Tell Me a Story

Inanna's Journey (An Ancient Sumerian Myth)

Long ago in ancient Sumeria, Inanna was worshipped as the goddess of love and war. She was all-powerful, free to roam the vast regions of heaven and Earth, and when she received the gift of the divine laws of the universe, she thought nothing could stop her.

One day, Inanna suddenly heard the sound of her sister's moans. Ereshkigal, Inanna's sister, was Queen of the Underworld, and it seemed impossible that her cries could reach to the heavens, but it was true. Inanna heard her long and terrible wails, for Ereshkigal was mourning her husband, the Bull of Heaven.

"I must go to witness my sister's husband's funeral," she told her servant, Ninshubur. "I am traveling to Kur."

"You must not go," Ninshubur cried. "No one returns from the underworld."

But Inanna was determined, for she wished to understand her people better by experiencing death, and so she instructed her servant: "If I do not return in three days, you must go to seek help from the gods. They will rescue me."

Then Inanna prepared for the descent. Dressed in flowing royal robes, she placed a crown of blazing gold upon her head. Around her neck she wore beads of lapis lazuli; she wore bracelets on her wrists and rings on her fingers. She wore a breastplate adorned with jewels, and she took along a measuring rod and line of lapis lazuli. But that was all she took; she was prepared to leave all she had ever known behind.

Ninshubur was certain she would never see her mistress again.

When Inanna arrived at the outer gates of the underworld, she challenged the gatekeeper, Neti, to allow her to pass.

"I must consult with Ereshkigal," Neti told her. He hurried to Inanna's sister to describe the great and powerful goddess dressed in jewels who awaited entrance at the gate of Kur.

Ereshkigal envied and despised her sister, and so, with evil intentions, she instructed her gatekeeper. "Open the seven gates," she said, "but only the smallest crack. As my sister enters each gate, take another of her royal garments from her."

And so Neti opened the first gate. Inanna, about to pass through, gasped as the gatekeeper removed her dazzling crown. "Why?" Inanna asked.

"Quiet, Inanna. The ways of the Kur are perfect. You may ask no questions," Neti replied.

At the second gate, Neti took away Inanna's beads, and again the goddess asked him, "Why?"

"Our ways are perfect," Neti answered. At the third gate he removed her breastplate of sparkling stones. At the fourth gate, he took away her bracelets, and at the fifth he snatched her rings. Inanna gasped again when Neti took her measuring rod while she slipped through the sixth gate, and when she reached the last gate, she barely resisted as he removed her beautiful royal robe and ushered her through the seventh gate.

Now defenseless, Inanna entered Kur. She walked into her sister's throne room, and as she did, all the judges of the underworld surrounded her and prepared to make judgment.

Inanna looked up at her sister, and she saw the eye of death staring back. "Sister," Ereshkigal said, but that was all she said before she struck Inanna dead. "This is my world, and she has no right to be here."

Meanwhile Ninshubur waited, and when three days had passed with no sign of her mistress, she fled to seek Enlil's help, for he was God of the Air. "I cannot help," he told the weeping servant. "The underworld is not my domain. Your mistress should not have ventured so far."

Ninshubur ran to Nanna, God of the Moon, but Nanna shook his head. "I have no rule over the underworld," he said.

And so at last Ninshubur visited Enki, God of Wisdom and Water. It was he, after all, who originally blessed Inanna with the gift of the universal laws, for he knew that without Inanna, life on Earth would die.

From beneath his fingernails, Enki took dirt and with this he created two new creatures. "Go to Kur and give these gifts to Inanna," he instructed the creatures as he handed them goblets filled with the food and water of life.

Able to adopt any disguise, the creatures turned themselves into flies and slipped through cracks at each of the seven gates of Kur. When they reached the throne room, they heard Ereshkigal's moans. "Oh, my heart and soul," she wept as she mourned her husband, and the creatures echoed Ereshkigal's words back to her. "Oh, my heart and soul," they moaned. But they moaned with compassion and understanding, and compassion was what Ereshkigal craved most.

At last she grew silent, and turning to those who seemed to feel empathy for her pain, she offered them any gift they desired.

"Give us Inanna's body," the creatures said.

Ereshkigal gave them Inanna's body, and they fed the goddess the food and water of life. And so Inanna rose again, but before she could return to heaven and Earth, according to the universal laws, a substitute had to be found to take her place in the underworld. Inanna chose her husband, Damuzi, to live in the underworld, but his compassionate sister offered to serve his sentence for six months of every year. In this way the cycle of life could begin again, and spring return to the Earth when Damuzi left the underworld to join his wife above.

4520 Main St., Kansas City, Mo. 64111; (816) 932-6600

More like Tell Me a Story