Tales from the Underworld-Chapter One-Innana/Ishtar/Ereshkigal

January 14, 2010 at 2:26 am (Goddess, magic, metaphysics, Mythology, paganism, religion, sex, shamanism, spirituality)


Here is another excerpt from my book, this does need to be edited, but I haven’t posted in a while so I figured I put it up anyway.  Enjoy:)

Chapter One-The Ladies of Sumeria


The oldest recorded example of the archetype of the death goddess is Ereshkigal of Sumeria. These ancient goddesses usually occurred in pairs, sisters as they were usually referred to, a light sister and a dark sister. In this case, Ereshkigal was the dark sister of the more well known Inanna/Ishtar. Just as we would not know the day without the night, it is essential that the story of both sisters be told, because their pairing tells a deeper mystery. The most famous story of these Sumerian sisters, probably one of the oldest mythological texts on record is called Inanna’s Decent to the Underworld, and it goes as follows;

Inanna queen of heaven sets her mind on the great below, Irkalla, Sumerian land of the dead. Before she goes she instructs her trusty female servant that if she does not return in three days, to plead with the Gods to send aid. And thus Inanna sets out for Hell. She arrives at the front gates and demands to be let in. When asked why she is there, Inanna replies she has come to witness the funeral rites of Gulganna, the bull of heaven, Ereshkigal’s consort, whom Inanna caused the destruction of in the epic of Gilgamesh.

Ereshkigal is the Queen of Irkalla, and upon being informed that her upper world sister is at the gates demanding to be let in to witness the funeral of a creature she destroyed, Ereshkigal bites her lip and slaps her thigh. She is most displeased. Upon reflection for a moment she instructs her vizier, whose name in our tongue means Fate, to let her in and orders she be brought naked and bowed low to Ereshkigal, as all who enter her domain are.

So Fate admits Inanna, and as she passes through each one of the seven gates of the underworld, he strips her of one piece of her sacred regalia. When divested of her garments, Inanna complains asking what is this? Fates reply is that they ways of the underworld are perfect, and that she should not question them. So at last Inanna is brought before Ereshkigal, naked and bowed low.

As Inanna enters, Ereshkigal rises from her throne, and Inanna attempts to lunge for either Ereshkigal or the throne of Hell. Why is unclear, either Inanna set out to conquer the Underworld, she was so angry at her treatment thus far or, as in the rites of Baal another ancient dying and resurrected God, embodied by a sacred cow, she came to claim the Bull of Heaven. Either way, when Inanna lunges, Ereshkigal fixes upon her the eyes of death, and kills her. She turns her into a corpse and hangs her from a peg, sort of as a trophy.

Three days go by and Inanna’s faithful servant, puts on mourning attire and raises the alarm. She goes to several different Gods all begging that they help, and none will, either out of fear and respect for the Underworld and her Queen, or because they felt Inanna was being greedy in going into the underworld when she was already the queen of heaven, and as such deserves the fate she has met. Finally Inanna’s servant finds sympathy in Enki, a water God associated with the constellation Aquarius.

From the dust under his fingernails he fashions two sexless creatures, and he gives them both the food of life and the water of life, and he instructs them to slip into the underworld unnoticed, and when Ereshkigal moans, to moan with her. He instructs them to empathize with her. He then instructs them that when Ereshkigal offers them something in return for their sympathy, to request the corpse of Inanna, and sprinkle on her the water of life, and feed her the food of life, thus restoring her.

As such the little dust people enter Irkalla and do exactly as they are told, and in return for their empathy Ereshkigal gives them Inanna’s corpse and they restore the Queen of heaven. But as Inanna attempts to leave, the Annunaki, which are the judges of the Underworld say she cannot go unless she provides a replacement, as no one leaves the underworld. So they send Inanna back to the land of the living with in a horde of demons to claim her replacement.

