Time of Departure, excerpt two from the new historical novel The Defeat of Gilgamesh
by Dr Greta Sykes, a reinterpretation of the famous legend/myth from a woman’s point of view.
Excerpt one, The Fight With The Lion, can be found HERE
Poet, writer and artist Greta Sykes has published her work in many anthologies. She is a member of London Voices Poetry Group and also produces art work for them. Her new volume of poetry called ‘The Shipping News and Other Poems’ came out in August 2016. The German translation of her book ‘Under charred skies’ has now been published in Germany under the title ‘Unter verbranntem Himmel’ by Eulenspiegel Verlag. She is the chair of the Socialist History Society and has organised joint poetry events for them at the Poetry Café. She is a trained child psychologist and has taught at the Institute of Education, London University, where she is now an associate researcher. Her Particular focus is now on women’s emancipation and antiquity. Twitter: @g4gaia. Facebook.com/greta.sykes. German Wikipedia: Greta Sykes.
The early morning sun threw sharp rays into the narrow paths between the houses, when they bid everyone fair well. A huge hug from Nin and well wishes from many of the local crafts people set them on their path. Misha, Inanna’s faithful cat, took one look at the group and vanished back into the hut. She never left when they did, but chose her own timing. Come on, Misha, stay with us, Inanna called, but to no avail. She had her own mind. Inanna knew that at some point of the journey she would be back. The landscape was dry and yellow with the heat of it. Sandstorms and floods had long gone and everywhere was parched. It was good for the path because it was well trodden and hard as rock. The juniper bushes and acacia shrubs left and right had few leaves left. Goats and sheep would have eaten anything that looked at all green.
Days went by pleasantly and in good company. As they walked they found that more and more of the landscape was taken up by orchards and plantations. They sensed approaching the big town of the Sumer, Uruk. It had made history for hundreds of years and had not lost its visionary inspiration for men and women. Uruk with its stories. Uruk with its large irrigated fields, its orchards and vast grazing areas for the animals. The walls were built well before Inanna’s travels. It was found to help deter nomads just wandering in and pleasing themselves with stolen goods from unaware citizens. They were built good and strong with city gates which started to show the ziggurat shape of future decades. Was it not Agga who should have been the hero of the city after his father, Mebaragesi, had died, but, unaware how history tells the story of the victors, he handed the privilege to Gilgamesh who was but a pompous youth, pushed into a celebrity role by his ambitious mother? How did the women of Uruk feel? According to Nin there was much unease, although some women found Gilgamesh irresistible and sided with him. That is women for you. They keep struggling between power in their own right and the defilement of giving in, letting them take over. They need to be more loyal to each other.
The travellers were looking forward to what were called the finest examples of temple architecture in the land of Sumer. The Pillar Temple included a platform and courtyard with thousands of cone mosaics covering the walls, leading to a portico with eight massive columns in two rows and corresponding half-columns on the adjacent walls. These giants, nearly six feet in diameter and constructed of fired segmental bricks encased in cone mosaic. They were looking forward to catching sight of such inspiring architecture. One could only wonder at the expenditure of labour, raw materials, technical and administrative skills and brilliant new inventions. They were excited to see the small busy streets with their artisan houses made of mud brick, the narrow alleyways and crooked thoroughfares through which the shepherds had to bring their herds. Or the farmers who had to bring their wares to the markets. And what markets they were! They had heard the most tantalising stories of goods for sale, silks from China, precious stones from India and Afghanistan, carpets from Persia. The stone and pottery wares ornamented with luxurious paintings, the jewellery fit for a queen or a Goddess. The metal workers who had such mysterious skills of mixing ores and using rare and exotic materials to create their wares from toilet articles, copper vessels to figurines and weapons. The carpenters and basket-makers all had their own quarters in the city so that each craft community had their lanes where you could hear the tap tap of hammers, the dust from masons or the glow of the metal workers furnaces. Traders obviously also had their community life and assisted in the success of the crafts people through their imports of wood, stone, metals and many other goods.
They stayed close to the river which was flowing languidly at this time of the year, its whispering reeds near it and the birds, the warblers, storks, ducks and many more keeping the humans company with their songs. Every night Ninatta and Inanna went swimming and consciously trained their bodies to greater strength. Life was easy with so much help. The cook prepared meals for them and the shepherd and peasant set up the campsite with mats and cloths under the starry sky. Beer was served, and they drank it from straws. By the fireside they spontaneously broke into song and listened to the owls hooting in the vicinity. They could hear and smell wild animals who from time to time dared approach the group but were quickly noticed and shewed away. More stories emerged. Pasag, old and frail, was a fountain of them. Her eagle eyes were deep and soft like a clear night sky and her deep voice so melodious that her story sounded like a song.
‘Once upon a time there was a very beautiful woman called Pandora. She was one of the daughters of Demeter who in turn was the daughter of Gaia, Goddesses of mother earth. She was bequeathed with great gracefulness, joy, passion and the art of song. She could tame wild animals with her singing. When she raised her voice into tunes the birds came from all the four corners of the earth and joined her as if in a concert. She was a creature of the wild earth who slept among tall grasses like the gazelles and roamed along with herds of beasts, being able to speak their languages. When she started singing no one could not fall in love with her. Human men followed her in trance. She seduced them and moved on. Here is a love song to her caressing skills:
She let fall her scarf
And revealed her vulva, so that he could enjoy her.
