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The First Epic Poem: The Descent of Inanna

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle travels back over four millennia to find the oldest surviving epic poem

What’s the oldest epic poem in the world? Did it all begin with Homer’s Iliad? In one sense, we can grant this as an acceptable proposition, but if we wish to trace the true origins of ‘the epic’ as a literary form, we need to go back considerably further into the very hazy early years of literary history.

For the epic began in the Middle East with works like The Epic of Gilgamesh, the tale of a Sumerian king who possesses seemingly inhuman strength and who meets his match in the mysterious figure of Enkidu; this poem also, notably, features the Flood motif we also find in the Book of Genesis. But even Gilgamesh wasn’t the first epic. That honour should probably go to The Descent of Inanna.

The Descent of Inanna describes, as the title suggests, the ancient Sumerian goddess Inanna’s descent into the underworld – Inanna being the daughter of Nanna, and the Sumerian goddess of love, beauty, fertility, and wisdom, among other things. Although The Descent of Inanna is a short work (it runs to little over 400 lines, making it a little shorter than a poem like The Waste Land), it contains many of the elements we associate with epic poetry (such as the descent into the underworld), and elements of the story are found in the later myths of the descent of Ishtar and the Greek story of Persephone and Hades. You can read a modern English translation of The Descent of Inanna here.

In The Descent of Inanna, the titular goddess descends into the underworld, in order to observe the funeral rites of Gugalanna, the Bull of Heaven and to visit her sister Ereshkigal, Queen of the Dead. She leaves her minister Nincubura with instructions to guard the mortal world in her absence, and seek help from other priests and priestesses to ensure Inanna comes to no harm in the underworld. (The lacerating of Nincubura’s nose, ears, and buttocks is also requested.) Inanna goes to the underworld ‘armed’ with the seven divine powers, including a turban and wig on her head and beads of lapis lazuli around her neck. (The poem utilises plenty of repetition and commands, giving it the feel of a chant or prayer as much as an epic narrative poem.)

Unfortunately, when Inanna arrives in the underworld, her sister seems reluctantly to see her, and commands the Queen of the Dead to make Inanna divest each of her seven divine powers, one at each of the gates leading into the underworld. Crown, sceptre, and clothes are all removed until Inanna, naked and lacking the talismans she had ‘armed’ herself with, arrives in hell. The two sisters meet, and then Inanna, aided by two demons sent to retrieve her from the underworld (by the faithful Nincubura, of course), returns to the land of the living.

It’s pretty life-affirming that this poem still exists, some 4,000 years after it was first composed. It sets a precedent for many later tales of similar descents into the underworld – Persephone/Proserpine in Greek and Roman mythology is just one example – and however different the local details may be, the poem shows how early on in the history of civilisations (the plural seems necessary) the descent into the underworld became a staple narrative, fusing devotional prayer with storytelling. But The Descent of Inanna is also poignant because it reflects a civilisation in decline. The Akkadian empire would fall not long after this poem was composed. In a curious way, there is a line stretching from The Descent of Inanna to Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene to Eliot’s The Waste Land. Spenser was writing The Faerie Queene towards the end of Queen Elizabeth I’s long reign, when Elizabethans were living in the grip of a succession crisis. Who would succeed Gloriana to the English throne? Eliot’s 1922 poem, similarly, expresses anxiety about the collapse of empires, including the British. Perhaps there never was a Golden Age when epics were written against the backdrop of a strong and durable empire or nation: the epic has always thrived in times of decline, when the paradises we’ve known are about to be lost.

Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.

Image: Inanna via Wikimedia Commons.

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About interestingliterature

A blog dedicated to rooting out the interesting stuff about classic books and authors.

Posted on May 11, 2018, in Literature and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. A dance of the 7 veils! Surprising. I did not know this piece of work.
    I do wonder if these 7 that one must give up are part of a death ritual to guide the dying through death.

  2. The Indian epics of Mahabharata and Ramayana may clearly be older than the Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh, but conventional scholars date the Mahabharata to later than 1500 BC, because it is believed to be a tale of the Indo-Iranian speaking Aryans who supposedly invaded northwest India/Pakistan at that time. This notion is based on the Aryan Invasion Theory (which has been discredited by mtDNA studies). Scholarly puts the period of 5561 BC as the start of the Mahabharata War. This puts the war in the middle period of the Indus Valley Civilization, of which the known earliest sites date from the 8th millenium BC in Haryana, India and Mehrgarh, Pakistan.
    No one really knows when the Epic of Gilgamesh was composed. To say it’s the oldest epic in the world with any certainty is not possible.

