The Descent of Inanna: A template for the heroine’s journey

There’s been an unraveling this year. A dismantling of thoughts, beliefs, and things I held dear; and ideas I shaped my days around. As these different identities started to shatter around me, I felt like a new born chick that’s just hatched out of the egg; its tender skin exposed to the harsh world, no feathers to soften the blows.

This slow unraveling, reminds me, in some ways, of Inanna and her descent into the underworld.

Her myth is even more pertinent at this time as Venus, also known as the Star of Inanna, goes into retrograde on 19 December 2021, descending to the Underworld to meet her sister Ereshkigal. She emerges from retrograde, from the Underworld, on 29 January 2022, making this a a good time to work with Inanna’s myth. (Venus goes into retrograde every 9 months, so any Venus retrograde period would be an excellent time to revisit the myth of the Descent of Inanna).

The Descent of Inanna

The Descent of Inanna is the first epic poem, written on clay tablets in the third millennium B.C. The Sumerian poem chronicles the journey of the goddess Inanna from heaven, to earth, to the underworld, to visit her recently widowed sister Ereshkigal, Queen of the Dead.

The poem begins famously with the lines:

From the Great Above she opened her ear to the Great Below

From the Great Above the goddess opened her ear to the Great Below

From the Great Above Inanna opened her ear to the Great Below

Wolkstein and Kramer, 52

The epic goes on to describe Inanna’s journey, as she passes through the seven gateways to the underworld. At each gateway, one piece of Inanna’s magnificent regalia is removed, until she arrives before her sister, Ereshkigal, the Queen of Hell, “naked and bowed low”.

Ereshkigal is grieving the death of her husband, caused by the hand of Inanna. In a rage, she kills Inanna and hangs her onto a hook for three nights.

The annuna, the judges of the underworld, surrounded her

They passed judgment against her.

Then Ereshkigal 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

Wolkstein and Kramer, 60

After three days, when Inanna fails to return, her faithful servant and advisor Ninshubur, who had accompanied her part of the way, sets into motion her instructions to get help for her release.

Inanna’s father, the God Enki, sends two ‘galla’, androgynous beings, to aid Ninshubur in returning Inanna to the earth. They secure Inanna’s release by commiserating with Ereshkigal, who is so grateful for empathy that she finally hands over Inanna’s corpse. The galla revive Inanna with the food and water of life, and she rises from the dead.

A Jungian interpretation of The Descent of Inanna

The “Burney Relief”, which is speculated to represent either Ishtar or her older sister Ereshkigal (c. 19th or 18th century BCE)

There’s more to the epic of course, and a context within which Inanna’s journey needs to be placed. However, as a modern Jungian interpretation, Inanna’s descent represents a katabasis, or a journey to the underworld, which is a component of the hero’s journey and the process of transformation.

The descent of Inanna can thus be seen as an initiatory process. A stripping away of everything that was held dear, coming face-to-face with the shadow, re-uniting, and then rising back together into the light.

Like Inanna, we constantly challenge ourselves, strive harder to learn, know, be and do more. This is not necessarily a good or a bad thing. But part of this doing and striving, this process of personal growth that we undertake over and over again, can be likened to a period of death, rebirth, and renewal.

As old structures crumble, our psyche journeys down to the underworld, coming face-to-face with old ideas, visions, and identities that no longer serve us. Our stories are shattered, and we need to create new ones — more empowering ones. And then we rise up, like Inanna, aware of our vulnerabilities, and the strength that we can draw from them.

The concept that the hero has to undergo trials to attain a semblance of enlightenment goes hand in hand with the underworld journey. Joseph Campbell mentions in the monomyth that this underworld journey is the “crossing the threshold” into the “belly of the whale.” However, I also like to think of the katabasis as more of a state of unknown that heroes must venture into in order to experience the symbolic death and rebirth into required knowledge and understanding before setting off to complete the rest of their tasks. It’s only after encountering this dark unknown that a transformation and rebirth of the hero can happen. The unknown reflects the underworld journey inward into the place of one’s own fears and shadows, haunting even the most optimistic adventurer. These shadows reflect the mythical aspect of the human condition: the repressed, often frightening elements of the psyche. The shadows, according to C.G. Jung, also symbolize “natural attempts to reconcile and reunite opposites within the psyche,” and naturally “heal the split” within one’s soul.

Lunar Station Quarterly

The Descent of Inanna as the Heroine’s Journey

A modern illustration depicting Inanna-Ishtar’s descent into the Underworld taken from Lewis Spence’s Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria (1916)

As I look at all the old ideas lying broken around me, I know that the next step in this journey of unravelling is to begin to piece things back together again. Sifting through the rubble of old ideas, there are some usable pieces that I want to bring back with me. There are also a lot of gaping holes.

