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Inanna's Descent to the Underworld[1]

Goddess Inanna between mountains

Between mountains containing monsters and deities and perhaps representing the underworld, a goddess (Inanna?) holds a ring. Could it be the one taken from Inanna at a gate of the underworld? Mesopotamian cylinder seal. Hematite. Around 2330-2150 BCE.
© S. Beaulieu, after Wolkstein and Kramer 1983:57.
larger view of image

From the great heaven [great above] she set her mind on the great below. From the great heaven the goddess set her mind on the great below. From the great heaven Inana[2] set her mind on the great below. My mistress abandoned heaven, abandoned earth, and descended to the underworld.
(Black, Cunningham, et al. 1998-2000:1 of 8)


Before she left for the underworld, Inanna put on her divine regalia and took up "the appropriate divine decrees [me]" (Kramer 1972:86). She instructed her minister Ninshubur that, after three days, she was to ask help of the great gods. At each of the seven gates of the underworld, Inanna removed part of her regalia, until, naked and bent, she came before the seven judges of the underworld and her elder twin-sister Ereshkigal, whose name means "Queen of the Great Earth." All gave her "the look of death," and they had her dead body hung on a hook.

Three days later, Ninshubur began to seek help, but neither the chief god nor the moon god, Inanna's father, was sympathetic. However, the god of wisdom instructed two creatures to sprinkle over Inanna's corpse both a life-giving plant and life-giving water.

When the creatures sympathized with Ereshkigal, who was groaning in misery, she offered them rich rewards, but they asked only for the corpse on the peg. They sprinkled it, and Inanna lived again. However, before the judges would let her leave the great below, they insisted she provide a substitute, and so demons ascended with her to bring her substitute back. Inanna refused to give them several faithful servants, but she surrendered her bridegroom Dumuzi because he was not in mourning for her. For a while Dumuzi escaped the demons, but finally they carried him off. Then Inanna mourned for him. Finally, Dumuzi's sister arranged to take his place in the underworld for part of each year (Black, Cunningham, et al. 1998, 1999, 2000: 1-8).[3]

Dumuzi feeding sheep

Man in net skirt (Dumuzi?) feeding sheep. Inanna's standards ("gateposts") that frame the image suggest that the event is happening inside her temple grounds. Mesopotamian cylinder seal. Marble. About 3200-3000 BCE.
© S. Beaulieu, after Wolkstein and Kramer 1983:85.
larger view of image


When Inanna arrived at the first gate, she demanded entrance, telling the gatekeeper she had come to attend her brother-in-law's funeral. Kramer, followed by other scholars, considered this excuse "false" (1981:157); so they advanced various explanations of Inanna's decision. Joseph Campbell saw her as going to meet her opposite (1964:105-109), Kramer judged her as longing for "still greater power" (1981:156), and Lipinkivi thought she went "to deprive her sister, Eres[h]kigal, of her powers" (2004:190). Feminist discussions of the poem include Perera's Jungian interpretation (1981) and Diane Wolkstein's, who viewed Inanna as searching for knowledge (1983:156).

"Inanna's Descent" took its final written form after years of recopying in a male-dominated religion, and, during that time, it is probable that Inanna slowly changed. Visual as well as written material[4] from Sumer persuades me that originally Inanna had the right to visit the underworld as part of her realm. For instance, a Babylonian seal depicts a winged female with high, horned crown and bird feet, standing with her head among "deities and their human worshippers" and her feet among "demonic creatures."

Winged goddess Inanna with deities and devotees

A winged goddess wearing a multi-horned crown stands with her head in the realm of the deities and their devotees. Her bird-clawed feet rest in a place, likely the underworld, inhabited by strange and demonic creatures. Some think her to be Lilith, but the crown shows her to be a great goddess, almost certainly Inanna. Mesopotamian cylinder seal. Hematite. 2000-1600 BCE.
© S. Beaulieu, after Wolkstein and Kramer 1983: 51.
larger view of image

This dominating goddess may be Inanna, and the "hierarchical arrangement" perhaps indicates "her dual nature, partially of 'heaven and earth' and partially of the underworld" (Williams-Forte in Wolkstein and Kramer 1983:189). In addition, the fact that Ereshkigal and Inanna were sisters may indicate that they could once have been a single goddess.[5] This suggestion may explain not only Inanna's decision, but also her assertiveness at the first gate.[6]

By the time the poem reached the form in which it has come down to us, death seems no longer an accepted part of the cycle of life. Instead, it was terrifying, to be avoided, since it led to a dreary existence in the Land of No Return (Foster 2001:138-142). Further, it seems likely that only in a culture that feared death and the underworld would there be enmity between deities of the great above and the great below, as there seems to have been between Inanna and Ereshkigal. Now not even a goddess could enter the underworld without being humiliated, stripped of means, abject, and naked.

