Heabani the Eunuch: A Tale of Revenge in Old Sumer

There lived in the mighty pyramidal temple of the goddess Inanna, the Queen of Heaven, a chief among the eunuch-priests.  His name was Heabani.  The folk of Sumer called the eunuchs “Neither-men-nor-women”; and the gods had ordained the existence of their caste in primordial times.  Heabani, as was natural and fitting for a eunuch-priest, was very humble.  For this reason, his prayers to the goddess on behalf of her supplicants were always efficacious.  Newlyweds and pregnant women sought him out because they knew that his prayers would ensure that their offspring were viable.  Heabani’s fame as a petitioner of the goddess was such that even as exalted a person as Naram-Sin, the king of the city of Uruk, relied on his prayers to obtain divine assurance of the fertility of his demesne’s fields.

It so happened that Heabani had two small boys in his charge.  He was raising them to be eunuch-priests like himself.  At the age of ten they would undergo castration: this was the initiation into the caste of the “Neither-men-nor-women.”  Thereafter they would experience no blossoming of desire as other young men do.  They would become devotees of the goddess.  Such was the way of the eunuchs.  Heabani loved the two children above all other things.  Their whimsy and innocence gave him great joy; he doted on them, indulging them as any parent would.  This would prove to be a grave mistake.

At that time Naram-Sin, who was, as we have mentioned, also devoted to the goddess, maintained private chambers within the confines of the temple.  It was his habit to seek a refuge there whenever his royal duties became tedious.  In his chambers Naram-Sin had two large drums which he was fond of beating.  His royal artisans had fashioned the heads of the drums from the skin of the king of the Mound-dwellers.  The Mound-dwellers was the name which the folk of Sumer used to refer to the original inhabitants of their land.  Naram-Sin had slain the king with his own hand, before driving the remainder of the Mound-dwellers into the southern marshes.  The king of the Mound-dwellers had been not only a lord of his people but a mighty sorcerer as well.  For this reason, even after his death his magical virtue continued to inhabit the skin used to make the drum heads.

The sound of the king beating his drums was such that the men who tended the fields near the temple could hear it clearly; the sheep which the shepherds tended in the hills pricked up their ears when the sound of the drums reached them; and the ruckus even affrighted the fish in the canals, so that they scattered when the reverberations of the drums touched the surface of the waters.  But what was most wondrous was that Naram-Sin’s skill in beating the drums was such that he could even reveal his thoughts with them to the temple priests who waited on him.

One day, after Naram-Sin had reluctantly returned to his palace in Uruk to attend to affairs of state, Heabani’s two charges decided to enter the king’s chambers within the temple.  They had often heard Naram-Sin playing the drums; the music he made entranced them.  They wished to play the drums themselves, and to make the mighty sounds that they had heard the king making.  They reasoned that since Heabani never punished them for any reason, they would incur no wrath if they entered the king’s chambers unlawfully and did that which was forbidden to do with his drums.  Nevertheless, they carefully chose a time to enter the king’s apartments.  This was when Heabani had gone to the royal palace in Ur to attend the wedding ceremony of the vizier’s eldest daughter.  After the two boys had surreptitiously entered the king’s chambers, they commenced to beat the drums as they desired so strongly to do.  But when they beat the drums, they could not produce the magnificent sound that Naram-Sin was capable of producing.  This was because the virtue of the king of the Mound-dwellers, which still resided in the skin of the drum heads, was sensitive to the fact that those beating the drums were doing so unlawfully.  Thus the drum heads could not respond to the blows that the two boys made.  Only a discordant din came forth.  The two boys beat the drums harder and harder in an attempt to imitate Naram-Sin.  But it was no use.  At last, they beat the drums so hard that the drum heads cracked.  Discouraged, they returned to their own chambers.

The other priests of the temple were horrified to hear the sound of the drums.  They knew that Naram-Sin was not within his chambers on that day.  They could tell by the strange sound that it was not Naram-Sin who was beating the drums.  The eunuchs sent a messenger to the king to inform him of what had happened.  Upon receiving the news, Naram-Sin came immediately to the temple with his retinue.  When he saw the two broken drums, he roared like a lion as it goes out in search of its prey.  Naram-Sin seized the two young miscreants and dragged them to the altar of the goddess.  He slit their throats, allowing the blood to spill all over the altar.  In this way there was an expiation of their crime.

