As someone who teaches the history of psychology, I’ve wondered who might have been the first person to conduct a psychotherapy session. As such, it was with considerable delight that I discovered an ancient Babylonian myth with clear psychological overtones. The story of “The Descent of Inanna” was first recorded circa 1750 BCE, which places it nearly two thousand years before the birth of Christianity. Equally intriguing was the nature of the psychotherapists, the transgender kurgarra and galatur.
A mission to save the goddess of love
Inanna was the Babylonian goddess of love and fertility. Her older sister, Ereshkigal—queen of the underworld—was grieving the death of her husband. Inanna made the mistake of going to visit her to try and cheer her up. When Inanna never returned home, Inanna’s father was very concerned. As crops began to fail, Enki –the Babylonian god of wisdom—was fearful she was dead. Even so, he devised a plan to rescue Inanna, even from death. From dirt beneath his fingernails, her father fashioned a kurgarra and a galatur from dirt beneath his fingernails. Creatures of ambiguous gender, they were described as “neither male nor female.” Or perhaps they were somehow both.
Enki spoke to the kurgarra and galatur, telling them to go to Ereshkigal. He told them that they would find her moaning in her grief with the intensity of one who is about to give birth. Whatever she complained of, they were to echo her concern. Enki told the two creatures that the queen of the underworld would be pleased by their empathy and would offer them a gift. They were to decline any gift they offered. And then Enki told them what gift they needed to request.
The kurgarra and galatur set out for the land of the dead, slipping through cracks in the gate. When they found her, Ereshkigal seemed clearly depressed. Her hair was tangled and her clothes were in such disarray it was clear she no longer cared what anyone might see or think.
Ereshkigal was moaning: “Oh! Oh! My inside!”
The kurgarra and galatur moaned back: “Oh! Oh! Your inside!
She moaned: “Oh! Oh! My outside!”
They moaned: “Oh! Oh! Your outside!”
And so it went for some time until finally Ereshkigal fell silent for a moment. She looked at the two of them, grateful for their kindness. She asked: “Who are you, moaning and groaning and sighing with me? If you are gods, I will bless you. If you are mortals, I will give you a precious gift.”
Ereshkigal offered them a water gift, the river in its fullness, and then a gift of grain, a full field at harvest, but each time the kurgarra and galatur declined. Finally, Ereshkigal asked them what it was they wanted. The two replied, “The corpse of Inanna.”
The queen of the underworld was not pleased, but she gave them the body of her sister. She had made a promise and she intended to keep it.
The kurgarra and galatur handled the body of the goddess with exquisite care. The kurgarra sprinkled the food of life onto her body, and the galatur sprinkled the water of life on her body in turn. Inanna came back to life and began her journey back to the land of the living.
An interpretation of why the “therapy” worked
The kurgarra and galatur asked for the corpse of Inanna. They sprinkled the food and water of life on her body, and Inanna was restored. Inanna and Ereshkigal can be considered to be two aspects of the same goddess (one who celebrates the presence of love and the other who grieves its loss). Acknowledging the suffering inherent in her grief allows her life-enhancing nature to spring back to life.
In any event, this exchange may well be the first record of a “talking cure” in human history, albeit a mythical one. It also reflects the role that people who expressed unconventional gender choices often played a role in early rituals of emotional and physical healing. Shamans in indigenous cultures sometimes adopted elements of dress different than the sex of their biological birth. Male shamans might include elements of female dress or entirely live and dress as women. Female shamans sometimes dressed in men’s clothing. The frequency of this varied from culture to culture. In any case, a clear shamanic element is in play here, with the healing parties undertaking a journey to another spiritual realm to see to the healing of a wounded spirit–a feature of many a shamanic healing.
When people began to live in cities and started utilizing the written word, these transgender practices began to morph and take on new shapes and roles. As the ancient story suggests, the kurgarra and galatur were closely linked to the realm of the goddess.
A positive role for transgender people in Babylon
The kurgarra and galatur’s presence in this legend amplified the role that individuals we would understand as transgender today took in the actual day-to-day religious life of the temple of Inanna, or Ishtar as she came to be called, in ancient Babylonia. Both kurgarras and galaturs were already serving Inanna/Ishtar at the time this story was first written down and continued to do so for centuries to follow. The story likely served an additional purpose of explaining how biological men who dressed as women came to serve the goddess.
