust. They ate ash and had no water or beer to drink.

And so the Queen of Heaven knew that her sister lay in her chamber, suffering the agonies of birth, alone. The agonized of mourning alone. The agonies of hating her Heavenly sister, alone.

And it was right and just for the Queen of Hell to hate her sister. A hate that the Queen of Heaven wished more than anything to answer for.

So she went to the great men of the world, the gods, and asked them what to do. They did not care. The concerns of sisters meant very little to them when they did not need Hell’s punishment or Heaven’s strength. They thought that the Queen of Heaven sought out her sister to take her kingdom, or otherwise cause strife. The kings of men decided that the Queen of Heaven was a queen of war. And so she was. But was not warlike in all things, no matter what the kings and their scribes might say.

She was guilty, she was wrong, and there was only one way she could think to answer the hate and maybe ease her sister’s pain. So she gathered herself and dressed for her brother-in-law’s funeral. She wore her many gifts, the objects of power that marked her as the Queen of Heaven. Not to appear boastful, but because she meant to give over the whole of herself to her sister.

She confided only in her companion, a woman close to her, and said, “if I do not return in three days, tell the gods what happened to me.” Did she want their rescue? Surely not. Perhaps she said it only so they would not mourn her disappearance, but only their loss of her. If they mourned at all.

After all, the road to Hell was not a place one returns from. Why should it be any different for the gods?

And she traveled from Heaven, across the Steppes which were also her domain. She held her gown close to her, and flew along the night breezes to where the air grew stale and death settled in.

She stood at the gates to Hell. Stood before the teeth of the horry, infinite corpse in which all of Hell was contained.

Here, closer to her, the Queen of Heaven heard the Queen of Hell moaning. Hell’s pain so terrible that Heaven’s bones ached.

The Queen of Heaven pounded on the gates, the teeth, shouting in her booming voice. “Give me entrance! Tell my sister I am here for the funeral! I am here for whatever will become of me!”

The guards of the doors shrank. Afraid of the Queen, but also afraid of their own. “You cannot be granted access. You cannot come to the world of the dead. It is not your place,” they hissed at her through dragon teeth.

They would not budge. Nor would they report to their own Queen. The Queen of Heaven, suffering with her sister, screamed and it broke the sky awhile, spilling water across the land at risk for flood. She was as tall as the sky as she stood at the dragon’s teeth.

“So help me. Tell my sister I am here to see her. Tell her I am here to see her, and if you do not tell her, I will rip down these gates with my bare hands. The dead will rush out to overcome the living. I will destroy all order here if you will not simply go and tell my sister I am here.”

The guards recoiled again, holding their hands over their ears, not able to hear all the Queen’s words from the ringing in their ears. Could she pry apart the dragon’s teeth? Could she flood the world with death? Maybe. Maybe she could. So they rushed off to the Queen of Hell to tell her what transpired.

The Queen of Hell lay on her bed, a crude stone thing, missing hey or mattress or even blanket to cover her nakedness. Her hair, she pulled up with a band to the top of her head, and thrashed and rolled in agony.

“Our Beloved Queen.” The guards whispered. “Your sister, the Queen of Heaven is demanding entrance. She says, should you not let her in, she will destroy the gates and the dead will spill into the world of the living. What would become of us should she do so?!” It wasn’t the truth, the words the Queen of Haven had cried, but perhaps they simply could not have heard her.

The Queen of Hell sat up, groaning, the swell of her stomach enough to prevent her from standing. She listened to their words and sneered. She ground her teeth together and slapped her tight with the palm of her hand.

“Is THAT what she said? Demanding her way into my domain after everything… After EVERYTHING she has done!”

“Indeed your most holiness. She comes in full regalia and stands and your gate, shrieking for entrance! She is as tall as the sky and might well make good on her promise!” Mostly, as the guardians of the gates into hell, they were worried about their professions. Without the gates, what would they guard?

The Queen of Hell sneered, then turned back to her side on the uncomfortable stone. “So be it. I care not. Let her come. But bar all the gates to her at first. Allow her through each one only after you have taken from her the Regalia she bares. Arrogant. Prideful. Uh. I am in too much pain for this.” The Queen of Hell waved the guards away.

And how they were gleeful in their rewards. The Queen of Heaven would be humiliated before them! Their ashen hands would touch the great Regalia of heaven! They would see to it that the Queen suffered on her journey into Hell. What pleasure!

So the secured the gates along the way, coming to the first of them to jeer at the Queen of Heaven. “Your sister will allow you entrance. On the condition that you respect the ways of Hell are not the ways of Heaven, and you will obey the ways of Hell in all ways.”

Her thunderous crying had ended, and the Queen of Heaven was contemplative for many hours. Finally, she said, “I agree.”

And a god’s promise is powerful. At least as powerful as the god, and the Queen of Heaven was very terribly powerful.

The first gate opened and the guardian stood there, his boney hands out. “Give me your crown of the steppes. Bow your head and you enter into death.”

The Queen of Heaven was flustered. “Why do you take my crown?”

“It is the way of death, and you will not question it.”

Her crown was a gift, and it allowed her dominion over the steppe and granted her free and safe passage. But. This was the way of Hell, and so, she took off her crown and her hair fell over her shoulders. She bowed her head and walked through the first gate.