When Inanna gets back her faithful servant is waiting for her, clothed in mourning attire. The demons want to seize her, but Inanna says no, because she did as she was told and she mourned for me. Then they come upon Inanna’s brother who is likewise appropriately mourning, and when the demons attempt to seize him, Inanna’s reply is the same, no.

Finally, they come upon Inanna’s consort Dumuzi. Dumuzi is a mortal who was given dominion as king by becoming Inanna’s consort. When Inanna comes upon him, he is dressed in fine regalia, making merry, not mourning one bit. Inanna fixes upon him, the same eyes Ereshkigal fixed up her, and the Galla demons know they have their replacement.

Now the story continues on to tell that Dumuzi gives chase. Inanna laments the loss of her lover, and when Dumuzi seeks shelter at his sister’s, and the Galla find him there, his sister shares his fate, and offers to spend half the year in the underworld, with Dumuzi doing the other half.

There are several things that stand out about this story to me. One is the fact that Inanna approaches the domain of Ereshkigal quite haughtily, a fact that angers Ereshkigal. Ereshkigal orders her to be stripped naked and bowed low, like everyone else who enters her realm. The dark lady breaks down not only things on a physical level, but on a psychological level. The only way I can think to explain it is that many people think that they have the power to control things. By their arrogance or manipulating or sheer force, they think they can achieve dominion. The dark lady breaks down this illusion, sometimes with great ruthlessness, depending on the severity of offense. The only thing a person can control is themselves, and even that is debatable sometimes.

The next thing that stands out is that Inanna’s journey is the journey of the initiate, or the shamanistic rite of initiation. A person, during childhood or teenage years, is subject of great trauma. This trauma leads to an inward journey that many do not make it back from and results in mental illness such as schizophrenia. The ones that do make it back however, are viewed as being in a position to see and understand things that the average person cannot. Inanna emerges from her experience in Irkalla fundamentally changed as well.

Inanna’s descent has themes that resonate with the wisdom associated with the crown chakra, of openness to divine will, a chakra that only opens in the most spiritual advanced people. It also speaks of the sacrifice for deep feminine wisdom. Shamanism and many natural/organic based spiritual traditions seek wisdom through altered states of perception. This can be taken as forcibly altering ones consciousness with drugs (a form of mediumship) or by rediscovering unity with nature and cosmos that is lost in logos goal orientated society and by letting the dark lady drag us down to the magic, meditative and archaic depths that is before all thought and speech that is quite literally earth-shattering. It is in this broken state we can connect which the flow of the universe and find new perspective. The very process of which flies in the face of patriarchal society and as such can result in loss of social standing, a necessary sacrifice to the dark lady for her wisdom, as Inanna found out the hard way.

It should also be noted that with Inanna she is divested of one piece of her regalia at each of the seven gates, and they are restored to her gate by gate. Transformation is rarely instantaneous, usually it is a slow process of regression through the various layers of consciousness and mechanisms of a persons mind, and it is a slow process of being put back together as well.

Inanna was known as the Queen of Heaven and Earth. She was a Goddess of love and fertility. She was a goddess who would not be owned, she was her own master. Even when she came together with a man, she retained her independence and magnetism as a lover, she was never the dutiful wife or mother. Her priestesses were the dancing girls and temple prostitutes.

Now when I say prostitutes, forget the modern definition. These were not street walkers. These were women that in many cases after a term of service to the goddess, would go on to be married and live a normal life. They lived in the temple and they were not directly paid. A man would come to the temple to make an offering to the goddess of love, and in doing so partake of the boons the lady of love, and her dark sister offered, i.e. renewal, and regeneration. Sexual alchemy is the term for it, and it covers everything from simple pleasure to a path to enlightenment. Inanna is extremely extroverted in this role, in one song inviting Dumuzi to “plow my vulva, man of my heart”

Inanna was a celebrated as a numen of impersonal fertility, much like Demeter who I will get to later. In one story grains and legumes pour forth from her womb. One of her oldest emblems was a grain storehouse and the date God was said to be one of her consorts. She combines earthly bounty with heavenly guidance, and she is the union of earth and sky, matter and spirit, vessel and light. Inanna represents the border regions, the places where things intersect, the liminal place where events emerge. She cannot be contained or made certain and secure. In this aspect she is like Hecate.