That evening, Heabani returned.  The other eunuchs apprised him of what had taken place that day.  When Heabani heard how Naram-Sin had slain his two charges, his grief was greater than that of any parent who has lost a child.  In the bitterness of his heart he vowed revenge.  Thus, the simple and gentle eunuch-priest, accustomed only to prayer and the contemplation of the empyreal intelligences, became for the first time in his life preoccupied with an act of violence.

But, he said to himself, how am I, a simple eunuch, one who is of no account, to prevail against a foe as mighty as the king of Uruk?  Heabani knew that if he went before Naram-Sin to request compensation for his loss, the rage of the king would be such that he would strip the poor eunuch of his office.  He would order his soldiers to remove the lowly querent’s saffron robe – the garment which marked Heabani and all of the eunuchs as the “Neither-men-nor-women” – and cast him out into the city streets.  Once this had happened, Heabani well knew, it would not be long before the folk of Uruk had gathered together to stone him to death.  For Father An, the King of Heaven, when he had fashioned the ordinances of the world, decreed that as long as the eunuchs dwelt among the holy fanes of the gods, they could expect to receive divine protection.  But woe unto those who sought to do otherwise: for then both gods and men would reckon them as unnatural prodigies, lower than the offal that gathered in the fishmongers’ district, fit only to be put to death.

Heabani went one-by-one to all of the prophets who lived in the precincts of the Temple of Inanna.  He asked them to call upon the gods to assist him in obtaining justice against the king.

“Why do you not seek the help of Mother Inanna?” they asked.  “You are her especial favorite.”

Heabani replied, “Inanna is a gentle goddess, and the nurse of all mankind.  She will not hearken to prayers for revenge and requital.  Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, life for a life – that is not her law.  That is why I ask your help.  Can you not pray to Ninurta or Father Enlil, gods who are accustomed to warfare, whose wont it is to assist the soldier in times of battle?  Or can you not offer oblations to Father An, he who fashioned the decrees which cannot be altered, he who weighs the scales of justice?”

“We shall try to help you,” said all of those prophets, priests and prognosticators whom Heabani approached.  But none of their prayers, offerings or oblations had the slightest effect.  Naram-Sin continued to live, and Heabani continued to lack a means of destroying him.  Having found no prophet or priest who could assist him, Heabani despaired and wept.  He no longer cared if he lived.  He walked among the canals: when the keepers of the sluices opened the gates and let the waters flood into the canal-beds, Heabani thought to throw himself into the waters to drown.

He was on the verge of doing so when he saw a barge coming down the main waterway which fed into the temple precincts.  By its large size he could see that it was no ordinary barge such as the rangers who tended the canals used.  It shone, moreover, like gold in the setting sun: for it was, as Heabani perceived as it drew near, plated with that most precious of metals.  In the barge stood a woman of regal posture and bearing.  She was quite evidently an important personage of some sort, to judge by her jeweled tiara and robe of peacock and ostrich feathers.  No retinue was with her, but the barge was being rowed by six Ethiopian slaves.

The woman spoke to Heabani.  “Heabani, why have you not sought me out directly?  Why do you seek help from others, when you know that I am always with you?”

And by these words Heabani knew that the lady before him was the goddess Inanna.  Looking up, he gazed upon her.  He was awestruck.  The gods did not often descend to converse directly with men, as they had been accustomed to do in primordial times. The humble eunuch fell on his face and worshipped the goddess.

Inanna spoke again: “Gentle Heabani, most devoted of my servants, you have divined correctly.  I am a merciful mistress, from whom the virtue of retribution does not issue forth directly.  Therefore you must heed what I am about to tell you.  If you wish to obtain justice against one as powerful as Naram-Sin the king of Uruk, you must seek the assistance of Apsu, the Dark Lord, the one who dwells in the waters beneath the Earth.”

Heabani quailed at the sound of the name of Apsu.  The gods of heaven had subdued Apsu at the beginning of time, and the folk of Sumer regarded him as a fearsome Lord of the Dead, whom they mentioned only obliquely in their prayers.

Inanna continued.  “You shall seek Lord Apsu, the great serpent of the depths, in his temple.  This lies by the Sea of Dilmun to the south, where a remnant of the Mound-dwellers still lives.  Take with you a swine to sacrifice to him.  It must be one of the unclean kind that bears a crest of black bristles.  It must be offered to him while it is still alive.  That is the favorite offering of the Lord Apsu: but whether he accepts you as a suppliant I can make no guarantee.  Nevertheless, his assistance is your only hope in this matter.

Heabani heard these words and took them to heart.  He fell to the ground once more and worshipped her.  When he ceased to pray he looked up again: but she was now gone, or was her barge in sight any longer.

