There are as many reasons to descend into the Underworld as there are Underworlds: some go to recover love, others to find guidance, while others still are called to learn forbidden knowledge. These are just a few of the reasons that have led brave or desperate souls past Hell’s Gates, down into the Chthonic Realms.
However, taking control of the Underworld, as in wanting to rule it, isn’t usually a character’s primary motive…
Unless you are the Goddess Inanna-Ishtar, in which case you want to rule everything.
Inanna was a significant Sumerian deity, figuring in some of the oldest (if not the oldest) mythic literature in the world. Under the name of Ishtar, she was also worshiped by the Akkadians, Babylonians, and Assyrians, who all added their own mythic twists to her tales. These new versions include a revised Descent tale, as well a role for Ishtar in the Epic of Gilgamesh.
So, what makes Inanna-Ishtar tick?
Like Venus/Aphrodite, to whom she is related, she is a Goddess of sexuality and fertility.
However, she is also fierce, a warrior like Artemis/Athena.
But She differs from her Greek female counterparts: where Athena is clever, Ishtar is cunning; while Artemis is virginal, Inanna’s cult is orgiastic to violent extremes.
But what really sets her apart is the magnitude of Her ambition.
It was an ambition that led her to the house of the God Enki, who she challenged to a drinking contest. After many a round, Enki lost. While Enki lay passed out, Inanna-Ishtar stole his Mes, which can best be understood as the entire knowledgebase of human civilization.
The Mes cemented an essential convergence point between humanity and the Gods. The Sumerian Gods took a peculiar interest in civilizing humanity; this placed them in sharp contrast with the Canaanite deity El, who punished humanity for seeking knowledge, and destroyed our greatest technological marvel, the pre-digital World Wide Web known as the Tower of Babel.
Which was supposedly located in Sumeria…but let’s go back to Inanna’s story…
The Mes wasn’t the last of her many conquests; however, after all her victories, she still coveted one thing, perhaps because it belonged to her older sister, the Queen of the Underworld, Ereshkigal.
Sibling rivalry at its damnedest…
Most of what follows is from the original Sumerian version, The Descent of Inanna, which dates from c. 2112 BC – c. 2004 BC (the Third Dynasty of Ur).
However, I will intersperse narrative elements from the Akkadian The Descent of Ishtar (early second millennium BC). While the Ishtar tale is shorter, its unique features are often more provocative:
From the great heaven she set her mind on the great below. From the great heaven the goddess set her mind on the great below. From the great heaven Inana set her mind on the great below. My mistress abandoned heaven, abandoned earth, and descended to the underworld. Inana abandoned heaven, abandoned earth, and descended to the underworld.
Inanna passes through several realms, abandoning each of them. However, she makes a point of adorning herself along the way.
These adornments included an impressive headdress, a wig, a necklace of lapis-lazuli, beads for her breasts, and a dress of privilege.
In addition, she put on mascara called “Let a man come, let him come”, and a girdle similarly titled “Come, man, come”.
She finished off with golden rings and her customary lapis-lazuli measuring rod (emblematic of Mes).
However, she still had work to do before Descending into Kur, the Underworld:
Inanna carefully instructed her second-in-command with a set of orders…
Now, let’s see how Ishtar’s doing:
The Akkadian version doesn’t waste time with prelude/set up. It begins by describing the Underworld, here known as Irkalla, and goes straight into Ishtar’s demand:
To the land of no return, the land of darkness,
Ishtar, the daughter of Sin directed her thought,
Directed her thought, Ishtar, the daughter of Sin,
To the house of shadows, the dwelling, of Irkalla,
To the house without exit for him who enters therein,
To the road, whence there is no turning,
To the house without light for him who enters therein,
The place where dust is their nourishment, clay their food.’
They have no light, in darkness they dwell.
Having arrived, she banged on the main gate, announcing to the Gatekeeper:
“Gatekeeper, Lo! open thy gate!
Open thy gate that I may enter!
If thou openest not the gate to let me enter,
I will break the door, I will wrench the lock,
I will smash the door-posts, I will force the doors.
I will bring up the dead to eat the living.
And the dead will outnumber the living.“
TO BE CONTINUED