  3. Please correct to read as ‘….scholarly opinion puts the period of 5561 BC…..’ Typo error regretted.

  4. A fascinating story, I hope I can read it soon. Yet, I was under the impression that to fall into the epic genre a text should tell of a struggle within a community, like in Beowulf, or aclash between peoples.like in the Iliad or the Eneid.

    • That’s a good point about whether this poem does qualify for the title of ‘epic’. Another factor is that it’s very short, so I think it’s open to debate. But it does present a struggle of sorts (between Inanna and her sister, representing two differing forces for the Sumerian people), and the descent into the underworld mark it out as a strong step towards the full-blown epic, I’d say. But as is so often the case with form and genre, these things cannot be firmly and objectively categorised in many respects.

  5. tHE OTHER DAY i WAS DISCUSSING tHE STRANGE CASE OF dR jEKYLL AND mR hYDE AND i ASKED MY STUDENT: WHAT (ops) narrative genre is it? Open questions are probably the most interesting

  6. Fascinating stuff as always Oliver! You certainly know how to make us interested in such pieces.

    I’m intrigued by the word ‘epic’ especially after your discussion of it in the comments here. I went googling and see that what I had always thought of as the definition doesn’t exist (now in a sort of existentialist angst as a result!). Nevertheless, I’m sticking with my working definition. An epic normally involves significant travelling which is integral to the plot. Here, the journey to the underworld and adventures along the way clearly fits. Usually one will commit heroic deeds along the way (otherwise, where’s the story?) and the story may often be long – hence these seem to be more common definitions. I would be interested to read your thoughts on this. Are there any well-accepted epics which don’t involve some kind of significant travel (perhaps metaphorical in some way?)?

    I look forward to your response!

    • Thanks, Ken! I love doing these Friday posts. Lots more in the offing!

      That’s a very good question about the travel aspect. The Odyssey and the Aeneid, those two great post-war epic poems about the end of the Trojan War, certainly contain a heroic voyage around the Mediterranean. The same goes for Apollonius of Rhodes’ (lesser-known) epic about Jason and the Golden Fleece, The Argonautica. The quest motif looms large in Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, and that’s a version of the same thing, I think.

      Thinking about it, there isn’t a great deal of travelling in arguably the first ever Western epic, the Iliad, and much of the action takes place in a very limited geographical space and over a tight period of time (as little as a few weeks, I think?). And Paradise Lost is largely based around Satan’s journey from Heaven down to Hell, so, like the story of The Descent of Inanna, the episode of the descent into the underworld *is* the epic journey, complete with heroics of a sort (in Inanna’s case anyway!).

      If we grant that, then that still leaves the question of length, which is a sticking-point. But then the epic grew into its vast proportions with Homer, I’d say – the Epic of Gilgamesh is relatively short in comparison with the Iliad, though longer than the Inanna poem. It’s all up for discussion, I suppose: does an epic have to contain certain ingredients in a substantial form to attain the title? Good question – not sure I can answer it satisfactorily though!

      • I suspect, like most definitions, when you try to grasp the kernel you find it is more slippery than expected and you can never quite retain it firmly!

        The Iliad is a good point for which I will stretch for a lifeline and suggest that it deals with the end of a journey to get to Troy and lay waste to it and that the longing for home or homecoming is a significant theme. Pushing it, I know, but still…

        My daughter, currently studying Greek, Latin and English language A levels tells me ‘beyond doubt’ that a true epic MUST contain the element of battle (of taking arms in some way) and be over a protracted length of time regardless of how long the text actually is.

        As you will be well aware in our line of work, newly inspired students are always right and to argue against them perhaps takes an epic venture of its own!

        • You’re right – very dangerous to argue with a newly inspired student! As Oscar Wilde said, ‘The old believe everything; the middle-aged suspect everything; the young know everything.’

          The battle element is a strong case against the Descent of Inanna being an epic – we get battles in Homer, Virgil, Milton, etc. after all. So I think that’s a stronger argument against the Descent being full-on epic per se – rather a poem that gestures in that direction, showing the epic coming into being (with other elements, including a journey, a conflict of some sort, the gods, and a descent into the Underworld all present and correct).

          Interestingly, I’m just revisiting Ovid’s Metamorphoses and rereading it 16 years on from when I first studied it as an undergraduate, and will be blogging about that in due course. That’s often called an epic but it’s more a collection of tales than an ‘epic’ in the sense we’ve been discussing. If that can be called an epic, as it repeatedly has been, our definition of the form is once again thrown into confusion!

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