The Temple to the Goddess Inanna in Sumeria was the central core of the community for centuries prior to and during the biblical era. The temple owned much of the arable land and herds of domesticated animals. It was the temple that regulated the law. It was the temple that kept the economic and social records. And it was the temple that served as the cultural center of activity. The women who lived within its walls were sacred and the sexual act as it was enacted within the house of the Goddess was also sacred. The Goddess Inanna was revered as the patron deity of sexual love as well as fertility.
That’s a lot different from the way we look at sex today. Merlin Stone in When God Was A Woman expresses the dissimilarity well. She writes, “But in the religions of today we find an almost totally reversed attitude. Sex, especially non-marital sex, is considered to be somewhat naughty, dirty, even sinful. Yet rather than calling all the earliest religions, which embraced such an open acceptance of all human sexuality, “fertility cults,” we might consider the religions of today as strange in that they seem to associate shame and even sin with the very process of conceiving new human life. Perhaps centuries from now scholars and historians will be classifying them as “sterility cults.” That would be interesting. How did such a cataclysmic change in attitude occur?
To find out, I have been reading extensively from Gnostic literature especially the Nag Hammadi and Dead Sea Scrolls, the Kabbalah, and Goddess lore and myth in general. It’s difficult to get a handle on it. There is so much out there and the material has been used and misused in the furtherance of many an agenda. I’ve decided to keep as closely as possible to original material and make my own observations.
The Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh dates from the 10th to the 13th century BCE (Before Common Era or Before Christ) and is one of the earliest surviving works of literature. The Bible’s Old Testament is thought to have been first written down in an ancient form of Hebrew starting in the 6th century, BCE. Rabbinical Judaism calculated the lifespan of Moses to be from about 1391 to 1271 BCE. The earliest Dead Sea Scrolls date from 250 BCE and the Nag Hammadi texts date from the 1st and 2nd century CE. I decided to start with the oldest and go from there. The oldest is the Epic of Gilgamesh.
What is the Epic of Gilgamesh? Gilgamesh is a hero predating but evocative of Hercules. He was the first king to become a permanent king. Before Gilgamesh the temple priestess chose the king. He was her paramour for a year and in oldest times then died.
I want to tell the story of the Descent of the Goddess, Inanna, into the underground but first a synopsis and some background to put things into perspective. Inanna, the goddess of love, fertility and warfare was worshipped in Sumeria from 5300 BCE to 1940 BCE. She derives from the Queen of Heaven, nin-anna, and combines both masculine and feminine qualities. Her movements are erratic and unpredictable like the movements of the planet Venus. Venus, because of its position close to the earth, never travels all the way across the dome of the sky the way most celestial bodies do. Instead, it rises in the East and the West in both the morning and the evening. Some cultures thought Venus was two separate stars. The Sumerians knew it was one entity. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inanna
Inanna is the Goddess of Love, not Marriage, of sexual affairs and extramarital sex. She wore the “pearls of the prostitute” and prowled the streets and taverns searching for sexual adventure. She was a war deity. Battle was referred to as the “Dance of Inanna.” She was worshipped by all and among her most devoted followers were asexual persons, hermaphrodites, eunuchs and feminine men.
Each year at the spring equinox, Inanna, in the guise of the chief temple priestess, along with the elders of the temple, chose a young shepherd to be her husband in a symbolic ceremony called hieros gamos, a Greek term for a sexual ritual between a god and a goddess where the parts are played by human participants representing the deities. The chief temple priestess would take to ‘her sacred lap’ a young man to be the King for a year. His ceremonial name was Dumuzid. His prowess in the bed of Inanna and his ability to satisfy her would be related to fertility of all kinds during the upcoming year including the breeding of domestic animals and fruitfulness of the fields. At the end of the year the young lover was killed in a ceremony of ritual regicide.
I have a little trouble with this. Why would anyone of a sane mind agree to participate knowingly in a ritual that would result in death? The honor must have been great and I think we have to look at others who have been willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for a cause or a religion. I don’t have to look far. The Kamikazes who committed suicide in World War II, the Christian Saints who died for their faith, and today young Arabs who blow themselves up in hope of going to heaven are all examples of self sacrifice to the death. This must have been a great honor for the young shepherd. I don’t approve but then I don’t approve of self-immolation either. But it’s not for me to judge. As years went by they came up with other ways of ending the reign of the young shepherd without resorting to ritual regicide. For a while, they castrated him. He would run through the town and throw his genitals into one of the houses. The people of the house were required to dress him for the temple where he would then serve the Goddess as a eunuch. Eventually castration also ended. It’s interesting to note that some think that Freud’s work on castration fear is related to hieros gamos.