Just like the descent is a journey, so too is the ascent. Any time there is a stripping away, there is also a need to weave things back together again.

This 4,000 year old story of the Descent of Inanna also holds clues to the ascent. As with any story, especially one that is so old, there are numerous retellings. This is the one that I love best, because it is serves as a template for the heroine’s journey.

The call

Queen Inanna, the Queen of Light, was a strong, successful, well-respected leader. She had been living in comfort and luxury, certain of her place in the world, until one day, she heard a whisper calling her to the Underworld. This call from the blue mystified her, and she ignored it.

But like anything that is ignored, that call simply became louder and louder.

Inanna really didn’t want to go to the Underworld. Why would she? It was ruled by her sister, Ereshkigal, the Queen of Darkness, who presided over the dead and all that lay in the shadows. She was married to Nergal, the god of war, plague, and pestilence. Not a very pleasant place to be.

The awakening

 Ancient Akkadian cylindrical seal depicting the goddess Inanna/Ishtar and Ninshubur. The seal originates from the Akkad Period and was created sometime circa 2334-2154 B.C.

But the call kept on beckoning, asking Inanna to see what she has not yet seen, to experience what she has not yet experienced and to learn what she does not yet know. As the call becomes louder and louder, Inanna decides that maybe it is time for her to experience what she has not yet experienced and to learn what she does not yet know.

With the help of her servant Ninshubur, she readies herself for the journey to the Underworld. She wears on her head her royal crown of influence, adorns herself with necklace, bracelets, golden rings, a breastplate for armor and a thick, royal cloak.

Even as she is helping Inanna get ready for her journey, Ninshubur tries to talk her out of it. No one has ever gone to the Underworld and returned unscathed. Those who have attempted it rarely come out alive. But Inanna is determined to go.

“Ninshubur, my faithful friend, I must do this. I know it will not be easy, but still I must go. Will you wait for my return? If I do not return after 3 days, bang the drums, gather my people and tell them what happened to me. Then go to the elders and ask them to bring me back. Will you do this for me?”

“Yes, my Queen.” Ninshubur replies with a bow.

With that Inanna sets off on her journey to the Underworld.

The descent: Passing through the seven gates of judgement

As Innana begins her journey, she encounters her first obstacle. To reach the Underworld, Inanna needs to pass through seven gates. When Ereshkigal learns of Inanna’s arrival at the first of the seven gates, she orders them to be sealed and bolted. She demands sacrifices from her sister Inanna to pass through each gate, so that she enters Ereshkigal’s palace bowed and humbled.

Inanna knocks softly at the first gate, and a gatekeeper asks, “who are you and why have you come?”

“My name is Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth. Please let me in. I have come to see what I have not yet seen, to experience what I’ve not yet experienced, and to learn what do not yet know.”

The gatekeeper tells her that she must relinquish her royal crown if she wants to enter through the gate. For Inanna, giving up her royal crown feels like giving away a bit of her power. Her crown is a symbol of her hard earned royalty, power and influence. But here in the Underworld, she has none of these, so reluctantly, she gives up her crown and proceeds to the next gate.

At the second gate Inanna stands tall and knocks. “HelloMy name is Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth. I have come to see what I have not yet seen, to experience what I’ve not yet experienced, and to learn what do not yet know.” At this gate, she is asked to give up her bracelet.

At the third gate Inanna knocks again hesitantly, wondering what she will be asked to give up this time. “My name is Innana, I have come to see what I have not yet seen, to experience what I’ve not yet experienced and to learn what do not yet know.”

She is asked to give up her necklace. As she hands it over, Inanna realizes that she is being asked to strip herself of all the adornments she came with. Little by little, this is making her weaker and weaker.

She approaches the sixth gate feeling increasingly vulnerable. She knocks, hesitantly. “My name is Inanna. And… I hardly remember what I came here for…” Without being asked, her breastplate is taken from her. Now her heart is exposed, and she is at her most vulnerable without it. She wonders if it is worth continuing on this insane journey. As she looks back, she realizes that the path she has taken to reach this far has disappeared. She has no choice but to continue forward.

As she descends further, the walls seem to constrict around her. Her cloak is dragging on the ground, muddy and royal no more. As she continues to walk, the path continues to constrict, until she is forced to crawl on her hands and knees. As she continues, her legs and palms are cut and bruised; each step seems harder and harder, and she wonders why she ever decided to give up her comforts and take this foolhardy journey that has been filled with suffering.

Eventually, Inanna reaches the last and final gate. She taps on the door gently. “Hello? I am here… and… that is all.” At this gate, she is asked to hand in her last and final piece of clothing, her royal cloak. She is now completely naked and vulnerable with nothing to defend herself.

