The Descent of Inanna Reconstructed

by Maeve Rhea and Aeyusha

This section presents a poem that Aeyusha wrote as a reconstruction of the original version of The Descent of Innana, an ancient Sumerian religious poem. The Descent is probably the oldest religious poem known, and is loved by many of Inanna's modern devotees. Unfortunately, the known version is thoroughly corrupt, and completely misrepresents Inanna and what She meant to the Sumerians.

The reconstruction presented here was commissioned by Inanna, and She has asked us to put it on this site.


The Goddess Inanna

The Descent of Inanna

Interpretations of The Descent of Inanna

Our Interpretation

Inanna Manifests

Inanna's Description of Her Ancient Manifestations

The Process of Writing


The Descent of Inanna Reconstructed


The Goddess Inanna

Inanna is an ancient Goddess of Mesopotamia, the Land Between the Rivers, roughly the same territory as modern Iraq. Our earliest knowledge of Her comes from the clay tablets written in cuneiform script in the Sumerian language, which archaeologists have unearthed from ancient city sites in southern Mesopotamia.

Inanna is a Goddess of Love, in all its forms. She was the chief city Goddess of several of the oldest Sumerian cities, notably Ur and Uruk. So far as is known, these cities were the first in the world to develop what is now called Early High Civilization. The pattern of high civilization created in these cities spread all over Mesopotamia and influenced cultures from Iran to the Eastern Meditterranean. As a result, Inanna became the most widely worshipped Goddess in the Middle East for two thousand years or more. Even today She is among the best known and most loved Goddesses.

Inanna's city Temples were the centers from which Early High Civilization arose. Like other ancient Temples of that period, but on a far larger scale, they were the One Institution of their cities. They were the food storehouses, banks, hospitals, and schools. They took care of whoever needed care: the old, the injured, the impaired, the orphans, and the abandoned babies. They gave the best artists the resources to practice their arts as their main occupation. They were factories for cloth, pottery, metalwork and probably many other commodities, providing workplaces for unmarried women and men who could not do field work. They organized the two main functions that required citywide coordination: irrigation and defense. They fed their own people from the farmland they owned, up to about 30 per cent of the total. For the owners of the rest of the land, they provided stable, surveyed boundaries, and when needed, seed grain and no-interest loans.

Of all these functions, that of food storehouse was probably the earliest and remained among the most essential. Farmers and herdsmen brought their produce to the Temple, not primarily as tax payments, but because the Temple was the one safe place to store it and the one place to sell it that would always give fair value. These forms of economic justice were the basis of the city's existence.

The Goddess Herself was present in Her temples, through Her Priestesses. They "impersonated" Her, as scholars say, in religious rituals. They also provided many other services that were then considered religious: they were judges and administrators, counselors, dream interpreters, and healers. Their training was intense and occupied their entire childhood and adolescence. There was always one of them who served as the High Priestess. She had the final authority over the Temple and, in the earlier periods, the entire city.

This authority was not like any governmental authority that has ever existed since. It was not based on force. There was no standing army, and the force of Temple guards was not sufficient to control the entire city. Factions of the discontented could easily have arisen and torn the city apart. This was especially likely in the period of Early High Civilization, when the city populations grew by at least a factor of ten over a very few centuries.

Although there is no way to prove it, we believe it was the Goddess Herself who made it possible for this civilization to remain stable and flourish through a period of explosive population growth. She did it by inspiring and assisting Her Priestesses to adapt their institution, so that it continued to embody Her love for all the people. She also reached the people themselves, by appearing to them through the Priestesses in ritual.

The population growth was critical, because it was the size and density of the population that made possible a far greater degree of specialization than before. This specialization in turn had much to do with the development of the major inventions on which all later high civilizations depended: writing, the wheel, the fast potter's wheel, complex metal working, and a number of others.

And it may be that the innovativeness of the period of Temple rule was more than a matter of technical factors like specialization, wealth, trade, and so on. It may also have been a result of a looser social organization and a general spirit of freedom, support of change, and (dare one say it?) cooperation. When the great Mesopotamian cities came under the power of the kings, there was much less innovation. As Meres Geb has remarked, ever since then, people "can no longer imagine a pot without a lid."