Heabani commanded a slave to go into the wilderness and capture a swine of the kind that bears a crest of black bristles.  After the slave had done this, the two journeyed by oxen-cart to the marshes which lay to the south of the demesne of Uruk.  After they came to the border of the marshes, the slave returned with the oxen-cart.  Heabani carried the swine on his shoulders to the gates of the city of the Mound-dwellers.  It was no mighty city like Uruk.  There were no ramparts on which the soldiers could stand guard like proud birds keeping watch over their nestlings; there were no palaces in which the lords of the people could live in splendor, like the very children of the gods that they were.  There were only earthen hovels, filthy and low-lying, in which the people made their habitations, like dogs.  There were no temples like the one in which Heabani rendered his services to the lady Inanna, whose high towers acted as guides to the pilgrims who came from afar.  There was only a mound of raised earth, upon which stood a blood-stained altar of stone.

When the Mound-dwellers saw the eunuch coming with a swine slung over his shoulders, they came out of their hovels and mocked him.

“What is the eunuch doing away from his sanctuary?” they cried.  “Has the mother bird cast the sickly chick from the nest, lest he infect his fellow offspring?”

Heabani paid them no heed.  He brought the swine to the altar and prepared to sacrifice it.  The king of the Mound-dwellers then came forth.

“Your sacrifice is useless here,” he said.  “Go down to the caves by the waters.  It is there that the Lord Apsu will sometimes appear.  It is there that you can offer your sacrifice directly to him.”

Heabani did as the king commanded.  He took the swine to the caves which were by the waters of the Sea of Dilmun.  He entered the caves by way of the cliffs.  The caves extended all the way to the edge of the sea.  Standing before the mouths of the caves which looked out upon the sea, were the sentinels of the god: two great dragons or reptiles, such as can be found in other fables of old Sumer.  These dragons acted as mighty warriors in defense of their lord.  They were the caretakers of his grottos in his absence.

Heabani laid down the swine and said:  “May this be a sacrifice to your lord Apsu.”

The reptiles hissed: “That cannot be, human one.  The Lord of the Abyss does not care for the sacrifices of the folk of Sumer.  Because they oppress his favorite ones, the Mound-dwellers, he despises them.  Only death awaits you here.  If the Lord Apsu finds you here, he will surely eat you along with your sacrifice.”

With tears in his eyes, Heabani replied:  “Death it may be, or it may be life.  I only want revenge for my little ones.  I no longer have any care for myself.”

The eunuch then related to them the entire tale of the travails which had resulted in his coming to that place.  The two dragons, who were as old as the Earth itself, and accordingly very wise, took pity on Heabani.

They said: “Hide yourself and the swine beneath the pile of date-palm husks from which we have been eating.  When the Lord Apsu comes forth from the Sea of Dilmun, his aspect will be terrifying: but presently he will assume a human guise.  When he does so, emerge from your hiding place and address him using flattering words.  Perhaps he will then feel compassion for you and be willing to be champion for your cause.”

The two sentinels told Heabani to watch for the coming of eight great waves as they rolled in from the sea.  The god would come in with the eighth and final wave.

Presently the surf began to roll in and break against the cliffs.  Heabani, who had hidden himself beneath the date-palm husks, counted the waves.  When the eighth wave, which was the biggest, rolled in, the Lord of the Abyss appeared at last.  His aspect was truly terrifying, just as the sentinels had promised.  Like a coiling monster of the depths did he appear.  His scales rattled like the armor of the warriors of Uruk marching into battle, and the sound that issued from his throat was like the hissing of the serpent as it prepares to strike.

“Like a huge bull he lifted his horns, like a raging serpent he slithered his head from side to side!”

So speak the poets concerning the Lord of the Abyss.

Heabani wanted to close his eyes from terror.  But when he saw the Lord Apsu exchange his sea-going form for that of a comely and well-proportioned man, albeit one of gigantic stature, the eunuch’s terror abated.  But before he could come forth from his hiding place, as was the plan, he heard the god exclaim in anger:

“I smell a human one in the cave with us.”

The sentinels replied: “Not so: for no one has entered while we stood guard.”

“No, you are wrong,” countered the god.  “I truly smell a human one.”

The Lord Apsu brushed away the pile of date-palm husks with one sweep of his mighty hand.  He picked Heabani up and placed him in his mouth.  The little eunuch’s shoulders were already inside the god’s cavernous maw when he spoke up:

“Mighty Apsu, Lord of the Abyss: first hear my tale.  Then you can eat me.”

Apsu said, “It is well that you spoke quickly.  Otherwise I would have eaten you.”

