ANCIENT SUMERIAN: The Descent of Inanna into the Underworld

Excerpted from: Wolkstein, Diane and Kramer, Samuel Noah, Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth, Harper and Row Publishers, New York, 1983, pages 52-60

From the Great Above she opened her ear to the Great Below.
From the Great Above the goddess opened her ear to the Great Below.
From the Great Above Inanna opened her ear to the Great Below.

My Lady abandoned heaven and earth to descend to the underworld.
Inanna abandoned heaven and earth to descend to the underworld.
She abandoned her office of holy priestess to descend to the underworld.

In Uruk she abandoned her temple to descend to the underworld .
In Badtibira she abandoned her temple to descend to the underworld.
In Zabalam she abandoned her temple to descend to the underworld.
In Adab she abandoned her temple to descend to the underworld.
In Nippur she abandoned her temple to descend to the underworld.
In Kish she abandoned her temple to descend to the underworld.
In Akkad she abandoned her temple to descend to the underworld.

She gathered together the seven me.
She took them into her hands
With the me in her possession, she prepared herself:

She placed the shugurra, the crown of the steppe, on her head.
She arranged the dark locks of hair across her forehead.
She tied the small lapis beads around her neck,
Let the double strand of beads fall to her breast,
And wrapped the royal robe around her body.
She daubed her eyes with ointment called “Let him come, Let him come,”
Bound the breastplate called “Come, man, come!” around her chest,
Slipped the gold ring over her wrist,
And took the lapis measuring rod and line in her hand.

Inanna set out for the underworld.
Ninshubur, her faithful servant, went with her.
Inanna spoke to her, saying:
“Ninshubur, my constant support,
My sukkal who gives me wise advice,
My warrior who fights by my side,
I am descending to thekur, to the underworld.
If I do not return,
Set up a lament for me by the ruins.
Beat the drum for me in the assembly places.
Circle the houses of the gods.
Tear at your eyes, at your mouth, at your thighs.
Dress yourself in a single garment like a beggar.
Go to Nippur, to the temple of Enlil.
When you enter his holy shrine, cry out:
‘O father Enlil, do not let your daughter
Be put to death in the underworld.
Do not let your bright silver
Be covered with the dust of the underworld.
Do not let your precious lapis
Be broken into stone for the stoneworker.
Do not let your fragrant boxwood
Be cut into wood for the woodworker.
Do not let the holy priestess of heaven
Be put to death in the underworld,’

If Enlil will not help you,
Go to Dr, to the temple of Nanna.
Weep before Father Nanna.

If Nanna will not help you,
Go to Eridu, to the temple of Enki.
Weep before Father Enki.
Father Enki, the God of Wisdom, knows the food of life,
He knows the water of life;
He knows the secrets.
Surely he will not let me die,”

Inanna continued on her way to the underworld.
Then she stopped and said:
“Go now, Ninshubur-
Do not forget the words I have commanded you.”

When Inanna arrived at the outer gates of the underworld,
She knocked loudly.
She cried out in a fierce voice:
“Open the door, gatekeeper!
Open the door, Neti!
I alone would enter!”

Neti, the chief gatekeeper of the kur, asked:
“Who are you?”

She answered:
“I am Inanna, Queen of Heaven,
On my way to the East.”

Neti said:
“If you are truly Inanna, Queen of Heaven,
On your way to the East,
Why has your heart led you on the road
From which no traveler returns?”

Inanna answered:
“Because … of my elder sister, Ereshkigal,
Her husband, Gugalanna, the Bull of Heaven, has died.
I have come to witness the funeral rites.
Let the beer of his funeral rites be poured into the cup.
Let it be done.”

Neti spoke:
“Stay here, Inanna, I will speak to my queen.
I will give her your message.”

Neti, the chief gatekeeper of the kur,
Entered the palace of Ereshkigal, the Queen of the Underworld, and said:
“My queen, a maid
As tall as heaven,
As wide as the earth,
As strong as the foundations of the city wall,
Waits outside the palace gates.

She has gathered together the seven me.
She has taken them into her hands.
With the me in her possession, she has prepared herself:

On her head she wears the shugurra, the crown of the steppe.
Across her forehead her dark locks of hair are carefully arranged.
Around her neck she wears the small lapis beads.
At her breast she wears the double strand of beads.
Her body is wrapped with the royal robe.
Her eyes are daubed with the ointment called, ‘Let him come, let him come.’
Around her chest she wears the breastplate called ‘Come man come!’
On her wrist she wears the gold ring.
In her hand she carries the lapis measuring rod and line.”

When Ereshkigal heard this,
She slapped her thigh and bit her lip.
She took the matter into her heart and dwelt on it.
Then she spoke:
“Come Neti, my chief gatekeeper of the kur,
Heed my words:
Bolt the seven gates of the underworld.
Then, one by one, open each gate a crack.
Let Inanna enter.
As she enters, remove her royal garments.
Let the holy priestess of heaven enter bowed low.”

Neti heeded the words of his queen.
He bolted the seven gates of the underworld.
Then he opened the outer gate.
He said to the maid: “Come, Inanna, enter.”

When she entered the first gate,
From her head, the shugurra, the crown of the steppe, was removed.

Inanna asked:
“What is this?”

She was told:
“Quiet, Inanna, the ways of the underworld are perfect.
They may not be questioned.”

When she entered the second gate,
From her neck the small lapis beads were removed.

Inanna asked:
“What is this?”

She was told:
“Quiet, Inanna, the ways of the underworld are perfect.
They may not be questioned.”

When she entered the third gate,
From her breast the double strand of beads was removed.

Inanna asked:
“What is this?”

She was told:
“Quiet, Inanna, the ways of the underworld are perfect.
They may not be questioned.”

When she entered the fourth gate,
From her chest the breastplate called “Come, man, come!” was removed.

Inanna asked:
“What is this?”

She was told:
“Quiet, Inanna, the ways of the underworld are perfect.
They may not be questioned.”

When she entered the fifth gate,
From her wrist the gold ring was removed.

Inanna asked:
“What is this?”

She was told:
“Quiet, Inanna, the ways of the underworld are perfect.
They may not be questioned.”

When she entered the sixth gate,
From her hand the lapis measuring rod and line was removed.

Inanna asked:
“What is this?”

She was told:
“Quiet, Inanna, the ways of the underworld are perfect.
They may not be questioned.”

When she entered the seventh gate,
From her body the royal robe was removed.

Inanna asked:
“What is this?”

She was told:
“Quiet, Inanna, the ways of the underworld are perfect.
They may not be questioned.”

Naked and bowed low, Inanna entered the throne room.
Ereshkigal rose from her throne.
Inanna started toward the throne.
The Annuna, the judges of the underworld, surrounded her.
They passed judgment against her.

Then Ereshkigal fastened on Inanna the eye of death.
She spoke against her the word of wrath.
She uttered against her the cry of guilt.

She struck her.

Inanna was turned into a corpse,
A piece of rotting meat,
And was hung from a hook on the wall.

If you wish to find out what happens next, and also something of the back-story, click HERE. All I can tell you for now is that Inanna’s dreadful fate was not as unjust as it might appear here. (And of course, being a goddess, her death was only temporary anyway.) But read the The Epic of Gilgamesh – I love all this ancient Sumerian literature – and you will discover that she herself had been responsible for the death of the Bull of Heaven, her sister Ereshkigal’s husband, after being scorned by Gilgamesh’s friend Enkidu. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned? Just imagine a goddess scorned, for that is what we have in this earliest of all story-poem cycles!

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