Nature mourned the loss of Tammuz; trees shed tears of golden sap, and plants wilted in sorrow. There was, however, no grief greater than that experienced by Ishtar. The mourning goddess cried for months on end, her tears falling to the earth in a deluge of rain. Ishtar knew what fate had befallen her love, and where his essence now dwelt. She was confident that her dominion over love was greater than that over death, great enough to bring Tammuz back up to earth to rule at her side. She began to formulate a plan to go and bring him back to the heavens at her side.
Ishtar gathered her seven talismans of power. On her head, she wore her golden crown, proclaiming her as the Queen of Heaven and Earth. The pendants hanging from her ears allowed her hear the whispered prayers of her worshippers in the dark of night. A jewelled necklace hung around her tender throat, enamouring any being in the universe that set eyes on her. The jewels hanging at her breasts kept the power of love close to her heart, and thus, close to the hearts of all of the people living on earth. The bracelets on her slender arms and ankles made her the most agile and adept warrior among the gods. Her girdle embroidered with the birthstones of the Universe, kept all that existed from falling into chaos. Lastly, her vestments, which added to her allure and beauty, were wrapped discreetly around her lithe form. With her power gathered around her, she descended to earth, where the entrance into the land of the dead waited for her.
The gods begged Ishtar not to go to the Underworld, for they new how terrible Ereshkigal's power really was. The loss of one god was enough, the world couldn't suffer the loss of two. Still they all agreed that Tammuz must be returned to earth, for without him, nature could not thrive. Already, crops had stopped growing and people across the land were starving, crying out to the gods for deliverance. Ishtar was determined to bring Tammuz back to the world herself, with or without help from the elder gods. Ea, the creator, gave his blessings and bade her to return safely. Ishtar descended to earth and found the entrance to the Underworld. She slowly entered the gates as darkness swallowed her up, plunging her an endless sea of blackness.
She stood at the entrance of the great cavern, straining to see through the impenetrable darkness. The air there clung to her skin like wet blankets, sending tendrils of ice snaking through her body, but still she proceeded further into the cave. She could feel hard gravel crunching under feet, sharp rocks digging into the soles of her feet. Suddenly, the ground beneath her gave way, and bars of the blackest iron sprang up all around her, preventing her from going any further. A hollow, rasping voice drifted through the gloom like a strand of silk on a gentle breeze, "Goddess of Love. Queen of the Earth, Heavens and Battles. To pass my barrier, you must relinquish one of your glamours to me. The power you hold now will be of no use to you where you are going." A thin, pallid hand materialised in the air before her, opened as if expecting something. Ishtar's thoughts were racing, trying to decide which power she could do without for the remainder of her journey. In the end, she decided to give up her crown; in the land of death this title meant nothing. Upon placing her crown in the ghostly hand, it and the iron bars crumbled to dust, opening the way once more.
She proceeded further into the gloom, the darkness still lingering as curtains of the blackest velvet. Ishtar heard a faint sound, and stopped to hear it better. The sound came closer to her. It was the sound of thousands of voices crying out in pain and terror, all of them calling out Ishtar's name. Soon she could see the source of the voices, a throng of people rushing towards her, some on their knees praying for forgiveness, others with offerings. She recognised them as her faithful. They were begging their goddess to hear their pleas; crying in fear that their goddess had forsaken them. The swarm of people continued coming towards her like a seething mass of insects, tumbling over each other and tripping over their own feet to get closer. Their cries were crashing through Ishtar's thoughts like frothing waves on a rocky shore; she had to stop their suffering, but how? She was helpless before them, their terror and fear immobilised her, making her powerless to even separate one voice from another in her thoughts. For once, in the millennia of her existence, she was powerless to help her people. She clutched her head in pain and sank to her knees, sobbing from the fear she felt from the people around her, knowing that she was beyond being able to help them. She clasped her hands to her ears, screaming out in pain as she tore her magical earrings from her ears and flung them down to the ground. Immediately the voices and the people disappeared, and she watched in horror as her pendants melted into the ground; she had lost another of her powers, making her more vulnerable when she would finally face her sister.