So Heabani told him of the crime that Naram-Sin had perpetrated on him and his little ones, and how it had driven him to seek the aid of the god who rules the waters beneath the Earth.  Upon hearing such a sorrowful narrative, tears of pity well up in the eyes of him whose eyes were unused to tears, and compassion filled the heart which was unaccustomed to share the emotions of men.

Having been moved to mercy, Apsu accepted the offering of the swine, which he swallowed in a single gulp.  He said:

“Little eunuch, your purpose in coming here is a holy one.  I shall become your protector and guardian: I shall vindicate you by sorely punishing the proud Naram-Sin, king of Uruk.”

Then the god told Heabani what he was to do.  He was to return to the demesne of Uruk.  He would live in the wilderness outside of the city in complete solitude.  An earthen mound would he build, away from the eyes of others; and around the mound he would erect a wall of clay.  At each of the cardinal points in the wall he was to inscribe the cruciform sign of the Lord Apsu.  By this, should any other human one come upon Heabani’s structure, he would know that the ground was consecrated and entry forbidden.  Then Heabani was to collect four hundred swine of the kind that bears a crest of black bristles; four hundred dogs of the sort that the folk of Sumer regard as unclean; and four hundred of the geese that bear the three red stripes on their breasts.  These are the animals that are sacred to the god Apsu.

“But Lord,” said Heabani, “how am I to assemble such a number of these animals?  The fortress which I am to build must necessarily be enormous to accommodate all of them.  And besides, the disposition of each of these animals is very fierce.  How can I, a temple eunuch, a “Neither-man-nor-woman”, one who has no knowledge of warfare or of the hunt as to ordinary men, hope to capture such large populations of such baleful creatures without assistance?”

The god replied, “Assistance you will not require.  When the animals see you, they will recognize you as one who has come from me.  Then they will follow wherever you lead.  As for the fortress which you are to build, if you ensure that its dimensions are sixty by sixty rods, it will be of sufficient size to accommodate all of the animals that enter it.  As soon as you have gathered all of the animals together into one place, you will collect bristles from the swine, hair from the dogs, and feathers from the birds.  Of the bristles you will weave a royal torque, which you shall place around your neck; of the hairs you shall weave a net such as kings wear which you shall put on your head to contain your hair; and from the feathers you shall fashion a royal crown, which you shall place on your head.  Then you shall remove all of these objects and throw them in the fire, saying:

“’As the signs of the royal house are plucked away and thrown into the fire

“’So may retaliation, the pain of my hardship, the sickness in my body

“’Be entirely consumed!’

“Once you have completed this incantation, you are to await my manifestation with patience and hope:  I shall not be long.  And it will be a strange coming indeed: but the signs of it shall be clear to you.

“Remember: you the most blessed among mortals, inasmuch as you are the only one of the folk of Sumer who has ever stood before the countenance of the Lord Apsu and lived.”

And with a great hissing, the god resumed his former shape and slid back into the depths whence he had come.

As Heabani went back past the city of the Mound-dwellers, the folk stood by silently.  They did not mock him as before.

The eunuch-priest called out, “Where are your taunts and insults now, dog-faces?  Whom did your god prefer?”

Upon returning to the demesne of Uruk, Heabani began to dwell in the wilderness, away from the eyes of men.  He raised a mound of earth and surrounded it with a wall of clay.  At the four cardinal points on the wall he inscribed the cruciform insignia of the god, thereby consecrating all that was within.  He then went out into the forest: when the swine saw him, they followed him back into the redoubt, until there were four hundred of them.  Heabani then went out to the rubbish mounds outside the city, where the dogs dwelt: and the dogs followed him back into the redoubt, until there were four hundred of them.  He then went out into the marshes, where the geese lived among the reeds: and the birds left their nests to follow him into the redoubt, until there were four hundred of them all in all.

Heabani gathered the bristles from the swine and wove a royal torque.  From the dogs he gathered their hairs, which he wove into a net.  He plucked the feathers from the geese, from which he wove a royal crown.  He placed the torque around his neck, he gathered his long and unruly hair into the net, and he placed the crown on his head.  Then he cast them into the fire which he used to cook his food, saying:

“As the signs of the royal house are plucked away and thrown into the fire

“So may retaliation, the pain of my hardship, the sickness in my body

“Be entirely consumed!”

Thereafter Heabani sat down.  Patiently he waited, living only on onions and water.  It would be many weeks, even months, before the god at last came.