The Descent of Inanna

The earliest text of the poem now known as "The Descent of Inanna" was archaeologically and linguistically reconstructed in the twentieth century by Sumerian scholars. They pieced together worn and broken clay tablets found in the long-buried libraries of Babylon and Nippur, some dating from about 1750 B.C.E.. The poem is believed to have been first written down about 2100 B.C.E., in the Third Dynasty of Ur, the high point of the last full flowering of Sumerian civilization. By that time, the king was the head of government and ruled with nearly absolute power. The Descent of Inanna is court poetry, to be recited or more likely dramatized for the amusement of the king and his court.

The poem tells a strange story of the Goddess Inanna's journey from Her own realm on Earth to the Underworld. Her intention is not stated, but it is clearly to extend Her own domains by usurping the authority of Her Sister Erishkigal, the Goddess of the Underworld.

Inanna gains admission to the Underworld by lying about Her purpose, but at each of the seven gates, the gatekeeper requires Her to remove one of Her articles of sacred regalia. In Sumerian, these are called me (pronounced "may"), which also means "powers". She arrives in the underworld naked. Not intimidated at all by this symbolic stripping of Her powers, She tries to wrest the throne from Ereshkigal. But this is Ereshkigal's domain, and She has Inanna seized, killed, and hung on a hook like a slab of meat.

When Inanna does not return, Her servant Ninshubar visits the high Gods as Inanna has foresightedly asked Her to do. She persuades one of the Gods to send rescuers to the underworld. They in turn persuade Ereshkigal to give them the body, and proceed to revive Inanna with the water and grass of life. As Inanna is leaving, however, She is told that no one can leave the Underworld without providing a substitute.

Passing back out the gates, which are apparently in the mountains east of Sumer, Inanna travels back to Her home city. She is accompanied by the pitiless guards of the Underworld, the galla. At several points on the road She meets a friend or ally who has been mourning Her death and is delighted to see Her alive. Each time, the galla demand that Inanna name this person as Her substitute in the Underworld, but She refuses.

Finally She reaches Her own city, only to find that Her husband, the king Dumuzi, has not been mourning. Instead he has been enjoying himself on Her throne. He does not even bow to Her. Enraged, Inanna fixes him with the Eye of Death and tells the galla to seize him. Despite Dumuzi's desperate attempts to escape and hide, the galla catch him, kill him, and take him to the Underworld.

Interpretations of The Descent of Inanna

The poem has been given a number of interpretations. It was taken in later ancient times as a myth of the death of vegetation and its revival in the next spring. Certainly it was remolded into that form; but the myth of a dying God of vegetation must have been much older, perhaps as old as the earliest settlements.

Modern commentators have tried to see the poem as reflecting the way the Sumerians thought. Inanna, they say, emerges clearly as a headstrong, vindictive, maverick Goddess, who can rage at the way the Universe is set up and do Her best to change it by any means necessary, including revolution and regicide. Because She is a Goddess, and thus more like a force of nature than a person, Sumerians presumably thought of this behavior as beyond human criticism, and worshipped Her anyway.

Such an interpretation does not do much to make either the poem or the Sumerians comprehensible. For about fifteen years, the authors of this site struggled with the poem's paradoxical representation of a selfish, usurping, vengeful, and ultimately murderous Goddess of Love. Maeve Rhea even wrote and performed a play based on the poem that provided a new interpretation. Thinking about it afterwards, she saw that even with her interpretation the poem didn't hang together.

This realization started us on a long project of trying to find an interpretation that made sense. Aeyusha began looking at the poem in the historical context of the Third Dynasty of Ur and the literary context of other Mesopotamian poetry of the period. After many discussions, we came to believe that the poem was even more corrupt than we had imagined.

In fact, the paradoxes of the poem's present form can best be explained as the result of a nearly complete rewrite by the court poets of the Third Dynasty of Ur, to serve the ideological interests of the king in his ongoing (and almost entirely successful) power struggle with Inanna's Temple.

This struggle of Temple and Palace had begun roughly a thousand years before the Third Dynasty. Before that struggle began, Inanna's Temple had been around for a long time but the king's Palace had not yet appeared as a separate building. The official who would later be called the king was the manager of most of the Temple's external affairs, probably including direction of the Temple's farming of its own land. He also coordinated the city's young men in the shared tasks of digging irrigation ditches and fighting raiders.

As the king's tasks and the number of men who reported to him grew, he would have needed an administrative center distant enough from the Temple to leave it in reasonable peace. (The Temple was full of women and girls, and had its own guards who might easily have come to blows with the soldiers.) Within a few hundred years, the king had acquired not only a Palace but a standing army, and the Temple could no longer control him. By the time of the Third Dynasty of Ur, the king in his Palace had become far more powerful than the Temple.

