Inanna, the Queen of Heaven, wants Gilgamesh, King of the city of Uruk, as her lover, but he spurns her. Your lovers have found you like a brazier which smoulders in the cold, a backdoor which keeps out neither squall of wind nor storm. In a rage, she calls on her father god Anu to give her Gugulanna the Bull of Heaven to take revenge on Gilgamesh. He refuses, but when she threatens to break open the doors of the Underworld so that the dead shall eat food like the living, he relents. The bull snorts and the Earth opens, and the warriors of Uruk are killed; but Gilgamesh and Enkidu kill the bull. Inanna curses Enkidu, who throws the bull’s right thigh at her. For this, the Gods kill Enkidu.
Inanna arrays herself as the Goddess, in royal robe and crown, and the breastplate called “Come, man, come”, then descends into the underworld to attend the funeral of Gugulanna, whose husband is her sister Ereshkigal, Queen of the Dead. She leaves behind Ninshubur, her servant, with instructions if she does not return. She pushes aggressively at the door of the Underworld, and Ereshkigal commands the doorman to open the seven doors a crack, letting her through but removing her royal garments. “Let the holy priestess of heaven enter bowed low.” When her garments are removed, Inanna protests: “What is this?”
“Be satisfied, Inana, a divine power of the underworld has been fulfilled. Inana, you must not open your mouth against the rites of the underworld.” Or,
“Quiet, Inanna, the ways of the underworld are perfect,
They may not be questioned.”
(The first comes from this prose translation, the second from this verse translation.) Inanna makes Ereshkigal stand, and takes her throne, but the seven judges shout her guilt, and she is turned to a corpse, hung on a hook.
When she does not return, as instructed Ninshubur petitions Inanna’s father-Gods Enlil, Nanna and Enki to rescue her. Enlil and Nanna refuse, saying “Inana craved the great heaven and she craved the great below as well. The divine powers of the underworld are divine powers which should not be craved, for whoever gets them must remain in the underworld. Who, having got to that place, could then expect to come up again?”
Enki creates two demons to rescue Inanna. He gives them the life-giving water. They go to the underworld and find Ereshkigal sick and in mourning, her unwashed hair “bunched up as if it were leeks”. They sympathise, and she offers them a river of water. They demand the corpse, sprinkle the life-giving water on it, and bring Inanna to life.
When Inanna returns, she is escorted by demons who will accept no sacrifice, but afflict humanity- “tear the wife from a man’s embrace”- without pity. She must bring back a substitute, for no-one has ascended unscathed from the Underworld. She finds Ninshubur in mourning, and will not send her, but her husband Dumuzid is dressed magnificently and seated on a throne, so she chooses him. The demons seize him. He escapes briefly, and his sister asks to share his fate: each will spend six months each year in the Underworld.
What does the story of Inanna mean?
It is incantatory and repetitive. You would hear it as a story, and the repetitions would please you like the returning themes of a symphony.
The Jungian interpretation is clear. Jesus said, When you strip naked without being ashamed, you will become children of God and have no more fear. Inanna’s finery is mere pretence, masks so she might look good- though Isaiah 64:6 sees them differently: we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags. Our pretences are stripped away, and we are free.
The individual garments may have individual interpretations:
With the me in her possession, she has prepared herself:
On her head she wears the shugurra, 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 with the royal robe. [or, She covered her body with a pala dress, the garment of ladyship.]
Her eyes are dabbed with the ointment called, “let him come, let him come.”
Around her chest she wears the breastplate called “come, man, come.”
On her wrist she wears the gold ring.
In her hand she carries the lapis measuring rod and line.
What could each mean? Comment! Knock yourself out!
Joshua J Mark, in the Ancient History Encyclopaedia, eschews the Jungian interpretation: the tale shows how self-centred and unfair a Goddess may be, and humanity suffers. Also the change of Dumuzid and his sister explains the seasons. Though myths may pass through many hands, and have meanings added. He thinks Ereshkigal is praised at the end of the poem-
Holy Ereshkigal! Great is your renown!
Holy Ereshkigal! I sing your praises!
-because she sought justice against Inanna; but the Goddess of the Dead should be propitiated, especially after portraying her as outsmarted by her sister.
For me, a myth speaks to the unconscious. I can explain the meaning that we lose our pretences, our identities, when we find our unconscious, because I have become conscious of that. There may be other meanings in the story.
I have been at thirdwaytrans again. He finds the identity “a trans woman” a prison, because it means we can no longer present male. A commenter brought up Inanna. First I tried to please the World with my hyper-manly persona (from Greek for mask) then, more truly me, with “Clare”. After descending into Hell, or reaching rock bottom, I learn how valueless the masks are. Before I transitioned, I thought that in five years’ time I might be trying to present male, but transitioning was the only way to get to that place. My identity as trans liberated aspects of myself I could not express otherwise.
Unilantern, commenting, claims masculine and feminine are patriarchal oppression. She produces a great long screed arguing masculinity is seen as instrumental, femininity as expressive. If a man is expressive he is seen as feminine. But composers, painters, poets, philosophers, even writers, were until recently overwhelmingly male.
Healing-stars Goddessastrology compares the removal of the seven garments to the purification of the seven chakras, though chakras are understandings from a different culture. Hooray for eclecticism!