One day, Naram-Sin was making his way from the city of Uruk to the temple of Inanna.  His countenance was sorrowful, as it had been ever since he had discovered that the two little boys had destroyed his drums.  A great retinue of soldiers accompanied him: they intended to spend three days at the temple making sacrifices.  At that time, a black cloud appeared in the heavens.

“Lord Naram-Sin,” said one of the soldiers.  “I believe that the cloud appearing above is an evil omen.  We should return to Uruk now.  At a more propitious time in the future we should make our sacrifices.”

But Naram-Sin scoffed at this.  “It is only an ordinary storm-cloud, bringing rain to fertilize the ground.”

From his vantage point in the wilderness, Heabani also saw the black cloud gathering in the heavens.  He watched it spread over the entire land, until it had cast its shadow over the entire realm of Uruk.  By this Heabani knew that the manifestation of the god was at hand.

A storm then broke out.  It was of a ferocity that the folk of Sumer had never before known.  The winds howled in a furious gale; bolts of lightning came down like the javelins of warring armies.  The rain fell in scalding torrents; the waters rose from the Earth.

The soldiers of the king cried out, “Lord Naram-Sin, we must turn back before it is too late!  The gods will never accept our sacrifices!”

But Naram-Sin was resolute.  Even in the face of the storm, he continued to scoff.  He commanded his retinue to continue with him to the temple of Inanna.

Presently the canals overflowed, breaking the dikes and flooding the roads.  Naram-Sin and his retinue could neither continue on, nor turn back to Uruk.  The rushing torrents had risen all the way up to their thighs.

It was then that Naram-Sin cried out, “Am I, the darling of the gods, the king of the realm of Uruk, mightiest in all of Sumer, now accursed?  Never before has any in heaven or on earth gainsaid me, never before have gods or men checked my course!  What new and unforeseen circumstance has turned the favor of the heavens away from me?”

Then the hosts of the Lord Apsu came up from the depths, the ahhazu demons, the seven terrible spirits of serpent-form, of whom the poets have said:

“Raging storms, evil gods are they

“Compassion and mercy they do not know.

“Prayer and supplication they do not hear.”

The seven spirits assailed Naram-Sin and his host.  They could not flee, for the raging flood waters impeded them.  When the valiant king raised his sword against the serpents, his blade merely glanced off of the scales that covered the dreadful beasts.  One by one the men felt the serpents’ coils pulling them beneath the waters.  They cried out to the gods for aid, but no aid was forthcoming: there could be no alteration to the doom of the Lord Apsu.  The crashing of the lightning and thunder of the unrelenting storm covered all of their cries.

At last, they ceased to struggle.  The waters closed over Naram-Sin’s proud head.  His mighty form became food for the seven divine serpents.

Once the slaughter was concluded, the storm subsided.  The waters receded to the canals.  The roads once more lay open.  Peasant and city-dweller alike emerged from their hiding places like frightened gazelles who, having sought refuge from the hunter, now believe that the way is clear.

Heabani remained in his redoubt.  By the miraculous power of the god, the storm had touched neither him nor the animals that he kept with him.  Weeping tears of gratitude, for knew that the destruction of Naram-Sin had occurred, he said his prayers of thanks to the Lord of the Abyss.

He released the animals to return whence they had come, so that they could propagate their kind once more.  To this day, whenever any of the folk of Sumer see one of these creatures, they make a short prayer to avert the wrath of the god who dwells in the waters beneath the earth.

Heabani returned to the temple of Inanna.  But it was not his destiny to live much longer.  However much the destruction of Naram-Sin had appeased him, the pain in his heart was such that it refused to heal from the wound that the death of his little ones had inflicted.  No longer did he visit the fanes of his heavenly mother Inanna; the people of the land ceased to be able to find him, that he might offer prayers to the goddess on their behalf.  Thus broken-hearted, Heabani the little eunuch-priest died.

[Darius M. Klein is counselor and translator living in Seattle, Washington.  He has translated The Incantations of Circe by Giordano Bruno and Jocus Severus (The Serious Joke) by Michael Maier from Latin into English for Ouroboros Press, a Seattle-area publisher of Hermetic and esoteric texts.  Additionally, he maintains a website of his own translations of obscure and otherwise untranslated Latin texts.   He has a background in Classical languages and is currently in the process of obtaining an M.A. in Arabic Language and Literature at the University of Washington.]

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1 thought on “Heabani the Eunuch: A Tale of Revenge in Old Sumer”

  1. David Kerlick said:

    More fun than Xenu of the Scientologists! I like the repetitious elements, like a told, rather than written, story.

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