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inanna's journey to hell

'Inanna's Journey to Hell', composed in Mesopotamia (what is now Iraq) in the third millennium BC, ranks among the oldest surviving stories of mankind. Inanna, the Lady of Heaven, was the Sumerian goddess of fertility, love and war, who served as the prototype for many later goddesses, including Ishtar, Isis, Aphrodite and Venus.

The story of Inanna's descent into the underworld has been the source of many later stories, among which the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice is probably best-known. However, while in that version Orpheus' motives are clear – he descends into the underworld to save his beloved Eurydice – Inanna's story lacks any motivation. Why did she embark on her deathly journey...?

inanna's story

Around 400 lines long, the poem of 'Inanna's Journey to Hell' has survived on fragmentary clay tablets. Originally, it may have been chanted or enacted in a liturgical context in the temples of Uruk. Though little has survived of this ancient Sumerian city, some two thousand years later the Babylonians constructed a gate for Ishtar, as Inanna was then known. This is the famous Ishtar Gate which today can be seen in all its awe-inspiring splendor in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.

Detail of the Ishtar Gate, in the Pergamon Museum, Berlin

The earliest version of the story tells of Inanna's descent into the underworld, the Land of No Return, ruled over by her sister Ereshkigal.

From the summits of heaven
she looked into the pit,
she was a god on the summits of heaven
but her heart was in hell,
O Inanna, on the summits,
your heart in hell!

This lady left earth and heaven
and went down into the pit,
power and titles she left,
she went down into the pit...

Before descending, Inanna instructs her minister Ninshubur to warn the three high gods, Enlil, Nanna and Enki, in case she would not return. Dressed in her queenly apparel, Inanna then approaches the Gate of Hell, where she is challenged by the gatekeeper Neti. By orders from Ereshkigal, Inanna is stripped of one item of her apparel as she passes through each of the seven gates of the underworld.

Naked, Inanna is brought before Ereshkigal, the Queen of Hell, and the Annunaki, the seven judges of the underworld. They sentence her, and Inanna is turned into a corpse.

Naked Inanna dropped on her knees
for great Ereshkigal had mounted the throne.
In her presence the Seven Judges pronounced
the sentence,
they fastened their eyes on her,
eyes of death,
they spoke the sentence
of the accused,
they uttered the cry
of the accursed.
Inanna instantly sickened
to death,
her body was a corpse that hung
on a spike.

After three days, Ninshubur goes to the high gods. Both Enlil and Nanna refuse to help Inanna, but Enki finally takes pity. From the dirt under his fingernail he creates two creatures, the "kurgarru" and the "kalaturru" (no meaning of these names is known). Enki sends them to the underworld with the food and water of life, instructed to sprinkle it upon the corpse of Inanna.

Inanna is revived and escapes, but according to the laws of the underworld she is not allowed to leave without providing a substitute. First the demons of the underworld want to seize Ninshubur, but Inanna refuses. Other candidates follow, until they find Dumuzi, the Shepherd and Inanna's husband, who has not gone into mourning for her but has been enjoying luxury on her throne.

The flute-song of the shepherd
is broken, the pipes are shattered
in front of him,
for on him Inanna has fastened
the eyes of death,
she has spoken the sentence
off the accused,
she has uttered the cry
of the accursed,
'As for that one, carry him off!'

Dumuzi manages to escape and flees to his sister Gesthinanna. Finally, Dumuzi and Gesthinanna are made to share his fate, each spending half of the year in hell. As a symbol of the cycle of the seasons - the alternating barrenness of winter and abundance of summer - this motif has since been incorporated in countless myths.

inanna's motive

Tantalizingly, the original myth of 'Inanna's Journey to Hell' gives no reason for her journey. There is no dead person to rescue or a sacred object to bring back, as in all later versions. She just goes "down into the pit."

When Inanna comes to the gate of hell, the reason she gives the gatekeeper is that she wants to attend the last rites of Ereshkigal's husband Gugallana (the Great Bull of Heaven, and the origin of the sign of Taurus). However, if this were true, and Inanna's motive was to mourn her brother-in-law, Ereshkigal's welcome of her sister would surely have been different.

