Inanna and the Huluppu Tree – Preamble to The Epic of Gilgamesh

This story is a preamble or prologue to the great Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the earliest examples of literature ever found: it was written over five thousand years ago. This Epic probably existed in much the same form told orally recorded many centuries earlier, but were written on clay tablets in the first centuries of the second millennium B.C. These stories reflect the period that separated Abraham from Noah.

But before we delve into the Gilgamesh Epic I want to write about the story of the goddess Inanna and the Huluppu Tree, as this story is important and helpful in the understanding of the background history of Gilgamesh, of the beliefs and culture of the peoples in this distant time past.

The story of Inanna and the Huluppa Tree is really a form of creation myth which predates the Epic of Gilgamesh but sets the scene for it.

It is written in symbolic language which needs to be interpreted rather than taken literally. Each word and number have a symbolic meaning, so this is about de-coding the ancient history of human-kind. The story reflects both inner and outer aspects of life and is not linear but rather reflects the cycles of life, nature and history.

The story begins:
‘At the very beginning, in the first days and nights and years, just after everything was created, a Huluppu (willow) tree was planted by the banks of the Euphrates. The whirling South Wind arose, pulling at its roots and ripping its branches until the waters of the Euphrates carried it away’.[1]

The wind represents the spirit or vital breath of the universe and the power of the spirit in sustaining life. As the south wind, it represents the heat and fire of summer. Summer was the season of dry heat and was the most difficult season for the people to survive. A young woman, the goddess Inanna, plucked the tree from the river so as to plant it in her holy garden, in Uruk. This garden can be understood as the ‘garden of Eden’ or the original garden of Inanna, who was the fertility goddess. What she has done is to take a young sapling which had been uprooted in a summer storm and replanted it where she wanted it. It could thus be the earliest record of planting and of agriculture. The tree was useful as we shall see. It provided shade and wood for the people.

‘I shall bring this tree to Uruk.
I shall plant this tree in my holy garden.’

Inanna planted the tree, settling the earth around it with her foot. She tended and cared for this tree. Inanna was the goddess of fertility, so this becomes part of her brief. Her foot can be seen as analogous to the root of the tree itself, but the print of her foot in the soil around the tree symbolises her Divine presence, her form impressed on the universe.

The years passed, five years, and then ten years, and the tree grew thick and strong. Five is the number of ‘man’ forming a pentagon with outstretched arms and legs. The pentagon being endless, shares the symbolism of the perfection and power of a circle. Like the circle, the pentacle symbolises the whole, the number of the centre and the meeting point of heaven and earth, and the four cardinal points plus the centre. In other words, the five years symbolised the evolution of humankind.

Ten is the number of the cosmos, the paradigm of creation. The tenth day of the spring festival was celebrated by a procession comprising of all the gods. ‘The southern part of Mesopotamia was and is, a flat hot land of marsh and plain, very productive when drained, but apart from the date-palm, it was without timber and without metals.’[2] Thus, it is fundamental to this account that Inanna brought the Huluppa (willow) tree to Uruk. The willow would have provided shade in the heat of the sun, and wood for building.

It was the wood from willow trees which was used in the early building of the city of Uruk. The Huluppa tree flourished in Inanna’s sanctuary. Many ancient precincts had sacred groves complete with sacred trees including the Huluppa.

But now Inanna wanted a shining throne to sit on and a shining bed to lie on, made from this tree.

‘How long will it be until I have a shining throne to sit upon?
How long will it be until I have a shining bed to lie upon?’

This tree represents the ‘Tree of Life’ or the ‘World Tree’ which connects heaven, earth and the underworld. The great fertility goddess, Inanna/Ishtar was worshipped in the great temple in Uruk. This was her home and where she resided – where she had her throne and her sacred marriage bed! She was the Queen of Heaven, and the goddess of Love and War. Note that Inanna originally had her great Centre and Temple in the city of Aratta but the King of Uruk pleased her more than the King of Aratta, so she transferred her allegiance to Uruk, as we learn from the story of Lugulbanda in the Mountain Cave, and Lugulbanda and the Anzu-bird. In those times Inanna was loving and helpful to the Kings of Uruk, she managed the agriculture and aquaculture of the city and the trade in grain to the cities in the mountains. She gave good advice and the city prospered.

