Inanna’s journey into the underworld as it relates to transformative growth
The Descent of Inanna is a Sumerian poem from over 3,500 years ago that tells the story of Inanna’s journey into her sister’s domain – the underworld. When I first encountered and studied this myth, it was in the context of my dissertation on transformative literacy. The myth was crucial for me in a time when I felt lost and needed to know how to move forward and create a new identity.
As I mentioned, my original research with Inanna was focused towards my work on transformative literacy (for more on this – check out my dissertation link). For this reason, the work I did was deep, but not wide – meaning I went very deep into the focus but did not look into different interpretations or for wider context for the poem. Part 1, this part of the writings on this poem is dedicated to that original, simpler research of the heroine, Inanna. With this research, I will discuss how Inanna is a representation of transformative growth and becoming a “whole person.”
The poem opens with the following 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.
My Lady abandoned heaven and earth to descend to the underworld.
Inanna abandoned heaven and earth to descend to the underworld.”
For the complete translation of the epic poem click the link below: http://people.uncw.edu/deagona/myth/Descent%20Of%20Inanna.pdf
At first glance, it appears the first three lines are a repetition, but when looked at more closely – it is seen that they go from general to specific.
From the Great above (she, the goddess, Inanna) opened her ear to the Great Below.
Individuation (becoming whole) is initiated by an individual seeking to define themselves and find their place in the world. Transformation is constant, but transformative growth begins with breaking down and creating definition. The first three lines, and then the next two lines help us to understand who Inanna is; they define the central character and action she will take in the story. The Great Above is earth – Inanna’s domain and the Great Below is the underworld – her sister’s domain and the place where none return.
The most important lesson I learned from Inanna was to prepare and the second most important lesson is to have people you can trust and be willing to rely on them. Before Inanna makes her descent into the underworld, she calls her trusted assistant and friend, Ninshubur. Inanna tells Ninshubur of her plan to enter the underworld and gives her instructions of what to do if Inanna does not return. (I won’t detail the plans since it will be revealed as Ninshubur follows the plans later in the poem).
It is only after Inanna makes the necessary plans to secure a return, that she gets all dressed up and leaves her earthly temples to visit her recently widowed sister Erishkigal in the underworld. She intends to attend the funeral for her brother-in-law, the Bull of Heaven, and see her sister.
When Inanna arrives at the gates to the underworld, this is how she appears:
As tall as heaven and as wide as the earth.
“On her head she wears the shurgarra, the crown of the steppe.
Across her forehead her dark locks of hair are carefully arranged.
Around her neck she wears the small lapis beads.
At her breast she wears the double strand of beads.
Her body is wrapped in the royal robe.
Her eyes are daubed with the ointment “let him come, let him come.”
Around her chest she wears the breast plate called “come, man, come!”
On her wrist she wears the gold ring.
In her hand she carries the lapis measuring rod and line.”
When Erishkigal hears that her sister is there to visit her in her finery, she is not pleased and she instructs the gate keeper to close the seven gates and allow Inanna to enter each gate, one at a time. At each gate, Inanna is to be stripped of one of the items she is wearing (each colored line represents one of the items that was removed) and not until she is completely stripped and humbled will she be allowed entrance.
This part is all a bit severe when looked at in the context of the poem alone. My research explained that Inanna is the light side and Erishkigal is the dark – that what benefits Inanna usually hurts Erishkigal and it is for this reason that Erishkigal is angry. However, the research also had other interpretations – like Inanna represented the conscious, known self that is metaphorically diving into her unconscious where she faces her inner demons to become a more complete and better version of herself. I don’t know what it really means or represents at this point – I just know Erishkigal makes her sister humble before she will see her and when she does see her, she unleashes her judgement and wrath and turns her into a disgusting piece of rotting meat which she then leaves to hang on a hook. HARSH!
At the time, the way I understood this part of the story is that it represented how when you face your inner self – it’s often painful and humbling because there are things we bury because we don’t want to face them or admit that they are a part of ourselves. When you are honest with yourself (really honest) and see yourself for your weaknesses and faults – you can become crushed by the shame, crushed by regret, or simply just crushed and feel like your insides are ripped out until you are nothing but meat – rotting away on a hook. (I was going through a painful time in my life and the image of rotting meat on a hook related heavily to how I felt inside.)
Inanna would have stayed on the hook if it had not been for planning and the loyalty of Ninshubur to follow through with Inanna’s plans.
After three days, when Inanna did not return, Ninshubur openly went into mourning (as instructed), but also began to aid Inanna in her return. Ninshubur goes to Inanna’s father, then grandfather, and finally to her other grandfather seeking assistance for bringing Inanna out of the underworld. The first two refuse to help Inanna and say that she basically got what she deserved (again HARSH), but the third has sympathy for Inanna and sends two creatures to Erishkigal. He instructs the creatures with how to bring Inanna back to life and back to her place on earth.
When the beings find Erishkigal, she is alone and in labor with a child from her recently deceased husband. Erishkigal moans with pain and the beings moan with her in sympathy, she cries in pain, and the beings cry with her. In this way, by being present and showing empathy for Erishkigal, the beings eased her suffering and gave her some solace in a difficult time. For their actions, Erishkigal grants them anything they ask for – which of course, they ask for the rotting corpse of Inanna, as instructed.
Once the little creatures get Inanna’s corpse, they sprinkle the water and food of life on her and she is again Inanna and has the ability to return home. But it isn’t that simple – Inanna can’t just leave – Inanna was judged and sentenced, she can’t just leave without payment – Inanna is allowed to go but she has to send someone to take her place in the underworld.
With my research at the time, I saw this story as transformation – Inanna is stripped (broken down and defined), she faces challenges and reaches a final “rock bottom,” and then she rises after a final struggle and triumph but she is different because she has demons with her – these demons are called gallas.
When I went through my difficult time, I felt stripped of my identity, stripped of the things I held dear, stripped of my possessions, my security, and basically I felt like I had lost my life. Believe me, it was painful and I felt the full weight of my judgements on my self, I felt shame and regret. I was angry and hurt, but when I didn’t feel pain, confusion, loss, and millions of other feeling I associated with Inanna’s experience to becoming a corpse on a hook, deep down, I had faith and I actually felt a bit of relief at being fully stripped and taken to my lowest point – I knew I would be like Inanna and rise again. I knew it had to get better – it really couldn’t get worse, could it?
Inanna rose – with her gallas. She met Ninshubur who cried with joy to see Inanna. The gallas were hungry – like when we have suffered, we often feel the need to unleash the pain. The gallas wanted to take Ninshubur into the underworld in Inanna’s place and Inanna refused.
Inanna next meets her son, then another son, and finally her beautician – all three were in mourning at Inanna’s death and rejoice when they see her. The gallas want to take them in Inanna’s place and Inanna refuses again and again because they are loyal.
Finally, Inanna sees her lover Dumuzi. Dumuzi is not in mourning, on the contrary – he is dressed finely and seated upon his throne. Inanna takes one look at him and her gallas descend on him. She not only returns from the underworld, she is more powerful than before because she uses her gallas (her experience) not to harm just anyone around her, but she guides them to punish the one that is disloyal to her. She is not controlled by her gallas – she controls them and aims them at her lover.
I wanted to be like Inanna – I wanted my pain, my experiences to give me strength, and to do that, I needed to learn control. From Inanna, I learned how to take something painful and through planning, help from others, and some hard work – it is possible to rise and return with more strength and power.
Thank you for reading – please leave me your feedback – I look forward to reading what you think.
Part 2 will look at the poem in the larger cultural context that includes the story – The Epic of Gilgamesh.
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