Today marks the first day in one of our greatest annual cultural events: the winter solstice. From now until the 25th, the sun will appear to hesitate before it once again begins to climb into the sky. That of course, is the reason so many solar deities have their birthday on the 25th—Mithras, Dionysus and Christ being but three.
But what you may not know is that while these three ‘dying and rising’ gods, every one of them an agricultural deity, are clearly men, the very first was not; she was a woman.
The earliest version I have found is in the Sumerian tale of the goddess Sul or Sud. This is not a Sumerian name and it’s unclear where she came from, but that doesn’t matter. As befits a goddess, Sul was staggeringly beautiful and at the peak of her fertility; she knew it was time for her to choose a partner.
Sul liked to bathe at dawn in the canal outside the city, and became aware that she was being watched. She told her mother about this, and her mother went away and found out about it. When she came back she was distraught. Apparently, the god Enlil, the Lord of the Air, had taken to hiding in the reeds at the other side of the canal to spy on Sul.
Now Enlil was what we Scots call an ‘orra chiel’ He was not blessed with the graces. He didn’t actually have a mother and father in the conventional sense, since he had been formed from the sigh of love that would forever separate the Earth, Ki, from the Sky, Anu. So Enlil, though as handsome as a god should be, had never been taught the social skills he needed to win a bride. He was clumsy and tongue-tied, and very rough and ready in his ways.
So Sul’s mother forbade her daughter to go bathing in the canal again, telling her that if she did, Enlil would surely rape her.
Sul, in typical style, for a Sumerian goddess anyway, reflected on this, and the next morning had her servants do her hair and face, put on her finest jewellery, then went for her customary bathe, naked, in the canal.
Enlil, watching, was so overpowered with desire that, as Sul’s mother had predicted, he swam across and had his way with her. As a result of this, Sul becomes pregnant with the moon god.
And this is where the story gets interesting. Sul, incensed, insisted that Enlil be tried for rape in front of all the Sumerian gods and goddesses, the Anunaki. (These were not space aliens, by the way; tinfoil hats off, please. They were called the Anunaki because they were the mythical children of Anu and Ki, that’s all.) Anyway, the punishment for rape was death, and Enlil was judged; he died and went into the Underworld.
But, Sul had fallen for him. So she herself descended into the Underworld to seek him out and bring him back to life under her protection. She met Enlil three times, and each time he was wearing disguises; only on the third did she recognize him and together the pair walked out of the Underworld and back into life. They were married, and Sul became Ninlil, Lady of the Air.
Now this story, which is as charming as all the Sumerian stories, makes several very important points. The first is that a woman has the right to wear whatever she likes, and behave exactly as she likes, including bathing stark naked in public while wearing all her jewellery and make-up, without fear of rape or molestation. Another is that a woman’s word alone is enough to convict a man—and to sentence even a god to death. But it also says that love can forgive anything, and that this, too, is within a woman’s gift. Finally it also says that love, and the strength it gives, can even defeat death itself.
So remember—the very first ‘dying and rising god’ was not a man, but a plucky and determined woman who herself passed into the darkness of death, not once but three times, to save the man she loved. I think that’s a pretty damn good story, actually. Maybe we should tell it to our children at this time of year…