But in the Epic of Gilgamesh, Inanna / Ishtar is an equivocal character; an awful and lovely goddess, who we see only in the terrible and darker side of her nature. In the Epic, Gilgamesh rejects her advances and accuses her of all the terrible things that she has done to her consorts. He has no wish to become like them. In fact, I believe that this story is a history of those ancient times, which shows the decline of Ishtar and the rise of the patriarchy with the worship of the god Shamash, the Divine Light, being very much like the God of Moses and the Old Testament.

‘Then the serpent who could not be charmed
Made it’s nest in the roots of the Huluppu-tree.’[3]

If we understand the Huluppa tree as being the World Tree, it would be no great surprise to find a serpent in its roots and often a bird in its branches. Snakes had connections with earth and the fecundity goddesses, indeed these beings of earth and underworld often lived under such goddesses’ shrines. There is a vast symbology relating to snakes or serpents. Associated with the Tree of Life, the aspect of the serpent is beneficent however, with the Tree of Knowledge it is seen as the poison of the evil of the world of manifestation. In the Babylonian Talmud, Tiamat, ‘the footless’, the serpent of darkness signifies chaos, the undifferentiated, undivided, guile and wickedness. The telling words are that ‘the serpent who could not be charmed’. The snake is a generative force of nature which cannot be controlled or used.

In the Epic of Gilgamesh, a priestess of Inanna / Ishtar, who was the Temple Harlot or sacred prostitute, sometimes named as Shamhat, which literally means ‘luscious one’, was sent to tame and civilise the wild and natural man Enkidu, using her power of sexuality / sensuality to charm and seduce him. She taught him language, how to eat bread, to drink beer, wear clothes and to live with humankind. This was the role of the Feminine, of the goddess Ishtar. In this case the ‘snake’ was charmed, but Inanna could not allow the chaotic forces of darkness and the underworld to go uncontrolled.  Interestingly Ishtar, the great goddess, is portrayed with a serpent, but I suspect this is a serpent which can be ’charmed’. The serpent amongst the roots of Inanna’s tree was not one who could be charmed.

The snake is also a symbol of death, destruction, and, as it renews its skin periodically, it is life and resurrection. It is indeed an upsurging life-force, uncontrolled and undifferentiated. It lives in an in-between place, an edge place between the depths of the earth and the land. The snake is a boundary creature able to move in the earth and the entrances to the underworld.

The serpent can also be seen as the umbilical cord, the vaginal snake emerging from the dark womb, the dark earth. Serpents live in the ground and shed old skin to grow and renew.

Inanna as goddess of fertility seduces and renews the month and the year. It is because of her and through her that everything is born, comes to life, and eventually dies. She is the Earth itself, which is fertilised by her consort. She is Nature and the seasons. Inanna is called the ‘first snake’ by her high priestess and poet Enheduanna, the daughter of Sargon circa 2300 BC.[4] New life arrives in a gush of sea water held by the vaginal snake. Tree roots also resemble snakes.[5]

Inanna clearly sees the snake in the roots of the tree as a dark and negative force. It could be that an ancient religion related to the snake has become established in Inanna’s domain.

The snakes who were banished from Ireland were the Druids who lived in the forest and practiced their arts including healing. They were banished by St. Patrick, a Christian, but there were never any actual snakes in Ireland, so where did the idea of the snake come from. In ancient Irish fairy tales, the centre of their Spirituality was in Syria, which is a fascinating thought. There is a mountain in Ireland called Croagh Patrick where the druids used to live and from where the Christians banished them – clearly they were feared and considered demonic.

The snake here probably represents the early Sumerians of the Eridu period, who worshipped the serpent goddess Tiamat.[6] She was the goddess of salt sea, who mated with the god of fresh water to produce the younger gods. She was the symbol of the chaos of primordial creation and the first creator goddess. Again, this snake was considered as uncontrollable by Inanna. She did not want her in her tree.

