“Quiet, Inanna, the ways of the underworld are perfect. They may not be questioned.”
“Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth: Her Stories and Hymns from Sumer,”
translated by Diane Wolkstein and Samuel Noah Kramer
Inanna’s Descent into the Underworld, illustration taken from “Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria” by Lewis Spence, via Wikipedia
In the well-known Sumerian myth, Inanna, wrapped in royal robes and adorned with her best jewels, decides to descend into the Great Below, where her dark sister Ereshkigal resides. Astrologer Austin Coppock, calls this place “the bottom, the lowest point in the heavens, the Imum Coeli, the private place, the underworld, where history is stored, where the dead go, where pain and wisdom collects.” It is the place from which no traveller returns. Ereshkigal orders her gatekeeper to treat Inanna in the same way as anyone who enters the kingdom of the dead would be treated. At the seven gates which she passes and which may be likened to the seven visible planets, the great goddess is stripped of all attributes -“mes” as they were called in Sumerian mythology – that make her a queen, a priestess and a woman:
“As she enters, remove her royal garments. Let the holy priestess of heaven enter bowed low.”
In the most poignant and shocking moment in the whole poem:
“… Erishkigal fastened on Inanna the eye of death.
She spoke against her the word of wrath.
She uttered against her the cry of guilt.
She struck her.
Inanna was turned into a corpse,
A piece of rotting meat,
And was hung from a hook on the wall.”
Having don the deed, Ereshkigal starts moaning “with the cries of a woman about to give birth.” She uncovers her breasts, while “her hair swirls about her head like leeks.” In her book Descent to the Goddess: A Way of Initiation for Women, Sylvia Brinto Perera identifies Ereshkigal with the Dark Goddess:
“She is the root of all, where energy is inert and consciousness coiled asleep. She is the place where potential life lies motionless – but in the pangs of birth…”
Ereshkigal’s “eye of death” is “the instinctual eye,” which allows the initiate to see beyond the rational, conscious patterns into what is “messy and full of affect,” says Perera. One stands naked in front of the Dark Goddess: her vision pierces all the masks, all the veils. But this confrontation carries a new vision with it: glimpsing the heart of the ultimate reality brings a radical shedding, transformation and rebirth.
Inanna upon a lion with her emblem – the eight-pointed star
While other gods failed her, Inanna is brought to life thanks to the help of Enki, the wise sea-goat of the primordial fresh-water ocean, who was the god of wisdom and magic. Enki was sympathetic to Inanna’s quest because he had also been to the underworld and had made it back. His own underworld journey and return had made him into a shaman – the “generative, creative and empathetic male; … the culture bringer, not the preserver of the status quo” as Perera puts it. As a deity he may be viewed as a fashioner of images and thus the god of archetypes and a patron of hermeticism and alchemy. He presides over the downward path which is the path of the mystic. Diane Wolkstein summarizes traditional rites of descent after the Romanian historian of religion, Mircea Eliade. These involve “regression to a pre-natal state,” followed by death, dismemberment, suffering and rebirth/ascent. Those who return from the Great Below “carry within them the knowledge of rebirth and often return bringing to their culture a new world view.” Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth, does not know the underworld, which makes her understanding impaired. Wolkstein explains:
“Until her ear opens to the Great Below, her understanding is necessarily limited. In Sumerian, the word for ear and wisdom is the same. … It is said of Enki, the God of Wisdom and the King of the Watery Deep, who lives directly above the underworld, that his ears are ‘wide open’ and that ‘he knows all things.’”
To help Inanna, Enki fashions two creatures from dirt, who were neither male nor female. They are endowed with a precious talent of being able to mirror Ereshkigal’s emotions:
Ah! My heart!
Ah! Ah! Your heart!”
The queen of the underworld wanted to bestow them with all manner of precious gifts, but they asked for the lifeless body of Inanna instead. When their wish was granted, They proceeded to revive the corpse with water and food of life.
However, the ways of the underworld are very strict and therefore it was demanded that someone else be sent Below to take Inanna’s place. When she returned to her kingdom, she realized that her husband Dumuzi was enjoying the absolute power and its privileges which he did not have to share. In his arrogance, he did not even notice that the earth was bare and the whole universe was mourning the disappearance of the goddess. Inanna’s reaction mirrors that of Ereshkigal:
“Inanna fastened on Dumuzi the eye of death. She spoke against him the word of wrath. She uttered against him the cry of guilt. ‘Take him away! Take Dumuzi away!”