Yet everyone still remembered that the king's power had originally been delegated to him by the Temple, which still served as the place where sacred oaths were sworn, and held religious leadership. The Temple was still independent enough to be a major irritant for the king, because he could not safely suppress it nor fully control it.

Our interpretation

For the king and his supporters, the poem must have been somewhat scandalous, because it represented the Goddess as killing a king. Why would court poets have written of such a thing for the king's amusement? Why was the poem allowed to exist at all? The only reasonable explanation is that the original version was still more scandalous, and everyone knew it already.

If everyone did know the original version already, so that the king could not suppress the knowledge, the original must have been recited publicly, at least every few years, in a context where the king could not forbid it. That context must have been the Temple, and the poem would have been dramatized. In fact, it was most likely a Temple ritual.

The key to understanding the poem is that in the original Temple version, "Inanna" was not the Goddess, but Her High Priestess. The High Priestess would also have been called Inanna, not just as a title, but in the sense that she was the form the Goddess Herself took on earth.

Thus in the original Descent ritual, it was the Priestess Inanna who killed or deposed the king. This was far more scandalous than the Goddess killing him. For the court poets, changing the Priestess into the Goddess was a brilliant way to suppress the embarrassing fact that the Priestess had once had the power to kill a king. Making the Goddess out to be a self-seeking, vindictive murderess then explained the killing without admitting that the king had done anything wrong to deserve it. It also struck at the people's reverence for Inanna, which must have been very deep indeed for the Temple to survive into the period of royal supremacy, as it had done and continued to do.

If the protagonist in the original Temple ritual was actually the human Priestess, she cannot have been trying to take over the underworld from the Goddess Ereshkigal. What the Priestess was almost certainly doing was visiting the Underworld on a shamanic journey. Stripping off the successive layers of one's social position and personal identity is a classic shamanic process, known all over the world. It allows the shaman, or the Priestess in this case, to see and understand the world and its spiritual dimension with eyes unclouded by personal concerns or prejudices. The shaman does this to find out something not discoverable with human eyes, perhaps not even by Second Sight: for example, the causes of diseases, ways to resolve disputes, the location of wild game, or the fate of a soul. When the shaman is completely out of the body, the body can look as if it might really be dead.

In the original ritual, what the Priestess was trying to discover on her shamanic journey must have been some sort of wrongdoing by the king. Whatever it was, she found out about it, and she stopped it by ordering the king killed, or deposed.

It is hard to imagine this story originating as a purely cautionary ritual. It would not have been made into a ritual and regularly performed just to forestall a mere possibility. It must have represented a real historical event. The next king after the Dumuzi in the poem would have taken the story as his own title to legitimacy. After that, every king would have had to tolerate the ritual because it was a tradition, and because interfering with it would be an admission of bad intentions.

Inanna manifests

(At this point I need the first person singular to be clear -- Aeyusha).

Soon after our understanding had reached this point, we were discussing our interpretations of passages in it, and my plans to give a talk on it. I said that the idea was to explain the poem as a political warning that had been politically twisted, but could be restored to its original political meaning.

My thought was that I would say "At this point I've probably destroyed all the magic", and then go on to describe the New Moon celebration and its magic. Maeve Rhea said she doubted I could have any effect on the poem's magic. I tried to explain that the poem is at the root of a lot of the feeling for Inanna, and I was going to explain it as down-to-earth politics. I could almost hear the audience groaning, "Ohhhhh, it's political."

At this point Maeve Rhea said -- but it was really Inanna saying it, making that clear by using the name she calls me --

Ensu, you said that the poem, my poem, was the root of much of the feeling for Inanna, but it is really just a sign. It is like an old sign that is broken and filthy, but still cherished because of the treasure that it used to point to. It would be possible to clean the royal family shit off it and straighten it and refurbish it and put the magic back into it. Ensu, could you do, do you think you could do this?

I said I did not see how I could do it because I saw the poem as a ritual that was, or became at some point, a warning. By which I meant, a political warning and therefore something that was not magical in itself.

Inanna replied:

Meres Geb told me you would give me an argument. But your challenge is to rewrite the poem so that it held the magic again. Do you think you could do it? Could you do it by Solstice?

After Inanna left, I told Maeve Rhea what she had said. Maeve Rhea said she seemed a very gentle Goddess.

Inanna's description of Her ancient manifestations

Years later, after the poem had reached its present form, Inanna told us about Her manifestations in the body of the Priestess.

