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This story was inscribed on clay tablets at around 1750 BCE. The famous story of the goddess' descent into the netherworld, provides us with a testimony as to an early religion in which the goddess, woman, life and love was the center and the heart of religion.

Inanna/Ishtar's Descent

The onset of the lean season after the harvest, however brings out the fierce dark side of the goddess of death and destruction. It is celebrated by the entry of Inanna to the underworld, where she enters seven gates and her worldly attire (her signs of dominion and power) are removed ( I see some relation to the dance of the seven veils here, but not the striptease kind of thing :-) and then her life is reduced to nought. Inanna decides to experience the dark side her elder sister Ereshkigal knows as Queen of the Underworld in the death rites of the Sacred Bull of Heaven, Gugalanna, thus disguising her formal purpose of discovery in the formal act of witnessing the death rites of another.

Returning from the underworld, accompanied by demons who must have a mortal in compensation, she fixes the eye of death on her absent-minded partner who is engrossed in affairs of state, and he is chased by the demons of hell, losing his possessions, his genitals and his life. Inanna afterwards laments her actions and searches for him and ensures his resurrection so that he can be brought back for six months of the year to ensure the fertility of both the womb and the soil. Seasonal male sacrifice of the "king" reverberates through the goddesses from Greece to India and over much of Africa including Cybele, Hecate and Kali. In the Sumerian view, the purpose of human life was merely to provide sustenance for the deities.

The Source:

"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....

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. ...

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." ...

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!" ...

When she entered the first gate,
the shugurra, the crown of the steppe was removed.
When she entered the second gate,
From her neck the small lapis beads were removed.
When she entered the third gate,
From her breast the double strand of beads was removed.
When she entered the fourth gate,
From her chest the breastplate called "Come, man, come!" was removed.
When she entered the fifth gate,
From her wrist the gold ring was removed.
When she entered the sixth gate,
From her hand the lapis measuring rod and line was removed.
When she entered the seventh gate,
From her body the royal robe was removed. ...

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....

Then, after three days and three nights, Inanna had not returned,
Ninshubur set up a lament for her by the ruins.
She beat the drum for her in the assembly places.

Neither Enlil nor Inanna's father Nannar, the Moon God of Ur, will help her because she has craved the below, and because those who choose the underworld do not return. Ninshubur succeeds in getting Enki to secure her release:

Inanna was about to ascend from the underworld
When the Annuna, the judges of the underworld, seized her. They said:
"No one ascends from the underworld unmarked.
If Inanna wishes to return from the underworld,
She must provide someone in her place."...

As Inanna ascended from the underworld,
The galla, the demons of the underworld, clung to her side.
The galla were demons who know no food, who know no drink,
Who eat no offerings, who drink no libations,
Who accept no gifts.
They enjoy no lovemaking-
They have no sweet children to kiss.
They tear the wife from the husband's arms,
They tear the child from the father's knees,
They steal the bride from her marriage home....

The galla said: "Walk on, Inanna,
We will take Ninshubur in your place."
Inanna cried: "No! Ninshubur is my constant support....
"Walk on to your city, Inanna, We will take Shara in your place."
Inanna cried: "No! Not Shara! He is my son who sings hymns to me. ...
"Walk on to your city, Inanna, We will take Lulal in your place."
"Not Lulal! He is my son. He is a leader among men. ...
"Walk on to your city, Inanna.
We will go with you to the big apple tree in Uruk."
In Uruk, by the big apple tree,

Dumuzi, the husband of Inanna, was dressed in his shining me-garments.
He sat on his magnificent throne; (he did not move).
The galla seized him by his thighs.
They poured milk out of his seven churns.
They broke the reed pipe which the shepherd was playing.

Inanna fastened on Dumuzi the eye of death.
She spoke against him the word of wrath.
She uttered against him the cry of guilt:
"Take bim! Take Dumuzi away!"

The galla, who know no food, who know no drink,
Who eat no offerings, who drink no libations,
Who accept no gifts, seized Dumuzi.
They made him stand up; they made him sit down.
They beat the husband of Inanna.
They gashed him with axes."

The Story in Short:

Ishtar thinks to go into the Place of Darkness in search of her beloved spouse Tammuz. Arrayed in her magnificent power and splendor she enters the cavern that leads to that realm. The place is surrounded by seven walls and has seven gates and at her demand for entry, the watchman, Nedu, begs leave to consult with his mistress, Irkalla, sister of Ishtar. The mistress of the Place of Darkness bids Nedu to admit Ishtar in accordance with the ancient rites.

  1. At the first gate he removes her splendid crown.
  2. At the second gate he removes her necklace with the eight-rayed star.
  3. At the third gate he removes her bracelets of gold and lapis lazuli.
  4. At the fourth gate he removes her shoes.
  5. At the fifth gate he removes her veil.
  6. At the sixth gate he removes her outer robe.
  7. At the seventh gate he removes her garment.

"And naked, with her splendor, and her power, and her beauty all gone from her, the Lady of the Gods came before Irkalla. And Irkalla, the goddess of the World Below, had the head of a lioness and the body of a woman; in her hands she grasped a serpent."

Irkala curses Ishtar and summons the plague demon to afflict her. And Ishtar becomes as one dead -- "Ishtar saw the light no more; feathers came upon her; she ate dust and fed upon mud...." Meanwhile Shamash, Lord of the Sun, notices the effect of Ishtar's absence on the world and concludes that this generation of creatures will die and that the creation will end. He sends Ea to conjure the Water of Life from Irkalla, and revive Ishtar. This Ea does through an intermediary.