The myth of Inanna is one of the oldest tales of the Dark Night ever told. It is is an ancient myth of the Divine Feminine told through the ages that forms the Epilogue in the Dark Night book. Its purpose is to act as a bookend to my own brief story that is the Preface, illustrating the universal themes in these journeys of self discovery. As with any myth or fairytale, you must both suspend judgement using today’s standards and also step into the universal themes in them that apply to you now.
In addition to telling the story, I have included a process that may be helpful for bringing this age-old story into your own life and time.
Read the story aloud twice, pausing between readings to sink into the tale. Better yet, have someone read it aloud to you a couple of times. Sit in a meditative posture. When the reading is complete, note the phrase or element of the story that captures you most and then write a brief poem or draw a picture, create a dance, be expressive in some way, based on what struck you. You may want to journal to finish. If you are in a group, share your expressions and discuss the themes and insights.
Six thousand years ago in ancient Sumeria, Inanna is worshipped as the Goddess of Love and War. She is all-powerful, free to roam the vast regions of heaven and earth, and when she receives the gift of the divine laws of the universe, she becomes a radiant ruler of her people.
One day, Inanna suddenly hears the sound of her sister’s moans. Erishkagal, Inanna’s sister, is Queen of the Underworld, and it seems impossible that her cries could reach to the heavens, but it is true. Inanna hears her long and terrible wails, for Erishkagal is wounded and in pain.
“I must go to my dark sister in hell,” she tells her servant, Ninshubur. “You must not go,” Ninshubur cries. “No one returns from the Underworld.” But Inanna is determined to see her sister, to understand The Great Below by experiencing Death, and so she instructs her servant: “If I do not return in three days, you must go to seek help from the gods. They will rescue me.” Then Inanna prepares for the descent. Dressed in flowing royal robes, she places a crown of blazing gold upon her head. Around her neck she wears beads of lapis lazuli; she wears bracelets on her wrists and rings on her fingers. She wears a breastplate adorned with jewels, and she takes along a measuring rod and line of lapis lazuli. But that is all she takes; she is prepared to leave all she has ever known behind. Ninshubur is certain she will never see her mistress again.
When Inanna arrives at the outer gates of the Underworld, she challenges the gatekeeper, Neti, to allow her to pass. “I must consult with Erishkagal,” Neti says. He hurries to Inanna’s sister to describe the great and powerful goddess dressed in jewels who awaits entrance at the gate of the Underworld. Erishkagal envies and despises her powerful and carefree sister, and so she instructs her gatekeeper. “Open the seven gates,” she says, “but only the smallest crack. As my sister enters each gate, take another of her royal garments from her.”
And so Neti opens the first gate. Inanna, about to pass through, gasps as the gatekeeper removes her dazzling crown. “Why?” Inanna asks. “Quiet, Inanna. The ways of the Underworld are different. You may ask no questions,” Neti replies. At the second gate, Neti takes away Inanna’s beads, and again the goddess asks him, “Why?” “Our ways are not your ways,” Neti answers. At the third gate he removes her breastplate of sparkling stones. At the fourth gate, he takes away her bracelets, and at the fifth he snatches her rings. Inanna gasps again when Neti takes her measuring rod while she slips through the sixth gate, and when she finally reaches the last gate, she barely resists as he removes her beautiful royal robe and ushers her naked through the seventh gate.
Now defenseless, Inanna enters bowed low. She walks into her sister’s throne room, and as she does, the seven wraiths of the Underworld surround her and prepare to make judgment. Inanna looks up at her dark sister, and she sees the eye of death staring back. “Sister,” Erishkagal says, but that is all she says before she strikes Inanna dead. Inanna is hung from a peg and left to rot.
Meanwhile Ninshubur waits, and when three days have passed with no sign of her mistress, she flees to seek Enlil’s help, for he is God of the Air. “I cannot help,” he tells the weeping servant. “The Underworld is not my domain. Your mistress should not have ventured so far.” Ninshubur runs to Nanna, God of the Moon, but Nanna shakes her head. “I have no rule over the Underworld,” she says. And so at last Ninshubur visits Enki, God of Wisdom and Water, and Inanna’s grandfather. It is he, after all, who originally blessed Inanna with the gift of the universal laws, for he knew that without Inanna, life on earth would die. From beneath his fingernails, Enki takes dirt and with this he creates two new creatures. “Go to the Underworld and give these gifts to Inanna,” he instructs the creatures as he hands them goblets filled with the food and water of life.
Able to adopt any disguise, the creatures turn themselves into flies and slip unnoticed through the cracks at each of the seven gates of the Underworld. When they reach the throne room, they hear Erishkagal’s moans. “Oh, my heart and soul,” she weeps and the creatures echo Erishkagal’s words back to her. “Oh, my heart and soul,” they moan with her. They moan with compassion and understanding, and compassion is what Erishkagal craves most. At last she grows silent and turning to those who seem to feel empathy for her pain, she offers them any gift they desire. “Give us Inanna’s body,” the creatures ask.
Erishkagal gives them Inanna’s body, and they feed the goddess the food and water of life. And so Inanna ascends, knowing that what she has learned about herself and about life demands sacrifice, and so before she can return to heaven and earth for good, according to the universal laws, a substitute, one of her dearest loved ones, must be found to take her place and live in the dark Underworld.
Inanna returns to earth in search of someone to substitute for her. All the way to the palace, her people weep and mourn her absence and the earth has begun to decay. All except her husband Dumuzi who sits on her throne dressed as a king and playing the flute. When Inanna sees this, she chooses Dumuzi to live in the Underworld as his punishment, but his compassionate sister volunteers to serve his sentence for six months of every year. Inanna is moved by this gesture of true love and compassion, and so brother and sister serve equally. In this way, the cycle of life begins again each spring when Dumuzi returns to join Inanna, the king and queen wedded to the earth. Inanna has united in herself the upper and lower worlds. Her power and wisdom are greater than ever. She is magnificent.
Notes for Discussion:
- Inanna has lived in the upper world, in the light. She hears the call from her sister who is held in darkness in the Underworld. What do you think inspired her to respond to the call to confront her own darkness?
- She prepares with all her material worldly possessions but they are no good to her in her inner work and world. She must leave them all behind. How does this “stripping” relate to the outer and inner worlds?
- To accomplish her initiation, she must die to her separate self and be united with her ‘sister’, her dark side. She must incorporate her own darkness, her denied feelings, her shadow side. How does Erishkagal represent these hidden characteristics?
- She is aided on her journey by guides and mentors who understand the inner and outer worlds, her humble servant Ninshubur and her wise grandfather Enki, as well as the empathic creatures he sends. What are the feeling qualities that ultimately save Inanna, and how are they similar to the qualities in his sister that eventually save Dumuzi as well?
- Erishkagal mourns for her repressed feminine side, as if she has gone into labour, needing to be reborn. How is this labour reflective of the need for transformation?
- When Inanna is restored, she too must suffer some sacrifice. She must send someone she loves, some part of her former self that she is attached to, into darkness so she never forgets this aspect of her consciousness. How does Inanna’s sacrifice maintain the passage between the light and dark that is needed for wholeness?
- Dumuzi must also descend as a male and undergo the same initiation as Inanna. He must ‘go to hell’ so that he too may be made whole by finding his lost feminine. How is his compassionate sister reflective of Dumuzi’s own inner feminine?
- By sharing each year, the cycles of sun and moon, harvest and fallow seasons, dark and light, masculine and feminine, are sustained. The king and queen become true partners, wedded to each other, keeping the wasteland at bay. How is this story relevant today? What partnerships are needed to keep our wastelands at bay?