Among the many scholarly interpretations of 'Inanna's Journey to Hell', there are three likely candidates, all archetypical dramatic motivations:

  • Love: To rescue her husband Dumuzi, who is imprisoned in the underworld, resulting in desolation on earth. This is the later and perhaps most familiar version of the so-called vegetation myth, which evolved into the Greek Adonis cult. However, in this version there is no love lost between Inanna and Dumuzi ("As for that one, carry him off!"), who, incidentally, is alive during the story. Also, the story is resolved by establishing another pair of gods (Dumuzi and Gesthinanna) to symbolize the vegetation cycle. Inanna seems to be on a different level in the pantheon.
  • Ambition: To usurp Ereshkigal's throne and have power over heaven, earth and the underworld. This is the most commonly accepted interpretation, as the later Ishtar version of the myth explicitly states this to have been her intention. With this motive, the story builds up to the confrontation between the two sisters, Inanna and Ereshkigal, in the center of hell. Interestingly, the poem's final line is in praise of Ereshkigal, perhaps to emphasize that not even Inanna could claim power over death.
  • Growth: As foretold by Enki, the naive goddess of heaven must descend into the underworld to gain experience of darkness, a fundamental aspect of truth and love. Only then will she be able to master the art of love. This can be seen as the Jungian interpretation of the myth, where the story focuses on the psychological journey and personal growth of the hero.

In absence of other clues, the growth motive seems to be the most plausible, and certainly the most appealing from a modern perspective. Mythologist Joseph Campbell, in 'The Hero with a Thousand Faces', interprets the Inanna myth in terms of the monomyth of the archetypical hero who must go through "the gates of metamorphosis". In Campbell's words:

Inanna and Ereshkigal, the two sisters, light and dark respectively, together represent, according to the antique manner of symbolization, the one goddess in two aspects; and their confrontation epitomizes the whole sense of the difficult road of trials. The hero, whether god or goddess, man or woman, the figure in a myth or the dreamer of a dream, discovers and assimilates his opposite (his own unsuspected self) either by swallowing it or by being swallowed. Then he finds that he and his opposite are not of differing species, but one flesh.

In this context the story has interesting parallells with the New Testament: Jesus, too, descends into the underworld, remains there for three days, and returns triumphantly. (Christianity only omitted the substitute in death, which in pagan belief was a necessary condition for returning to life.)

Some circumstantial evidence for the 'growth motive' of Inanna's journey can be found in another Sumerian source. Enheduanna was a priestess in Ur in 2300 BC, who wrote a number of hymns in worship of Inanna. The fact that the authoress is known by name is quite unique (she may well be the oldest known author in history), as is her very personal devotion to Inanna. She writes, for example:

I, Enheduanna, will recite a prayer to you. To you, holy Inanna, I shall give free vent to my tears like sweet beer!

From Enheduanna's testimony, however colored by devotion and ritual form, a picture emerges of an independent, monomythical goddess who governs both love and war, life and death. Inanna exercizes "full ladyship over heaven and earth", and it is tempting to view this as a result of her journey into hell. Her true motives will probably remain open for interpretation forever, which very fact makes her role in history as the mother of so many Western myths even more awe-inspiring.

These excerpts from Edheduanna's hymns, some 4300 years old, testify to Inanna's power (if only literary):

When humanity comes before you in awed silence at the terrifying radiance and tempest, you grasp the most terrible of all the divine powers. Because of you, the threshold of tears is opened, and people walk along the path of the house of great lamentations. In the van of battle, all is struck down before you. With your strength, my lady, teeth can crush flint. You charge forward like a charging storm.

And:

Your torch lights up the corners of heaven, turning darkness into light with fire. (...) No one can lay a hand on your precious divine powers (...) You exercise full ladyship over heaven and earth; you hold everything in your hand. Mistress, you are magnificent, no one can walk before you.

Quotes from 'Inanna's Journey to Hell' are from the Penguin edition (1971), translated by N.K. Sandars. Quotes from Enheduanna's hymns are from the Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature: 'The Exaltation of Inana' and 'A Hymn to Inana'.

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