In the story of ‘Lugulbanda (the father of Gilgamesh) in the Mountain Cave’, Lugulbanda is left for dead by his brothers to live or die in a cave in the high mountains. He was part of an expedition to overcome the holy city of Aratta, where Inanna used to reside. Lugulbanda prays to Shamash, Inanna, and Nanna (the Moon) to be healed of his sickness and is eventually healed by them.

Lugulbanda dreams that he should sacrifice a wild bull and two wild goats, one brown goat and the other a nanny goat to his gods. He heaped up the heads of the goats and poured out their blood in the pit so that their smell wafted out over the mountain, so that the alert snake (peoples) of the mountains sniffed it and partook of the sacrifice.  What are these snakes which are mentioned? Are they followers of this old Sumerian religion that Lugulbanda is trying to appease? Are these the snakes that Inanna dislikes and wants rid of them from her tree of life?[7]

The Tree of Life has been transformed into a Tree of Knowledge, with the snake at its roots becoming demonic. Hazrat Inayat Khan, speaking of Optimism, says that optimism represents the spontaneous flow of love, and also that optimism represents trust in love. It is love trusting love which is optimism. Cleverness does not reach far, it can only go so far, for cleverness is knowledge which belongs to earth. When we trust in our experience, which is earthly, we are stuck. Experiences of Life and Love become Knowledge. Things which were once judged to be good become rejected because they are now considered bad, and vice versa. Spiritually nothing can be judged as being good or bad. We can find good in the bad, and bad in the good. We must not judge; in judging and rejecting, much is lost, as we shall see.

‘The Anzu-bird set its young in the branches of the tree.’

The Anzu is a divine storm-bird and personification of the south wind and thunder clouds, with its lion’s head and massive wings. It was seen to be a storm demon but was also seen as ‘the wise one of heaven’.  According to Plato, the material world was created not directly by the Father of All but by a lesser divinity called the Demiurge or ‘craftsman’; this craftsman took guidance from an abstract mathematical pattern that Plato described as the ‘soul’ of the cosmos or ‘world soul’. When the ‘Craftsman’ created the material world he took guidance from a mathematical pattern that determined the ratios in which he measured out a series of ‘portions’ that he drew from an initial metaphysical blending of Being, Sameness and Difference. A true artist or world maker would take guidance from the World Soul itself.[8] The priests of Uruk were great mathematicians, so the Tablet of Destinies could be a pattern or matrix for the creation of Kingship and the Kingdom. This Tablet of Destinies was stolen from Enlil, god of earth, wind and the universal air, ultimately spirit, and hidden on the mountain top, by the Anzu-bird, who now held this powerful knowledge and authority.

The Tablet of Destinies was a sort of divine template and the wearer of this tablet had the full control of the universe and fates of all. [9]

We now come to the story of ‘Lugulbanda and the Anzu-bird’.[10] Lugulbanda has recovered from his illness on the mountain top and finds an Anzu-bird chick hungry in its nest and feeds it with every good thing that a bird would love. Lugulbanda treats the Anzu-bird chick with the greatest respect, as a Divine Being. He identifies with the chick and becomes the ‘child’ of the bird’s parents. So, we learn that the Anzu-bird was considered Divine and positive by Lugulbanda.

In return the Anzu-bird parent helps Lugulbanda find his brother warriors; and his destiny is foretold; a destiny which he must never share with anyone. This would be the destiny of Kingship which would eventually come down to him, and Lugulbanda does indeed become the next king of Uruk. The Anzu-bird offers him whatever he wants, but  he asks for and is given the ability to travel at super speeds, so that he can reach his army quickly.

Eventually, after meeting up with his brothers, Lugulbanda volunteers to visit Inanna in Uruk, so as get her help in overcoming the city, which his army was besieging. Inanna loved Lugulbanda and was happy to offer him assistance and advice, knowing that he had been helped by the Anzu-bird.

