Inanna: Relevance and Return

The Sumerian Goddess Inanna came to the notice of modern women in 1983 when Diane Wolkstein and Samuel Kramer published Inanna: Queen of Heaven and Earth. But she first appeared in recorded history about 5,500 years ago. Written myths are almost always pre-dated by many generations of oral traditions, so it plausible to assume that her stories were passed down orally through many generations before writing became extant. Throughout the centuries she has morphed and changed as she moved from culture to culture, empire to nation. Over the years Inanna became Ishtar, Asherah, Astarte, Astoreth, Aphrodite, Ainina, Danina, and possibly Dali of the Georgians. Her worship died out slowly in the Middle East between the third and fifth centuries A.D., but she left her mark in Marion theology with hymns of lamentation attributed to Mary, but taken straight from Inanna’s lamentations for Damuzi.

Inanna was the goddess of sexual love and war. She was fierce, conniving, intelligent: quick to anger, but just as quick to reward loyalty. There are many stories about her, such as The Epic of Gilgamesh, Inanna and the Huluppu-Tree, Inanna and the God of Wisdom, The Courtship of Inanna, and The Descent of Inanna. It was the latter that caught and held the interest of women involved in Goddess Spirituality.

Although the myth is titled The Descent of Inanna the salient point is actually her return. The tale begins with Inanna’s decision to visit the underworld to meet her sister Ereshkigal, Queen of the Underworld, who is mourning her dead husband. Bad blood exists between the sisters—Inanna has been instrumental in the death of The Bull of Heaven. The other gods gossip about Inanna, speculating about her motives—perhaps she wishes to make peace with her sister, perhaps she wishes to steal her powers, but Inanna keeps her own counsel and determines to go alone.

Wisely, before she goes, Inanna concocts a plan with her trusted handmaiden, Ninshubar, giving her explicit instructions about what to do if her mistress does not return. Then, girding herself with seven powers, she rides away, driving her own chariot toward the underworld.

On hearing of Inanna’s arrival, Ereshkigal orders the gatekeeper to close the seven gates of her palace. As Inanna requests passage through each gate, she must divest herself of one of her powers. In the end she arrives in Ereshkigal’s hall naked. Her arrival coincides with the entrance of the judges of the underworld. They sentence her to death and stick her body on a meat hook, where it hangs for three days and three nights.

Meanwhile, Ninshubar has begun making the rounds of the gods. Each one turns her down until she reaches Inanna’s father, Enki. Enki heeds Ninshubar’s plea. He scrapes dirt from beneath his fingernails. Mixing it with a little spittle, he fashions two tiny winged creatures called gala to sneak past the gatekeeper and fly down into Ereshkigal’s realm. To one he gives the life-giving plant and to the other the life-giving water. He whispers instructions in their ear and sends them on their way.

Down in the underworld Ereshkigal continues to mourn, wailing unceasingly day and night. She is pregnant with her dead husband’s child. When the gala find Ereshkigal they hover by her ears and mourn with her. When she groans, “Oh, my liver!” they groan, “Oh, my liver!” When she cries, “Oh, my heart!” they cry, “Oh, my heart!” Ereshkigal is so grateful to be heard and comforted on her own terms that she offers them anything they desire. Following Enki’s instructions, they ask for the body of Inanna. Anointing her with the precious life-giving water and plant, the galas restore Inanna to life and together they set out on the journey home.

Once again, however, the judges intervene and refuse Inanna passage unless she finds someone to take her place in the underworld. She promises to find a replacement and, accompanied by a posse of enforcing demons, she storms up into the sunlight.

Thus begins a round of visits to Inanna’s hairdresser, her son, and her brother, all of whom have mourned her with the proper mourning rites. Faithful Ninshubar offers to take Inanna’s place but the goddess vehemently refuses. Finally they come to Inanna’s consort, Damuzi, who has barely noted her absence. He is sitting under a fig tree, feasting. Inanna, incensed at his indifference, orders the demons to grab him. But Damuzi calls upon Utu, the sun god, Inanna’s brother, to honor an old debt and rescue him. Utu helps him escape the demons and he manages to hide. The demons, however, are relentless in their pursuit and eventually run him to ground

Even then, his luck holds. Damuzi’s adoring sister intervenes and begs for his life, promising to take his place underground for half of every year. Tired of the whole business and possibly half-inclined to take Damuzi back, Inanna agrees.