When Inanna protested the removal of her regalia, the gatekeeper told her to be quiet: "Be satisfied, Inana, a divine power of the underworld has been fulfilled. Inana, you must not open your mouth against the rites of the underworld." During her descent, Inanna lost in order: crown (queenship?), precious necklace (charisma, glamour?), two oval stones (birthing ability or femaleness?), breastplate "Come, man, come" (sexual allure), gold ring (her seal, her signature?), rod and measuring line (authority), and "garment of ladyship" (robe of deity). Everything that signified her status and identity disappeared. Some translators understand the naked Inanna as forcing Ereshkigal to relinquish the throne to her; others have Ereshkigal retaining the throne.[7] Nevertheless, Inanna became a corpse.

Significantly, in this poem from a male-dominated society, Inanna could return to the great above only with the help of a male deity, as she had clearly known when she instructed her minister to appeal to several of them. The god of wisdom hatched the plan to free Inanna and created from dirt under his fingernails two ghostly, fly-like creatures, so like the denizens of the underworld that they could pass the gates unnoticed. They were to get Ereshkigal to release Inanna's corpse to them.[8] All went as planned: they sprinkled the corpse with the life-giving substances, and Inanna came alive again.

Surprisingly, the Sumerian poem does not mention a decrease in fertility on earth during Inanna's absence even though fertility was supposedly her concern.[9] It is also curious that, while Inanna's corpse was hanging on the peg, her sister Ereshkigal was lying moaning, seemingly in the act of giving birth or after doing so: "The mother who gave birth, Erec-ki-gala [Ereshkigal], because of her children, was lying there." Was Ereshkigal, not Inanna, the source of fertility?

To reward the creatures who commiserated with her, Ereshkigal offered them "a river with its water," which they refused, and "a field with its grain," which they also refused. Not only could Ereshkigal give away river water, but she could also offer grain! In Mesopotamia, river water was life, fertility, for it irrigated the fields in which grew the grain that people depended on. So, here, fertility came from the underworld; life-giving rivers flowed out of it, and seemingly dead seed placed under the earth's surface produced new life.

In the poem, there is a connection, at least of proximity, between Ereshkigal's sickness and Inanna's revival. Ereshkigal appeared to be suffering from birth pains. Was Ereshkigal birthing Inanna? Was Inanna's body the seed of her revived self? All a seed seems to need to become new life is water and nourishment, water and plant. Was it then Ereshkigal who brought new life into the world? She seemed to have some control of seed. Were the dead in the underworld seeds of new life? Is this poem preserving a remnant of an earlier cyclical attitude to life?[10]

Inanna welcomes Dumuzi back from the Underworld

Goddess with multi-horned crown (Inanna?) welcomes a mace-holding and crowned god who emerges from the base of a tree (Dumuzi?). Mesopotamian cylinder seal. Serpentine. About 2320-2150 BCE.
© S. Beaulieu, after Wolkstein and Kramer 1983:40.
larger view of image

According to the rules of the underworld, when one went there, one did not return, unless, of course, one were a goddess and could provide a substitute, as Inanna eventually did when she turned "the look of death" on her bridegroom Dumuzi! From then on, Inanna stayed above as queen of heaven and earth and left the underworld to her sister Ereshkigal. Her substitute, Dumuzi undertook the cyclical visits on Inanna's behalf. Luckily for Dumuzi, who is the first in a long line of Eastern Mediterranean male deities ("Dying Gods") who disappear and return, he too provided a substitute, his devoted sister.

The poem ends: "Holy Erec-ki-gala [Ereshkigal] — sweet is your praise." This ending makes one wonder whom the poem is really about. Perhaps it is not primarily about the queen of heaven, but about the queen of the underworld. There is no doubt that, as soon as Inanna entered the underworld, Ereshkigal was in charge, in her realm. She also seemed to be involved in fertility and bringing to birth. Perhaps we are dealing here with an underworld that still retained elements of a cyclical view of life and nature. In addition, the underworld was the source not only of new life, rebirth, but also of the riches of the earth, in an agrarian culture, the crops.[11] The crops grow from seemingly dead seeds deposited in the earth and seemingly decaying before bringing forth new life. Is Inanna's descent a planting metaphor?

As I interpret it, "The Descent of Inanna" is a possible patriarchalization of a pre-patriarchal story of a deity connected with fertility who disappears and returns, a story that affirms the cyclicity of the round of life and death. Farming cultures understand the cycle and accept it. Beginning her descent, Inanna anticipated problems; maybe she suspected that things had changed. One of the main changes, I suggest, was that Ereshkigal, probably originally Inanna's underworld aspect, had now taken on a personality of her own. And she was not particularly welcoming to her counterpart from the great above.

