03 December 2008
Let me start off by saying that, according to historians, Inanna is the Sumerian version of the Akkadian goddess Ishtar. I'm not sure I fully accept this. As a hard polytheist, or a hard ass depending on who you ask, I usually tend to think of goddesses as individuals and generally dislike equating various deities with others of similar character. But, in this case, I'll agree that they are pretty similar. So, for the purposes of this blog I won't be treating Ishtar to her own post.
Like more than one Middle Eastern goddess Inanna is closely associated with the planet Venus. It represented a dual nature; hence, Inanna is a goddess of love and war. Although she is linked with fertility she is most definitely not a mother goddess of any sort. She has an unquenchable lust for sex and love as well as war and blood. Her iconography includes the eight pointed star, also called a rosette, and lions. She is sometimes shown standing atop them. She is most closely associated with the city of Uruk in modern day Iraq.
My favorite, and the most popular, Inanna story is that of her descent to the Underworld. Before she presents herself at the gates she makes a backup plan with her servant Ninshubar. Knowing the potential danger of such an undertaking, and how much it will piss off the reigning powers, she dresses up in all her finest, including magical amulets, jewels and so on. When she reaches the first gate she demands to enter on the pretext of attending a funeral, even though she is dressed inappropriately for such an event. Before admitting her the dutiful gatekeeper informs his mistress, Erishkigal, Queen of the Underworld, and Inanna's sister, of her request. Erishkigal is not pleased, to say the least, and orders that all of the seven gates be locked before Inanna can enter. As she passes through each gate she is required to remove one item of her regalia. When she finally reaches the throne of Erishkigal she is completely naked and defenseless. She makes an attempt to take the throne but is quickly thwarted and condemned to die. Her body is hung on a hook and her contingency plan goes into action.
Inanna's servant, Ninshubar, goes into mourning and appeals to the gods Enlil, Nanna and Enki for help. The first two refuse on the grounds that Inanna's arrogant ambition has served her right and she has only gotten what she deserves. Only Enki agrees to intervene. He creates two sexless beings, perhaps to be understood as eunuchs or transvestites who performed ritual plays or other duties in devotion of the goddess, who will travel to the Underworld and save Inanna. They reach the gates and request the body of Inanna. This request is honored and the two then sprinkle the food and water of life, provided by Enki, on the corpse and she is revived. The lords of the underworld, however, demand that she provide a suitable substitute for herself and immediately seize upon Ninshubar. Inanna refuses to give up her servant. Erishkigal's demons then try to grab the various gods who had been mourning Inanna and she refuses to let them be taken as well. It is only when she sees her husband, Dumuzi, living it up on a throne that she indicates he will take her place in punishment for his faithlessness. In the end Inanna relents somewhat and allows Dumuzi's sister, Geshtinanna, to share in his punishment. They each, therefore, must spend half the year in the Underworld.
Now, obviously, there's a lot going on in this story. The Jungian interpretation makes this out to be a story of falling into the deepest of depressions and eventually returning to a state of normalcy. I can relate to that but I tend to think of Inanna's descent to the Underworld in more, shall we say, esoteric terms. She knows her plan is risky and that she may, in fact, die. She also seems to be aware that only by the intervention of other gods will she return from this most dangerous of quests. While she is eventually stripped of her finery and amulets they do ensure her safe passage through the multiple gates of the Underworld. This could be interpreted as the magic and beliefs humanity clings to when it comes to death. These things might not be rational but they will usually carry us, and help us, through our lives. But just as Inanna must face death naked and defenseless so shall we. All our beliefs and magic will only get us so far. We will all reach the ultimate moment when we must face who we are, who we have been and what we have done with our lives with nothing to help us but ourselves. Her futile and perhaps foolish attempt to seize the throne is an obvious reference to mankind's attempts to cheat or defeat death. But just as Inanna must die so shall we. And as Inanna's body is hung up on the wall and left to rot so our bodies will cease to be. They will rot or be burned away leaving only our souls.
The three deities Enlil, Nanna and Enki are also of great importance. Enlil is a god of wind and loftiness i.e. intelligence of the mind. Nanna as the god of the moon has close ties to astrology. Now Enlil refuses to help Inanna and this speaks to the fact that one's intellectual capacity doesn't do much for one's soul. Nanna, as a male moon deity is trickier and could speak to the fact that a prediction of one's death, or any event, can in no way prevent it. Enki, as a supreme god of creation, is also key. Mythologically speaking, he was considered a champion for humanity and one who seeks to maintain balance in the world. The message seems to be that Enki is a god worth appealing to in times of illness and grief. In my mind the food and water of life, since they come from a god of creation and restore Inanna to life, represent the semen and egg of humanity that creates a new life. Dumuzi is also important. He is a god of plant life and, therefore, food. His lack of concern at his spouse's death speaks to the fact that life, for those left behind, goes on despite the loss of one person. As a dying god his fate of spending half the year in the Underworld is a pat explanation of the seasons, in much the same manner of Persephone of Greek myth.
So there you have it. Inanna makes her way to the Underworld and, eventually and with the help of others, returns from it. Her journey is a reflection of the journey we all must take. We prepare for death in every way we can but in the end those physical preparations mean nothing and we must deal with our inner selves. And only through the intervention of the gods can we be reborn into this life. My interpretation is only that, one interpretation among many and I hope it's worth the cyberspace it takes up.
Original art by Lisa Hunt.