In the end, though, Inanna agrees that Dumuzi will spend only six months in the underworld, while the remaining six months in the Underworld will be taken over by his sister, who sacrificed herself for her brother. Wolkstein explains the significance of this resolution:
“Inanna’s journey to the underworld has brought a new world order to Sumer. … By giving Dumuzi eternal life half the year, Inanna changes the cosmic pattern. … The king who enters the underworld once a year will emerge every six months renewed in feminine wisdom and inner strength to take over the leadership and vitality of the nation. Moreover, by alternating the descent between sister and brother, feminine and masculine, the women and men of Sumer … share in its necessary journey [to the underworld].”
In her book, Sylvia Brinto Perera analyzes the myth from the Jungian perspective, offering a number of angles. One obvious association is its connection with seasonal changes and “the dwindling and replenishing of the storehouse.” As Inanna personified the planet Venus, whose eight-year cycle “appears to rule growth and the multiplication of mankind,” (here Perera is quoting Rodney Colin, author of Theory of Celestial Influence) her disappearance from the sky may be linked with the agricultural cycle of death and regeneration, not unlike in the Egyptian myth of Osiris, which I have written about here .
The underworld is a magical and archaic dimension, whose depths are “ecstatic,.. transformative,… pre-verbal, often pre-image.” From this “undifferentiated ground of being” comes rebirth and new, deeper awareness. Inanna’s story, similarly to the myth of Demeter and Persephone, is also a story of initiation into the mysteries. Inanna was the first goddess who sacrificed herself “for a deep feminine wisdom and atonement,” continues Perera. She knowingly submits to transpersonal forces. Inanna’s transformation into “a piece of rotting meat” symbolizes “the incarnation of cosmic, uncontained powers into timebound, corrupting flesh, continues Perera.” Like Sophia, she descends through the planetary spheres to incarnate down on the earth. From the psychological perspective, Ereshkigal’s untethered emotional expression points to the liberation of the repressed feeling content. At the end of the poem, Inanna experiences the same fury in relation to her consort, Dumuzi, who was the only one not mourning her disappearance from the face of the earth.
The return of Inanna restores fruitfulness to the earth. Perera remarks that this is a metaphor for the Goddess’s return to the Western culture. The Goddess Inanna is an emblem of full femininity which cannot be constrained by labels such as mother, daughter, lover, virgin or harlot. She is all that and more. Perera summarizes her archetypal qualities, portraying her as a goddess of the heavens, but both of gentle rains and terrible storms. While the Greek myth compartmentalized feminine archetypal qualities into a number of female deities, the Sumerians imagined a total Goddess. Because she cannot be pinpointed to one category, she rules borderlands, transitions and the liminal regions where energies cannot be contained. Though she is the goddess of fertility and the land’s bounty, she is also known as the goddess of war. Her chariot is pulled by seven lions; at times she is accompanied by a scorpion. She is also the goddess of sexual love, who claims her needs assertively and openly, asking her consort to “plow her vulva.” She is both mother and maiden, described as “eternally youthful” and “fierce.”
Yet she also nurses an ancient wound, which has made her into “a wanderer.” When she was a young goddess, “in the first years, in the very first years”, she rescued a huluppu tree which had been uprooted by a violent storm. She planted it in her sacred grove in Uruk. Diane Wolkstein calls “The Huluppu Tree” one of the world’s first recorded tales of genesis. In her essay “Inanna and the Huluppu Tree: One Way of Demoting a Great Goddess,” another researcher Johanna Stuckey puts forward that the huluppu tree is in fact the World Tree, which is the axis connecting Heaven, Earth and the Underworld.