When Inanna entered the Priestess, they did not have to imagine Her presence, they could see physical changes. Her eyes were softer, and looked more deeply into a person, past their physical appearance into their hopes and dreams and fears. Her hands were softer, and being touched by Her was an experience of comfort and assurance and even erotic arousal.

Some of the things that Inanna could do while inside the body of Her Priestess: She could feel a baby that was malformed while it was still in the womb. The mother might realize that there was something wrong with the pregnancy. The older women, the midwives, could say "You're going to lose that child." But after a great feast, and the interaction with a Goddess, the child was born perfectly normal and healthy.

She could tell a man that he needed to stop working, so that his heart could heal. (She did not mean his feelings, which everybody knew were located in the liver. She meant the pump, which in both Sumer and Egypt they knew moved the blood around, although they did not know why.) She could heal a child's crossed eyes. And She could put the power into the hands of one of the doctors at the Temple to heal a split mouth, and to remove cloudy films from the eyes of the old. And She could provide people with the determination to accept the attentions of the Temple's dentist, with a little bit of opium to help them out.

But most of all, She could heal broken hearts, and despair. And She could give hope back to people who felt they had lost everything and felt that they had no reason to continue to exist. And because She was truly the life-force that was animating the Priestess during those rituals, the people knew that Inanna and therefore the High Priestess would never lie to them, would never deceive them or lead them down paths for her own personal benefit.

And when She left, stepped out of the mortal Priestess, the people did not need to be told, they could see it. Their Priestess might feel drained but happy, The people did not grieve that Inanna had left, because they had the High Priestess, and they knew that She could always bring Inanna back to them. And so for the people of Ur, and Uruk, the Gods did truly walk in the streets of their city.

The process of writing

While Inanna's request was a very great honor, there was no reason to be confident except the fact that She had asked me. I had previously written only a few poems, all short. Also, most of the details of the received version were obvious royalist propaganda, or else so twisted that it was hard to imagine what the original could have looked like.

Fortunately there was a great deal of help available. In fact, this poetic and historical reconstruction was a collaborative effort by me, Maeve Rhea, and the Goddesses Meres Geb, Inanna, and Ereshkigal.

For help with the poetry, I used some ideas and images that I consciously or unconsciously remembered from Maeve Rhea's play and poems, with her generous consent after the fact. Maeve Rhea also helped directly by suggesting new images and passages.

As to the details of the story, some are inferences from the known version, from general characteristics of shamanism and public ritual, from other Sumerian poems, and from the known Sumerian history. But Maeve Rhea brought in Meres Geb, Inanna, and Ereshkigal, Who told me about Dumuzi's actual crimes, what happened in the Underworld, Dumuzi's sentence, Dumuzi's suicide, and Inanna's feelings afterwards. In some cases, the Goddesses' words were close to a perfect poetic fit already, and I altered them only as needed.

Here are a couple of examples of things the Goddesses told me. The original ritual of Descent that the Priestess wrote and performed for herself took place in the Temple. Its lowest level really was cut into rock, for although the city is on an alluvial plain, there was an enormous rock left by a glacier, on which the first Temple was built. In subsequent millennia, the rock was surrounded and covered by silt, and the whole plain rose.

Also, the Goddesses scoffed at the kohl eyeliner that was one of the Priestess's me in the royal version, replacing it with the golden sandals of protection. (These protected the Priestess from hot sand and a nasty little worm that entered through the feet, and no doubt were another sign of her exalted status to give pause to anyone with hostile intent. They seem to have been magical as well.)

As to poetic form, Inanna wanted the dance, as She put it, to be the more-or-less-trochaic-tetrameter that is found in modern times in the Finish epic Kalevala. She told an interesting story of how some Sumerians came to settle in Finland. Fortunately She said that what rhymed in English wouldn't rhyme in Sumerian anyway, so I shouldn't try to use rhyme. The poem is intended to have a somewhat Sumerian feel; for example, it uses a little of the Sumerian device of repetition with variations. But these days a little of that goes a long way. In the end, the poem is a product of modern times.

The poem retains a version of the dedication to Ereshkigal at the end. I kept this because I judged it was probably original, praising Ereshkigal as the source of hidden truth and true justice. It is also true that the singing was sweet, a gift of joy from my collaborators for which I will be always be grateful.


