Known to the Sumerians as Inanna, who ruled for the most part benevolently from her temple in the city of
Erech, she would be called by many more names before conquered her people and eradicated her cult. In Rome Babylon she was Astarte, then in Assyria and Ancient Persia she became Ishtar. Her name was also memorialized in the Hebrew Bible; the heroine in the Book of Esther bears a Canaanite form of her name.
The most famous story of Inanna, told by Enheduanna in bits and pieces throughout her hymns, is that of her descent to the underworld realm of her fearsome sister, Ereshkigal. This chthonian history was a mythological device long before the rise of Sumerian civilization, and it became a lynchpin in the all important New Year’s ritual of Sacred Marriage between the living king and a priestess representing Inanna.
According to the story, Inanna married a mortal shepherd, Dumuzi (Tammuz in the mythos of Ishtar), who she raised to the level of king in Erech. The couple was happy and the land prospered. As was typical, though, Inanna grew bored and looked around for more worlds to conquer. She set her heart of the netherworld empire of her older sister Ereshkigal, where a vast horde of gold, silver and jewels was said to be stored.
Though Dumuzi, Inanna’s attendants – including Dumuzi’s sister Geshtinanna – and the god Enki implored Inanna not to pursue such folly, she brushed their good advice aside. Dressing in her finest linens and jewels, with the crown of Erech on her brow, she went down the perilous stairway to the Underworld. Her one concession to the potential danger of her undertaking came in the form of instructions, not to her husband, but to her steward, Ninshubur. She told this demigod that if she was not back within seven days he must petition Enki for her freedom, for she would surely be among the dead.
Inanna’s journey began at the first of seven gates that led to the royal hall of the Queen of the Underworld. Here the ghastly demons known as galla demanded tribute from the goddess before they would let her pass. First her jewels, then her gowns and finally, at the seventh gate, her crown went to the monsters until she stood naked before her dolorous sister.
Ereshkigal, insulted by Inanna’s attempt to usurp her power, turned the soul-stealing eyes of the Judges of the Underworld upon her sister. Inanna promptly dropped dead on the dusty floor of the hall. Ereshkigal had her body hung from a hook mounted on a tall stake where it could be seen by all who entered her throne room.
Meanwhile, Ninshubur waited the allotted time and, when his mistress did not return, he hurried to the hall of Enki, the Lord of the Waters. Enki, who was uncle to Inanna and Ereshkigal, descended into the Underworld. As he was a stronger deity even than the Queen of the Dead, Ereshkigal made no initial protest when he took Inanna’s body down from the stake and revived her with the “water of life”. But as the god and goddess went to leave, Ereshkigal reminded them that no one who had become one of the dead could permanently return to Earth or even Heaven without supplying a substitute to join the minions of her realm.
With a pledge to do just that, Inanna was allowed to pass through the seven gates where her finery was returned to her. But a retinue of the galla followed her in their role as harvesters of souls. They would kill her chosen substitute in the worst possible way, and drag him or her back to the chthonian world of their Queen.
Inanna wandered the land, visiting the gods and goddesses of city after city. All of them bowed down before the Queen of Heaven and reminded her of good deeds they had done her and gifts they had given her. Because of their kindnesses, she let them live and moved on finally arriving at her own beloved Erech.
Here, to her great surprise and disgust, she found her beloved husband Dumuzi not in mourning but sitting on her throne. He made her people his playthings and “left no man his fortune nor no virgin to her father.” Outraged, Inanna ordered the galla to take her own spouse to the Underworld as her replacement.
Dumuzi set out into the countryside that he knew well, and for a time found refuge thanks to his father-in-law Utu, Lord of the Sun, but the galla were relentless. Eventually Inanna’s shepherd-husband was caught by the galla, tortured, killed and dragged off to the Underworld.
The poignant dénouement of the story comes with the self-sacrifice of Inanna’s lady in waiting. Geshtinanna travelled to the Underworld and offered herself in her brother’s place. Ereshkigal, impressed with the girl’s courage, cut her a deal. Dumuzi would stay half the year in the Underworld. Geshtinanna would replace him the other half not as a pathetic, dust-eating shade but as Ereshkigal’s personal scribe.
In this way the shepherd-lover Dumuzi embodied the fertile months of the year while Geshtinanna became synonymous with winter. The resulting rite of Sacred Marriage, then, ensured the kings of
Sumer, Babylon and Assyria not only personal power, but the fruitfulness of their kingdoms. And it is thanks in large part to the first author in history, a lady named Enheduanna, that we know what happened when the Queen of Heaven went boldly into the Underworld.
Header: Ishtar in Hades (Inanna before Ereshkigal) by E. Wallcousins