Things had clearly changed from the time of Lugulbanda, when we compare this to the early reign of his son Gilgamesh. Now Inanna no longer accepts the Anzu-bird. The Anzu-bird has no place in her garden in Uruk, but belongs on the mountain tops in the wilderness, from whence it came. The followers of the Anzu-bird were most probably the followers of a religion which worships the great Lion-headed Eagle in the mountain regions and among the hill tribes. A shrine had been built to worship the storm god Adad, with an eagle settling on its crown and a snake settling in its roots. The eagle almost certainly symbolises the Elamite culture centred in the mountains of northwest Iran, in the Zagros mountains. Excavations of their capital Susa have shown the eagle totem to be the dominant religious motif of the city.[11] It is interesting to note that the Zagros mountains were the home of both to Early Man (Neanderthals) and some of the first villages of the Neolithic Period (c.8000-4000 BCE). This is important when we see the coming of Enkidu in the Epic of Gilgamesh.

So it is the followers of the Anzu-bird religion, and its adherents or devotees which Inanna is objecting to and trying to get rid of. She wants to send them back to the high mountains, together with the snake people. Perhaps they are refugees in her city and she cannot tolerate them.

‘And the dark maid Lilith built her home in the trunk.’

Lilith is said to be a dark and dangerous spirit of the night. She is a maid or virgin who exists as one of the three lawless creatures who live outside the bounds of Inanna’s community. As a virgin she would not be accepted by this goddess of fertility and sexuality. Lil can also be translated as ‘sacred place’, ‘spirit’, ‘water-spirit’, but also simply as an ‘owl’, given that the ‘lil’ is building a home in the trunk of her tree. The bird-footed woman in the Burney Relief shows a woman with bird like features, with wings and bird-feet, standing on top of two lions, between two owls. Some think she is Lilith and others that she is a representation of Inanna herself.

Lilith is a figure in the Babylonian Talmud (3rd – 5th century AD), so from a time several centuries after the Gilgamesh tablets were written. Lilith was depicted as Adam’s first wife. It was written that Adam and Lilith were created from the same clay at the same time and were created equal. They had the same attributes of strength and character. [12] This is also seen in Genesis 1. But Lilith would not be submissive to Adam and so left the’ garden’ to go into the wilderness, or it could be that she was banished. I think that Lilith is synonymous with the goddesses of old, like Hestia before the coming of the patriarchy. Hestia was the goddess of the hearth, the heart centre of the home and of feminine dominion. Hestia was known for her kindness and gentleness.  Most interesting is that she rejected marriage with Poseidon and Apollo, so as to prevent war between them. Had she married either one, there would have been war. She swore herself to perpetual virginity, so rejecting Aphrodite’s values.[13] Aphrodite, the daughter of Zeus and so of the patriarchy, was likewise a goddess of love and war, as was Inanna, and is in fact an aspect of the same goddess. Hestia like Lilith refused to submit to male domination, so Lilith would be akin to Hestia. The virgin is the prima matria or matrix, the bearer of light and she is symbolised by the tree. She is unwed, whole and complete in herself and therefore free. She does not need a male partner.  Her symbol is the moon and the serpent. The virgin birth is the union of the divine and the human, heaven and earth, which results in the birth of a god or superior being. It also symbolises the birth of intelligence or higher faculties in man. Eve, who was Adam’s second wife, was submissive to Adam, and would be akin to Inanna who also eventually served mankind, as we shall see.

‘The young woman who loved to laugh wept. How Inanna wept!
(Yet they would not leave her tree.)’

These three great archetypes, The Snake, Lilith and the Anzu-bird – were powerful symbols of religious cults who lived outside the bounds of Inanna’s domain. They lived in the wilderness, in the forests and high mountains. For Inanna they were parasites which needed to be vanquished. Inanna was distraught and wept because they would not leave her tree. The weeping could mean that there were great storms and rains at that time. It is interesting that all the creatures in her tree were somehow related to the south wind and the summer heat – the summer solstice perhaps. A difficult time of heat and drought in Uruk. The coming of autumn and the cooling of the sun would have been a powerful symbol of hope for rain and fertility. There would have been great festivals at this time as there were in Stonehenge at mid-summer.