All is lost/death: Meeting Ereshkigal

Inanna enters the final gate, and walks to the throne room of her sister Ereshkigal, the Queen of the Underworld, naked, humble and defeated. Ereshkigal sits regally upon her throne and looks down at Innana with the Eye of Death. In that moment, Inanna dies, and Ereshkigal hangs her sister’s corpse on a hook for three days.

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Ancient Sumerian statuette of two galla priests, dating to c. 2450 BCE, found in the temple of Inanna at Mari

Meanwhile, Ninshubur is waiting outside the first gate for Inanna’s arrival. When she doesn’t return on the third day, she does as she was told.

She bangs the drums and informs the people that their Queen has descended into the Underworld. Then she goes to the elders and asks them for help.

The elders rush to the Underworld to rescue Inanna. They make it through each gate easily and find her hanging on a hook, her corpse rotting. Alarmed, they pull her off, attempting to bring her back to life, but nothing seems to work. Eventually, Ereshkigal who was watching from the darkness, steps forward and gives her sister the water and food of life, a magical substance that can resurrect the dead.

Rebirth

Everyone stands back, waiting. Inanna slowly comes back to life, and Ereshkigal retreats back into the darkness. As Inanna turns to leave, the guards of the Underworld stop her. The only way she can leave is if she leaves someone or something of value behind to take her place.

Inanna looks around her, at her faithful friend Ninshubur and all the elders who rushed to her rescue. How can she sacrifice any of them, she wonders, worried that she may have to remain in the Underworld after all. The elders remind Inanna that her people need her, that they are mourning for her and waiting for her to return. Slowly, she looks around her, and realizes the one person who is not here to rescue her, who is not morning her death is her husband Dumuzi.

“Ninshubur, my faithful friend, I do not see Dumuzi here with the elders. Where is he? How did he react when he heard of my trials?”

And Ninshubur whispered, “My lady, Inanna, he remains dressed in his finery, and remains sitting on his magnificent throne.”

Enraged and heartbroken, Inanna turns to the guards of the Underworld and says that she will sacrifice her husband.

The return

As Inanna begins her journey back to the Upperworld, she stops at each gate to take inventory of what she was forced to give up.

At each gate, she asks herself what value each item holds for her now. Does it fit her new vision of the world? Does the cloak hold any real power? The breastplate, the earrings and necklaces, the crown?

She decides to leave everything and return to the Upperworld as a humbler, wiser woman. The journey to the Underworld has forever changed her. The person she was before is dead, but a new woman was born in the process.

She feels stronger than she has ever felt before, for she accomplished what she had set out to accomplish. She saw what she has never seen, experienced what she has never experienced, and learned what she did not know.

The clues to Innana’s ascent

With this retelling of Innana’s descent into and ascent from the Underworld, we can see a pattern for the unraveling and the weaving back together of the psyche that we undertake every time we enter a cycle of change.

The process may not always be dramatic or long drawn out, but the pattern is fairly consistent nevertheless.

All four stages of this Underworld journey are important as we view Inanna’s story through this archetypal framework that each one of us must take to reach wholeness.

The descent is the stripping away of old patterns, stories, and beliefs. Sometimes this is painful, but often, it’s a sudden realization that pushes us into an examination and an unravelling.

After the descent, we must rest in liminal space. Just as Inanna hung dead for 3 days, we, too, must remain for a while in that soupy state of not-knowing. It is while we are here that we will find our helpers. They could come to us in the form of books, articles, podcasts, or song; through signs, symbols and oracles; inspiration or yet another realization.

As we start to weave the pieces back together and begin the ascent, we have the chance to re-examine and re-write our stories and beliefs for how we show up and operate in the world.

We are often afraid of these death and rebirth cycles, but I’ve found that they are not always as difficult as they seem. I think the only reason we fear them is because we are afraid of change; we are afraid of the hardship and pain that will come from the unraveling and the not knowing.

While some periods of transformation can be harder than others, I have also found that they are never as difficult as we imagine them to be.

Sometimes, we undertake these journeys willingly — unable to ignore the call anymore. At other times, the changes start so subtly, without any real planning or thought on our part, that we barely even recognize that we have started to descend. That’s certainly been the case for me this year.

Which shouldn’t be too surprising. We are, after all, in the collective year of The Hierophant, which means that we will, more often than not, find ourselves dismantling “the way things are done” in favor of the way we would rather live our own lives, even though doing so may be counter-cultural.

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4 comments

  1. Loved the inclusion of all ancient images inside the blog with the true explanation! Superb blog i ever seen on internet till now.

    Like

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