It is a time in the early period of the first high civilization. The scene is the Temple of Inanna in Ur, where the High Priestess is walking in her rooftop garden. In this period the High Priestess still has final authority over the governance and justice of the city

We in the modern world are taught to be worried if our leaders show much emotion. Here in ancient Sumer, the people are worried if the leaders do not show emotion. They believe that the leaders' feeling for them is what ultimately makes government responsive to their needs. With a city of tens of thousands of people, to have feeling for every one of them requires the heart of a Goddess.

That is why the High Priestess is supreme. There is no powerful army to enforce her right to rule, just a few hundred Temple guards; but she can bring the Goddess directly into herself so that she can see with Divine eyes and feel with a Divine heart. In ritual, she can even step aside and let the Goddess meet Her people directly. Because she is in this literal sense the Goddess's body on Earth, the Priestess is also called Inanna.

This relationship of human and Divinity is intimate and ongoing. The Priestess needs to keep herself in a receptive state to learn what the Goddess can teach her. Also, like any other head of state, she must never behave publicly with even the appearance of foolishness or injustice. Her normal behavior is gracious and regal. She is bound by a tight net of rules that define what people may expect of her, and with whom she must consult in making decisions. Yet in the end, the Priestess knows that she must make the critical decisions alone. She can never leave them to her Goddess.

Some years before the story begins, the present High Priestess married a young man named Dumuzi. Dumuzi is a shepherd, but we should not think of him as a simple herdboy. He is more likely to have been the son of a very powerful chief of a shepherd tribe, perhaps one who controlled access to a crucial trade route running through a pass in the Zagros mountains to the East.

Dumuzi was chosen from among several suitable young men by a committee of older Priestesses. While the committee were no doubt fully aware of the political and economic considerations, Inanna also sat on the committee. Knowing how important compatibility is, the older Priestesses gave much weight to her preferences.

Now it is the Priestess's sacred duty to love her husband, ritually and if possible emotionally, and bear his children. Boys move from the Temple to Dumuzi's big house when they reach seven, and receive military training; Girls are put into Priestess training with the most talented of their cousins and the occasional outsider. The High Priestess's daughter has the best chance of being chosen as the next High Priestess.

Until now, this scheme of government has worked very well, because every Priestess's emotions have been schooled to run in the proper channels by a lifetime of rigorous training. She loves where duty requires her to love.

As it happens, this particular Priestess has far surpassed her duty and fallen completely and utterly in love with her husband. Everyone thinks this is a very propitious situation. Unfortunately, their separate duties are in separate buildings, and keep them from sharing a bed very often. Dumuzi, though he comes from a line of chiefs and is a very personable man, feels like a hick from the country when he is in the Temple. Everyone in the Temple does their level best to please him, but it isn't a relaxed and friendly situation. He misses the earthy shepherd lasses of his adolescence, a few of whom drop in to see him when they visit the City.

What happens now goes to the heart of how the Goddess has made her City work. Inanna is a Goddess of justice and protection as well as love. For the Goddess, the justice and protection grow out of the love, and do not conflict with it. But it is the High Priestess who must decide when love needs to take the form of harsh justice and exemplary punishment. For her, the conflict may be agonizing.

This High Priestess has come to a point of unbearable tension between her love for Dumuzi and the needs of her people. There is a split down the middle of this City, and now we see it run down the middle of the Priestess.

She knows where her search for the truth is likely to lead her, and she knows how she is likely to react when she finds it. So she brings together every resource she has to help her choose well. her training, her traditions, her people, and the Gods.

When she finds the choice she needs to make, her struggle against making it may seem to come from personal weakness. But she is not just a ruler; she is the High Priestess. Her problem goes much deeper than just finding the truth and making the right decision. Her sacred office requires her entire being. If she is to go on performing her duties at all, she must somehow make herself whole. She must heal her own split, from the bottom of her soul all the way to the top. Then -- she must heal her city. If she cannot do these things, she is truly better off dead.

In the end it comes down to her own strength, which is almost superhuman: the strength to feel everything without suppressing any of it, even in such a terrible situation; which is the strength to change. Her triumph is everyone's triumph, for this is what we are all capable of, though most of us do not believe it. It is also the triumph of the Goddess, who has given Her children love and left them free.

The Descent of Inanna Reconstructed

At her high place in the Temple, discontent came to Inanna.
In her high place, sadness rose to Inanna, Heaven's Priestess.
To her high place in the Temple rose the pain of all the city.

What had made the city suffer? No one knew, no one could tell her.
Whence had come the city's trouble? No one answered when she asked them.
Eyes were sad and quickly lowered; tongues would murmur and fall silent.

