There are times when a person is seized by an idea or an event that grows into a living presence that makes demands on her or his life. Such was my experience when Inanna first appeared to me in a dream. Before the dream, I had never heard of this Sumerian goddess.
In the dream I am with a group of women who are preparing two graves. One is complete. Two tall sticks that curve into circles at the top are thrust into the soft dirt. Beside the stick figures is a bundle of palm fronds. The other grave is freshly dug. After the second body has been received and covered, we are to push similar stick figures into the soil and place a palm frond bundle beside them.
Two Jungian analysts, both alive at the time, are being buried. In my dream they are married. The woman, Veronica, lies in the first grave. The man, Jeffery, is dying. From his deathbed he instructs us in the details of his burial.
The dream was both understandable and puzzling. In actuality, the two analysts were older, conservative people, strongly committed to upholding conventional relationships between men and women. I was a new analyst, recently divorced, searching for a way to be myself as a woman outside the narrow expectations of traditional culture. The deaths of these two colleagues expressed this transition. My old way of being was indeed dying. This much of the dream I could grasp.
But what were the strange stick figures on the grave and why the palm fronds? I had no idea. Some months later I was startled to find an illustration of similar stick figures in the book The Great Mother by Eric Neumann. The text said the looped post was a symbol of the mother goddess and referred the reader to another work, Rachel Levy's The Gate of Horn.
Levy's book, which I had to order from England because it was out of print in the United States, explained that the looped post represented the goddess Inanna in Sumerian iconography. Later I found poems to Inanna, which made it clear that palm fronds signified the nourishing date palms gatherers offered to Inanna in her role as goddess of the abundant harvest.
My search at this point was casual. It was the late 1970s. I had never heard of Inanna and knew nothing of her mythology. By chance I then came across several hymns to Inanna in a popular journal, Parabola. These hymns from Sumerian sacred marriage texts, translated by Samuel Noah Kramer, glorified Inanna's sexuality and sang praises to her vulva. Suddenly my interest increased quite a lot.
Since Kramer, a renowned Sumerian scholar, had translated most of the hymns and myths about Inanna, I had found a rich resource in his articles and books. The very existence of an ancient body of religious literature that sang praises to a woman's vulva fascinated me. I began to track down the original Sumerian texts. Did the Sumerian language version really say "vulva"? What else might these texts say about women's sexuality? By this time I had a compelling desire to know more of the original language. While the texts were not hard to find in a large university library, they were, of course, in Sumerian. I could not read Sumerian.
This, now twenty years ago, was the beginning of my search for Inanna. Since then she has come to occupy most of my spare time. However, I am getting ahead of the story. For a few years I worked with two graduate students of the Sumerian language at the University of California in Los Angeles. With their help I managed to complete my own renditions of several sacred marriage poems plus the myth "Inanna's Descent to the Underworld." I would take the graduate students' word-for-word translations and develop my own versions.
After a move to northern California, I connected with the department of Near Eastern Studies at the University of California in Berkeley and began to work with Dr. Daniel A. Foxvog, an instructor of Sumerian language and literature. In my long, fruitful relationship with Foxvog, we began with an in-depth study of the sacred marriage texts and the "Descent" myth.
During this repetitive, arduous work I felt myself moving deeper and deeper into the ancient world where Inanna reigned. The work was not a burden. Rather, the hours with Foxvog were compelling excursions into a strange and distant past. I had no idea what I would do with the poems beyond using Foxvog's explanations to reevaluate the renditions I had already completed. Meanwhile I read everything I could find about ancient Near Eastern civilizations.
A translator at UCLA had told me about a Sumerian poet, Enheduanna, who wrote poems to Inanna. I obtained the book she mentioned, The Exaltation of Inanna, which contained a translation of one of these poems. Later, Daniel Foxvog mentioned Enheduanna, saying she had written three poems to Inanna. Together we began to study her work.
Enheduanna was high priestess to the moon god Nanna at his temple at Ur around 2300 B.C.E. Appointed to this sacred position by her father, Sargon of Agade, Enheduanna developed the high priestess's post at Ur, a city in southern Mesopotamia, into the most important religious office in Sumer during the almost forty years she performed her sacred role.
After completing the work with Foxvog, I was left alone with boxes of notes on yellow paper from our study. I chose to work forming the renditions of the poems on my own. I took great pleasure struggling with each line, the sometimes contradictory meanings of a word, the broken sentences, and missing verses. I approached the task as though I were solving a puzzle. I found that slowly the lines would come into focus, and, in the context of the preceding text, I could grasp their apparent meaning.
In the middle of working on the first poem "Inanna and Ebih," I began to get a sense of Enheduanna's love for Inanna. I think it must have been at the point when these beautiful lines became clear:
child of the Moon God
a soft bud swelling
her queen's robe cloaks the slender stem
* * *
steps, yes she steps her narrow foot
on the furred back
of a wild lapis lazuli bull
and she goes out
in the dark vault of evening's sky
star-steps in the street
through the Gate of Wonder
Enheduanna's love for Inanna became more and more explicit as the translation process progressed. I could feel the real woman who wrote the poems and the vitality of her devotion across the four thousand-year expanse that separates us.
Slowly, the significance of Enheduanna's veneration became apparent. Enheduanna was lifting Inanna out of her established place in Sumerian culture, where she was already considered to be an important goddess, in order to place her above all other deities. Not only was she Enheduanna's personal goddess, but she was now elevated to the supreme position in the Sumerian pantheon.
