Lessons from Inanna, the Goddess of the Underworld Journey


Lessons from Inanna, the Goddess of the Underworld Journey

Getty/Tatyana Antusenok

The story of this ancient Mesopotamian goddess can teach us important wisdom about the inevitability of death and the changing of the seasons.

Inanna is an ancient Mesopotamian goddess whose first written stories appear in the Epic of Gilgamesh around 2000 BCE. She likely evolved into the goddess known as Ishtar or Astarte and may have influenced the Greek goddess Aphrodite. Inanna presided over war and sexual love and was sometimes called the Queen of Heaven. She was powerful and full of desire, even when it got her into trouble.

Inanna's Story

One day Inanna decided to visit her sister Ereshkigal, who was the Queen of the Underworld. Ereshkigal’s land was the land of the dead—a dark, mysterious place deep in the bowels of the earth. Inanna claimed she wanted to visit to help observe the funeral rites of Ereshkigal’s husband, but Inanna arrived in the underworld dressed in queenly finery that would have been inappropriate for that task. Inanna seemed curious about the underworld, perhaps wondering if she should take control of it and become the Queen of Everything.

As Inanna enters the underworld, Ereshkigal gets suspicious. She orders Inanna to remove a piece of her finery and clothing as she passes through each of the seven gates to the underworld. Inanna removes her crown, robe, jewelry, and all the indications of her queenly status, entering the underworld naked, stripped of everything, to meet the dead as one of them.

The rules of the underworld are that one can enter, but never leave. Ereshkigal kills Inanna and hangs her from a hook. While the goddess of love and procreation is dead in the underworld, the above world dies as well. The leaves fall off the trees, the animals stop reproducing, and the plants stop growing. The earth goes cold and barren and no food grows from the ground. The gods realize that the world dies without Inanna, and that she must be rescued. Through a series of difficult tasks, Inanna eventually comes back to life and returns to the above world. However, much like Persephone in the ancient Greek myth, Inanna must send a replacement to the underworld for six months of the year, leading to the cycle of the seasons.

The Inevitability of Death

Inanna enters the underworld with an attitude of entitlement. In some versions of her story, Inanna seems to know she could be in danger, warning her attendants to come get her if she doesn’t return for three days. In other versions of the story, she seems to think she can waltz right into her sister’s domain and stake her claim. But things don’t go as she planned, and she ends up hung from a hook on the wall like so much dead meat. In the underworld, Inanna learns that her finery and queenly power mean nothing.

Against death, none of us are powerful, no matter how rich and famous we may be. Inanna learns a lesson that changes her and the world around her forever. This story is one of the many mythological explanations for the solar seasons of death and renewal, winter and spring, and may also tell of why the moon goes dark for three days before coming back to light.

Integrating a Loss of Innocence

Inanna’s descent into the underworld is a loss of innocence of a sort. This is the type of experience many of us go through when we meet death or tragedy, especially when we try something that ends up failing spectacularly. Our naive confidence that we can do anything we want is shaken and we see the limits of our powers. This can be a painful experience, but it’s also incredibly important.

We need to understand that there are powers in the world that we do not control. Bad things happen sometimes, and we can’t predict or control all of it. We may pray or meditate or set intentions, but most of us meet some point in our lives where we hit our limits and must humble ourselves to all we don’t understand.

In particular, Inanna meets death, a state of being that her sister knows well. Inanna is not meant to be the Queen of the Underworld. It’s not her job or her place. Ereshkigal knows and understands it in a way that Inanna simply can’t. Ereshkigal tries to teach Inanna this lesson, and though Inanna does return to life, the cycle of death must recur every year, and we, with Inanna, have the opportunity to learn from that.

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Lessons from Inanna the Goddess of the Underworld Journey

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