Inanna called her brother Utu (Shamash) god of Light and the Sun; she told him her story and complained bitterly to him. But Utu would not help his sister rid herself of the three dark spirits in her tree. He was right to refuse her. All spirituality, nature and creation were and are sacred – there needed to be balance and harmony in all things. This balance and harmony were the basic premise of their religion. Here is a story about Yellowstone National Park in the United States which illustrates this beautifully:

‘It starts with the wolves who disappeared from Yellowstone, the world’s first national park, in the 1920s. When they left, the entire ecosystem changed. Elk herds in the park increased their numbers and began to make quite a meal the aspens, willows, and cottonwoods that lined the streams. Vegetation declined and animals that depended on the trees left. The wolves were absent for seventy years. When they returned, the elks’ languorous browsing days were over. As the wolf packs kept the herds on the move, browsing diminished, and the trees sprang back. The roots of cottonwoods and willows once again stabilised stream banks and slowed the flow of water. This in turn, created space for animals such as beavers to return. These industrious builders could now find the materials they needed to construct their lodges and raise their families. The animals that depended on the riparian meadows came back, as well. The wolves turned out to be better stewards of the land than people, creating conditions that allowed the trees to grow and exert their influence on the landscape.[14]

Shamash was principally the judge and lawgiver, with some fertility attributes, as the brother of Inanna. He was the god of wisdom, the son of Sin the moon and ‘greater than his father’. He really became the principle god of the Sumerians and of Gilgamesh in the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Since Utu / Shamash would not help her, Inanna called her ‘brother’ Gilgamesh and asked him for help in clearing away the ‘parasites’. Gilgamesh was king and high priest of Uruk, but he also represents humankind in these stories. It was the job of Inanna’s priests to appease her when things went awry. So Gilgamesh, as her high priest and king, agreed to help her. He therefore prepared for battle.

Gilgamesh fastened on his armour which weighed fifty minas. He lifted his bronze axe, which weighed seven talents and seven minas, to his shoulder, and entered Inanna’s holy garden.

The mina was a unit of weight equivalent to 1.25 pounds, so fifty minas (62.5 lbs) would be a mighty weight to carry – powerful armour. But the number fifty indicates a return to the beginning and the primordial state, after the completion of the 7 x 7 cycle of years. He was ready to defend Inanna and go to war for her.

His bronze axe weighed seven talents and seven minas. The talent was a unit of weight which was introduced later – there were 60 minas in a talent (56.9 pounds). Thus, seven talents and seven minas were symbolic of great might and weaponry. Seven is the number of the universe and symbolises completeness or totality. For the Sumerians there are seven lunar divisions and seven days of the week. Seven was a magical number,

Gilgamesh was perfectly prepared both physically, materially and spiritually to do battle with the three ‘demons’ and rid Inanna of the parasites in her tree.

‘Gilgamesh struck the serpent who could not be charmed.
The Anzu-bird flew with his young to the mountains;
And Lilith smashed her home and fled to the wild, uninhabited places.’

Gilgamesh struck the snake – we are not told what happened to it, but we assume that it was vanquished.  Seeing the snake overcome, the Anzu-bird flew off into the mountains from where it came, thus saving its chicks. Lilith fearing for her life, smashed her home and fled to the wilderness. So Gilgamesh had successfully ‘cleared’ Inanna’s tree of its ‘demons’. He was now free to give Inanna what she craved for – her throne and her bed.

‘Gilgamesh then loosened the roots of the Huluppa-tree;
and the sons of the city, who accompanied him, cut off the branches.’

Gilgamesh then uprooted the tree and the young men of the city stripped the tree of its branches and bundled them up. Perhaps this was the first time that wood was used as a commodity. From the sacred Tree of Life, Gilgamesh built a great Temple for Inanna in Uruk:  The Throne and the Bed for the Sacred Marriage between god and man.

From the trunk of the tree he carved a throne for his holy sister.
From the trunk of the tree Gilgamesh carved a bed for Inanna.

