In the 4th millennium B.C., in Sumer, Inanna embodied life, fertility, love, sex, war, justice and royal power, – but also the essence of femininity, the subversion of the forbidden, and the conjugation of opposites.
Originally a local deity of Uruk, she gradually imposed herself throughout Mesopotamia, and as far as Assyria and Phoenicia, as the supreme deity, the Goddess par excellence. Over the millennia, her importance continued to grow in relation to the other divinities, transcending their specificities and particularities.
In the 1st millennium BC, from the reign of Assurbanipal, the supremacy of Inanna, under her Akkadian name Ishtar, was such that she even took pre-eminence over the national god Ashur.
The etymological origin of the name Inanna can be explained phonetically by the Sumerian words nin, ‘lady’, and an ‘sky’, – ‘the Lady of Heaven’.
Yet the name Inanna is never written using the cuneiform signs that represent the words nin, 𒊩𒌆 (SAL.TUG2), and an, 𒀭(AN). Inanna’s name is written using the single ideogram 𒈹, preceded by the generic sign 𒀭which was always attached in Sumer to the names of deities to designate their divine status.
The cuneiform sign 𒈹 is in reality the later, and ‘horizontal’ transposition of the vertical symbol of the goddess, which figures a kind of totem pole in the most ancient representations of her name :
This symbol represents in a stylized way a pole decorated at its top with a woven crown of reeds, and wrapped with banners. These poles were placed on either side of the entrance to the temples dedicated to Inanna, and marked the limit between the profane and the sacred.
Curiously, around the same time, ancient Egypt used the hieroglyph nṯr to mean the word ‘God’, and this hieroglyph also graphically symbolizes a temple banner :
This hieroglyph obviously derives from the various forms of totem poles used near the entrance of Egyptian temples:
We can assume that the Sumerian symbol of Inanna and this Egyptian hieroglyph come from much more ancient sources, not without connection with the immemorial symbolism of the shamanic masts floating fabrics, foliage or feathers, and whose use is still observed today, throughout the world, in Asia, America, Europe and Africa…
It seems to me that in this convergence of symbols of the divine, in Sumer, in ancient Egypt and even in contemporary shamanism, there is the living trace of a mode of representation of the divine, whose origin is to be found in the first confrontations of Homo Sapiens with the ‘mystery’, from the depths of the Paleolithic.
The poles bearing crowns of reeds, garlands or banners, symbolized since ancient times the subliminal perception of the Divine, whose ‘presence’ they revealed by the aerial breaths of which they were animated.
In Akkadian, Inanna took the Semitic name of Ishtar, of which one finds already the trace in Akkad, in Babylonia and in Assyria, even before the reign of Sargon of Akkad, known as « Sargon the Great », (-2300 BC). Scholars have linked the name Ishtar with the name of another Semitic god, Attar, mentioned in later inscriptions in Ugarit, Syria, and southern Arabia.
The famous vase from the Uruk civilization (4000 to 300 B.C.), which was found among other cult objects from the Uruk III period, depicts a column of naked men carrying baskets, vessels, and various dishes, as well as a ram and goats, to a female figure facing a man holding a box and a stack of bowls (which represent the cuneiform sign EN, meaning « high priest. The female figure, on the other hand, is next to two symbols of Inanna, two poles with reed crowns.
The main center of the cult of Inanna was the temple of E-anna, in Uruk. E-anna means ‘the House of Heaven’, E- An, 𒂍𒀭.
The cult of Inanna was observed over a period of more than four millennia, first in Uruk and Sumer, then in Babylon, Akkad and Assyria, as Ishtar, and in Phoenicia, as Astarte, and finally later in Greece, as Aphrodite, and in Rome, as Venus…
Her influence declined irreparably between the 1st and 5th centuries of our era, following the progression of Christianity, but she was still venerated in the Assyrian communities of upper Mesopotamia until the 18th century…
In many mythical stories, Inanna is inclined to take over the domains of competence of other deities, stealing for example from Enki, the God of Wisdom, the ‘me’, that is to say all the inventions and achievements, abstract and concrete, of ‘civilization’, as we will see in a moment, or dislodging the God of Heaven, An, to take his place in the temple of E-anna, or exercising a superior form of divine justice, by destroying Mount Ebih, which had not wanted, in its arrogance as a mountain sure of its strength and durability, to prostrate itself at his feet.
Inanna was certainly not felt by the Mesopotamians to be a « Mother » goddess, a divine figure supposed to embody the maternal woman or the idea of motherhood.
So who was she?
To give a first idea, it is not uninteresting to return to the original texts.
The text Inanna and Enki published in the Sumerian Textual Corpus of Literature (ETCSL) collated by the University of Oxford i begins to describe the personality of Inanna by an allusion to the beauty of her genitals:
« She put the šu-gura, the desert crown, on her head. …… when she went out to the shepherd, to the sheepfold, …… her genitals were remarkable. She praised herself, full of delight at her genitals, she praised herself, full of delight at her genitals « ii .