One scholar specifically identified the kurgarra as a leader of religious processionals, and the galatur as a composer of poems and songs of mourning. An Assyrian dictionary gave a broader definition, identifying kurgarras as people who served in the temple of Ishtar. As such, kurgarras performed in games, plays, dances and music that were part of the rituals and festivals of the goddess. To look upon a kurgarra might release a person from a bad omen, a sense that a calamity was about to happen. Kurgarras specialized in the making of counter-charms to ward off negative magic.
In her role as rescuer of lost souls and maker of charms, the kurgarra seems a clear descendant of the shaman. It should come as no surprise that as biological males, the kurgarras adopted feminine ways and dressed, at least in part, as women. One ancient passage refers to “the kurgarras and assinnus whom Ishtar has changed from men to women in order to teach the people piety.” The assinnus were also transgender priests and song-makers of the goddess, a term that became more common as time went on, as we will see.
These transgender figures served as companions to the goddess, who was fond of them for their part in her rescue from death. They were among those things Innana/Ishtar thanked her father for giving her in a famous litany of praise.
“Side by side with Ishtar of Babylon cry the flute player, the assinnu and the kurgarru,” another passage details. Inanna’s transgender companions eased the mind of the goddess with music, song and the incense of sweet reeds.
Asushunamir, the one whose face casts light
Seven centuries later, circa 1000 B.C.E., the same legend had evolved in interesting ways, though not all of them positive. Once again, Inanna—now called Ishtar—had become a captive of Ereshkigal. Once again, in this version, Ishtar, the goddess of love and fertility, had descended into the land of the dead to visit her older sister. The goddess of the underworld feared that Ishtar intended to raise the dead and empty her domain. Once in the underworld, Ereshkigal refused to allow Ishtar to return to the land of the living.
This time a lone androgynous figure played the role of Ishtar’s rescuer. With the goddess of love no longer in the land above, all love-making and procreation had ceased. Ea, god of wisdom, sought to rescue the goddess, creating an assinnu named Asushunamir from an image in his heart. The assinnu were Babylonian men of that era who had willingly given up their genitals to dress as women and become priestesses of the goddess. Once again, this legend may be seen in part as an explanation of their origins.
As for this assinnu’s name, Asushunamir has been translated as “he whose face is light”, “his appearance is bright or splendid” or “his going forth is brilliant”. Today we might say she and her. In any case, the term asushunamir was also used to describe luminous heavenly objects, such as the sun, moon or stars. Asushunamir was known as Asnamer in an earlier version of the legend.
Asushunamir was sent to the underworld to entrance Ereshkigal with her exceptional beauty, to quiet the mind of the queen of the underworld and make her heart glad. The genuine empathy of the previous story is no longer as clealy expressed. The assinnu instead seems to accomplish this through her calming presence. Asushunamir then asked Ereshkigal to give her the water of life to drink, ostensibly for herself, but actually to sprinkle on the corpse of Ishtar.
In that moment, Ereshikgal realized her visitor’s true intentions and flew into a rage. She cursed the assinnu, saying “The shade of the city wall will be your home…The drunken and thirsty alike will strike your cheek!” Nonetheless, Ereshkigal allowed the water of life to be sprinkled over Ishtar’s body. Ishtar came back to life, escaping with Asushunamir to the land above.
Changing attitudes towards the kurgarra and galatur
Clearly, Asushunamir was meant to represent cross-dressing priests of the goddess. Ereshkigal’s curse suggests that by Assyrian times the assinnu had become a figure who now evoked mixed feelings, disdained by some yet still performing a valued function in religious life. This new version gave a reason for this hostility, which needed an explanation given Asushunamir’s courageous and selfless actions. Asushunamir’s name suggests that her essential nature was positive and shed life-giving light, a brilliant “going forth.”
In both versions of the legend, a transgender figure takes on the task of rescuing someone who’s been wrongfully trapped among the dead. This sort of perilous journey into the underworld is akin to those taken by androgynous shamans of other cultures. It also makes sense that this shamanic enterprise might resemble modern psychotherapy. In their various roles, shamans were both the emotional and physical healers of the people in the communities they served.
The kurgarra and galatur as beacons of hope
It’s my hope that by sharing this ancient story that those who have taken a risk in expressing their genuine selves might take comfort in the light cast by these ancient figures of gender non-conformity.
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Mark Carlson-Ghost, PhD