She pressed on into the impending darkness. The surroundings began to change, the darkness seemed soft somehow, as if she could take it into her mouth and send it out through her teeth. The black changed to a dull grey, then, eventually, to a dull thrumming white. She entered a small, lit antechamber; rocks jutted out from the walls and floor like daggers reaching for her heart. She came around a corner that led to a bigger chamber and gasped at what she saw. Small demons danced and howled with glee around an inert form lying on the ground. In between two of the monsters, she recognised the body as Tammuz. Without thinking, she let out her ferocious battle cry and dashed towards the demons. Her small brass axe materialised in one hand, and her bronze war shield appeared in the other. She danced through the monsters, her brass axe flashing crimson in the dying light of the chamber. Soon, they all lay dead at her feet, their throats all neatly slit into macabre grins across their necks. She knelt down beside Tammuz, his eyes fluttered open and looked into hers,
"My love…you.have…come for me?"
Tears of joy welled up in Ishtar's eyes, "Yes beloved, I have come to take you home."
Tammuz tried to sit up, but his shattered body would not yield, "Heal me with your love, that I may make the journey at your side."
Ishtar lay him down gently and took the necklace from her throat, chanting the words of power that would heal Tammuz while laying it on his chest. The instant that her jewels touched his torn skin, they burst into a blue fire and white-hot pain erupted through Tammuz's body. His back arched off of the ground as he howled in agony, trying to pluck the jewels from his chest, but they had already burned into his skin.
"Why are you doing this to me?" he cried. "What of our love?"
Ishtar watched in horror as Tammuz's entire body turned a deep crimson, then crumbled into black ashes.
"Fool!" a harsh voice hissed out of the oblivion ahead, "Give up your quest now, and I may allow you to escape alive!"
Ishtar recognised this voice as Ereshkigal. She stood, "Show yourself witch! Why must you fight your battles vicariously? SHOW YOURSELF!"
Ereshkigal chuckled…a low guttural sound, terrible to hear, "Soon, my foolish sister. Soon…" And all went silent.
Ishtar picked herself up off of the ground, casting one final look back at the ashen remains of Ereshkigal's ruse. Gathering her skirts about her, she walked further into the darkness. The air began to take on a different smell, the smell of fresh, open air. The harsh darkness around Ishtar melted away into a different one, more soft and serene. She found herself out in an open field, filled with lush green grass and fragrant flowers. It was night-time; the full moon hung in the air spilling liquid light down onto the earth, bathing everything in its silver luminosity. The stars twinkled in the sky above, like a handful of diamonds cast across a sheet of the softest black velvet. Ishtar cautiously walked across the field, the grass bending slightly under her feet. Looking up to the sky again, Ishtar stepped to one side just as a star came crashing down to the ground where she had been previously standing. Another fell, leaving a flaming trail in the sky as it plummeted down to the earth. Ishtar peered up into the sky and saw a cloaked black figure dancing across the heavens, plucking the stars from their places and hurtling them down at her. The figure cackled with glee as it tore a handful of stars from the heavens and hurled them down to the ground in fiery lines. Sparks flew from the stars, setting the nearby grass on fire. Soon the fire spread to the trees and Ishtar was surrounded by flames.
"Ereshkigal!" Ishtar screamed, "What are you doing? You will destroy the world!"
Ereshkigal ran over to the moon and shrieked with savage glee as she ripped it from its place and threw it down to Ishtar. Ishtar dodged to one side as the moon hit the ground. Tremors tore through the earth from the moon's impact, and great fissures opened. Molten rock began to ooze from the fissures like blood from an open wound, spreading across the world and destroying everything in its path. Clouds of steaming gas belched forth from the chasms, making the air completely unbreathable. Ishtar could feel the world dying, crying out to her in anguish. She unbuckled her girdle from around her waist and began to hastily unfasten the stones. First she took a large sunstone and held it up towards the sky, pointing it at Ereshkigal while muttering words of power. A searing line of white fire erupted from her hand and struck Ereshkigal in the chest, blasting her into the void of the night sky. Next she took a moonstone and fixed it in the sky where the moon had once been. Slowly it began to glow; the light intensified and soon a new moon was born. Ishtar drew out a handful of diamonds and scattered them across the heavens to replace the stars that were missing. She took the remaining stones from her belt and breathed on them with her divine breath, then lay them on the dying earth. Her power flooded through the scorched earth in a soothing wave of relief. From the blackened remains, shoots of green grass began to appear, and the trees began to sprout new leaves. Eventually, the world returned to its former glory. However the magic of Ishtar's girdle was spent, never to return.
"Well done, my sister. You are more powerful than I remember" cooed Ereshkigal from some unseen place. "I look forward to greeting you in my domain".
Ishtar leaped to her feet and frantically looked around for the source of the voice, but couldn't see anything.