Like Isis she is queen of the land and its fertility, it is she who bestows kingship on the mortal man chosen to be shepherd of the people, and promises a good harvest, and regards the people of Sumer as her children, but unlike Isis, she also promises the king the pleasures of her bed. She was also a Goddess of war. Battle was the dance of Inanna. She was more passionate than the Greek Athena and with the wild instincts of Artemis. Hymns to her describe her as “all devouring in power…attacking like the attacking storm” (she was a storm goddess too), having and “awesome face” and “angry heart” she sings with delight “heaven is mine, earth is mine-I a warrior am I. Is there a God who can vie with me?” Accordingly her companion animal was a lion.

Inanna is also mentioned several times in the epic of Gilgamesh. Note that in the story of Inanna’s descent to the underworld, she mentions she has come to see the funeral of the bull of heaven. In the epic of Gilgamesh, Inanna demands the bull of heaven to use it to destroy Gilgamesh and Enkidu. Gilgamesh and Enkidu slays the Bull and in doing so tells Inanna that he would do the same to her if she could. Then there is mention of Inanna and her priestesses leaving Uruk.

I mention this because of a theory I heard from a book I read that is cited at the back of this book. The theory is about the precession of the earth through the astrological constellations. At the time Sumeria was at its peak, the earth was in the constellation of Taurus-the bull. I truly believe the epic of Gilgamesh records the transition from the age of Taurus to the Age of Aries. Taurus is considered a feminine sign, with Aries being as masculine as it gets. One can begrudge patriarchal society till their blue in the face but the truth of it is that it was destined in the stars, just as the age that followed Aries, Pisces had to do with the victim/savior archetype, characterized by the figures of Jesus, Muhammad etc.

Further reinforcing this idea is the story of Inanna and the huluppu tree. The story talks about a tree, planted by the Gods, that Inanna finds on the banks of the Euphrates. She brings it back to Uruk to plant in her holy garden. She tends it in the hopes of using it for a throne and bed. Much to her consternation, a serpent takes up residence in the roots of the tree and will not come out. An anzu-bird takes up residence in the branches, and likewise will not come out, and the dark maid Lilith dwelt in the trunk. She pleads with her brother Utu, to help and he does nothing. But then she pleads to Gilgamesh. He dons his armor and enters her holy garden. He strikes the snake, and as a result not only takes car e of the serpent, but frightens off the Anzu bird and its young, and Lilith. Gilgamesh makes a throne and bed for Inanna out of the tree.

This story speaks of another fundamental truth. In this case I think it is more a historical truth. The serpent and the bird were ancient goddess symbols, both having to do with enlightenment. The serpent is very prevalent in sexual alchemy, the kundalini of tantra, the lunar and solar serpent of the sex magic of Isis. There is also the serpent of Genesis, that initiates woman into knowledge, a story I will dissect in full later. The bird is an ancient symbol of the soul, the wings symbolizing unbound freedom and enlightenment. Lilith, a figure I will cover in greater depth later, was known earlier as the hand of Inanna, the woman who lured men from the streets and fields of war into the Temple of love.

I believe the three’s position in the huluppu tree also is of significance. Look at the caduceus wand (also a symbol of alchemy, before western medicine perverted it) serpents rising up with wings at the top. If you look at the two serpents as being the lunar and solar serpents of the sex magic of Isis and you know that you transpose that over a persons body, the snakes starting in the pelvis and ending with the wings around what is known as the chalice, something that is pretty much located over the brain stem, the huluppu tree becomes a road map for enlightenment through sexual alchemy, and it is through woman, one who is notorious for her refusal to submit.

