The Descent of Inanna – Understanding the Dark Goddess Ereshkigal
Ereshkigal, Great Goddess of the Underworld, was worshiped throughout the Mesopotamian region , dating back to 3000 BCE. Her main following in Sumer and Babylon was complete with temples dedicated to her throughout the region, the main site found in Kutha. Myths of Ereshkigal are found in the remnants of various Mesopotamian tablets and texts, including the epic of Gilgamesh. Her name is thought to mean Lady of the Great Place.
She is the daughter of Nammu, Goddess of the primordial sea, and Anu, God of the sky; her twin brother Enki is the Lord of Magick and God of the Watery Deep; her younger sister is Inanna/Ishtar, Goddess of Love and War. Her first husband Gugalanna (the Bull of Heaven) was slaughtered by Gilgamesh due to the (inadvertent) actions of Inanna; his death provides the background and pretext for one of the most famous Ereshkigal myths, “The Descent of Inanna”.
Ereshkigal is the true essence of a Dark Goddess. From the moment she enters Irkalla, the Underworld, she embraces the realm and her role as Queen and Goddess of the Law. In spiritual terms, she embodies the shadow self; what psychoanalyst Jung described as the undesirable parts of our consciousness – the things we deem as evil, inferior, or unacceptable. The emotions, desires, and understandings we deny in ourselves become part of our shadow. This is a role Ereshkigal accepts, and her work is to integrate the unconscious shadow mind with the consciousness light mind, in both mortals and deities alike. She understands that only through this assimilation can a soul be whole and complete.
As the shadow self can be a frightening and uncomfortable subject, Ereshkigal is often portrayed as demonesque; a scary, cruel, and unrelenting figure in ancient mythology. However, as practitioners work with this Goddess, we discover her brusqueness does not mean she withholds the unconditional love the divine have for their parishioners. She is the Devouring Mother who supports you, answers your questions, and imparts the needed lessons through your journey in the dark. She may hang you on the hook, and inflict you with dis-ease, but she doesn’t do it for fun. She does it because it has to be done, in order for you to move to the next level of your spiritual development. She is the knowing within.
“…while “nice isn’t one of her attributes, there is far more to her character than rage and jealousy. She is a Goddess of Boundaries, refusing to be taken advantage of. She is a Companion in Grief, sharing the agony of losing a loved one. She is the Goddess of Dealing With Your Shit, of facing all the things you would rather not admit about yourself, doing something about it, and becoming more than what you were. And yes, she is Mistress of the Descent: sometimes putting us through ordeals, sometimes simply there to help us through the inevitable dark places in life. She is one of the deities who operate the spiritual forges, those who help us be strengthened by hardship rather than destroyed by it.”
– Janet Munin , Queen of the Great Below
In Ereshkigal’s mythology, her wrath is always the result of someone breaking the Laws of Heaven and Earth, and pushing the boundaries she has set for herself and the world. She has no tolerance for disrespect, illusions, or deceit.
The story “The Descent of Inanna” is the most familiar myth of Ereshkigal, and the prime example of the power, fortitude, and wisdom. (If you are unfamiliar with this tale, please read the myth online here). Ereshkigal can be seen as the mirror image of her sister Inanna: where Inanna is sky, she is earth; where Inanna is joyful and sensual, Ereshkigal is forlorn and grief-stricken; where Inanna is heaven, Ereshkigal is hell.
It is within this myth we witness the integration of the shadow and the light through the death and rebirth of Inanna. When Inanna chooses to descend to the dark to offer condolences to her sister, she knows the Law: no one can enter the Great Below and live (i.e. without being transformed). Ereshkigal makes it clear that no one is above the law – not even her beloved sister. Inanna, whether or not it is her true intention, is committing herself as an initiate of the dark by even attempting the journey to the Underworld. It is her pride, her Queenly status, her one-sided, narrow view of her Self that leads her to believe she go into the dark and return unscathed.
When Ereshkigal demands that Inanna give up her regalia at the seven gates and be “naked and bowed low” before her, she is, metaphorically speaking, stripping Inanna of her pride, her masks, the self Inanna thinks she is.
The Mistress of the Descent is escorting the initiate into true darkness, true vulnerability. Inanna arrives at Ereshkigal’s throne unveiled; for both deities, the true self and the shadow self is now in plain sight. Erishkegal of the Dark sees her own light in Inanna; her own love, her own passion. Inanna of the Light can now see her own pain, reflected through her sister – as well as her own grief, her own rage.
It is Ereshkigal’s slaying of Inanna by inflicting her with diseases and hanging her on a hook for three days and nights that begins the true integration of these two selves. As her sister’s body decays, Ereshkigal goes through “birth pains”: she moans, she wails, she laments and mourns the death of all she thought she knew.
The mother who gave birth, Ereshkigal,
because of her children, was lying there.
Her holy shoulders were not covered by a linen cloth.
Her breasts were not full like a cagan vessel.
Her nails were like a pickaxe (?) upon her.
The hair on her head was bunched up as if it were leeks.
In psycho-spiritual terms, Ereshkigal and Inanna are completing the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. As Inanna dies, the sacrifice of ignorance, fear, and the conscious self needed to evoke the shadow self has been made. Ereshkigal gives “birth” to their new selves, allowing the sisters to become one consciousness, and accept their whole being. Inanna, for perhaps the first time, is unable to use her beauty or charm to escape a perilous situation. As Ereshkigal’s birth/death pains are witnessed and commiserated by Enki’s creatures, she, for perhaps the first time, is the recipient of compassion.
As Inanna is reborn, so is Ereshkigal into an integrated consciousness of dark and light. When newborn Inanna leaves the underworld, she takes a piece of her sister with her, and thereby her whole self. When Inanna ascends to the upper world, and finds that her mortal lover Dumuzi has not only abstained from mourning her, but has sat himself upon her throne. This lack of respect, this pushing of her boundaries has Inanna looking upon her lover with the same “eye of death” Ereshkigal gave to her. She sentences Dumuzi to be her replacement in the Great Below.
In the Underworld, Ereshkigal has also kept a part of her sister; she now has the deep, rich capacity for love, passion, and sexuality that inevitably leads to the romance with her consort, Nergal.
A wonderful retelling and lecture regarding Ereshkigal and Nergal can be found online at Gateways of Babylon.
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