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Like most little kids, I used to love myths and legends.
I often daydreamed of fantasy worlds or was playing princess in a castle.
My favorite was when my parents read my sister and I bedtime stories. My parents had their own unique way of telling stories. My mum used it as a time for calming us down from the day. She would choose short stories with familiar characters and spoke gently, allowing us to drift off into a nightmare-free sleep. My dad would often choose exciting, heroic journeys. He sometimes got us to reenact the stories in a theatrical performance. We would be over-the-top dramatic as we imagined the characters to life. I would go to sleep with my mind spinning with ideas and inspiration.
As I grew older, myths and legends didn’t really serve a purpose in my life. It wasn’t until I went to university and took a few credits in philosophy that I remembered my love for story. To my surprise, philosophers would often use story to help get the message across. I absolutely loved it because it helped cement the idea so much better than using complicated language and theories.
Lately, I’ve come back around to my love for story. I’m a Transpersonal Art Therapist and the course I took to get here was largely influenced by the work of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell. Through my studies, I’ve come to realise that stories are not just for children. They can be powerful in helping us overcome the inevitable trials and tribulations of life. They can also help us find and make meaning in our lives.
Carl Jung believed that myths were expressions of the collective unconscious. There are repeated patterns of archetypes from thousands of years of human culture that all follow similar themes. Myths express wisdom that all humans can relate to. They speak directly to our heart and soul; we can understand them without having to intellectualise them.
“The connection between psychology, mythology, and literature is just as important as the connection between psychology and biology and the hard sciences.” ~ Jordan Peterson
The Creative Descent of Inanna
The most recent myth that captivated me dates back well into the Neolithic age. It’s over 4,000 years old! As you can imagine, it’s taken many different shapes and forms over the years, but the underlying theme remains the same. It describes the story of Queen Inanna, a Mesopotamian goddess who is summoned on a transformative journey to the Ancient Mesopotamian Underworld. The reason for her descent is slightly different depending on which version you read. The one I will tell you is the version that resonated the most with me because it’s essentially a heroine’s take on the hero’s journey. Who doesn’t love a good hero’s journey?
A Call to the Underworld
Queen Inanna was a strong, successful, and powerful woman who was well-respected and admired in her community. One day, she hears a whisper calling her to the Underworld. She is a bit mystified about this as it seems to come out of the blue, but the whisper continues.
The Underworld is ruled by her sister, Ereshkigal. Unlike Innana, Ereshkigal is the Queen of Darkness. She rules the dead and all that lies in the shadows. She is passionately in love and married to Nergal, the god of war, plague, and pestilence.
As the days pass, Inanna continues to hear this call to the Underworld. It’s asking her to see what she has not yet seen, to experience what she has not yet experienced, and to learn what she does not yet know. The whisper grows louder and louder until she can no longer deny it.
“Inaaaannnaa!” the voice beckons.
Inanna decides to go. She has been living in comfort and predictability for too long; perhaps it’s time to see what she has not yet seen, to experience what she has not yet experienced, and to learn what she does not yet know. With the help of her servant Ninshubur, she gets ready for her journey to the Underworld. She adorns herself in her royal crown of influence, necklace, bracelets, golden rings, a breastplate for armour, and a thick, royal cloak.
Ninshubur is very concerned and tries to talk her out of it. No one goes to Underworld and returns unchanged. Those who have attempted it rarely come out alive. Innana is determied to go either way. She looks to Nishubur:
“Ninshubur, my faithful friend, I must do this. I know it will not be easy, but I must go. Will you wait for my return and if after 3 days I have not returned, bang the drums, gather my community and tell them what was happened to me? Then go to the elders and ask them to bring me back. Will you do this for me?”
“Yes, my Queen,” Ninshubur replies with a bow.
With that Inanna sets foot on her journey to the Underworld.
The Seven Bolted Gates
As Innana begins her journey, she encounters her first obstacle. In Ereshkigal’s Underworld, there are seven gates that lead to her palace. When Ereshkigal learns of Inanna’s arrival at the first of the seven gates, she orders them to be sealed and bolted. For Inanna to reach her, Ereshkigal demands that her sister Inanna unlock the gates through a series of sacrifices so that she enters humbled.
At the first gate, Innana knocks gently. A gatekeeper asks, “Who are you and why have you come?”
