In the timeless tradition of bards and rishis, I would like to tell the legend of Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth. As daughter of the Moon and sister of the Sun, Inanna is the morning and evening star, Venus-Aphrodite, in the Sumerian pantheon. Yet her story is about a wife, mother, priestess, queen, and goddess who not only wrested from a god the laws and arts of civilization for her people, but who, by descending into the underworld and returning, assures us of the soul's immortality. The poems that relate her story were inscribed on clay tablets nearly four thousand years ago, some perhaps earlier. Buried for millennia beneath the ruins of ancient cities which once flourished between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, fragments of these have been painstakingly recovered and deciphered over the last 150 years. One of the more recent books, Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth, Her Stories and Hymns from Sumer (Harper & Row Publishers, New York, 1983), brings out the depth and beauty of the original stories with a moving retelling and interpretation by gifted folklorist Diane Wolkstein in collaboration with the late Samuel Noah Kramer, the preeminent expert on Sumer, who also provided an insightful summary of Sumerian history, culture, and literature.
What makes these allegorical poems significant is that they present ideas other cultures incorporated into their myths and scriptures. These include accounts of the world's beginning; of a tree of life and
wisdom; of the "stealing" of gifts from the gods that awaken man's mind and provide the morals, laws, customs, arts, and sciences of civilized life; and of the hero's journey of discovery into the darkness within, and into the realms our souls traverse during sleep and after death. The first poem begins:
In the first days when everything needed was brought into being,
In the first days when everything
needed was properly nourished, . . .
When heaven had moved away from earth,
And earth had separated from heaven,
And the name of man was fixed;
When the Sky God, An, had carried off the heavens,
And the Air God, Enlil, had carried off the earth,
When the Queen of the Great Below, Ereshkigal, was given the underworld for her domain, . . .
Here "in the first days" three worlds come into being: the Great Above, Earth, and the Great Below, which last for the Sumerians was both a dark and frightful region populated by the dead, from which there is no return, and a region where the mysterious processes of generation and regeneration take place.
At that time, "a single tree, a huluppu-tree / Was planted by the banks of the Euphrates," nurtured by its waters. The South Wind uprooted it and the river carried it away. Inanna, a woman "who walked in fear of the word of the Sky God, An, / Who walked in fear of the word of the Air God, Enlil, / Plucked the tree from the river" and planted it in her "holy garden" in Uruk. Originally planted by Enki, God of Wisdom, this huluppu reminds us of trees in other creation stories. They signify, among other things, the three worlds or levels of beings and consciousness. Rooted in the dark regions below, their branches extend throughout this terrestrial world and offer food, shelter, and knowledge to its vast variety of beings, while they lift their crowns into the heavens. A connection is suggested between the roots of such trees -- twisting, coiling, penetrating into the earth -- and the serpents or snakes that represent the Wise Ones who guard what is sacred and venture into the Unknown to explore the mysteries of life.
Inanna cared for the tree for ten years, and the tree grew thick;
Then a serpent who could not be charmed
Made its nest in the roots of the huluppu-tree.
The Anzu-bird set his young in the branches of the tree.
And the dark maid Lilith built her home in the trunk.
"The young woman who loved to laugh wept," but they would not leave her tree. Finally the hero of Uruk, Gilgamesh, entered the garden.
Gilgamesh struck the serpent who could not be charmed.
The Anzu-bird flew with his young to the mountains;
And Lilith smashed her home and fled to the wild, uninhabited places.
Gilgamesh then loosened the roots of the huluppu-tree;
And the sons of the city, who accompanied him, cut off the branches.
From its trunk Gilgamesh carved a throne and bed for his "holy sister." From its crown and roots Inanna fashioned a mikku and pukku (a rod and ring?) for Gilgamesh.
As the youthful Inanna matured and gained confidence from her awakening feminine power, she realized that to establish her queenship and guide her people she needed the "gifts" of the gods. With ingenuity and courage she obtained them -- as Prometheus did for the Greeks, as coyote and crow did for the North Americans, and as every one of us must do if we would know ourselves. Placing the crown of the steppe on her head, she said: "I, the Queen of Heaven, shall visit the God of Wisdom. . . . I shall honor Enki, the God of Wisdom, in Eridu." When Enki saw her coming, he told his servant:
When Inanna enters the holy shrine
Give her butter cake to eat.
Pour cold water to refresh her heart.
Offer her beer before the statue of the lion.
Treat her like an equal.
Greet Inanna at the holy table, the table of heaven.
And so it was that Enki and Inanna feasted and drank at the table of heaven until Enki, swaying with drink, toasted Inanna:
In the name of my power! In the name of my holy shrine!
To my daughter Inanna I shall give
The high priesthood! Godship!
The noble, enduring crown! The throne of kingship!
