Review of Ragavan, Deena. “Entering other Worlds: Gates, Rituals, and Cosmic Journeys in Sumerian Sources.”

Ragavan, Deena.  “Entering other Worlds: Gates, Rituals, and Cosmic Journeys in Sumerian Sources.”  In Heaven on Earth: Temples, Ritual, and Cosmic Symbolism in the Ancient World, edited by Deena Ragavan, 201-21. The University of Chicago Oriental Institute Seminars 9.  Chicago: The University of Chicago, 2013. [Mesopotamia/Cosmology/Ritual/Guardians]

This study follows the lead of Arnold van Gennep’s famous The Rites of Passage in considering doors, gates, and thresholds as boundaries between worlds.  In this case Ragavan studies the Sumerian temple gates in the late third and early second millennium B.C.  She begins with an overview of Mesopotamian cosmology from this period which is derived from somewhat scanty written sources which describe the journeys of the sun god Utu and of the goddess Inana into the netherworld.  In Sumerian cosmology the eastern gate is the entrance for the sun into the visible sky and the western gate for its exit into the netherworld.  Gates are considered the border between the living and the dead. Mesopotamian cities were surrounded by monumental walls with large gates.  Inside, another wall surrounded the temple precinct.  The numbers three and seven are associated with the gates through these walls, but the numbers may not be literal.  In Inana’s journey into the netherworld she passed through seven gates guarded by seven chthonic gods.  At each gate she was stripped of jewelry and clothing until she was finally vulnerable without all power and life.  Ragavan says it is not clear from these stories if the gates into the netherworld and into heaven were identical “although they both fulfilled an equivalent function.”(p. 205) The number seven is important symbolically in Sumerian cosmology.  There were seven planets, earths, heavens, and gates.  Similar to the later use of the number symbolically among the Israelites, the number meant “totality” or a “large, complete, or innumerable unit.”(p. 206)

The second half of the paper considers gates in the “Ur III cult.”  In this cult gates provided special protection, in the form of apotropaic figures, sometimes gods, placed at the entrance to the gates.  These were to prevent demons and other malevolent forces from entering.  Apparently the protection was not just against evil influences, but perhaps there was also an inspection of those who had legitimate purpose there.  Ragavan writes, “Given the potential dangers lurking in gates and doors and the prophylactic measure taken against them, it is not surprising then that passage through gates also required special procedures,” however, he does not delineate these procedures. It is also interesting, that one hymn described the temple of the goddess as a prison.  “[T]he image,” she writes, “that is presented is clearly very similar to that of the netherworld.  In this case, at least, the entrance to the temple is the entrance to the netherworld.”(p. 209, n. 39.)  The cult gates were also a place where offerings were made to the guardians and/or gods, and for unspecified rituals for the “Opening of the Gates.”

Ragavan concludes that for the Sumerians gates to cities and temples were significant locations used to symbolize the boundary between worlds–the visible and invisible, “most often the worlds of the living and the dead.”(p. 213) As a result, “city and temple gates are typically the focus of ritual activity in rites of entry and egress….”  These things “serve to underline the liminal status of the proceedings, emphasizing both movement (from one world to the next) and separation (by marking the boundary).”(p. 213.)  The symbolism of the gate “as a cosmic boundary in mythology was acknowledged through ritual practice.”(p. 214.)  The gates were “necessary for entry (human and divine) into the netherworld.” (p. 214)

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