Mythic Studies

The Mythic Feminine, Part 6: Descent of the Goddess: Inanna (Sumerian Myth)

Long ago, when the world was young, the god Enki planted a huluppu tree along the banks of the Great River Euphrates in the time before he set out for the Underworld. The tree was nurtured by the Great River, till a great storm came from the South and ripped the tree free from the bank. The huluppu tree landed in the river and the river carried it away.

Now it came to pass that Inanna found the huluppu tree, where the Great River had washed it ashore. Inanna took the huluppu tree to Uruk and planted it in her own garden, where she tended to it herself. Inanna wished the tree to grow strong and tall, for she wanted to make of it a throne for herself, that she might rule.

Many years passed and the tree grew, but when Inanna went to make of it a throne for herself, she found that a serpent, an anzu bird and Lilith, the dark maid, had taken up homes within the tree. Inanna tried to persuade them to leave her tree, but they would not. She then turned to her brother Utu, seeking his help, but he would not aid her. Then she turned to her other brother, Gilgamesh, and he agreed to help her. Girding himself as if for battle, the great warrior chased off the snake, the anzu bird and Lilith. Gilgamesh then uprooted the tree, cut off the branches, and from it fashioned a shining throne for his sister, Inanna.

Not long after, Inanna decided to visit Enki, the god of wisdom. Enki has his servant greet Inanna and treats her as if she were equal to him. Enki and Inanna spent the day in feasting and drinking and during the course of this, Enki toasts Inanna fourteen times, each time offering her more and more of his holy possessions, all of which Inanna accepts and takes with her when she leaves. After she has gone, and Enki has recovered from his drinking bout, he realizes what he has done and becomes angered. He sends his servants to take back the gifts that he had offered Inanna when intoxicated. Six times Enki tries to take back his gifts and six times he is rebuffed, before Inanna finally reaches Uruk. At this point, Enki relents and allows her to keep the gifts, so long as she makes proper use of them.

Still, despite the throne and the gifts of Enki, Inanna was still bound to her family and its wishes. There came a day when they decreed that she must marry Dumuzi, a shepherd. Inanna did not wish to marry Dumuzi. She wished to marry a farmer. However, she was made to do as her family wished and marry Dumuzi. For a time, Inanna was happy with Dumuzi, but he soon turned his attentions to rulership of the land, which had been granted to him when he wed Inanna.

Not long after, Inanna learned that the husband of her sister Erishkigal had passed. As Inanna was considered Queen of Heaven and Earth, Erishkigal was Queen of the Underworld. Inanna decided to visit her sister, though she set plans in motions, should some harm come to her, for one does not simply walk into the Underworld and come out unscathed. She spoke with her loyal companion Ninshubur and told her to wait at the place of descent. If Inanna did not return within three days, Ninshubur should first seek the help of Enlil, the god of air, then Nanna, god of the moon and lastly, of Enki, the god of wisdom.

Then Inanna donned the symbols of her power- her crown, a necklace of lapis lazuli, a double-stranded bead necklace, her gold ring, her royal robes and her breastplate- and took up her lapis rod and line, which were used to weigh and measure. Thus arrayed, Inanna made her way to the gates of the Underworld and there demanded entrance from the gatekeeper. He asked Inanna’s purpose in being there and, when told she wished to visit and comfort her sister, the gatekeeper bade her wait, while he went to speak with Erishkigal. The Queen of the Underworld told her gatekeeper to allow Inanna in, but to take from her an object at each of the inner gates they passed. Thus is was that by the time Inanna reached Erishkigal, she had been stripped of everything and was naked as the day she was born.

The judges of the underworld, unhappy at the living mortal in their midst, passed judgment upon Inanna. The Queen of Heaven and Earth was killed there and her body hung upon a hook in the throne room. Needless to say, she did not return within three days, so Ninshubur followed Inanna’s last orders. First, she sought the aid of Enlil, then Nanna. Neither were inclined to help Ninshubur, saying that Inanna should pay the consequences for daring to tread where no living person should go. However, Enki, the god of wisdom, agreed to help. Enki created two tiny creatures, the kurgarra and the galatur, and sent them down into the underworld, with the food and waters of life. There they found Erishkigal, who is in pain. Each time Erishkigal expresses pain, the kurgarra and the galatur offer empathy and so, win the gratitude of Erishkigal. She offers them gifts. All they ask for is Inanna’s corpse. Once they have it, they use the food and waters of life and restore Inanna to the realm of the living.