Inanna wept for her lover and her tears were the rain nourishing the earth preparing it for rebirth. A new shepherd was chosen and the year began again.
That the temple was a place of sacred prostitution makes sense to me. It would have been a safe place for girls and women in a time when marauding tribes roamed the earth. The laws of marriage didn’t exist as they do today and except for hieros gamos, marriage wasn’t institutionalized. Where would it be safe to give childbirth and raise children if not within the temple walls? They had eunuchs and hermaphrodites to protect them. Another thing figures in. Women are capable of the miracle of childbirth; men aren’t. The concept of primogeniture didn’t come in until the Jewish and Christian faiths brought it and that didn’t happen until the time of Moses. At this point men probably saw no reason to stick around in order to care for children. Sex that gave rise to conception was separated by nine months from childbirth and monogamy was unknown. Without the concept of monogamy, no one knew who was the father and primogeniture was impossible. It was a matrilineal society.
The first half of the Descent of Inanna relates the story of Gilgamesh, a hero figure. He has been oppressing the brides and young girls in the city-state, Uruk, insisting on “lord’s right,” or droit de seigneur, the right to sleep with brides on their wedding night. He is massively strong and has exhausted the young men through games, tests of strength and forced labor. To rid him of his arrogance, the Gods created Enkidu, a wild man raised by animals and ignorant of human society. They, the Gods, arranged for Shamhat, a temple goddess, to take him to her bed for six days and seven nights to tame him. Gilgamesh and Enkidu wrestle, find themselves equal in strength, and a friendship develops. Together, they journey to the Cedar Mountain to defeat Humbaba, its monstrous guardian. Inanna is infatuated with Gilgamesh and invites him to be her King but he refuses and recites aloud a long list of kings who have died or suffered a bad fate at her hands. Infuriated, she sends Gugalanna, the Bull of Heaven, to kill Gilgamesh but Gugalanna is killed instead. As a punishment for these actions, the gods sentence Enkidu to death. Inanna decides to go to the underworld. She wants to be the Goddess of both the Land of the Living and the World of the Dead. She is taking an enormous chance. No one who goes into the underworld comes back alive. This is not her stated purpose for going. She says she is going to attend Gugalanna’s funeral and to comfort Ereckigala, her sister and Goddess of the Underworld. Gugalanna is Ereckigala’s husband.
The Descent of Inanna
The Inanna myth contains many formulaic repetitions and has the sound of an incantation or ritual that must not be varied. In my retelling, I’m summarizing but, at the same time, trying not to entirely eliminate the ceremonial feel of it. The translation I’m using was done by the University of Oxford. For the original go to http://etcsl.orinst.ox.ac.uk/section1/tr141.htm
She (Inanna) abandoned the office of en, the office of lagar and descended to the underworld. She abandoned the E-ana in Unug, the E-muc-kalama in Bad-tibira and descended to the underworld. She abandoned the Giguna in Zabalam, the E-cara in Adab, the Barag-dur-jara in Nibru, the E-Ulmac in Agade, the Ibgal in Umma, the E-Dilmuna in Urim, the Amac-e-kug in Kisiga, the E-ecdam-kug in Jirsu, the E-sig-mece-du in Isin, the Anzagar in Akcak, the Nijin-jar-kug in Curuppag, the E-cag-hula in Kazallu and descended to the underworld.
Before leaving she put on the regal robes of her office. She took the seven divine powers with her, grasping them in her hand. She put a turban headgear for the open country on her head. She took a wig for her forehead and hung small lapis lazuli beads around her neck. She placed twin egg-shaped beads on her breast and covered her body with a pala dress, the ladyship garment. She wore mascara which is called “Let a man come, let him come” on her eyes. She put on a pectoral which is called “Come, man, come” over her breast. She placed a golden ring on her hand. She held the lapis lazuli measuring rod and measuring line in her hand.
