Sisterly love

Inanna’s unsuccessful journey to the underworld.

There is a goddess in the Mesopotamian pantheon who was crowned the Goddess of Heaven and Earth, given her vast dominion. This deity is Inanna: the mighty goddess of love, war, wisdom, and fertility. Yet, her ambitions extended beyond the realms she ruled over. She set her sights on a divine conquest – the Underworld, known as Kur.

She did not care that Kur belonged neither to the heavens nor the earth. Her formidable sister Ereshkigal reigned supreme over this shadowy realm, a domain entirely separate from Inanna’s own.

With unwavering determination, Inanna prepared to descend into the depths of the Underworld, a feat that would test the limits of her divine power and resolve. The stage was set for an epic clash between celestial sisters, each vying for dominance over the realms of the living and the dead.

Packing her bags

Inanna knew that she would require even more than her normal power if she were to overthrow her sister. It would not be difficult for her to enter Kur. After all, people die all the time, and even they proved to be successful. Yet to conquer Kur, Inanna would have to reach the palace of her sister, which was protected by seven gates. This is why she came up with an intricate plan for her conquest.

So first, she gathered various artifacts from her godly wardrobe. She would wear seven of them, among which her crown, jewelry, breastplate and her Me, which she would keep in hand. Second, she called upon the help of others. She explained her plan to invade Kur to her most loyal follower, Ninshubur, and gave her clear failsafe instructions. In the event that Inanna would not return within 3 days, her follower was to assume that she was in trouble.

Ninshubur would then have to travel to the temple of Enlil, to explain that Inanna had been captured and to request his assistance in freeing her. If Enlil would refuse, Ninshubur was to contact Nanna (who was Inanna’s father). Finally, if he would not help her either, she would have to ask Enki for help. After all, he was the keeper of the food and water of life. Surely, he would be able to help if all other plans had failed.

Entering the underworld

After creating this elaborate plan, Inanna approached the entrance to Kur, which was guarded by Neti, the gatekeeper of Kur. When Neti asked her to state her identity and her purpose, she answered that she was Inanna, and that she wished to speak with Ereshkigal in her palace. Neti glanced at her formidable appearance and told her to wait at the gate. Meanwhile, he informed Ereshkigal of her sister’s presence and war gear. The queen of Kur frowned. She could easily guess why Inanna was really here. She now had the opportunity to rid herself of her sister once and for all. A fine opportunity.

She ordered Neti to let Inanna in, but only gate for gate, as to lure her in slowly. Moreover, she was to be stripped of her valuable artifacts to render her powerless. So Neti would let Inanna through the first gate, yet as she passed through, he took off her crown. When she asked him why, Netti told her “Do not ask why. These are the ways of Kur, and the ways of Kur are not to be questioned”. So Inanna did not ask further questions. Then Neti let her pass through the second gate. Yet again, as she would pass through the gate, her ring was taken from her. And again, Inanna would ask Neti why her ring was taken off her. She received the same reply as she had at the first gate. So she did not ask any further questions.

Admiring the tapestry

The same ritual was repeated at each gate, until finally at the seventh gate, Inanna’s robe was removed from her. It was so that she would enter the palace of Ereshkigal completely naked, stripped of her artifacts. The trap had been successful and Inanna’s power had been reduced. She was vulnerable now. Before Inanna could approach Ereshkigal, she was surrounded by the Annuna (the judges of the underworld) who passed judgment on her. They gave her the mark of death and killed her swiftly. Having witnessed the death of her sister, Ereshkigal determined that she would make for a fine wall decoration. She ordered Inanna’s corpse to be hung from a hook on the wall.

A priestess in distress

Meanwhile, in Mesopotamia, three days had passed. Ninshubur knew her goddess to be in peril. Without wasting any time, she quickly started the ritual as agreed with Inanna. She traveled to the temple of Enlil in Eridu and prayed to him to help out Inanna, as she was surely lost in Kur. And Enlil responded. He told the priestess that Inanna had been a fool to start her greedy conquest, and that it was her own fault that she had now been captured. Alas, no help would come from Enlil. So Ninshubur traveled to the temple of Nanna in Ur, and prayed to him for help instead. But Nanna was of the same mind as Enlil. He emphasized that anyone that would venture into Kur would not be able to get out. And so it was that Ninshibur traveled to Uruk, to the temple of Enki.

Luckily, Enki proved to be an ally she could count on. He did not call Inanna a fool, but listened carefully to her. And then he helped her. He fashioned two creatures from clay, as was his custom, and sent them off with clear instructions. It turned out that Ereshkigal was going into labor and that the birth process was most likely not going to be an easy one. The creatures were to enter her labor room, disguised as flies, and were to show empathy as the queen’s contractions would kick in, repeating all her cries, groans and moans. The queen would surely appreciate that. If she were then to offer them a gift, the creatures would need to request the body hanging from the hook on the wall. He then gave them the water and food of life, and sent them on their way.

Rescued by the flies on the wall

And so Enki’s creatures would slip into the palace of Ereshkigal disguised as flies, and they found the queen to be in labor. She screamed “oh, my insides”, and the flies would repeat those words and scream with her. When the queen moaned “ oh, my outsides”, the flies would repeat those words and moan with her. And all other, probably more colorful language, was repeated by them as well.

The queen was both surprised and pleased. She must not have had a lot of friends with her in Kur. She offered them several grand gifts, but the creatures would refuse all of them. They only asked for the body that was hanging from the wall. Reluctantly, she gave it to them, as she did not think they would be able to do anything threatening with it. After quickly leaving the palace, the creatures used the water and food of life on Inanna’s corpse, hereby resurrecting the goddess. Inanna was alive once more.

A demonic escort

But now she still had to escape from Kur. This is when groups of Galla showed up. These were demons whose sole purpose was to drag souls to the underworld. They clutched themselves to Inanna, preventing her from leaving. She would only be released if another soul were to take her place. To help her select a suitable alternative soul, they would go with her to the realms of the living.

Selecting a sacrifice

First, the galla spotted Ninshubur. Ah, what a sacrifice that would be. The priestess would gladly give her all for her goddess, so why not her life? But Inanna refused as it would be a horrible punishment for her most loyal follower, who had played a key role in her rescue. Of course, it would have been poetic to take the life of the one to whom Inanna owed her life in the first place. It would be poetic, but it would not have been justice. So she walked on, and the galla accompanied her.

She then came across Shara and Lulal, her own sons. Ah, the Galla were enthusiastic about these lives as well. To take life from the ones to which Innana had given life. And they would only require one life, not both. Again, it would have been poetic, but it would not have been right.

She then came across Dumuzid, her husband. Whereas Ninshubur, Shara and Lulal had been in mourning for her, her husband was now sitting on her throne. He appeared to have done quite well for himself in her absence. What is worse: he did not seem to be moved by her return either. Inanna was furious. She transferred the mark of death from herself to her husband, instructing the galla to take him. 

Even though the mark was now on Dumuzid, he still managed to escape. When the galla tried to grab hold of him, Dumuzid asked Utu, his brother-in-law, to help him out for old times sake. Utu transformed him into a snake, so that he could slither away.

What can we learn from this?

There are many learnings to be gained from this story:

  • Too much ambition can hurt your family dinners.
  • Always have a plan B.
  • Trying to conquer the underworld is indeed as stupid as it seems.
  • Hanging up decorations can freshen up things. When that decoration is your sister, it can get messy.
  • It is okay to question strangers that enter your home; they might be playing a trick on you.
  • Family is complicated, this can be both an advantage and a disadvantage.
  • The most important one: never trust your wife.