Inanna is about to ascend, when she is told that she must provide someone to take her place. To ensure this, several of the demons of the underworld accompany her. Inanna finds Ninshubur above, mourning her and she refuses to send her faithful friend with the demons. So, too, does she refuse to send her sons, also in mourning for their missing mother. When Inanna and her entourage reach Uruk however, she finds Dumuzi seemingly oblivious to her absence and she instructs the demons to take him away in her place. Dumuzi seeks the aid of Utu, god of justice and of his own sister, Geshtinanna. It is to no avail and the demons eventually take Dumuzi to the underworld. His sister, Geshtinanna, mourns the loss of her brother. In her grief, she offers to share his fate. Inanna takes pity on her and decrees that they each, brother and sister, will spend only half the year in the Underworld and the other half among the living. Thus does Inanna put them both in the hands of the eternal.


Inanna’s Journey following Schmidt’s variation:

*The Illusion of a Perfect World- Inanna finds the huluppu tree and takes it home. She has decided she wishes to rule and wishes the tree to make a throne from. She plants the tree and waits passively for it to grow big enough to make a worthy throne for herself. Unfortunately, when she decides to make the throne, she finds that a snake (a common symbol of rebirth), an anzu bird (a symbol of wisdom) and Lilith (here a symbol of the rebellious woman) have all made homes in her tree. She must claim these aspects before she can properly rule. Inanna tries to get them to leave, but they will not, so she turns to her brothers for help instead. Gilgamesh helps her, thereby keeping her sheltered in her ‘perfect world’.

*Betrayal/Realization- A partial betrayal comes in the form of Enki, who gives Inanna gifts when he is drunk, then wishes to take them back after he is sober again. In the end, though, she is allowed to keep them, because she is making use of them. Another betrayal of sorts comes from Inanna’s family, who insists that she must marry a person she does not wish to. In the end, he courts her properly and she does wed him.

*Awakening- Inanna clothes herself in the trappings of her queenhood and goes to the Underworld, to visit her sister Erishkigal.

*The Descent/ Passing the Gates of Judgment- Inanna passes through seven gates in the Underworld, each time losing a piece of her adornment.

*Eye of the Storm- Inanna feels safe because she managed to reach Erishkigal still alive.

*Death- the judges of the Underworld decree Inanna must die and so Erishkigal kills her sister and hangs the corpse in the throne room.

*Support (or not)- Ninshubur seeks the aid of Enlil, Nanna and Enki, the last of whom agrees to help her. He sends two creatures to the Underworld, bearing the food and waters of life, with which to restore Inanna. She may leave the Underworld, but she must send someone to take her place.

*Moment of Truth- Inanna doesn’t let the demons take Ninshubur or her own sons. When she comes upon Dumuzi, who is oblivious to the fact she has been missing, Inanna condemns him to take her place.

*Full Circle- Dumuzi’s sister offers to share his fate. Inanna, in compassion, decrees that they will each spend half of the year in the Underworld and half in the world of the living.


*Cambell, Joseph, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, 1972

*Frankel, Valerie, From Girl to Goddess: The Heroine’s Journey through Myth and Legend, 2010

*Murdock, Maureen, The Heroine’s Journey, 1990

*Schmidt, Victoria, Story Structure Architect, 2005

*Schmidt, Victoria, 45 Master Characters, 2007

*Volger, Christopher, Writer’s Journey, 1992

*Wolkstein, Diane & Kramer, Samuel, Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth: Her Stories and Hymns from Sumer, 1983


Next up: The Mythic Feminine, Part 7: Tragic Heroine: Rhiannon (Welsh Celtic)


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