She travelled toward the underworld and her minister and handmaiden, Nincubura, traveled behind her. Inanna gave instructions to Nincubura in the eventuality she did not return within three days. Inanna said, “If I do not return, make a lament for me on the ruin mounds. Beat the drum for me in the sanctuary. Make the rounds of the houses of the gods for me. Lacerate your eyes for me. Lacerate your nose for me. Lacerate your ears for me. Do these things in public. In private lacerate your buttocks for me. Wear a pauper’s garment and go to the house of the God, Enlil, the God of Air. Beg him to help me.”
“Say to him. Enlil, don’t let anyone kill your daughter in the underworld. Don’t let your precious metal be alloyed there with the dirt of the underworld. Don’t let your precious lapis lazuli be split there with the mason’s stone. Don’t let your boxwood be chopped up there with the carpenter’s wood. Don’t let Inanna be killed. If Enlil does not help, go to the house of the Nanna, the God of the Moon. Entreat him in the same manner.”
“If Nanna does not help, go to the house of Enki, the great god of wisdom and magic. Entreat him in the same manner. He is the one who will restore me to life.
Inanna arrives at the palace of Ganzer and pushes aggressively on the door to the underworld. She shouts, “Open up, doorman. Open up, Neti, open up. I am alone and want to come in.”
Neti, gatekeeper of the underground and a servant of Ereckigala, asks her why she wants to come in and she answers that she wants to attend Gugalanna’s funeral rites. Neti tells her to wait and asks Ereckigala, the Goddess of the Underworld, for instructions. He describes Inanna’s dress, the trappings of her office that she carries and how aggressively she has beaten on the door.
When Ereckigala hears this, “she slaps the side of her thigh and bites her lip. She takes the words to heart. She says. “Let each door to the palace, Ganzar, be opened separately. As for her, after she has entered and crouched down and had her clothes removed, they will be carried away.””
Neti bolted the seven gates of the underworld then opened the door of the palace. He said, “Come on, Inanna, and enter.” When she entered the palace, the seven divine powers were removed from her hand and when she entered the first gate, the turban, headgear for the open country, was removed from her head.
“What is this?” asks Inanna.
And Neti answers, “Be satisfied, Inanna, a divine power of the underworld has been fulfilled. Inanna, you must not open your mouth against the underworld.”
When she enters the second gate, the small lapis lazuli beads are removed from her neck.
Again Inanna asks, “What is this?” and Neti answers “Be satisfied, Inanna, a divine power of the underworld has been fulfilled. Inanna, you must not open your mouth against the underworld.”
When she enters the third gate, the twin egg-shaped beads are removed from her breast.
At each of the gates, Inanna asks, “What is this?” and at each gate, Neti repeats the warning.
When she enters the fourth gate, the pectoral, which is called “Come, man, come” is removed from her breast.
When she enters the fifth gate, the golden ring is removed from her hand.
When she enters the sixth gate, the lapis lazuli measuring rod and measuring line is removed from her hand.
When she enters the seventh and final gate, the pala dress, the garment of ladyship, is removed from her body.
They carry away her clothes and she crouches down.
Ereckigala rises from the throne and Inanna sits on it. The Aruna, the seven judges, render their decision against her. They look at her. It is the look of death. They speak to her. It is the speech of anger. They shout at her. It is the shout of heavy guilt. Inanna is turned into a corpse, a piece of rotting meat, and hung up on a hook.
After three days and nights have passed, Nincubara carries out the instructions Inanna gave her before she left. She beats the drum, lacerates her eyes, nose, ears and buttocks, and wears a pauper’s garment. She goes to Enlil, the god of air repeating the words Inanna taught her. He refuses to help. Then she goes to Nanna, the God of the Moon. He too refuses to help. In a rage they answer, “My daughter craved the great heaven and she craved the great below as well. The divine powers of the underworld are divine powers that should not be craved, for whoever gets them must remain in the underworld. Who having got to that place, could then expect to come up again?”
Nincubura next appeals to Enki, God of Wisdom and Magic, repeating the words Inanna taught her.
Enki replies, “What has my daughter done? She has me worried. What has the mistress of all the lands done? She has me worried. What has the hierodule (sacred prostitute) of An done? She has me worried.”