The second gate opened ahead of her, and a guardian waited there. “Give me the lapis beads from around your neck. You have no need for displays of wealth within.”

The Queen of Heaven did not balk this time, and loosed the beads from her neck. Lapis was beautiful, precious, and reflected the trade between lands that make civilization what it is. Civilization is, after all, for the living so far as she knew, and this was Hell.

At the third gate, the guardian demanded to wipe away the kohl from her eyes. “Your lovely ointment is called, sometimes, “Let Him Come.” You have no need of that here.”

Kohl was important. It blocked out the sun and soothed the eyes. It made the face lovely and drew attention. Men and women and those in between, such as the Queen herself, wore it. She’d heard among the mortals of huge social upheaval over lack of access to it. But there was no sun in the underworld, and no man would come. There was nothing to do but wipe away her face.

As the fourth gate opened, the guardian there looked smug, arms folded at the humbled goddess. “Take the breast pins from your gown and give them over. You do not need them now.”

The Queen of Heaven trembled at the though. For a mortal woman, pins were a potent gift to a wife, showing to the world the wealth of her husband and family. They held her gown closed and granted her modesty when she sought it. Among the mortals, some times a divorce lead to a man taking his wife’s pins, disconnecting her from his wealth. A humiliation.

The Queen’s pins were her own, reflected her own wealth and her own power. She could not divorce herself from a husband in that way, but in a way, she gave away her pins and with it, the right to the husband she left behind. Her gown fell open, but for her belt of birthstones.

The guardian at the fifth gate watched as the Queen of Heaven approached, a wizen vision of what she once was, how slow she shuffled, and how her arms hung at her side. The guardian sighed, pushing open the gate. “Queen of Heaven, you are tired, but this suffering is nearly over. Give to me the heavy gold bands at your wrists and ankles. They do nothing but drag you down.”

Once, the Queen of Heaven thought, the shining bangles had a meaning, a purpose. They were one of her Regalia. Her holy gifts. The symbols of civilization as she was the seat of that power.

But now the meaning was lost, and all they were to her were burdens. She let them slip from her hands, stepped out of them at her feet and walked on.

The fifth gate stood open, unguarded as the Queen approached. “Hello?” She wheezed. Her lungs had begun to fail her as her vitality drained away in this place of death. “Come and tell me what you’ll take from me. I haven’t the strength to wait!”

A guardian, hesitant, crept into the Queen’s sight. Skittishly, it approached. “Queen of Heaven I.” It looked away. “Hell demands that you give up your belt of gemstones.”

Among mortals, a belt like her’s was a gift men expected to show respect to them. As the Queen could take on the beard, a phallic, and be as a man, she wore that belt proudly. To give it away was to give away one of her most sacred gifts. Her deepest liberation.

She hadn’t the strength to undo it. “I cannot. Come and take it. I give it willingly.” The guardian hesitated, afraid to approach the goddess, then finally shuffled that way and helped her remove it.

Her gown hung open, the last of her Regalia. What marked her as Queen even more than her crown. She did not care. The sound of her sister’s moaning, her own sin, pulled her further into Hell even as her body withered away.

At the last gate, another guardian waited, smiling liciviously at the Queen. Even her atrophy did not prevent the guardian from enjoying her humiliation. As it is with some in Hell and on Earth. “Give up your gown, Queen. Enter the chambers of Hell bowed and naked. You are now no better than any dead being.”

She barely regarded the noxious being, shrugging her robe off with little thought to it. The guardian had been right, as the Queen passed through the last gate, she was bent, nearly crawling, her healthy shape, her flesh turned to ash and leather. It was in that state, naked and dead, all but crawling, that she, the Queen of Heaven came to the chambers of her sister.

image: to be continued written on an arrow in the style of JoJo’s bizarre adventure.

I’m not a subject expert, anthropologist, historian or really anything. This is just my take as an artist and storyteller, okay? For the love of the gods, don’t use anything you read here for like, a school paper or anything.

I told you a story. Or at least my version of the story. I’m not from the cradle of civilization, any more than most earthlings are. You may have heard other versions of this story. Some of them paint the characters within as Just Awful People.

Meh.

Here’s what I know, right. Myths and religion are made by people to teach lessons, explain concepts, and maybe MAYBE document something cool that happened with a little bit of flair added to make the story sizzle. Then another group of people take those stories and add a layer. Change a term. Add a meaning. Reflect on a character train, or, let’s be honest, use some part of the story to support that propaganda. You can see this whole cycle happen live, everyday, on social media, right? How much do we love to see powerful women taken down a peg or two. And how often do we not see the work someone might go through to seek forgiveness in favor of quick cancelations before business-as-usual.

So here’s my interpretation. From my readings. And my understanding of the parable, the symbolism, and my understanding of how people kinda are sometimes. Sometimes you have to destroy to start over. Sometimes you have to destroy the self, metaphorically, obviously.

One of the places I read up on this stuff when forming my version of the poem. If you wanna.

Belts and Pins as Gendered Elements of Clothing in Third and Second  millennia Mesopotamia

Some examples of ‘chest pins’ used to hold a gown closed. From the article above.

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