A king of Ur despaired to think
he would never rule the earth as he ought,
brooding atop his tower, at the brink
of madness, his mind a maelstrom of thought.
He said, “My might unequaled, my wealth vast,
yet I cannot chain the whole of the earth.
Surely I am greater than all rulers past,
much greater than others of mortal birth.”
His priests worried about their king
and sought help from the most revered of sibyls
whose inner Eye could see everything—
from the wars of gods to neighborhood quibbles.
They brought her to the tallest ziggurat
and she lit a flame that spewed strange mushroom plumes,
peering into its fragrant smoke until she caught
sight of his destiny among mystic fumes.
The priests brought their king to see the seer
and bid him listen to what she had to say,
but he vowed, then and there, to never free her
if she proffered no good prophecies that day.
“My lord,” she said, “you seek at Nanna’s altar
the whole of the earth and its many vast lands,
but you must kill your wife, your son, your daughter
as sacrifices to satisfy Marduk’s demands.”
The king paled to think what must be done,
pitted in soul against his lordly desires
and love of his wife, his daughter, his son,
his ambitions fueled by funeral pyres.
“To defeat your greatest foe,” the prophetess said,
“and conquer this world, land to land, sea to sea,
your own heart must die, your bloodline must be bled,
otherwise you will never conquer all that be.”
The king weighed his pride against his love
and found one more wanting than the other
and so invoked the Sumerian gods above
before sending for his children and their mother.
Beautiful wife, so dark of hair and soft of skin,
her bosom becoming love’s tender labors
whereon she nursed his two beloved children,
blooming with milk, soon to suckle sabers.
And this daughter, as the mother made small,
yet so radiant in her little lovely smiling face
as to outshine the Gods in their heavenly hall,
destined now to dim soon in a shadow-drenched place.
And this son, with a gaze like that of his father,
reaching out over the slow curve of the broad horizon
to seek the edge of the land, and beyond the water,
and yet beyond, still—how like father the son.
The king kissed each of them that ambitious night
and assured them of his enduring love for all three
before the priests took them to the shrine, out of sight,
and sacrificed them to the Sumerian trinity.
The sibyl, smirking to herself, left while the king wept
and descended in moonlight the steep ziggurat stairs,
knowing the king’s senses had been so badly overleapt
by his pride that he now lived the worst of nightmares.
The deed now done, the priests returned
speaking of the king’s plans to begin his conquest,
but the king only sobbed and away from them turned,
suddenly crying out and clutching at his breast.
“See them there?!” he cried, pointing with a palsied finger.
“See those forlorn Shades, having crawled up from Kur?
Can you not see how sadly they look as they linger,
watching me with their familiar eyes, all together?”
The priests looked, but saw nothing beyond,
and then helped the king retire to his bed,
but all the while he gawped in horror, his bond
to the Shades relentless in his trembling head.
The next day the priests came, speaking of a flood
that overran the city with many drownings and devastation,
receding as soon as it came, bringing thick mud
that buried the living alongside the dead of that nation.
“What are floods to me?!” the king loudly exclaimed.
“Can you not see that they remain? The Shades! There!
The Shades of…oh, but they cannot…cannot be named!”
He then shivered in the balmy Euphrates air.
The priests tried that day to give peace to their king,
bringing him concubines, jewels, gifts from afar,
but he cared for little of it, shivering and swearing
“I would not care if you brought me the breasts of Ishtar!”
And so their king cared for nothing whatsoever,
and began to waste and wither, taking neither drink nor food,
but willfully abstaining, as if he intended to sever
himself from life, giving himself wholly to a morbid mood.
Despairing, the priests sent once again for the crone,
yet no one seemed to know where she had gone,
finding only a message etched in dusty limestone,
its cuneiform symbols heckling on and on.
“Your king received what he thought he wanted,”
it read, “for he has conquered the world, and himself, at last,
all joys and pains unfelt as he lives hereafter haunted
unto the end of his days, the Shades thus cast.”