Enki then removes some dirt from the tip of his fingernail and creates the Gala-tura and Kur-jara, androgynous, asexual beings who have the power of astral travel. To the Kur-jara he gives a life-giving plant. To the Gala-tura he gives life-giving water. He tells them to sprinkle the life-giving plant over Inanna and then the life giving water.
“Go and direct your steps to the underworld. Flit past the door like flies. Slip through the door pivots like phantoms. The mother who gave birth, Ereckigala, on account of her children, is lying there. Her holy shoulders are not covered by a linen clothe. Her breasts are not full like a cagan vessel. Her nails are like a pickaxe. The hair is bunched up as if it were leeks.”
Enki teaches the messengers how to give comfort to Ereckigala. When she (Ereckigala) says, “Oh my heart,” they are to say, “You are troubled, our mistress, oh your heart.” When she says “O my liver,” they are to say “You are troubled, our mistress, oh your liver.” She will ask, “Who are you?” and be grateful to you for comforting her.
Say to her, “Give us the corpse hanging on the hook.”
She will say, “The corpse is your queen.”
You must answer. “Whether it is that of our king or that of our queen, give it to us.”
She will. It is then that you must sprinkle the corpse with the life-giving plant and the life-giving water.
When Inanna is given life back, she starts to ascend from the underworld. But the Aruna seize her saying. “If Inanna is to ascend from the underworld, let her provide a substitute for herself.”
So when Inanna left the underworld, “the one in front of her, though not a minister, held a sceptre in his hand; the one behind her, though not an escort, carried a mace at his hip, while the small demons, like a reed enclosure, and the big demons, like the reeds of a fence, restrained her on all sides.”
When Inanna came out from the underworld, Nincubura, her minister, threw herself at her feet. Nincubura sat in the dust clothed in a filthy garment. The demons said to holy Inanna: “Go, Inanna, proceed to your city, we will take her back to the Underworld as your substitute.” But Inanna refused and defended Nincubura.
They next meet Cara, Inanna’s beautician, who was in mourning. Cara throws himself at the feet of Inanna. The demons want to take him back but Inanna refuses. She says, “He is my singer, my manicurist and my hairdresser. How could I turn him over to you? Let us go on.”
Next they meet Lulal, Inanna’s son, but Inanna will not part with him either.
They follow her to the great apple tree in the plain of Kulaba. There they meet Dumuzid, her husband. “He was not in mourning but is instead clothed in a magnificent garment and seated magnificently on a throne. The demons seized him. The seven of them (the demons) poured the milk from his churns. They would not let the shepherd play the flute before her.” He beseeched Inanna to save him.
But Inanna “looked at him and it was the look of death. She spoke to him and it was the speech of anger. She shouted at him and it was the shout of heavy guilt: “How much longer? Take him away.”” Holy Inanna delivered Dumuzid, the shepherd, into their hands.
Those who accompanied her, who had come for Dumuzid,” know no food, know no drink, eat no flour offering, and drink no libation. They never enjoy the pleasures of marital embrace, never have any sweet children to kiss. They snatch the son from a man’s knee. They make the bride leave the house of her father-in-law.”
Dumuzid let out a wail and turned very pale. The lad raised his hands to heaven, to Utu, the Sun God. “Utu, you are my brother-in-law. I am your relation by marriage. I brought butter to your mother’s house. I brought milk to Ningal’s house. Turn my hands into snake’s hands and turn my feet into snake’s feet, so that I can escape my demons, let them not keep hold of me.” Utu accepted his tears and did as he requested and the demons could not keep hold of him.
Dumuzid escaped and hid in the house of Geshtinana, the Lady of Wine, his sister. A fly spoke to holy Inanna. He asked, “If I show you where your man is, what will be my reward?”
And Holy Inanna answered, “In the beer-house and the tavern, may there always be a home for you.”
The fly took the demons to the house of Geshtinana where Dumuzid was hiding. Geshtinana defended him and asked the demons to take her instead. Inanna and the demons agreed to an arrangement. Dumuzid would go to the Underground for one half of the year, the fall and winter, and return in the spring. Geshtinana would descend for the spring and summer and return to the living in the fall.
This story, The Descent of Inanna, is key to an important change in the history of the Goddess culture. It is the first time the same King is allowed to return the following year. Although the Goddess gives him his power, he is in a far stronger position than he was previously. This was the first step in a long series of occurrences that led eventually to the downfall of the Goddess culture and the rise of patriarchy.