Many years ago, I had promised Nergal / Erra an anthropomorphic image as an offering, to serve as His sacred conduit in my Mesopotamian shrine. I had searched for a sculptor to make for me a suitable image, but no such designs had come to fruition. I purchased a reproduction of a Neo-Assyrian lion weight to hold its place, though even then I knew it would be unsatisfactory on its own. A year became two, then three, and still I failed to make good on what I had promised. I had made that promise at a time when I had yet to get my religious priorities in order, when I hadn’t yet struck a functional balance between my Kemetic and Mesopotamian practices, when I was all too eager to engage with a God I was (and am) so profoundly enamoured with. After having divination performed last year, the nagging feeling I had that Nergal was displeased with me for my inconsistent efforts was confirmed. Since that message was relayed to me, I redoubled my efforts and better prioritized (albeit still with room for improvement). I likewise began a series of reparations-offerings, created with my own hands, the first of which was a necklace of jaspers and quartzes. I decided to make my own two-dimensional image for Nergal in the meantime, with a sculpted piece to be added at some future date, but for many months my attempts to create something for Him on my own utterly failed. Indeed, after I moved into my new house, my Mesopotamian shrine (which looked like this before the move) wasn’t reestablished. After many months without inspirational flow, without picking up pencil and ink with any success, suddenly the right idea and the ability to execute it came to me after many nights of impromptu, informal prayer. Something beautiful finally happened for (and indeed because of) my Lord, the one central to my Mesopotamian religious practice, after a period of great stagnancy and feelings of failure and unworthiness. After fulfilling that promise to Nergal at long last, I was flooded with inspiration for other Mesopotamian deities (Whose pieces I will be documenting separately in the coming days and weeks). My Mesopotamian shrine gradually came back together, and better than before. The imageless were finally given images — images which aren’t so exclusive as private sculptures, but can be more easily shared with and utilized by others who also feel drawn to these under-represented Gods and lack appropriate iconography for Them as I once did.
I threw together many of Nergal’s and Erra’s aspects as one in this piece. Erra Himself does not have any known iconographic representations, though as noted in the ORACC articles linked to at the beginning of this entry, the two were rather closely associated. I personally experience Nergal and Erra as the self-same God, referring to Him primarily as “Nergal” and “Erragal.” This made the combination of attributes much easier for me to represent.
Whereas the Dumuzi piece I completed two years ago was placed in a lush, sunset-lit setting, to in part evince His bilocative nature alongside His pastoral one, I placed Nergal in a shadowy one. This is to show Him as a chthonic deity — “Lord of the Underworld” being the role for which Nergal is best known among Moderns. His green and blue robes are meant to symbolize His being a God of plenty, as many chthonic deities are regarded, since most precious minerals come from deep within the Earth. Meanwhile, His scale maille sleeve marks Him as a deity of martial prowess.
The asakku-demon, which looms behind Him, is one of Nergal’s Divine animals, in addition to the lion, followed by the bull. The asakku possesses features of the wild ass, the lion, and the eagle. It is likely on account of Nergal’s association with Ninurta that the asakku-demon came to be counted among the former’s Divine animals. (Dalley, 319)
I added bull ears to Nergal’s visage, to rope His virile, bovine qualities and associations into the piece in ways that the horned cap does not, given its wider application among the Divine Host in Mesopotamian religions. The addition of bull ears riffs off clay artifacts depicting Nergal with subtler such ears, as in the example shown below. It is also intended to demonstrate that He is of superb hearing, that He is all-wise, and that He is a deity Who openly receives prayers.
Neither Nergal nor Erra is historically associated with peacocks. However, the peacock is a glamorous bird I personally associate with Him, and one which across several (Central, South, and East) Asian cultures is associated with royalty as well as divinity. Nergal is a very important deity in virtually all Mesopotamian cultures’ Kingship-ideologies and in the implementation of Mesopotamian State/royal cults, and so I included peacock feathers atop His crown.
I had initially intended to depict Nergal holding His idiosyncratic double-headed lion mace, one of the chiefest symbols of His power and authority. I abandoned that course after lightly sketching it, as that showed I would have to obscure most of His bulging muscles! That just wouldn’t do. Instead, I depicted Him with another characteristic weapon of potent male Divinities, the sickle-sword — both of which He is shown grasping in the cylinder seal impression shown below.
I decided to render His name as (DINGIR) U.GUR in Neo-Assyrian Akkadian. I placed it within an aureola emanating from His crown, which is a nod to His Sumerian epithet “Engidudu,” meaning “Lord Who Prowls By Night,” one which is as Dalley notes fairly exclusive to Nergal and Erra, though A. R. George confuses it for an epithet of Išum’s in his treatment of the poem of Erra and Išum. (Dalley, 319; Kennedy et al., 50 – 51) It sounds like a rather menacing name, but for all its ferociousness it actually possesses beneficent connotation. We see this demonstrated within some loving lines (21 – 22) of the first tablet of the epic poem Erra and Išum, rounding out the ecstatic-poet Kabti-ilāni-Marduk’s convoluted, alternating-narrative preliminary invocation (here I deviate somewhat in my presentation from the transliterated Akkadian and its English translation by A. R. George, which are included in Warfare and Poetry in the Middle East edited by Hugh Kennedy, on page 51):
“(d) Engidudu bēlu muttalik mūši muttarrû rubê
ša etlu u (w)ardatu ina šulmi ittanarrû unammaru kīma ūmi”
“O Lord Engidudu, Who moves about at night, guiding the young man and the young woman in safety/wellbeing, brilliant as daylight!”
I likewise included an emblem of Šamaš in His crown (which some may recognize more readily from the Modern Assyrian flag), demonstrating Nergal’s connection to that God as well as to Neo-Assyrian State religion. I surrounded it with three blue lotuses to symbolize beauty and perpetual renewal, which is something of a carry-over from my Kemetic beliefs and practices.
Nergal’s nature is vast and complex. The explanations I provided here touch upon the most important and “verbally-approachable” elements included in the piece I created for Him, but only barely scratch the surface of His character and identity. Likewise, nothing I will ever commission or create for Him could ever fully express my attachment to and adoration of Him. As with all images of Divine Beings, they are incomplete representations and expressions that inevitably fall short of the realities of the Numinous and Ineffable. I can only hope Nergal is to some degree satisfied with what I managed to create for Him. Considering that I have been flooded with coherent ideas for other Mesopotamian deities beyond Nergal, have “resurrected” others I started years ago but did not finish for want of creative impetus, and have not yet botched any of my attempts at “bringing them to life,” I suppose I managed to make my Lord crack something of a generous and forgiving smile.
Dalley, Stephanie. Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others. Oxford World’s Classics Revised Edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
Horry, Ruth. ‘Erra (god)’, Ancient Mesopotamian Gods and Goddesses, ORACC and the UK Higher Education Academy, 2013 [http://oracc.museum.upenn.edu/amgg/listofdeities/erra/]
Kennedy, Hugh. Warfare and Poetry in the Middle East. London: I.B. Tauris, 2013.
Heffron, Yaǧmur. ‘Nergal (god)’, Ancient Mesopotamian Gods and Goddesses, ORACC and the UK Higher Education Academy, 2013 [http://oracc.museum.upenn.edu/amgg/listofdeities/nergal/]