THE SAPPHIRE TABLET
Thoughts on our ancient faith and our modern world
The cuneiform writing for Inana's name is 𒀭𒈹 d.MUŠ3, and unlike the names of many deities, this is not a phonetic spelling of her name. Enlil, for example, is written 𒀭𒂗𒆤 d.EN.LIL2, where en means "lord" and lil "wind, spirit, breath of life", so where did Inana's sign come from and how does it help explain her character?
To explain, we must look to where Inana was first worshipped, the city of Uruk, a city ancient even by Sumerian standards. Records grow incredibly sparse the further back in written history we go, and it's in 4th millennium BCE Uruk, near the dawn of writing, that the worship of Inana is first attested in the historical record.
We know from textual and religious evidence that the Lady of Myriad Domains grew and acquired her powers over time, and the text of Inana and Uruk tells of her first triumphant entry into that city, when she chose it as her own and took the divine powers of heaven into it in a grand procession.
We also know that in the earliest days of her worship in Uruk, she fulfilled two vital functions, one spiritual as the Queen of Heaven, and one temporal as the Lady of the Storehouse. The earliest evidence we have for such a function being attributed to Inana is a beautiful 4th millennium BCE vase called the Warka Vase, which depicts Inana standing in front of a storehouse gate, flanked by the ceremonial doorposts composed of tied bundles of reeds.
The storehouse was a focal point of Sumerian economic activity at the time. It was a room or building in a temple complex where surplus food would be stored, so that it might be distributed in times of need. To the early Sumerian, this was an incredible development. The presence of the storehouse guarded against famine and starvation. Permanent settlements were a relatively recent innovation - before this, humans had spent a hundred thousand years as nomadic hunter-gatherers, never sure where our next meal would come from. The early Sumerian would have been truly thankful for the bounties of civilization, promising food and shelter for all, allowing for the pursuit of knowledge and human advancement like never before, and would have thought it right to worship the deities who lifted them so rapidly from that pre-civilized state.
It is these storehouse gateposts that became forever associated with Inana through the symbol 𒈹. Early cuneiform was written vertically, so when turning the symbol 90 degrees clockwise, the symbolism of a bundle of reeds erected in the ground and tied together starts to reveal itself. This is made clearer still when looking at how the symbol developed from a drawing of the gatepost through the proto-literate period.
The significance of the sacred union of Inana and her consort Dumuzi to the maintenance of human life and civilization is also revealed upon closer examination of the early form of worship at Uruk. As depicted on the Warka vase, Dumuzi appears in his aspect called Ama-ušum-gal-ana, his symbol the date palm cluster, while offerings of fruits and grains are carried to Inana in her role as Lady of the Storehouse. The joining together of Dumuzi's life- and fertility-giving gifts and Inana's power of the storehouse, allowing for the sustenance of the community, are also a metaphor for the fertility of the Land, which it is hoped will be ensured by their union.
The storehouse also stands for a key moment in human history, because it represents the first step by which scarcity can be defeated. Scarcity is a great quickener of human ills, for a casual glance through history reveals a nigh endless list of wars and calamities that have been instigated for want of resources. A world where every person has enough to survive and thrive is a world that is free to prosper. Furthermore, it is the intention of the gods that humanity provides for ourselves such that the whole world can constantly celebrate and enjoy the blessings and riches of the Land. This is the reason why one of the many epithets of Babylon was Uru-uĝbi-ezen-zalzal, where the people continually rejoice.
We have a power in our hands, in our modern world, that was unthinkable to the Sumerians. We have reached a level of technological advancement that, through automation, it would be possible to solve the problem of scarcity forever and permit billions of human beings to rest from their labours, and yet, wealth is permitted to settle in the hands of a tiny minority who fill their own private storehouses with hoarded riches. A proverb from Ur shows this greed for what it is:
𒃻𒌇 𒃻 𒀠 𒁲 𒃻𒈪𒉭 𒀭𒊏𒄰
To be wealthy and demand more is to speak abominations unto one's god!
The ancient world faced the constant specter of famine, disease, raids and invasions. The ancients knew, on a primal level that we can scarcely comprehend today, the truth of the adage that every civilization is three missed meals away from chaos. One of the reasons why Sumerian society was able to flourish was the commitment to ensuring the welfare of the collective. This is even more remarkable when considering that even despite the Sumerian commitment to communal welfare, theirs was never a society truly free of worry for the future. A mere six thousand years hence, our advancements in technology, medicine, and building global peace - while far from perfect - give us the power to harness the fruits of the Earth sustainably, responsibly, and for the wellbeing of every human. That we do not do so is, in the eyes of the Sumerian, an unforgivable shame.
To follow a Mesopotamian path in the modern day brings with it the inevitability and the responsibility of being aware of human history on a far greater scale than is generally taught in our schools. We observe that the decline of a civilization is not a one-off, violent event; Rome didn't fall in a day, and nor did Babylon, and while these cities were sacked by invaders, this was after a centuries-long period of decline and instability, division and infighting, often accompanied by external factors such as climate events and plagues. While we should be careful to avoid hyperbole, the parallels to our modern age are difficult to miss.
We should therefore pray for the guidance and wisdom of our gods so that their blueprint for a good society may one day be realised on Earth, and be alert to historical trends so that we may be well informed in what the tablet of history tells us of an increasingly uncertain future. We find hope and aspiration towards a better future in the sacred marriage of Inana and Dumuzi, and the vast untapped potential that the Earth holds for the betterment of humanity.
Holy Inana, lady of the myriad domains,
Lady who fills the good storehouses of the Land,
Lady who provides for the abundance of the people,
May your storehouses be piled high with fruits and grains,
May your holy union with Dumuzi forever bless the Land,
May the Land ever bring forth good grain to sustain humanity.
Queen of Heaven, you brought forth the divine powers to your people in Uruk,
May their splendour never fade, may your hymns and blessings never cease.
May your storehouses be piled high with gold and lapis lazuli,
May the prosperity of the Land ever be ensured by your hand,
May your festivals and celebrations carry on without end.
In this age of civilization, with your name restored to glory,
May we yet see an end to hunger and strife,
An end to bitterness and quarrel,
And the unity of the human race,
In pursuit of a future of abundance,
A future that sings your praises,
Lady most honoured among the Anuna gods,
Holy Inana, your praise is sweet!