: Bas-relief from Palmyra representing Ishtar, alongside a servant. Third century A.D., Damascus. Photograph by Jedd Haider. (Background): Photograph by Oscar Ivan Esquivel Artega.
(Foreground): Bas-relief from Palmyra representing Ishtar, alongside a servant. Third century A.D., Damascus. Photograph by Jedd Haider. (Background): Photograph by Oscar Ivan Esquivel Artega.

This is a complicated tale, dovetailing and interweaving in places with other cycles and creatures of myth. It is a multilevel teaching story, depicting what Joseph Campbell called the hero’s journey; explicit directions on how to properly mourn a death; the advantage of prior planning; faithful service; parental love; the courage to face the unknown and the bad consequences inherent in wrong action. Lots of information to be packed, condensed and synthesized into one fabulous story.

At every level this myth resounds with true situations in which humans of every age find themselves. But it specifically appeals to modern women, because in Inanna we find a heroine who predates the extremes of patriarchal culture in which we find ourselves enmeshed today. She acts independently, while remaining in good relationship with men—her father, brother, and hairdresser. She has a strong, solid friend and ally in Ninshubar. She is not afraid to face the unknown and perseveres in the face of loss and sacrifice. Like many women she struggles in relationship with her mate.

But the part of the story with which women resonate most strongly is the journey of relinquishment, the egoic death, and the restoration of power. Using this part of the myth, circles of women have been manifesting and enacting their own rituals of letting go, creating space, and allowing new ways of seeing and being to take the place of what no longer serves them.

Sometimes the journeys are entirely imaginary, taking place as guided meditations in quiet, dimly lit rooms. Sometimes women build metaphorical gates as simple as seven scarves laid in rows across a room. Sometimes the gates are more elaborate structures, painted and adorned.

The gates may be assigned particular attributes—names, colors, stones, trees, etc. The seven chakras lend themselves particularly well to this rite. Furthermore, the descent and return may be pinned to a particular life passage like a marriage, a birth, the loss of a job or start of a new career, the death of a beloved mate, child, pet, or friend. It works well for any occasion that requires a relinquishment or some kind of death but also offers renewal and restoration.

In every ceremony I’ve been privy to or had described to me, there is always a time of study and preparation. Women do not undertake such a ritual unprepared or in ignorance of what it means. Always the gatekeepers remain present and aware, careful to gauge the mood of the group and the progress of each participant.

Inanna, with her link to sex and death, is not to be invoked without safeguards in place. Her myth specifically calls for opening the doors between the conscious and unconscious mind incrementally and ceremoniously. The story warns us that the journey is a long and dangerous one, a risky business that requires gravitas and can involve tears, howls, vomit, diarrhea,
or ecstasy.

The Descent offers a chance to look clearly at tired habits of thought and action. A woman may finally admit to an addiction or see how some long-denied pattern of action has failed her time and again. The Return offers a chance for something to be born or recovered. A woman may reclaim a talent or a forgotten dream, put aside years before, that suddenly offers itself, once more, as a viable choice. The possibilities are endless and unique to each individual on the journey. The point is change.

The Goddess, in every form she takes, is all about change. Inanna,
the Queen of Heaven, replete with every kind of talent, adoration, and power, begins her journey because of
a desire to change. We don’t know why. Often in old teaching tales the
questions left unanswered hold their own secret wisdom.

Perhaps she doesn’t know. Perhaps she longs for mystery. Undoubtedly she is aware that in undertaking this journey nothing will ever be the same again. The point is she decides on change and then rides out to meet it. A wise woman once told me, “Change or die!” At the time she terrified me and I had no idea what she meant or why she would say such a terrible thing. But her words continued to ring in my ears through the years every time I had a choice, every time a risk presented itself or a circumstance demanded courage. Her directive did indeed change my life and always for the better, though at times it took a little hindsight to understand how.

Inanna’s descent and return exemplify the “both and” inherent in Goddess Spirituality. One may change one’s self and hence the surrounding world both by releasing and/or embracing. Possibly, yesterday’s release will one day become tomorrow’s embrace or vice versa. The journey is an ongoing process of dismantling and rebuilding that goes on throughout life. Inanna’s ritual gives us focus, a sacred space in which to step out of time and consciously enact a psychological process that one way or another life will force us to undertake anyway. Engaging in it willingly, we emerge chastened, humble, and radiant, suffused with the power and strength of an ancient archetype. Inanna returns in glory to walk the world anew, as she has so many times before.

From Parabola Volume 44, No. 4, “Goddess,” Fall 2019. This issue is available to purchase here. If you have enjoyed this piece, consider subscribing. Four times a yearParabola has explored the deepest questions of human existence. Without your support, we would cease to exist. Please consider helping us by making a donation.