In the time of The Epic of Gilgamesh, Inanna’s temple was a magnificent building decorated with reliefs and mosaics, comprising a great court and an inner sanctuary, with a Ziggurat behind. This was a holy mountain in miniature: an antechamber between heaven and earth where the gods could converse with men. The temples were served by a perpetual priesthood, in whose hands was almost the whole wealth of the state, and amongst whom were the archivists, teachers, scholars and mathematicians. The whole temporal power was theirs, as servants of Inanna whose estates they managed. [15]

Inanna’s bed represents the ‘Sacred Marriage’ or hieros gamos originally between Heaven and Earth, with the rains from the male heaven fertilising mother earth, so that green vegetation sprung from her. In Sumer Inanna and her first consort Dumuzi re-enacted this relationship: Ceremonially the marriage between Inanna and Dumuzi was re-enacted between the goddess (her high priestess) and the Sumerian king. The result of this consummation was to be the happy sound of churning of milk in the dairy.[16]

‘From the roots of the tree she fashioned a pukku for her brother.
From the crown of the tree Inanna fashioned a mikku for Gilgamesh
the hero of Uruk’.

What is it that Inanna gives Gilgamesh in return for her great temple and precinct?

Pukku and Mikku have originally been translated as drum and drumstick, but it is now thought that Pukku is a round solid wooden ball carved from the base or roots of the tree. Boys play Pukku, girls skip, so Mikku could have been a skipping rope.  Pukku was mentioned in connection with Inanna, as goddess of war, in relation to a bloody sport. To her the fray of battle was just a game. She revelled in hand to hand combat. To quote:

‘O Inanna, make fight and combat ebb and flow like a skipping rope’.

‘I send heads rolling like heavy Pukkus,
I play with my skipping rope whose cord is specked (with blood).’[17]

In another poem of Gilgamesh and the Netherworld, Gilgamesh makes playthings for himself and involves young men from his city in a game that lasts all day. As play was about to resume one morning the womenfolk complained to the gods and the playthings disappeared into the bowels of the earth. This reflects the opening situation in the Epic of Gilgamesh. In the poem it shows the pukku as a ball and the mikku as a mallet. This makes more sense:

‘As for himself he fashions its base into a ball,
he fashions its branch into a mallet.
Playing with the ball he took the ball out in the city square,
playing with the —- he took the —- out in the city square.
The young men of his city were playing with the ball,
with them riding piggyback on each other among a band of widows sons’[18]  as they competed for the ball.

Note that the — represent missing words on the tablet.

In this case the Mikku is a mallet, used to play a form of polo or croquet. They were used to playing rough and violent war games in the city square. They played from morning till evening, with the young men breaking into teams.

In cutting down the sacred Tree of Life and using the wood to make the throne (temple) and bed (sacred marriage) for Inanna, could demonstrate the first act of using nature – the beginning of agriculture, growing barley and making beer. Of harvesting the wood from the trees for building and for manufacturing. Natures own balance was being destroyed. Thus some things become parasites or weeds, rather than being accepted as part of nature. This was the setting for the opening of the Epic of Gilgamesh, which led to the ‘creation’ of Enkidu, to contend with Gilgamesh, his expedition to the mountains to kill Humbaba, the protector of the great cedar forest, to fell the cedar, build the great gates of Uruk and the Ziggurat and thereby causing devastating ecological disaster. The Tree of Life became the Tree of Knowledge, this was the ‘sin’ of Inanna, not of Eve. Or did Inanna become Eve, the submissive wife of mankind? Goddess of love / sex, and war in service to mankind.

The cyclic nature of birth, death and rebirth, reflected in the being of the Tree of Life, is now replaced by the linear birth / death scenario. There is no hope of resurrection or an afterlife. No wonder Gilgamesh were so obsessed with death, and the search for eternal life.


[2] N. Sandars. The Epic of Gilgamesh, Penguin Classics, London 1977



[5] Sandra Bart Heimann, The Biography of Goddess Inanna; Indomitable Queen of Heaven, Earth and almost everything. Balboa Press 2016



[8] John Bigalow. The Song of the Grasshopper.





[13] Nuria Daly, The Witch as Teacher in Fairy Tales, Balboa Press, 2017 p 104

[14] Peter Wohlleben. The Hidden Life of Trees. What they feel How they communicate. Black Inc. Australia, 2015

[15] Sanders, N. The Epic of Gilgamesh, Penguin Classics, London, 1977 p15



[18] ibid

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