“My name is Innana, Queen of Heaven and Earth. Please let me in. I have come to see what I have not yet seen, to experience what I’ve not yet experienced, and to learn what I do not yet know.”
The gatekeeper asks her to relinquish her royal crown and only then he will open the gate. Giving up her royal crown feels like giving away a bit of her power. Her crown is a symbol of her hard-earned royalty, power, and influence. But here in the Underworld, she holds no royalty, power, or influence. She gives it up reluctantly and proceeds to the next gate.
At the second gate, Inanna knocks gently and stands tall. “Hello. My name is Innana, Queen of Heaven and Earth. I have come to see what I have not yet seen, to experience what I’ve not yet experienced, and to learn what I do not yet know.” At this gate she is asked to give up her bracelet. Again, Inanna agrees.
At the third gate, Inanna knocks again hesitantly wondering what she will be asked to give up this time. “My name is Innana. I have come to see what I have not yet seen, to experience what I’ve not yet experienced and to learn what I do not yet know.”
She is asked to give up her necklace and again, hands it over. As she continues through the gates, it becomes clear that she is being asked to strip herself of all the adornments she came with. Little by little, this is making her weaker and weaker.
She approaches the sixth gate feeling increasingly vulnerable. She knocks hesitantly. “My name is Inanna. And… I hardly remember what I came here for…” Without being asked, she is robbed of her breastplate. She screams out. Now her heart is exposed, and she is vulnerable without it. She spends a moment wondering if she should continue. As she looks back from where she came, it becomes clear that the path is gone. She has no choice but to continue.
As she descends further, the walls of the labyrinth are closing in and her cloak is dragging and catching on the uneven, sludgy ground. She begins to walk on hands and knees, cutting up her legs and the palms of her hands. The journey is hard, harder than expected.
Eventually, Inanna reaches the last and final gate. She taps on the door gently. “Hello? I am here… and…that is all.” At this gate, she is asked to hand in her last and final piece of clothing, her cloak. She is now completely naked and vulnerable with nothing to defend herself.
Inanna enters the final gate naked, humble, and emptied. She enters the throne of her sister Ereshkigal, the Queen of the Underworld. Ereshkigal sits regally on her throne and looks down at Innana with the Eye of Death. In that moment, Inanna dies. She then leaves her sister’s corpse on a hook for three days.
Meanwhile, Ninshubur is waiting eagerly for Inanna’s arrival. By the third day, Ninshubur does as he was told. He bangs the drums and informs the community that their Queen has descended into the Underworld. The elderly rush to the Underworld to rescue Inanna. They make it through each gate easily and find her hanging on a hook rotting. They gasp in terror and pull her off, attempting to bring her back to life using powerful stones, crystals, and gems from the Upperworld. But nothing seems to work here. The elders feel defeated. Eventually, Ereshkigal who was sitting in the darkness watching, decides to step in. She approaches her sister and gives her the water of life, a magical substance that can resurrect the dead.
Everyone stands back waiting. Inanna slowly comes back to life as Ereshkigal retreats into the darkness. Just as Inanna turns to leave, the guards of the Underworld stop her. She may leave, but only under one condition: she must leave someone or something of value behind. But what? She wonders if she remains in the Underworld forever. The elderly tell her the community need her; she must return. She takes a long time to figure out what to leave and, in the end, decides to sacrifice her husband.
As Inanna begins the quest back to the Upperworld, she stops at each gate to take inventory of what she was forced to give up. She must ask herself the value that each item holds to her now. Does it fit her new vision of the world? Does the cloak hold any real power? The crown? She decides to leave everything and return to the Upperworld as a humbled woman. She is forever changed. The person she was when she entered the Underworld died, but a new woman was born in the process. She feels stronger than she has ever felt, for she accomplished what she set out to accomplish. She saw what she has never seen, experienced what she has never experienced, and learned what she did not know.
What are your thoughts on this myth? What does it bring up for you?
Perhaps we can all relate to this myth in some way or another. Answering a call for an adventure that brought us to our knees. A journey that stripped us bare of all that we thought we were, all that we thought we needed, and led to the death of our former selves.
Instead of returning from the journey bitter and petty, we transform.
We bow to the forces greater than ourselves.