"You know why I have come!" she screamed, "I've come for Tammuz, he is not meant to be here. Release his essence to me, or I will destroy you in retrieving it myself".
Again came the horrible, raucous laughter from Ereshkigal, "You are in my realm now, my sister. My power here is supreme. Already you have lost four of your glamours, making you weak…what makes you think that you can defeat me?"
Ishtar ran across the clearing and plunged back into the darkness of the cavern that had led her to the clearing. A new path was open now, leading her deeper into the heart of the earth.
Ereshkigal's words crawled over Ishtar like a venomous spider. "Welcome to my realm, Ishtar. In order to reach me, you must face my champion".
A beam of light shone down from the ceiling of the chamber Ishtar now stood in, focusing on a figure standing in the centre, which resembled a huge cadaver. It stood much taller than Ishtar, but any semblance of what this person had been before death was now gone. What once may have been supple, rippling muscles were now tattered pieces of rotting flesh hanging off the bone. Maggots writhed over the entire surface of its body, seemingly consuming its flesh where it stood. The face of the warrior was devoid of any expression; its eyes were milky white and not focussing on anything before it. Ishtar prepared for an attack; she held out both her hands, while her small brass axe and bronze war shield materialised out of thin air. The undead warrior lumbered towards her with terrifying speed, catching her completely off-guard. She managed to dodge the first swing of its huge fist, but the second blow caught her directly in the face, sending her smashing back into the stone walls of the chamber. Sharp rocks were protruding from the walls of the chamber, and Ishtar's impact caused them to stab into her body in several places at once. Waves of numbing cold washed through her body, immobilising her; she could only watch as Ereshkigal's warrior approached her for another attack. It raised its fist and smashed it, again, into her face, making her reel still further. It then reached down and plucked the bracers from her wrists and ankles, tore the jewels off her breasts and reduced her vestments to shredded tatters.
"Well done!" shrieked Ereshkigal, "Bring her to me at once, but harm her no more!"
The undead giant reached down and picked Ishtar up off the floor, slinging her over its shoulder, and began to walk into the darkness ahead. The smell of the rotting flesh made it difficult for Ishtar to breathe…soon she was unconscious.
When Ishtar opened her eyes she found herself in a dimly-lit chamber. She was lashed to a post protruding from the ground in the centre of the room, the bindings were biting into her flesh causing excruciating pain. She willed herself to open her eyes, and look up. Ereshkigal sat before her on her throne made of human bones. Ereshkigal was an old crone, her body completely covered in wrinkles. She was dressed in a cloak of pure darkness, making her diminutive form seem ever more intimidating.
"So, you finally wake," cooed Ereshkigal, "I hope my warrior did not damage you too badly. You have lost all of your glamours and now you are powerless. In your foolish quest you have not only risked the life of Tammuz, but your own as well".
Ishtar found the strength to speak, though her voice was barely above a whisper: "You cannot keep me here, the world cannot suffer the loss of two gods. Mankind will be destroyed".
Ereshkigal howled with laughter, "What do I care if mankind perishes! Suffering the loss of two gods is indeed dangerous for them, but their deaths will only make me stronger! Soon I will hold more power than Ea himself, and all of the other gods will kneel before me".
Ereshkigal cast a glance over her shoulder, and a dark mist began to form behind her.
"I am releasing the 60 plagues of darkness against you. You will remain in my realm with me for the rest of eternity in constant pain and torment. I will inform the gods of your fate, advising them against mounting another foolish rescue. Their beloved Ishtar is lost to them and the world forever!" Ereshkigal's cruel, mocking laughter reverberated throughout the Underworld and up to the earth above, eventually being heard above the clouds in the kingdom of the gods.
The first god to hear this laughter was Sin, the god of the moon. He looked down upon the earth, and what he saw shocked him. People all over the world were at war. Husbands and wives were killing each other; the love that they had once shared no longer existed. Through his immortal eyes, Sin could see millions of souls flocking down to Ereshkigal's realm, and he could feel her power growing. With things as they were on earth, Sin knew that something terrible had happened to Ishtar. He went to Shammash, the god of fire, and together, the two gods went to Ea.
"Yes" sighed Ea, "Ishtar has been defeated. Already I can feel Ereshkigal's power spreading over the land like a dark stain. Ishtar knew of the risk she was taking when she went down to Ereshkigal's realm, but I cannot allow this to continue. Without Ishtar, the fate of mankind is grim indeed. Without the worship of mankind, the gods will perish and all of creation will be in jeopardy".
