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When first I read the story of Inanna, goddess of heaven and earth, revered in ancient Sumer thousands of years ago, my heart leapt in recognition.

  • From the Great Above she opened her ear to the Great Below.
  • From the Great Above the goddess opened her ear to the Great Below.
  • From the Great Above Inanna opened her ear to the Great Below.

Sumerian poetry mesmerizes with repetition.  The first lines of the poem, The Descent of Inanna, tell us that the goddess of Sumer is drawn to the underworld.

When she hears the rumbling from below, Inanna is Queen of Sumer, a married woman accustomed to wielding the power of her office. She does not have to make the journey to the underworld, but she believes that her sister, the dark goddess Ereshkigal, calls her and so she abandons her holy office and sets out.

The descent to the underworld is the path of the mystic. Inanna is Queen of Heaven and Earth, but she does not know the depths of the spiritual world.

On her journey down, Inanna must pass seven gates and at each one, a gate guardian demands she divest herself of her jewels, crown, and gown, the royal me which she donned as protection.  When she arrives at the abode of her sister, she is naked.

Ereshkigal, Queen of the Underworld, lives in a dark, dry realm, the kur, the region of the Great Unknown that was given to her by the gods as her domain. In it, she eats clay and drinks dirty water.  She is childless, insatiable in her appetites and alone since her husband’s death.  She is the other side of Inanna, the bright, glorious queen of the upper realms.

In the underworld, Inanna is judged and condemned to death by her dark side.  She becomes part of the underworld. While Ereshkigal moans in agony at her fate, two beings sent by the God of Wisdom to rescue Inanna offer her empathy. She, in turn, releases some of her personal anguish, which allows her other half, Inanna, to be reborn.

Inanna wishes to leave, but no one has ever returned from the underworld. Since she was reborn there, a goddess of light who integrated her dark half, she is permitted to return on the condition that she send someone else to take her place.

And so, a passageway has been created from the Great Above, the conscious, to the Great Below, the unconscious and it must be kept open. Inanna returns to rule her kingdom, but she must not forget the part of herself that is Ereshkigal.

Why is a story more than three thousand years old relevant today?

Learning the personal answer to that question has been a lifelong quest, but even when I first read it, I knew that the journey down, into the unknown, the body, the recesses of the earth, the unconscious, was mine.

The quest for wholeness is real. The gates of initiation are real.  The necessity of joining with the denied, split off parts of the self are real. Most real is the need to keep the passage open, so the missing parts, the emotions denied, the fears pushed down, the greatness avoided for fear it is too dangerous, can be allowed to travel to the upper world.

Not an easy path, but for some of us, a necessary one.

And what about you?  Does an old story reverberate through your cells?  Ariadne?  Ulysses?   Demeter?  Apollo?

What are they whispering to you in the dark?