With the change from the age of Taurus, where tantric rituals were prevalent and the Feminine was considered superior, to the age of Aries where women and their mysteries were considered inferior, the only way Inanna could survive was to divest herself of her power and accept submission to man, hence Gilgamesh, who represents the patriarchal takeover, entering her holy garden, a blatant euphemism for sex, striking the serpent, driving off the bird and Lilith, and then giving Inanna her throne and bed, instead of her creating it herself.

It should also be noted that in the epic of Gilgamesh, Inanna offers herself to Gilgamesh in marriage, a sacred rite called the hierosgamos, that confers kingship. Gilgamesh in essence throws it in her face saying that her previous husbands met unfortunate fates and its because she treated them like crap. He specifically cites Dumuzi. Obviously, in the descent of Inanna, Dumuzi meets his end deservedly, but Gilgamesh twists the truth, true to form of the kind of insults and abuse women often have to deal with from men who do not respect them, and insults and derogates Inanna to claim her power.

Another interesting tidbit from the Epic of Gilgamesh is when Enkidu has the dream telling of his death, at one point he turns on the temple prostitute that originally civilized him, cursing her to be “ without a roof for your commerce, for you shall not keep house with the other girls in the tavern, but do your business in places fouled by the vomit of the drunkard. Your hire will be potter’s earth, your theivings will be flung into the hovel, you will sit at the crossroads in the dust of the potters quarter, you will make your bed on a dunghill at night, and day by day take your stand in the walls shadow. Brambles and thorns will tear your feet, the drunk and the dry will strike your cheek and your mouth will ache”.

But the Gods defend the heirodule asking Enkidu did she not pleasure you and feed you food and drink fit for the Gods, did she not cloth you in magnificent garment and give you Gilgamesh as a companion. Enkidu relents but in my opinion only a little for then he says she will be adored beyond compare, but because of her as Enkidu puts it, “a wife, a mother of seven, was forsaken” As far as I am concerned this is a prophecy because this is exactly what the dancing girls of today face, either brutality and filth, or being a home wrecker.

So if all things may be known by the opposite to which they can be contrasted, Ereshkigal has already been laid bare. Ereshkigal represents the uncontrollable unconscious processes we are all ruled by. Death being her most obvious association, but she rules over all unconscious processes, birth, sex, defecation, mental/emotional illness, all the things that we either would like to ignore or control in some way. She blows through all the pretensions we have about our own power, even grinding down a goddess to a rotting corpse on a peg, she is the life processes to which we must all submit. But like all Death Goddesses, she has rewards for those who willingly submit to her, who face their mortal fear and realize that in the end, we are all worm food, it’s just a question of when.

Ereshkigal was once an upper world goddess, but she was repeated raped by Enlil, a God. The Gods punished Enlil by sending him to the underworld, but out of love she followed him. Ereshkigal is the darkness of Inanna. When her fundamental nature is not respected, Ereshkigal is the result. It is a common theme amongst all the Goddesses I will be discussing, they were horribly betrayed and hurt at the hands of males. Inanna was known for her independence, her power and right to govern her sexuality as she chose. Ereshkigal was the result of her fundamental nature being betrayed. And like those who have suffered great pain and trauma all she wanted was someone to empathize, hence the success of the creatures Enki sent to free Inanna. They mirrored Ereshkigal’s pain, they absorbed it and felt just as she did, and in that small act of empathy, Ereshkigal was freed from her torture momentarily, and in return she released Inanna from her torture. Granted someone had to take Inanna’s place, but that fundamental story of empathy being the release from Hell, is key to the mythos I am building now.

When Inanna returns to the land of the living, with the horde of demons charged with claiming her replacement, she goes to the various people she knows and all of them mourned for her. However when she catches up with Dumuzi, her lover, she finds him in essence dressed up and partying. She fixes upon him the same eyes of death that Ereshkigal fixed on her in Inanna’s haughtiness, and in that look it apparent that Inanna has gained wisdom from the experience, and the light and dark are reconciled.