Boldly she kissed him on the mouth
And threw off her garments.
Then he stretched out on top of her, and she showed him, this savage,
What a woman can do,
While he fondled and petted her.’
The women laughed and cried with pleasure at such beautiful language, and Pasag continued her story.
‘Every morning she washed in a spring and cleansed herself to achieve a virginal state. Each man thought she was only his and his hope rocketed sky high for eternal love, only to become disappointed and mortally wounded in his pride. But she remained carefree and she did not give it up for anything or anyone. When she sang creatures that had fallen ill or had broken limbs would crawl to be near her, as her singing raised their hope for wellbeing and an eternal life. Earth’s creatures, though knew that eternity was their only through the oneness of the universe. They were content. But human men thought to achieve it for each on their own. This vain hope, once nurtured, became a menace to them, leading to wars and destruction. Pandora, though, is still free and out there with the animals, and although we can’t meet her any more in person she is with us, giving us pride and joy in our bodies, our freedom, our strength.’
The small group had inched themselves closer and closer to Pasag not to miss any of her words. They looked deep into her unfathomable eyes to find the wisdom in them that made her speak such wonderful tales. The men were lost in thought, realising how things could go wrong so easily. The fire had turned to a red glow and everyone stole away to lie down and dream of Pasag’s words.
Arrival in Uruk
They beheld the towering temples of Uruk from a long way off. They rose like fantasies into the sky in the blistering sunlight. Inanna felt strong and good. The deep love between her and Ninatta, as well as the true devotion of Pasag, Nafen and Ikisha lined her muscles with solidity and filled her lungs with oxygen and happiness. She felt sure of herself and ready to face the tasks grandmother Ishtar had demanded of her. She had to find the glory and magic of women so that their strength could bring back peacefulness and humbleness in the men. She now knew that defeating Gilgamesh would be an important part in this. She sensed that he was not just a minor episode, a sorting of a local dispute, but little did she know how disaster was to spiral from him. Misha had still not joined them. She pined for her lovely white cat and feared she might fall prey to one of the wild animals. All she could do was be patient. It was usual that she kept out of the way during times of travel. She would surely be back once they entered the city gates.
The Ziggurat shone in bright colours red, black and white. A flight of stone steps led up to the main entrance which was held up by columns. Thousands of tiny mosaic clay pins were covering the surface of the columns in an elaborate decoration. A terrace invited the visitor towards the entrance. It had a pent-house roof whose beams and supporting columns were of wood overlaid with polished copper. Mosaic columns held up the lintel, and above it was set into the wall the copper relief of an eagle and two stags. Two lions were seated at angles flanking the actual doorway, which they guarded. Higher up there were a number of friezes to be seen which they admired. The temple in Borsippa was small and insignificant in comparison, and a tiny flame of envy occurred to Inanna, but was quickly displaced by the pride she felt for such artistic achievements which she had not seen before. It was exactly what they had endured such wearisome travelling for: To witness the glory of Sumer culture which goes back to the Al’Ubaid people of the ancestral mothers.
The weary group of travellers stood and admired the marvellous sights. Priestesses had gathered around them. They were offered refreshments and a fountain where they could wash their dusty feet. They explained the building to them. On the ledge along the top platform can be seen copper statues of cows and bulls and behind them clay flowers were sunk into the wall, so as to give the impression of cattle in a meadow. There followed a relief with reclining cattle and higher up one of a milking scene where the farmer sat behind the cow milking her with her calves tethered to her food bag. Even higher was a bird frieze. All of it shone whitewashed in the sun, apart from the coloured friezes which were variously coloured in red, black and white with its shining metal glistening far into the distance in a proud and gay manner. The high priestess arrived while they were still lost in admiration for such architectural beauty, craftsmanship and skill displayed here. She suddenly appeared amongst them, like an apparition. No one had heard or seen her come. She was dressed in a long slender velvet material that made her look tall, her hair shone brown and golden and was held by copper clasps. She wore strings of beads hanging down long over her breasts. Her eyes were bright and of a green blue hue. She was an awesome sight.
‘Welcome, my glorious friends,’ she began and made an embracing gesture towards the group of tired travellers, ’I am Sen, the High Priestess of Uruk. I can see that you have already been introduced to our temple area by our priestesses. We have more craft work inside the temple. I beg you to enter with me. We can sit in the shade of our courtyard and there get to know each other. Come and follow me.’ She looked at them with beckoning eyes, turned and as if magically drawn by her they followed her through the tall dark entrance gate and a narrow passageway.
There was singing from somewhere, a sweet harmony of voices and instruments accompanying them. They strained to hear and recognise its tune. Where did it come from? Whose voices where they? Then more voices and musical instruments seemed to come from every house, every alleyway, the air was made of music. It was enough to make them feel they had entered heaven itself, so sumptuous was the sound, the light of the late afternoon sun, the scent of perfume from the priestesses and the evocative shape of the architecture suggesting confidence and wisdom. They stood with their mouths agape. Inanna could not move for a sense of being overwhelmed and feeling humbled by the achievements of these cultured people. Yes, they could learn from them. They had moved on from where others were and had perfected their skills. Here were the achievements of the people of this great city visible to all. No wonder people came from far and wide to admire them. Inanna knew then that it was all the design of the supreme Goddess, her knowledge of logic, her ability to envelop the past, the present and the future was unparalleled. She folded her hands and prayed spontaneously.
© Dr Greta Sykes