Later, even Ereshkigal's hold on the underworld would be broken forever when she encountered the young macho god Nergal, a minor deity. Arrogant and bad-mannered, Nergal insulted Ereshkigal's messenger/ambassador. Furious, she demanded his life. Then, properly briefed by the god of wisdom, he descended to the underworld and violently overpowered the goddess. When he was about to behead her, she offered him marriage and rule over her realm. His reaction was exceedingly macho:

He listened to her, picked her up, kissed her and wiped away her tears, saying — in sudden enlightenment; "It was but love you wanted of me from months long ago to now!"
(Jacobsen 1976: 229)

In an even later version Nergal descended to the underworld when Ereshkigal demanded his life. Instead of killing him, she took him to her bed. After seven days, he made off! Ereshkigal demanded that the gods send him back to marry her because she was now "impure" and could no longer be a proper judge. Nergal returned — as king of the underworld (Jacobsen 1976:230). To what depths had this great goddess been brought!!

capital "M" in site font in place of the letter My interpretation of the "Descent of Inanna" poem is, of course, speculative. Yet, the poem has many elements that show that it is one that has undergone change. Perhaps originally it was a poem in praise of a goddess who combined the characteristics and realms of Inanna and Ereshkigal, she who was the source of all becoming, the reason why the cycles rolled back on themselves and the world continued.


  1. According to Samuel Noah Kramer, "Inanna's Descent" was available in fourteen tablets and fragments (1972:84). He "reconstructed and deciphered" the poem over a six-year period (1972:83). See also Kramer in Wolkstein and Kramer 1983:127-135.
  2. Recent scholarship uses this spelling (Bienkowski and Millard 2000:152; Black and Green 2003 [1992]:108).
  3. Except where indicated otherwise, I use this translation throughout.
  4. The next column will discuss this poem, "The Huluppu-Tree" (Wolkstein and Kramer 1983: 4-9).
  5. Lapinkivi states that Ereshkigal "can be seen as deriving from Inanna/Ishtar" and that an Assyrian version of the poem, "Ishtar's Descent," names Ereshkigal Ishtar "who resides in the midst of Irkalla [the underworld]" (2004:179).
  6. In the Semitic version, Ishtar threatens the gatekeeper with violence (Pritchard 1969:107, Speiser translation). Also see Pritchard for Kramer's translation of the Sumerian version (53-57).
  7. In the Semitic version, at first sight, Ishtar attacks Ereshkigal (Pritchard 1969:108)
  8. In the Semitic version, the god of wisdom created a beautiful eunuch to beguile Ereshkigal (Pritchard 1969:108).
  9. In the Semitic version, Ishtar's disappearance causes fertility to cease on earth (Pritchard 1969:108).
  10. I am not necessarily suggesting reincarnation here, but understanding the dead as the fertilizing stuff of renewal in a cyclical process.
  11. As in ancient Greece, where Plutos, an underworld deity, was god of riches, and the dead were called Demetrioi, those of Demeter, the goddess of grain -- Demeter's daughter Persephone was the only deity who could cross the threshold in and out of the underworld. She was both seed and new sprouts.


  • Bienkowski, Piotr and Alan Millard, ed. 2000. Dictionary of the Ancient Near East. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania.
  • Black, Jeremy and Anthony Green 2003 (1992). Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia: An Illustrated Dictionary. Austin, TX: University of Texas.
  • Black, Jeremy, Graham Cunningham, Eleanor Robson and Gabor Zlyomi, transl. 1998, 1999, 2000. "Inana's Descent to the Nether World: Translation," 1-8, downloaded February 2005 from web site <>
  • Campbell, Joseph 1964 (1949). The Hero with a Thousand Faces. NY: Meridian..
  • Foster, Benjamin R., transl. and ed. 2001. The Epic of Gilgamesh. NY: Norton
  • Jacobsen, Thorkild 1976. The Treasures of Darkness: A History of Mesopotamian Religion. New Haven, CT: Yale University.
  • Kramer, Samuel Noah 1981 (1956). History Begins at Sumer: Thirty-Nine Firsts in Recorded History. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania.
  • Kramer, Samuel Noah 1972 (1961). Sumerian Mythology: A Study of Spiritual and Literary Achievement in the Third Millennium B.C .Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania.
  • Lapinkivi, Pirjo 2004. The Sumerian Sacred Marriage in the Light of Comparative Evidence. Helsinki: University of Helsinki, State Archives of Assyria Vol. XV.
  • Perera, Sylvia 1981. Descent to the Goddess: A Way of Initiation for Women. Toronto: Inner City.
  • Pritchard, James B., ed.1969. Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament. Third Edition with Supplement. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University.
  • Wolkstein, Diane and Samuel Noah Kramer 1983. Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth: Her Stories and Hymns from Sumer. NY: Harper & Row.

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