Inanna: journey to the underworld

Inanna on the Ishtar Vase wearing the horned tiara, surrounded by birds, fish, a bull and a tortoise, circa 1999 and circa 1599 BC, US public domain via wikimedia.
Inanna on the Ishtar Vase wearing the horned tiara, surrounded by birds, fish, a bull and a tortoise, circa 1999 and circa 1599 BC, US public domain via wikimedia.

Inanna is the ancient Sumerian goddess of love, procreation, fertility. She is called ‘Queen of Heaven.’

A poem called The Descent of Inanna (c. 1900-1600 BCE) tells a story of Inanna’s descent into the underworld to see her sister Ereshkigal. Inanna is the Queen of Heaven and Ereshkigal is the Queen of the Underworld. From a symbolic perspective, the two sisters represent the dual aspect of the goddess. The two forms of the goddess in turn represent the primordial polarity of being that must be integrated in order to realize the totality and wholeness of the Self.

The poem begins as Inanna sets her mind from the ‘great above’ to the ‘great below’.

From the “great above” she set her mind toward the “great below,”
The goddess, from the “great above” she set her mind toward the “great below,” Inanna, from the “great above” she set her mind toward the “great below.”

Th poem tells us that Inanna abandons heaven, earth, and her ladyship.

My lady abandoned heaven, abandoned earth,
To the nether world she descended,
Inanna abandoned heaven, abandoned earth,
To the nether world she descended,
Abandoned lordship, abandoned ladyship,
To the nether world she descended.

To prepare for the journey, Inanna collects the seven divine powers. She puts on her royal attire: the crown of heaven on her head, lapis stones around her neck, her golden ring on her finger, her breastplate on her breast, ointment on her face. She carries with her the lapis rod.

The seven divine decrees she fastened at the side,
She sought out the divine decrees, placed them at her hand,
All the decrees she set up at (her) waiting foot,
The shugurra, the crown of the plain, she put upon her head,
Radiance she placed upon her countenance,
The . . . rod of lapis lazuli she gripped in (her) hand,
Small lapis lazuli stones she tied about her neck,
Sparkling . . . stones she fastened to her breast,
A gold ring she gripped in her band,
A . . . breastplate she bound about her breast,
All the garments of ladyship she arranged about her body,
. . . ointment she put on her face.

She heads toward the underworld. Her messenger Ninshubur by her side. She instructs Ninshubur that if she does not return he is to plead with the deities to save her; for it is a law of the underworld that once you enter you can never leave.

Inanna descends to the underworld. Arriving at the gate of the nether world, she acts ‘evilly.’ The gatekeeper Neti answers:

Neti, the chief gatekeeper of the nether world,
Answers the pure Inanna:
“Who pray art thou?”

“I am the queen of heaven, the place where the sun rises.”

“If thou art the queen of heaven, the place where the sun rises,
Why pray hast thou come to the land of no return?
On the road whose traveller returns not how has thy heart led thee?”

The pure Inanna answers him:
“My elder sister Ereshkigal,
Because her husband, the lord Gugalanna, had been killed,
To witness the funeral rites; so be it.”

The gatekeeper allows Inanna to enter the underworld. He tells her she must give up her lapis rod, for this is ‘the ways of the Underworld’. At each of seven gates she must give up her clothing and jewels. All the garments of her body are removed, one by one.

‘Bowed low’ and naked, Inanna meets her sister and goddess of the underworld Ereshkigal. The seven judges of the nether world, called the Anunnaki, glare at her with the eyes of death.

The pure Ereshkigal seated herself upon her throne,
The Anunnaki, the seven judges, pronounced judgment before her,
They fastened (their) eyes upon her, the eyes of death,
At their word, the word which tortures the spirit,
. . . ,
The sick woman was turned into a corpse,
The corpse was hung from a stake.

Inanna Queen of Heaven meets with her sister Queen of the Underworld, Ereshkigal. In this moment the judges fasten their eyes upon her, turning her into a corpse, and hanging the corpse upon a stake.

Meanwhile, Ninshubur realizes that Inanna has been gone too long. Inanna had given him instructions to pursue help “after three days and three nights.” So, Ninshubur fills the heaven with complaints:

“Let not the maid Inanna be put to death in the nether world.”

Ninshubur first went to the god Enlil. The god replied that she had gone from the ‘great above’ to the ‘great below’. The decrees of the ‘nether world’ shall prevail. Ninshubur then went to the god Nanna. The god said that she had gone from the ‘great above’ to the ‘great below’. The decrees of the ‘nether world’ shall prevail. Ninshubur then went to the god Enki and begged ‘”O father Enki, let not thy daughter be put to death in the nether world.”

Father Enki answers Ninshubur:
“What now has my daughter done! I am troubled,
What now has Inanna done! I am troubled,
What now has the queen of all the lands done! I am troubled,
What now has the hierodule of heaven done! I am troubled.”

. . . he brought forth dirt (and) fashioned the kurgarru,
. . . he brought forth dirt (and) fashioned the kalaturru,
To the kurgarru he gave the food of life,
To the kalaturru he gave the water of life,

Father Enki tells the creatures to go the nether world and sprinkle the food and water of life on Inanna’s corpse. With this, Inanna is retrieved from the underworld.

References:

  1. Wikipedia
  2. Sumerian Mythology By Samuel Noah Kramer [1944, 1961] Sacred-Texts.org