By Elaine Mansfield
“From the Great Above she opened her ear to the Great Below.” 1
The descent of the Goddess begins with listening. Inanna, the Listener, is the Great Goddess of Heaven and Earth (~3500 – 2500 BC, Sumeria/Mesopotamia). Her story is the oldest written goddess myth, and what a goddess she is: Erotic, wise, powerful, conniving, loving, fierce, courageous, and ruthless.
In the Sumerian language, the word for ear also means wisdom. Inanna is called to listen to the Great Below because, despite her many powers, she lacks something. Without knowledge of mortality and unconscious realms, she is not whole. Without some relationship with inner depths and darkness, we are helpless when faced with forces beyond our ego’s control.
When my husband Vic was diagnosed with incurable cancer in 2006, I knew I had to listen. I bought a new notebook and recorded our experiences from medical to psychological, from hope to anguish, from spiritual peaks to deep despair. As Vic neared the threshold, I wrote and reflected at his bedside. I wanted to remember. I wanted meaning. It was my job to remain in the Day World or the Great Above. Vic needed me to be conscious and competent, just as Inanna needed her trusted female advisor Ninshubur to witness her descent and call for help.
After Vic’s death, exhausted and filled with disbelief, I faced a new descent. Grief, Death’s companion, became my new teacher.
In the descent myth, Inanna tells the gatekeeper to the Great Below or Underworld that she wishes to attend the funeral of the Great Bull of Heaven, Ereshkigal’s husband. Ereshkigal is the Underworld Death Goddess and Inanna’s Dark Sister. Inanna intends to witness a death, not face her own. That was my plan, too…
Inanna arrives in full queenly regalia at the gates of the Great Below. I had arrived in the oncologist’s office with my notebook, my numbered list of questions, my suggestions, and my fierce resolve. My mission to save my husband succeeded—until it failed. When Death won, my personal descent began.
As Inanna passes through each of the seven gates on her way to the Great Below, she is stripped of a garment symbolic of her power. For example:
When she (Inanna) entered the first gate,
From her head, … the crown of the steppe, was removed.
Inanna asked: “What is this?”
She was told: “Be quiet, Inanna, the ways of the underworld are perfect. They may not be questioned.” 2
Hadn’t I given up enough? I thought when the stripping began. Apparently not. As long as my husband lived, I retained position in the world and community. I had a job to do.
With his death, I lost my role as wife and partner in a deeply satisfying relationship. I was demoted to widow, a social label for the scorned and abandoned feminine. I had been a women’s health counselor, but lost my own motivation. My erotic life disappeared—not only sexual, but daily intimacy with someone I loved. I lost my sense of proportion and could no longer measure where I was in life. My notebook felt useless. My ego and persona crumbled. I was stuck in grief. Like Inanna, I was “naked and laid low.”
When Inanna reaches the Great Below, she steps toward her sister’s throne. For this last remnant of pride, she is condemned by the Eye of Death and Eye of Wrath. She is pronounced guilty for refusing to honor a power greater than her own. Then, Inanna is hung on a hook. Dead. In this startling image, day world abilities are useless in the face of the Destructive Dark.
So there they are, stuck in the Great Below. Ereshkigal cries out in rage and pain. Inanna hangs on her hook. All is dark depression and stasis. Nothing moves. There is no hope.
Is there a divine force that can save Inanna and us? Ninshubur, Inanna’s trusted and grieving advisor, sends for help. Enki, the God of Wisdom, creates two small mourners from the dirt under his fingernails. These seemingly insignificant mourners have one skill: empathy. They see the suffering of Ereshkigal and mirror her cries.
“Oh! Oh! My inside!”
“Oh! Oh! Your inside!”
“Oh! Oh! My outside!”
“Oh! Oh! Your outside!….”3
The mourners provide compassionate witnessing in a long call and response. As it does in therapy or close friendship, empathy creates a miracle of transformation. Ask the Dalai Lama what power is equal to Wisdom. He’ll say Compassion.
Ereshkigal, the neglected, unloved, and shunned, grieves for her husband, but we now learn that she is also crying out from the pain of giving birth. Within the deep darkness, something new is being born. Perhaps Inanna. Perhaps you and me.
Ereshkigal asked (the mourners):
Who are you,
Moaning—groaning—sighing with me?
If you are gods, I will bless you.
If you are mortals, I will give you a gift. 4
They don’t want all the riches and resources of the world. They want the corpse, which they sprinkle with the water and food of life.
A sliver of light has penetrated the Dark and released new energy. Birth will follow darkness. Seeds quicken after Winter Solstice. Light returns. The Goddess of Heaven and Earth rises and the cycle continues.
As Inanna ascends, there are complications. Aren’t there always? Demons cling to her and demand more sacrifice to appease the judges of the Great Below. We learn that another cyclic round is always waiting in Feminine Realms. There is no end to death and trauma, but there is also no end to compassion and rebirth.
I returned to life, wild and humbled, displaced and dismantled. I wept uncontrollably about my fate, even though I knew loss was everyone’s destiny. My forest, the kind mirroring of those who witnessed me, and a search for meaning were my water and food of life. I bowed to Inanna’s wisdom and Ereshkigal’s necessity knowing that death and destruction fuel a new cycle of life.
We descend, not because we want to, but because we must. Descent is an integral part of the Great Feminine Round of Life and Death. We are mortal. We are vulnerable. We live in a world of catastrophe and chaos, personal loss and social threat. We are thrown down. We are helped up. Miraculously, we find our way to life again.
Elaine Mansfield has been a student of Jung, mythology, dreams, and meditation since 1970. She has worked with Marion Woodman, Robert Bosnak, and other Jungian teachers. Since the death of her husband, Elaine has focused on the inner journey of grief as an initiation and has become a hospice bereavement group leader. Her insights are explained in her book Leaning into Love: A Spiritual Journey through Grief and a TEDx talk: “Good Grief! What I Learned from Loss.” Contact her at Elaine@elainemansfield.com and visit www.elainemansfield.com.
1. Diane Wolkstein and Samuel Noah Kramer, Inanna: Queen of Heaven and Earth, Harper and Row, 1983, p. 52.
2. Ibid, p. 57.
3. Ibid, p. 65.
4. Ibid, p. 66.