From her high place, great Inanna looked down on the noisy city.
She saw nothing to explain the sadness rife among the people.
Frowning, she paced back and forth, to keep from weeping with frustration.

From her high place in the Temple, Inanna considered the underworld.
Summoned all the priestesses, gave each her appointed place.
Messengers she sent for others. Each she gave the ritual words.

Only Ninshubar, her servant, heard her speak her secret fears.
"If I do not come back quickly, you must bring those who can call me.
Let no others interfere or trifle with the sacred rite."

On the day, the day appointed, great Inanna bathed her body.
Considering the seven me, the sacred symbols of her power,
she took each from its proper place and put it on with ritual care.

On her feet she bound the golden sandals of protection. On her
wrists she placed the golden bracelets. On her breast two oval gems, and
round her neck a lapis necklace. In her hands the sacred rod and
measuring line; on her chest the pectoral of dazzling stones.
Around her shoulders the red robe of queenship. On her head the desert
crown, the headdress for the sun.

So arrayed, she walked into the garden on the temple's roof.
She passed among the trees, then started down the ceremonial stairs.

At the first door, set with gold,
seven young girls, novices,
challenged her with pointed questions
as they stood across her path.
"Why go you below, O Priestess?"
asked the girls in piping chorus.
"Surely from the roof you can see
everything that is worth seeing?"
Said Inanna, "From the sunshine,
no one can see into darkness.".
They replied, "Then leave your headdress
here, against your swift return."
Inanna gave her headdress to
the one whose eyes were like her own,
then smiled at the girls' pride
in having played their part so well.
Squared her shoulders confidently,
strode on down the narrower stairs.

At the second door, all inlaid,
mother-of-pearl and silver lines,
Inanna met six older girls,
being trained as priestesses.
"What is it you seek?" they asked her,
"Can it not be found by others,
searching at the Queen's command?"
"No," Inanna answered sadly,
"A Queen can only find the answers
that her servants dare to tell her."
"Leave with us your robe of queenship,"
said the girls, "as a promise
of your prompt return to rule us."
She allowed them to remove it,
watched them fold it carefully,
turned away and stepped on downwards.

At the third door, fragrant cedar,.
five young women stood in white,.
junior priestesses who faced her,
closing ranks to bar her way.
"You who are the earthly dwelling
of our tutelary Goddess,
Why do you leave your high station?"
Said Inanna, "Goddess dwells in
all the hearts that know she loves them.
If they did not have that knowledge
why would they bring us their crops?
If they do not have that knowledge,
how can springtime come again?"
Then the five said, "If you must go,
leave the dazzling gems that mark you
as her home on Earth." Inanna
lifted off her pectoral,
left it there, continued down.

At the fourth door, polished stone,
stood four princess-priestesses,
all robed in royal red. They asked her
"Tell us what compels your going
out beyond the temple's keeping,
to a place where all its customs,
laws and boundaries must fail?"
"If we stay within the safety
of the known and well-marked places,
we will never see the raiders
till the city lies in ruins.
All the order that we live in
has been made by shaping chaos,
and we too, like all our forbears,
must not shirk when our time comes."
Said the four, "Then leave with us,
your sacred rod and measuring line,
tools you will take up again
to mark the settled ways of peace."
Giving them the rod and line, she
took her careful downward path.

At the fifth door, great smoothed stonework,
three full priestesses sat waiting,
Inanna's sister and her cousins.
"Here you stand upon the level
that the city outside rests on.
Below here you will pass among
the bones of all the earlier temples,
going back to ancient times
before the city had a king."
"Must I not go down beyond
the reach of all his royal power?
Here within it I hear nothing
of the truth that I am seeking,"
said Inanna. The others answered,
"Then leave here the gifts he gave you
when you birthed his son and daughter:
oval gems and beads of lapis."
Inanna handed them the child-gifts,
wended down the broken steps.

At the sixth door, rough-split granite,
Sat two priestesses, grandmothers.
They asked, "Can you not remember
long ago when Goddess chose you?
Will you now abandon her?"
Inanna wept. "When I first saw her,
in my vision, and she asked me
if I would become her chela,
I said yes, and was so happy!
Then she warned me it was hard;
I said that I did not care.
So she came into me singing,
and I will be hers forever."
They said, "leave the golden bracelets,
meaning that your arms can call her,
and are ever bound to serve her --
needless until your return."
Inanna twisted off the bracelets,
picked her pathway down the rocks.