Inanna replied: "I take them!" Fourteen times Enki raised his cup and offered Inanna the holy me ("attributes of civilization"), nearly 100 of them, among which were the arts of the hero, the skills of power, the crafts of civilized society, truth, descent into the underworld, ascent from the underworld, the perceptive ear, the rejoicing of the heart, the giving of judgment, and the making of decisions. These ``gifts'' also included many of the negative consequences of the awakening of mind. Inanna accepted them all and, loading them into the Boat of Heaven, was about to push off from the quay when a sobered Enki, realizing what he had done, sent his servant Isimud to call her back to return the holy gifts. But Inanna paid no heed, crying out that Enki had broken his pledge. Six times more Enki sent Isimud, but to no avail. And six times he sent demonic creatures -- wild-haired monsters, flying giants, and dragons -- to seize her Boat of Heaven; but Inanna's warrior maidservant Ninshubur conquered them all.
Of all the me Inanna received, the one she valued most, as did Enki, was the power of making decisions. Knowing the other gifts would be worthless without this power -- which involves will, initiative, and independence -- Inanna refused to return it, and determined to share it and all she had received with her people. When she arrived at the White Quay of Uruk, she was welcomed with songs and feasting, and as she distributed the gifts among her people, she discovered there was more than Enki had given. Drums, tambourines, the art of women, and the perfect application of the holy me were included. Reconciled to this, the all-wise Enki blessed Inanna and declared:
In the name of my power! In the name of my holy shrine!
Let the me you have taken with you remain in the holy shrine of your city.
Let the high priest spend his days at the holy shrine in song.
Let the citizens of your city prosper,
Let the children of Uruk rejoice. . . .
Let the city of Uruk be restored to its great place.
The holy me include the spiritual forms or patterns that are the basis of social behavior and the foundations of the laws and skills that make civilization great. We recognize them as the keys that have been offered to mankind by esteemed lawgivers and incorporated into the social, legal, and judicial systems of the world. We realize, too, that by following them, divine harmonies are brought down to earth and our lives are thereby ennobled and enriched.
The next section, "The Courtship of Inanna and Dumuzi," offers a love story which metaphorically portrays the creative intermingling of bipolar energies that exist throughout nature. Prompted by her brother to marry the shepherd Dumuzi, Inanna at first rejects him because "his clothes are coarse, his wool is rough." But she reconsiders when her mother (her intuition?) assures her that Dumuzi would be as father and mother to her, loving and caring. But is it necessary for a goddess to be so treated? Certainly the divine force she represents needs to be cherished and protected if it would manifest on this plane. Metaphysically, this is a version of the avataric idea in which, for the uplifting of mankind, a divine power using a spiritual vehicle descends into an awaiting human body. Dumuzi, the loving but "coarse" human being, becomes a king through his union with the goddess, a receiver and bestower of blessings from above. But the poem ends on a very human note. Wedding and honeymoon over, Dumuzi, feeling confident and eager to assume his kingship, turns to Inanna: "Come, my beloved sister, I would go to the palace. / Set me free . . ."
Long afterwards, her two sons grown to manhood, Inanna opened her ear* and, sensing the need of her older sister Ereshkigal, who mourned the death of her husband, she felt compelled to descend into the dark underworld. This silent call suggests that the Queen of the Great Below and Guardian of the Mysteries of Death was about to reveal a portion of her secrets. In preparation for her descent, Inanna visited and abandoned each of her temples in the seven cities of her domain and took seven holy me in her hands -- suggesting that, having made these virtues part of herself, she was strengthened for the coming ordeal. Adorning herself with the seven symbols of queenship, she descended into the Great Below. Interestingly, the number seven, which represents wholeness, is mentioned repeatedly in this saga. Here wholeness may be considered the blending or sublimation of the human and spiritual elements which occurs during higher initiations.
*"Opening one's ear" implies opening one's heart to wisdom, the Sumerian words for ear and wisdom being identic -- an idea suggested also by the portrayal of Buddha's elongated ears that enable him to hear the cries of the world.
On the way to the underworld, Inanna advised her faithful servant, Ninshubur, that in case she had not returned after three days and nights, Ninshubur should appeal to the fathers to rescue her from death. When they arrived at the outer gate, Inanna knocked and demanded to be admitted. Neti, the gatekeeper, appeared and inquired, "Who are you?" Inanna replied, "I am Inanna, Queen of Heaven, / On my way to the East." Neti told her to wait while she delivered her message to Ereshkigal. Hearing this, Ereshkigal slapped her thigh and bit her lip. After taking the matter into her heart, she told Neti to
Bolt the seven gates of the underworld.
Then, one by one, open each gate a crack.
Let Inanna enter.
As she enters, remove her royal garments.
Let the holy priestess of heaven enter bowed low.
And so it happened. Inanna left one of her seven "garments" at each of the seven gates until she stood naked and bowed in the throne room. There the seven judges of the underworld passed judgment against her. Ereshkigal fastened the eye of death upon her -- suggesting she directed this initiatory birthing to proceed -- and turned her once beautiful sister into a corpse that hung on a hook on the wall like a piece of rotting meat. The hook or curved nail may represent penetration into another dimension, a thought echoed by the hook-shaped Hebrew letter waw, which means an "opening" or "passage." Being hung on the wall may imply that no matter what lies ahead, we are attached to -- indeed, crucified upon -- our own destiny.