There is no way to know why Enheduanna made the painstaking effort to elevate Inanna above all the great gods. Perhaps it was simply an act of dedication to her goddess. Still, from this distant point in time, we can conjecture other possibilities.
First, we must get a sense of who Inanna was in the spiritual understanding of the Sumerians; this is spelled out in Chapter 2. Enheduanna's devotional poems use both metaphor and action to describe Inanna. In these poems we see that the very being of this goddess infuses and vivifies all nature and natural processes. She is the divine in matter. As such, she sustains the ebb and flow, the relentless paradoxical reality of the natural world. She exists between blessing and curse, light and dark, plenty and want, goodness and malevolence, life and death. Harsh as her reality may seem, it is the Real every living being must encounter. And she is the divine in matter. Implicit in her presence is a divine plan, a sacred order and meaning. Enigmatic as the plan may be, it is inferred by Inanna's careful attention to the workings of the world and the people in it. When Enheduanna elevated Inanna over the other gods, she placed utmost importance on this portrayal of the divine presence, the divine infusion into reality.
This belief in the paradoxical nature of reality was not new to the Sumerians, nor to their ancestors, as Chapter 3 explains. Some three millennia before Enheduanna, a Neolithic culture in northern Mesopotamia, the Samarran, painted deep plates with vibrant scenes of women with long hair flowing in ecstatic dance, surrounded by a rim of scorpions. The Samarrans also used the ubiquitous, earth-hugging snake symbol in their iconography, as did the later Ubaid culture. The principle Ubaid goddess is a slender snake-headed figure with a high bitumen crown. Often she holds a little snake baby to her breast. Her striking dark crown and human figure suggest both her regal and authoritative nature, as well as her link to humanity. The Neolithic Samarran/Ubaidian lineage continued directly into Sumerian culture.
Enheduanna was "discovered" in the 1920s during Leonard Woolley's archaeological excavations of the city of Ur, to be discussed in Chapter 4. The plaque Woolley found near the residence of the high priestess displayed a carving of Enheduanna in a ritual procession. In writing on the back of the plaque, Enheduanna declares she is dedicating a dais to Inanna in her temple. She identifies herself as "daughter of Sargon." Again, we must ask why Enheduanna would elevate Inanna above all other gods at this particular time? A possible clue lies in the empire-building activities of her father Sargon, examined in Chapter 5. Prior to Sargon, certain kings of various city-states had attained dominant positions in the land. Eannatum of Lagash, for example, around 2500 B.C.E., conquered neighboring cities and even ventured into lands beyond Mesopotamia proper, but he made no attempt to establish a unified government. Sargon was the first leader anywhere to establish an empire, uniting the cities of northern and southern Mesopotamia under his rule and extending his hegemony into neighboring lands far beyond the borders of Sumer and Akkad. As a result of his exploits, he gained enormous prestige over the fifty years of his rule. He had successfully established a new level of central government, something never before achieved. Maintaining and expanding his empire required one military undertaking after another. Living in this new era of empire building and constant military activity must surely have had an effect on the consciousness of the people, who before this had lived in relative peace. Certainly it had an effect on Sargon's daughter Enheduanna.
Sargon, like all the kings before him, invoked the benevolence of Inanna to bring him victory. Sargon equated the Sumerian Inanna with the Akkadian Ishtar, report Hallo and van Dijk, "to lay the theological foundations for a united empire of Sumer and Akkad, and thus ushered in what the chronographic tradition regarded as the 'dynasty of Ishtar.' Although Sargon invoked Inanna in her warrior mode, he expanded Inanna's role as warrior goddess, planting her banner over the new social institution of an established empire. His feats of heroic conquest, previously unmatched in their sustained success and longevity, rode a wave of phallic aggressive energy, new to humanity. The empire Sargon established was perpetuated by his successors, Enheduanna's two brothers and her nephew Naram-Sin, who supported and strengthened this first family dynasty. Naram-Sin even deified himself as the god of Akkad, thus usurping the authority of the powerful priests and priestesses of the temples. It seems possible that Enheduanna elevated the paradoxical Inanna in order to reestablish the balance between the reality of the forces of nature and the hubris of aggressive conquest by an individual human being. Her roles as high priestess and as poet are the subjects of Chapters 6 and 7.
Enheduanna's devotion to Inanna persisted throughout her lifetime. The three poems to Inanna reflect her own spiritual and personal self-integration over time. They document not only the emotional life of this remarkable woman four thousand years ago, but also the personal and spiritual devotion of one woman to her deity, an eloquent diary of adulation and prayer unique in its antiquity. The poems in Part 2 portray what so many women long for, a spirituality grounded in the reflection of a divine woman, offering a full sense of foundation and legitimacy as females. Enheduanna describes a spiritual direction as well, a path for women that encompasses the whole of reality. Inanna's devotees, her "warrior women," "do common work in devotion to you / whose hands sear them with purifying fire." Personal integration based on an embrace of the whole of reality is a searing purification that demands sincere devotion.
A few years ago I found out something else about the symbol of Inanna that had appeared in my dream. Drawn with a stylus on wet clay, the stick figure with the circle on top was her name written in the earliest cuneiform script. You could say she appeared to me as a word, but in that time word and symbol were the same. In the beginning the word "Inanna" was not an abstraction on the page. In the beginning there was not the word but the very presence of the goddess. And there she was in my dream, her stately form planted on the graves of a contemporary couple, a being full of power and mystery waiting to be discovered.