At the seventh door, cut in bedrock,
was the temple's oldest priestess.
"Will you risk your death, granddaughter?"
asked the crone. Inanna answered,
"If I die, I still must do this."
"Then take off the golden sandals
of protection, and remember
that without them you are no more
than an ordinary woman --
if you stay down, just a corpse,
soon decayed and soon forgotten."
Inanna stepped out of the sandals,
felt a tender kiss and heard
the name she first bore as a child;
trembled, crept on downward naked.


Inanna crawls into a spacious hall.
Dark it is, and dusty; cold and cheerless.
Golden gifts are scattered here and there,
but no one ever cares to pick them up.
On her throne sits holy Ereshkigal,
guardian Goddess of the newly dead,
Queen of the lower world.

Ereshkigal asks Inanna's purpose.
Inanna answers that she needs the truth,
not for herself, but for her wounded city.
Ereshkigal warns her of the danger,
helps her hang her shoulders on the hook,
reminds her that she must always keep moving,
hands her the cup of death.

Now the priestess floats above the city.
The Goddess leads her, shows her what has happened.
The caravans leave tolls, not for the city,
but payments to the king for special favors.
Canals fill up with silt. The king Dumuzi
rests in his hidden love house, with his girls,
betraying his vows to her.

"Oh, Ereshkigal, how can I bear this?"
Inanna says, "His love was strong and sweet!
For its sake I would spare him everything.
May he not remember what we felt,
and what we did, with all the people watching?
How proud I was, and how we spent that night?
How much he loved our daughter?"

Ereshkigal answers, "Hope lives always,
but if it does not prosper, what will happen?
The city's future lies within your choice."
Inanna weeps, "I cannot kill Dumuzi,
he is my husband, dearest to my heart."
She lets her body drop. It hangs like meat
on Ereshkigal's hook.

Now her trusty helper, Ninshubar,
creeps down and sees her lifeless. Clambers up,
and hastens through the temple. Finds the room,
the room of holy singers; summons down
the two shape-shifters, man with heart of woman,
woman with heart of man. They send their souls
to bring Inanna back.

"O holy Priestess, please return with us,"
they beg her spirit, but Inanna answers,
"If I return I must needs kill Dumuzi.
Better to die here." The two reply,
"We beg you reconsider. Your great love,
which let him do these things, has still
hidden from you the worst."

The kurgurra, the man whose heart is woman,
sings to Inanna, sings of the caravan.
"They left with many children, sold to them
as slaves, though they were all free born.
Their families think it was by your decree.
You vowed to allow no evil in her name;
how can you let this pass?"

The kaltirru, the woman whose heart is man,
sings to Inanna, sings of the canals.
"The men who paid Dumuzi for their offices
do not know how to keep canals free-flowing.
Without sufficient water, crops will fail.
Many will die of hunger. Will you leave,
taking the city's Spring?"

Together, then, they both sing to Inanna,
sing of a concubine's daughter. "When this girl
raised in his ways, has reached the proper age,
Dumuzi plans to make her our High Priestess.
He will then own us all. To smooth her path,
he will first need to kill her strongest rival:
the daughter he had with you."

Inanna says, "Enough, I will return."
The eyelids blink, the hanging corpse stands up.
Inanna stretches, takes her body back.
Ereshkigal helps her walk about,
says to her, "He has killed no one yet.
You may find better ways." Inanna bows
and climbs the rocky slope.

At the seventh door, she takes her name back,
feels the strong protection in her sandals.

At the sixth door, she resumes her golden bracelets,
stretches out her consecrated arms.

At the fifth door are the child-gifts from the king.
Having earned them well, she puts them on.

At the fourth door she takes up the sacred rod
and measuring line, and makes her mouth determined.

At the third door she puts on the pectoral
of dazzling gems, becomes the Lady's home.

At the second door she dons her robe of Queenship,
and passes upward as the city's Queen.

At the first door she puts on her royal headdress,
and walks into the sunny perfumed garden.


From her high place in the Temple, Inanna speaks her holy word.
From her high and august place, speaks Heaven's Holy Priestess.
From her high place, great Inanna speaks to soothe the city's pain.
She calls her faithful Galla, tells them: "Bring Dumuzi here before me:
bring him as a prisoner, bring him bound beyond escaping."
The Galla hear her ringing words and faultlessly perform them:
at the feet of Judge Inanna, the king is forced to kneel trembling.
Showing him the Eye of Death, Inanna passes final sentence.