When, after three days and nights, Inanna had not returned, Ninshubur (Inanna's spiritual self) went to the temple in Nippur and sought father Enlil's help; but he, knowing that there is no return from the Great Below, would not interfere. Ninshubur went to the temple of Ur and sought father Nanna's assistance, but he, too, would not help. Desperate, Ninshubur went to Eridu and asked father Enki to save her. Deeply grieved, Enki took dirt from under his fingernails and fashioned two creatures which were neither male nor female. He told them to enter the underworld like flies, and when they heard Ereshkigal moaning, groaning, and sighing in the pangs of childbirth, they too should moan, groan, and sigh. This they did so effectively that Ereshkigal, surprised and comforted by their sympathy, offered them a gift. They asked only for the corpse that hung on the wall. When they received it, they followed Enki's instruction, sprinkling it with the food and the waters of life. Inanna arose, born anew!
Although little is said of what transpires in the underworld, similar initiatory journeys in the Egyptian and Tibetan Books of the Dead and in the Hermetic "Vision of Hermes" reveal much. In the last, the soul of Hermes travels to the sun, stopping at each of the seven planetary "stations," where it learns their secrets and casts off a part of itself so that it may unite with divinity single and pure. On its return, his soul recovers its abandoned parts and enters its entranced body illumined. These allegorical tales are gold mines awaiting exploration. Some compare the descent to our daily physical or psychological cycles of birth, purification, transformation, death, and rebirth. Others see them as the process by which we delve into the unknown depths of our being, face and abandon the illusions, prejudices, and fears that blind us, and discover our god-self.
Before the resurrected Inanna could leave the Netherworld, the judges insisted she provide a substitute; and to be sure she did, they surrounded her with demons -- creatures who neither eat nor drink and who flutter between heaven and earth knowing neither good nor evil. Clinging to Inanna's body, these demons demanded she give them her servant Ninshubur. But the goddess refused: "No! Ninshubur is my constant support, my friend, defender, and wise advisor. I will never give you Ninshubur." When Inanna, traveling homeward, stopped at the seven cities and temples of her realm, the demons demanded she give them one or the other of her sons, but Inanna refused. Finally they reached Uruk where Dumuzi, her young husband, was sitting on his shining throne so involved with kingship he did not notice her arrival or acknowledge the love they had once shared. Hurt, Inanna told the demons to "Take him! Take Dumuzi away!"
Although he managed to escape several times with the help of his sister Geshtinanna and Inanna's brother Utu, Dumuzi was eventually caught, bound, and carried away by the demons. But when he was gone Inanna missed him greatly, as did his sister and mother. Their grief was inconsolable and desolation filled the land. By and by a holy fly circled about and revealed where Dumuzi lay. There Inanna and Geshtinanna found him weeping. Inanna took him by the hand and said:
You will go to the underworld
Half the year.
Your sister, since she has asked,
Will go the other half.
On the day you are called,
That day you will be taken.
On the day Geshtinanna is called,
That day you will be set free.
Inanna placed Dumuzi in the hands of the eternal.
Thus he and Inanna were reconciled. Their relationship as king/queen, husband/wife, father/child, brother/sister suggests the duality of male/female, positive/negative, spirit/matter that exists throughout the cosmos. Dumuzi's alternating six-month sojourns in the Great Below and six months of freedom suggests nature's seasonal changes from barrenness to abundance and, in human life, from periods of inactivity -- which provide time for reflection and preparation -- to periods of activity and expression.
Who, then, is this many-aspected Inanna, portrayed as a child of the gods whose potential unfolds from maiden to wife, mother, priestess, initiate, queen, and stellar goddess? As a feminine aspect of cosmic and human powers, she is dual in character, as we are, and manifests at different times the full gamut of human qualities. In one sense she is an Earth Mother, "as tall as heaven, as wide as the earth." Her concern and caring for others is evident from her rescue and tender care of the huluppu-tree and her obtaining, at the risk of her life, the gods' gifts for mankind. In another sense, she is the spiritual potential in every human being that triumphs over difficulties to achieve ever fuller expressions of its glory.
The series of poems about her may serve as a guidebook, illustrating the value of living to benefit others; of discriminating and incorporating into our natures the god-given laws and virtues; of venturing forward forever, leaving our outgrown shells like a corpse hung on a wall; and of continually relying upon and expressing the love and wisdom of the mother/priestess/goddess that we are in our hearts. Like Inanna, we have but to open our "ears" to find wisdom and truth.
(From Sunrise magazine, October/November 2002; copyright © 2002 Theosophical University Press)
World Spiritual Traditions Menu
Mortal though I be, yea, ephemeral, if but a moment
I gaze up to the night's starry domain of heaven,
Then no longer on earth I stand; I touch the Creator,
And my lively spirit drinketh immortality. -- Ptolemy