This month’s myths are concerned with the descent into the underworld and speak to our own psycho-spiritual journey of descent into our personal and collective unconscious realms.
The Descent of Inanna
The Sumerian poem, The Descent of Inanna (c. 1900-1600 BCE) chronicles the great goddess and Queen of Heaven Inanna’s journey from heaven, to earth, to the underworld to visit her recently widowed sister Ereshkigal, Queen of the Dead. The poem begins famously with the lines,
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
and then proceeds to chronicle Inanna’s descent to the underworld accompanied, part of the way, by her faithful servant and advisor Ninshubur.
Inanna is dressed in her finest attire and wears the crown of heaven on her head, beads around her neck, her breastplate, golden ring and carries her sceptre, the rod of power. She is accompanied by her faithful servant and advisor Ninshubur. Just before she enters the underworld, she gives Ninshubur instructions on how to come to her aid should she fail to return when expected. Upon her arrival at the gates of the underworld Inanna knocks loudly and demands entrance. Neti, the chief gatekeeper, asks who she is and, when Inanna answers, “I am Inanna, Queen of Heaven”, Neti asks why she would wish entrance to the land “from which no traveller returns.” Inanna answers,
Because of my older sister, Ereshkigal
Her husband, Gugalanna, the Bull of Heaven, has died
I have come to witness the funeral rites
Neti then tells her to stay where she is while he goes to speak with Ereshkigal. When Neti delivers the news to Ereshkigal that Inanna is at the gates, the Queen of the Dead slapped her thigh and bit her lip and took the matter into her heart and dwelt on it” She then tells Neti to bolt the seven gates of the underworld against Inanna and then let her in, one gate at a time, requiring her to remove one of her royal garments at each gate. Neti does as he is commanded and, gate by gate, Inanna is stripped of her crown, beads, ring, sceptre, even her clothing and, when she asks the meaning of this indignity is told by Neti,
Quiet, Inanna, the ways of the underworld are perfect
They may not be questioned
Inanna enters the throne room of Ereshkigal “naked and bowed low” and begins walking toward the throne when:
The annuna, the judges of the underworld, surrounded her
They passed judgment against her.
Then Ereshkigal fastened on Inanna the eye of death
She spoke against her the word of wrath
She uttered against her the cry of guilt
She struck her.
Inanna was turned into a corpse
A piece of rotting meat
And was hung from a hook on the wall
After three days and three nights waiting for her mistress, Ninshubur follows the commands Inanna gave her, goes to Inanna’s father-god Enki for help, and receives two `galla’, two androgynous demons, to aid her in returning Inanna to the earth. The galla enter the underworld “like flies” and, following Enki’s specific instructions, attach themselves closely to Ereshkigal. The Queen of the Dead is seen in distress:
No linen was spread over her body
Her breasts were uncovered
Her hair swirled around her head like leeks
The poem continues to describe the queen experiencing the pains of labor. The galla sympathize with the queen’s pains and she, in gratitude, offers them whatever gift they ask for. As ordered by Enki, the galla respond, “We wish only the corpse that hangs from the hook on the wall and Ereshkigal gives it to them. The galla revive Inanna with the food and water of life and she rises from the dead.
However, one who has sojourned in the underworld cannot just leave it so easily. Someone must be found to take Inanna’s place and so the galla demons of the underworld accompany her up to the earth’s surface to claim her substitute. The demons try to take Ninshubur first, then Inanna’s sons Shara and Lulal and even Inanna’s beautician Cara but, in all these instances, Inanna prevents them because Ninshubur, Shara, Lulal and Cara are all dressed in sackcloth and are in mourning for her apparent death. When Inanna comes upon her husband Dumuzi, however, and finds him “dressed in his shining…garments…on his magnificent throne” she becomes enraged that he, unlike the others, is not mourning her and orders the demons to seize him. Dumuzi appeals to the sun god Utu for help and is transformed into a snake in order to escape but, eventually, is caught and carried away to the underworld. Dumuzi’s sister, Geshtinanna, volunteers herself to go in his place and so it is decreed that Dumuzi will spend half the year in the underworld and Geshtinanna the other half.
The story of Orpheus and Eurydice,
as told by Apollonius of Rhodes, Virgil and Ovid
On his mother’s side Orpheus was more than mortal. He was the son of one of the Muses and a Tracian prince. His mother gave him the gift of music and Thrace where he grew up fostered it. The Thracians were the most musical of the peoples of Greece. But Orpheus had no rival there or anywhere except the gods alone. There was no limit to his power when he played and sang. No one and nothing could resist him.
In the deep still woods upon the Thracian mountains
Orpheus with his singing lyre led the trees,
Led the wild beasts of the wilderness. Everything animate and inanimate followed him. He moved the rocks on the hillside and turned the courses of the rivers….
When he first met and how he wooed the maiden he loved, Euridice, we are not told, but it is clear that no maiden he wanted could have resisted the power of his song. They were married, but their joy was brief. Directly after the wedding, as the bride walked in a meadow with her bridesmaids, a viper stung her and she died. Orpheus’ grief was overwhelming. He could not endure it. He determined to go down to the world of death and try to bring Eurydice back. He said to himself,
With my song
I will charm Demeter’s daughter,
I will charm the Lord of the Dead,
Moving their hearts with my melody.
I will bear her away from Hades.
He dared more than any other man ever dared for his love. He took the fearsome journey to the underworld. There he struck his lyre, and at the sound all that vast multitude were charmed to stillness….
O Gods who rule the dark and silent world,
To you all born of a woman needs must come.
All lovely things at last go down to you.
You are the debtor who is always paid.
A little while we tarry up on earth.
Then we are yours forever and forever.
But I seek one who came to you too soon.
The bud was plucked before the flower bloomed.
I tried to bear my loss. I could not bear it.
Love was too strong a god, O King, you know
If that old tale men tell is true, how once
The flowers saw the rape of Proserpine,
Then weave again for sweet Eurydice
Life’s pattern that was taken from the loom
Too quick. See, I ask a little thing,
Only that you will lend, not give, her to me.
She shall be yours when her years’ span is full.
No one under the spell of his voice could refuse him anything. He
Drew iron tears down Pluto’s cheek,
and made Hell grant what Love did seek.
They summoned Eurydice and gave her to him, but upon one condition: that he would not look back at her as she followed him, until they had reached the upper world. So the two passed through the great doors of Hades to the path which would take them out of the darkness, climbing up and up. He knew that she must be just behind him, but he longed unutterably to give one glance to make sure. But now they were almost there, the blackness was turning gray; now he had stepped out joyfully into the daylight. Then he turned to her. It was too soon; she was still in the cavern. He saw her in the dim light, and he held out his arms to clasp her; but on the instant she was gone. She had slipped back into the darkness. All he heard was one faint word, “Farewell.”
Desperately he tried to rush after her and follow her down, but he was not allowed. The gods would not consent to his entering the world of the dead a second time, while he was still alive. He was forced to return to the earth alone, in utter desolation. Then he forsook the company of men. He wandered through the wild solitudes of Thrace, comfortless except for his lyre, playing, always playing, and the rocks and the rivers and the trees heard him gladly, his only companions. But at last a band of Maenads [women] came upon him….They slew the gentle musician, tearing him limb from limb, borne along past the river’s mouth on to the Lesbian shore; nor had it suffered any change from the sea when the Muses found it and buried it in the sanctuary of the island. His limbs they gathered and placed in a tomb at the foot of Mount Olympus, and there to this day the nightingales sing more sweetly than anywhere else. “