"Since you did not write your orders for the sake of all the city,
your writing is a burden you are better off without.
Since you would not take the trouble to provide food for your people,
the taste of food is not for you to know, ever again.
Since you did not keep your vows to give your children to the temple,
you shall never give another child of yours to anyone.
Since you would not see your people's needs, but only your advantage,
one eye is of no use to you, it shall not see again."

To the Galla, she says, "Take him to the place of execution,
but do not kill him: no one is to harm him save yourselves.
That he may not hold a pen, cut the top joints off his thumbs.
That he may not taste his food, cut his tongue out at the root.
That he may not father babies, cut his eggs out of his scrotum.
That he may not look a leader, cut his right eye from his head.
Then, that all may know him punished, brand him on his head and body.
Let him beg for food from people that he would have left to starve.

"This is the judgement of Inanna, to give justice to her people;
it is also to protect them from another traitor king.
No young man who sees this wreck will dare to form the same ambition..."
She meets Dumuzi's desperate eyes, but tells the Galla, "Take him out."
Then Inanna summons captains of the temple's loyal soldiers.
She says, "Take your fastest fifty, catch the slavers' caravan.
With the gold that I will give you, pay the ransom of the children.
Tell them, he who sold them will sell no one any more."

Late at night the wakeful city wonders at Dumuzi's fall.
What could twist a man so blessed, that he would do such deeds for more?
The waning moon lays down a ghostly path across the darkened river,
where Dumuzi and his lover, seeing no hope in their future,
chose their fate and left their bodies floating face-down in the marshes.
In the temple lies their daughter, safe inside her nurse's arms;
Dumuzi's children with Inanna cry themselves at last to sleep.
Inanna's tears run hot till dawn; Dumuzi's eyes are all she dreams.


On the day, the sacred day, the day of the New Moon,
the plaza comes alive with preparations for the feast.
Smells of baking bread, and smells of beer and stew and sausage,
sounds of flutes and harps and drumming draw the city's people in.

The sun descends. The older children take the young ones home to bed,
whining how unfair it is they have to stay at home themselves.
Soon the sun sinks down beyond the marsh across the river;
falling darkness follows as Inanna's star grows bright.

One flute begins the ritual, quieting the plaza.
To one drum's beat the holy priestess climbs the mountain stairs.
Her sheer red robe sways, falling in waves around her body;
catching the last of twilight in its swirling golden trim.

On the peak she drops her robe and lifts her arms up starward,
spreads them, opens the gate of wonder; the star steps in.

Four torches flare around Her, light her passage down the stairway;
soft She steps, so gently, yet the mountain trembles underneath Her.
Stars of silver twinkle on Her silken robe of darkest blue;
the twinkle in Her eyes reflects Her children's shining joy.

Choruses of men and women sing the chant of love and welcome.
Inanna, opening Her arms, embraces all the city's people.
Reaching the ground, Her torches pass Her fire along to all the rest --
a wave of light that floods the plaza, starting up the drums.

Everywhere Inanna walks, the women make a throng around Her,
Men behind them stand on tiptoe, crane their necks to try to see.
Every eye She meets with her eyes, every face She recognizes,
Pausing on each one that tells Her of a need that cannot wait.

An awkward girl asks Inanna why she has no grace or beauty.
"Can you not see it, darling?" says Inanna, "Use my eyes."
The girl stares back unwilling, with her gaze held by Inanna's;
slowly her mouth opens; she lifts her head, a flower blooming.

A boy asks what has happened to his father, gone three winters trading.
Inanna says, "I cannot tell you, but you will see him again.
When you marry, watch your son as he grows up to be a man."
The boy starts back as if his face were slapped, and tries to hold his tears.

"Please, Inanna, touch", a young wife asks, and bares her slender belly.
Inanna smiles and strokes a curve a hand's length from the dark-gold skin.
"Do not waste your time in waiting, get to know your husband better.
Soon enough you will remember: sweet is a bed with only two."

The young girls sing. Inanna greets the man to be the new Dumuzi,
Takes his vows and gives Her own; so She makes a man a king.
Then they dance high on the platform, celebrate their joyous wedding;
later slip away and climb up to their lofty marriage bed.

Older people going homeward praise Inanna's choice as king;
Younger ones have more to do with all the energy than talk.
On the walls, young guards keep watch, straight of back and keen of eye,
proud to be the guardians of a city where the Gods do walk.


Holy Ereshkigal, it is sweet to sing Your praises.

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