The huluppu tree of Inanna’s myth had three creatures that inhabited it: the snake, the bird Anzu and the female demon lilitu, the antecedent of Lilith. In Carl Jung’s Alchemical Studies (CW volume 13) there is a chapter called “The Philosophical Tree.” According to Jung, the tree with the bird and the serpent stands for alchemical opus and its realization. The snake “represents the mercurial serpent, which as the chthonic spiritus vegetativus rises from the roots into the branches.” It connects the tree to the Underworld, while the divine storm-bird Anzu links the tree with Heaven. Wolkstein points out that Lilith, the first bride of Adam, who refused to be underneath him, is portrayed less negatively in The Zohar, which is the foundational work of Jewish mysticism and which says that Lilith was granted “dominion over all instinctual, natural beings, ‘over every living creature that creepeth.’” This would link her to the Earth. Wolkstein concludes:
“Lilith forms with the Anzu bird and the snake a triad of sexual, lawless creatures who live outside the bounds of the Sumerian community…”
For Jung, the tree is “the seat of transformation and renewal” and as such it has feminine and maternal significance. In the Huluppu tree myth, Inanna is a young goddess at the threshold of life. The descent to the Underworld is long way ahead at that point. The tree may be also viewed as a symbol of her psyche – the unconscious, underworld roots, the bodily consciousness symbolized by the trunk of the tree and the heavenly self, i.e. the tree’s branches. Inanna weeps in despair when she notices the three intruders living in the tree. She does not understand yet that they are there to herald her rebirth. She asks Gilgamesh for help and he obliges, violently getting rid of the creatures and uprooting the tree. He presents Inanna with a bed and a throne made from the wood of the tree. In return, Inanna gives Gilgamesh a pukku and a mikku, objects whose significance is not clear to researchers. But one thing is certain: he uses her gifts carelessly, which brings suffering to the women of Uruk. As a consequence, the earth opens and the gifts of Inanna fall into the underworld. Johanna Stuckey sees the destruction of the huluppu tree in the following terms:
“The destroying of the huluppu tree meant that human beings could no longer count on Inanna and the World Tree to maintain the cycle of life and death. Instead, they were now facing a terrifying, linear world.”
Although he helped her originally, Gilgamesh later turns against the goddess, ridiculing her as “fickle and unreliable.” Perhaps Inanna’s journey to the Underworld can be interpreted as her search for her cut-off roots. Perera laments:
“Constricted, the joy of the feminine has been denigrated as mere frivolity; her joyful lust demeaned as whorishness, or sentimentalized and maternalized; her vitality bound into duty and obedience. This devaluation produced ungrounded daughters of the patriarchy, their feminine strength and passion cut off, their dreams and ideals in the unobtainable heavens, maintained grandly with a spirit false to the instinctual patterns…”
I recently listened to In Our Time podcast dedicated to the Epic of Gilgamesh. I had to cringe many times when Ishtar (Inanna) was derided by the scholars for her alleged brutality towards her lovers. In a similar way, Harold Bloom of The New York Review of Books, who wrote a review of Wolkstein and Kramer’s book Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth, belittled the goddess, emphasizing her vindictiveness and ignoring all her other qualities. You can read Wolkstein’s response to that unfortunate review here. It seems that the mainstream culture is still not ready to integrate the many-sided goddess because women are still denied the right to express a full range of emotions.
According to Perera, the pairing of Inanna/Ereshkigal is an emblem of the full spectrum of femininity. In the Upper World Inanna is the goddess of “active engagement” both in love and war, Down Below Ereshkigal is “disinterested in the other and alone”. Both goddesses change into the polar opposite when they encounter each other. Ereshkigal starts displaying awareness while Inanna becomes a passive initiate, as Perera explains further:
“The cross-fertilization between the two goddesses has a profound effect on each of them and on their creative capacities; it ultimately changes the relationship between upper and lower worlds and creates a new masculine-feminine balance in the upper world.”
As Inanna enters the Underworld, Ereshkigal becomes conscious and starts to suffer, while Inanna loses consciousness and merges with the Unconscious.
The myth of Inanna’s descent is the myth of the Great Round. First, Ereshkigal’s husband, the Bull of Heaven, is slayed. What this means is that the patriarchal principle no longer sustains the feminine, who needs to descend to meet the Great Goddess and to find nourishment in her earthy depths. The earth cannot be fertilized from above, so the Goddess sacrifices herself and becomes “the meat of the underworld, its food and rotting fertilizer.” The empty source needs to be replenished. Again Perera summarizes:
“She needs to sacrifice her dependence on the patriarchal gods to find her true home in the basic feminine and processual ground of being.”
This, to me, beautifully summarizes the essence of the myth.
Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth: Her Stories and Hymns from Sumer,
translated by Diane Wolkstein and Samuel Noah Kramer
C.G. Jung, Alchemical Studies, Volume 13 in the Collected Works
Sylvia Brinton Perera, Descent to the Goddess: A Way of Initiation for Women
Johanna Stuckey, “Inanna and the Huluppu Tree: One Way of Demoting a Great Goddess” retrieved from https://www.academia.edu/23458476/_Inanna_and_the_Huluppu_Tree_One_Way_of_Demoting_a_Great_Goddess_1