Ea rose from his throne of light and began to recite words of magic. The two gods could feel the power behind the chant cleave the very air around, the words forming themselves into a being of immense power. As Ea's chanting reached a crescendo, a shape began to materialise before Sin and Shammash. It pulsated with a holy light; Sin and Shammash could feel Ea's power flowing from the new being, instilling them with awe.
"I have created Asushu-Namir" proclaimed Ea, "To him, I have given the power necessary to placate Ereshkigal and restore Ishtar and Tammuz to the world. Guide him to the entrance of Ereshkigal's realm, and wait at the entrance for him to return".
Bowing before Ea, Sin, Shammash and Asushu-Namir vanished and reappeared at the entrance of the Underworld.
Ishtar sobbed in pain as the plagues ravaged her body. She was no longer the radiant goddess that entered the Underworld, but now only a mere shadow of her former glory. Her alabaster skin was now ashen grey, and bleeding from a myriad wounds. Her full, voluptuous figure was withered, leaving her skin stretched taut over her bones. Ereshkigal beamed with delight as she watched her sister waste away before her, clapping her bony hands with joy each time Ishtar cried out in pain, begging Ereshkigal to call the plagues off.
Out of nowhere a brilliant light exploded in Ereshkigal's throne room, causing both goddesses to shield their eyes. In the centre of the room stood Asushu-Namir. The light from his body brushed over Ishtar, destroying the sixty plagues and ending her suffering. Ereshkigal screamed in rage and leaped to her feet, hurling bolts of black energy at the being that had suddenly appeared before her. Her magic glanced off of Asushu-Namir without harm, ricocheting off his body around the walls of the chamber. Asushu-Namir turned to face Ereshkigal, extending his hand towards her while whispering words of magic. His aura of light extended out into the room, encompassing both Ishtar and Ereshkigal. Ishtar sighed in ecstasy as Asushu-Namir's spell washed over her body, instantly healing all her wounds and returning her to her former glory. The spell, however, didn't have the same effect on Ereshkigal. She fell to her knees, shrieking in agony as the power of goodness tore through her body like thousands of daggers. The words of her next spell fell from her lips as she began to lose control of her realm. The bonds that held Ishtar fell away, releasing her. Hordes of souls rushed out into the throne room, freed from their prisons. They saw the goddess of death weak and helpless before them, and began to attack her with any weapons available. Some used rocks, others sticks or even their own fists. Ereshkigal was powerless to defend herself and soon she lay still; the souls slowly backed away, parting to clear a path. A translucent mist began to flood out of Ereshkigal's open mouth and nose, gathering over her body in a shimmering cloud. Ishtar watched as the mist took the shape of a man, the one that she had come for. Tammuz stepped down from the dais of Ereshkigal's throne and approached Ishtar, extending his arms out to her. She rushed forward and caught him in her arms, sobbing with joy as she felt his form grow stronger in her arms. He was as she remembered him, the radiant god of the harvest. He looked deep into her eyes and she into his; they then made a pact that they would spend the rest of eternity together, nurturing the earth and all life on it. Asushu-Namir guided Ishtar and Tammuz back to the surface, gathering Ishtar's lost glamours along the way, imbuing them with the power that they had lost on her journey down. Upon reaching the surface, Tammuz cast his blessings over the earth and the world began to bloom. The power of the reunited gods flooded through the land, bringing back to life everything that had died in the wars that had followed Ishtar's defeat. The people woke up as if from a deep, troubled sleep. Man turned to wife, children to parents, and once again the power of love existed between the people on earth.
Shammash and Sin rushed forward to greet Ishtar and Tammuz, shedding tears at the return of their brethren. Shammash, Sin, Ishtar, Tammuz and Asushu-Namir all returned to heaven and stood before Ea.
"My children, you have returned!" cried Ea, "Ereshkigal has been defeated, but not destroyed. Already she is regaining control of her domain, and will soon be seeking revenge for her defeat. Ishtar has proven that the power of love can overcome that of death, so Ereshkigal's power is not to be feared on earth or the heavens again so long as love exists in the hearts of people and gods alike. Rest now with the knowledge of what you have accomplished; Ereshkigal is no longer a threat to any of the gods, such is my decree".
Thus from that moment on, the gods were untouched by death. Ishtar and Tammuz lived together in perfect bliss for the rest of eternity, showering the earth with their blessings. Meanwhile Ereshkigal still waits for the opportunity when she may have her revenge on the divine lovers, but just as Ea had decreed, this time will never come so long as the divine power of love exists between people and the gods alike.
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