Ereshkigal’s name means “lady of the great place below”. She was a grain Goddesss before she came to be queen of the netherworld. She is the seed below and dying to sprout again. To a matriarchal point of view she is the continuum in which different states are simply experienced as transformations of one energy. To a patriarchal view she is a rape of life, a violence to be feared and controlled as much as possible with distancing oneself from it and a strict moral order. She is pictured as having life freezing eyes and leeches on her head. In other myths she is associated with the lord of healing(Ninazu) and the god of plagues war and death(Nergal).

She is very primal, full of fury, greed, fear of loss and even self-spite. She is raw instinctually split off from consciousness, the need and aggression that exist in our own personal underworld that is often denied out of social mores. And like the defense mechanisms of our own psyche that react sometime violently to unwanted intruders, Ereshkigal in anger sends her gate-keeper to deal with Inanna the intruder.

Ereshkigal is active destruction but she is also the slow cell by cell processes of decay and gestation, that are invasive and depending on the case against a persons will. She is pitiless and destructive of the individual. She is the hopeless, empty, shattering, numb, barren void and chaos. Her energy can be seen in black holes, infinite gravity and magnetism that even light cannot escape from. Her energy is the energy of X-rays, which see through all to the very core and are also emitted by black holes. Her energy is the disintegration of elements, radioactive decay, cancer, fermentation. She rules the functions of the base chakra, the earth chakra, peristalsis, menstruation, pregnancy. She without remorse grinds down life to its constituent parts, yet heaves forth new life. The abyss of Ereshkigal is both the source and the end, the ground of all being. She is the natural order of things, attended by her vizier “Fate”

Ereshkigal has a right to be a little surly though. She was split from her sister, raped and banished to the underworld. When the Gods have a feast she is not welcome, having to send someone to get her plate. But she is not antagonistic to male power, she merely demands the same respect and to be acknowledged as an equal. She is surrounded by male servants and she gives birth to sons. Her anger arises when she is not accorded the respect she deserves. There is the story of Nergal (God of plague war and death), who angers her by being rude to her emissary. She is turned from fury when he recognizes it was love she wanted from him all along. She offers him marriage and he accepts, and they end up making love for seven days nonstop. In some stories the children she produces are monsters but again this is because they are forces that cannot be controlled.



  1. Jason said,

    Heay you. How have you been? I see your still at it. Good stuff. I saw your story in the city pages. My email is trappedinpoint@yahoo.com.

  2. artbyeh said,

    You have captured by attention and imagination.

  3. Terra Wolfe said,

    I really enjoyed this. These two are old favorites of mine. you tell the story well and make excellent connections. I am reminded in the travel of Inanna to the underworld of the dance of the seven veils. Particularly as told in “Skinny Legs and All” by Tom Robbins.

  4. liz said,

    very cool interpretation. i really enjoy your insights into ereshkigal’s subconscious. i’m writing a research paper on how to read mythology and by chance wound up on your blog. thanks!

  5. Alexis said,

    wow thank you for sharing this.. i will be sharing this information with my goddess service as my church…just beautiful

  6. Kim said,

    Extremely interesting and enlightening. l was reading an article on the myths of Scorpio and Ereshkigal was cited as part of Scorpios mythology as l read various material about her found your story and must tell yo that t reminded me of the rift My oldest friend a Taurus and myself a Scorpion.are having ..yet once again…basically due to her ego dishonesty and basic lac of integrity due to her EGO and my being so straight forward and speaking truth n a tone that s unsettling to her and admittedly others. So laughed out loud as l read this….the sisters on opposite sides….

  7. Louise Stanley said,

    This is a wonderful story and one I came across a while ago. Might the symbolism of Inanna’s descent into the underworld also be a powerful statement against materialism? Although she does regain her vestments when leaving the underworld, it might suggest that sometimes we have to have everything taken away before we realise the value of who we actually are.

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