Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Inanna Visits Her Sister In Hell

Of course the most famous myth about Inanna is the story of her descent to the underworld to visit her sister (or, as she’s been called, sister-self) Ereshkigal, Queen of the Underworld. (By the way, all of this comes from the definitive text on Inanna, Diane Wolkstein & Samuel Noah Kramer’s Inanna queen of heaven and earth: Her stories and hymns from Sumer.)

Now, I’m not sure why Inanna decided to do this—a trip to the underworld doesn’t seem like something one would just casually do on an idle afternoon, but the second Inanna hears her sister moaning her mind is made up. Inanna’s crafty, though: she tells her faithful servant that if she doesn’t return in three days he’s to come after her.

And so she puts on her queenly adornments and armor and begins to descend. As she approaches each of the seven gates guarding the underworld, she is told she has to remove another article of clothing. First her crown, then her lapis beads, her sparkling earrings, her breastplate, her gold rings, her lapis measuring rod and, finally, her royal robe.

She enters the realm of the dead, the realm of her sister-self, naked and disarmed.

This business of the seven gates and of the gradual disrobing only to arrive at her own, albeit darker, self has fascinated me. I borrowed this structure for my novel, The Jar-Born Sage. The book is divided into seven gates, or chapters: each gate is subdivided into the four voices of the narrative. Once she passes through the final gate the main character, Jasmine, finds herself spiritually naked—unsure of even the basic reality she once took for granted—before the female members of her own family. In the book,

Ereshekiegal takes one look at her and Inanna is turned into “a rotting corpse.” I have no idea why she does this, except that perhaps this is just her nature. I’m also surprised at the term “rotting corpse”—just so oddly graphic, but there it is. This rotting corpse is hung on a hook near Ereshkeigal’s throne and there it stays for three night and three days.

After these three days passed and Inanna didn’t emerge her servant went looking for help, as he’d been instructed to do. He approaches Enlil, God of Air, and Nanna, God of the Moon,neither of whom can help: the underworld, after all, doesn’t fall under their jurisdiction. Enki, God of Wisdom and Water, does agree to help: he makes two genderless beings from the dirt under his fingernails and gives them the food and water of life to carry to Inanna below.

Once they arrive at the throne room they find Ereshkegal moaning and crying. They cry with her, taking on her pain as their own and reflecting it back to her. In return she lets them take Inanna. They feed her the water and food of life and she revives. Together they return to the upper world.


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