Inanna has no complex about her sex. She proudly shows it off and claims her desires and needs explicitly:
» Inana praises … her genitals in song: « These genitals, …, like a horn, … a great waggon, this moored Boat of Heaven … of mine, clothed in beauty like the new crescent moon, this waste land abandoned in the desert …, this field of ducks where my ducks sit, this high well-watered field of mine: my own genitals, the maiden’s, a well-watered opened-up mound — who will be their ploughman? My genitals, the lady’s, the moist and well-watered ground — who will put an ox there? » « Lady, the king shall plough them for you; Dumuzid the king shall plough them for you. » « Plough in my genitals, man of my heart! »…bathed her holy hips, …holy …, the holy basin « .iii
Another fragment of the Oxford ETCSL text Inanna and Enki clarifies Inanna’s ambiguou intentions and feelings about Enki, who also happens to be her ‘father:
« I, Inana, personally intend to go to the abzu, I shall utter a plea to Lord Enki. Like the sweet oil of the cedar, who will … for my holy … perfume? It shall never escape me that I have been neglected by him who has had sex. » iv
Enki receives her very well, and invites her to drink beer. An improvised part of underground drinking follows, between the God and the Goddess.
« So it came about that Enki and Inana were drinking beer together in the abzu, and enjoying the taste of sweet wine. The bronze aga vessels were filled to the brim, and the two of them started a competition, drinking from the bronze vessels of Uraš. « v
The real goal of Inanna was to win this competition, to make Enki drunk and to see him collapse into ethylic sleep, so that she could at her leisure rob him of the most precious goods of civilization, the ‘me’. The ‘me’, whose cuneiform sign 𒈨 combines the verticality of the divine gift and the horizontality of its sharing among men, these me are very numerous. The text gives a detailed sample:
« I will give them to holy Inana, my daughter; may …not … » Holy Inana received heroism, power, wickedness, righteousness, the plundering of cities, making lamentations, rejoicing. « In the name of my power, in the name of my abzu, I will give them to holy Inana, my daughter; may …not … »
Holy Inana received deceit, the rebel lands, kindness, being on the move, being sedentary. « In the name of my power, in the name of my abzu, I will give them to holy Inana, my daughter; may …not … »
Holy Inana received the craft of the carpenter, the craft of the coppersmith, the craft of the scribe, the craft of the smith, the craft of the leather-worker, the craft of the fuller, the craft of the builder, the craft of the reed-worker. « In the name of my power, in the name of my abzu, I will give them to holy Inana, my daughter; may not .…… »
Holy Inana received wisdom, attentiveness, holy purification rites, the shepherd’s hut, piling up glowing charcoals, the sheepfold, respect, awe, reverent silence. « In the name of my power, in the name of my abzu, I will give them to holy Inana, my daughter; may not . »vi
Inanna in turn recites and recapitulates the entire list of these attributes obtained through cunning, and she adds, for good measure:
« He has given me deceit. He has given me the rebel lands. He has given me kindness. He has given me being on the move. He has given me being sedentary. »vii
Rich basket, conquered of high fight, after force sips of beer, for an ambitious goddess, plunged in the darkness of the abzu…
Reading these texts, imbued with a jubilant force, to which is added the astonishing variety of archaeological and documentary materials concerning Inanna, one can hardly be surprised at the multitude of interpretations that contemporary Sumer specialists make about her.
The great Sumer scholar Samuel Noah Kramer describes Inanna, rather soberly, as « the deity of love, – ambitious, aggressive and demanding ».viii
Thorkild Jacobsen, a scholar of Mesopotamian religions, writes: « She is depicted in all the roles that a woman can fill, except those that require maturity and a sense of responsibility: she is never described as a wife and helper, let alone as a mother.ix
Sylvia Brinton-Perera adds: « Although she has two sons and the kings and people of Sumer are called her offspring, she is not a mother figure in the sense we understand. Like the goddess Artemis, she belongs to that « intermediate region, halfway between the state of a mother and that of a virgin, a region full of joie de vivre and an appetite for murder, fecundity and animality ». She represents the quintessence of the young girl in what she has of positive, sensual, ferocious, dynamic, eternally young virgin (…). She is never a peaceful housewife nor a mother subjected to the law of the father. She keeps her independence and her magnetism, whether she is in love, newly married or a widow « x.
Tikva Frymer-Kensky adopts a point of view with resolutely feminist and gendered perspectives, – without fear of anachronism, more than five millennia later: « Inanna represents the undomesticated woman, she embodies all the fear and fascination that such a woman arouses (…) Inanna is a woman in a man’s life, which makes her fundamentally different from other women, and which places her on the borderline that marks the differences between men and women. Inanna transcends gender polarities, it is said that she transforms men into women and vice versa. The cult of Inanna attests to her role as the one who blurs the gender boundary (and therefore protects it).xi
Johanna Stuckey, a specialist in religious studies and women’s studies, takes up this point of view and, like Tikva Frymer-Kensky, uses the same word ‘frontier’ to describe her ambivalence: « Inanna is on the frontier of full femininity (…) Inanna was a woman who behaved like a man and basically lived the same existence as young men, exulting in combat and constantly seeking new sexual experiences.xii Moreover, Mesopotamian texts usually refer to her as ‘the woman’, and even when she ‘warriors’ she always remains ‘the woman’.xiii
From all this a curious image emerges, rich, complex, transcending all norms, all clichés.
Inanna is unique and incomparable, she is the « wonder of Sumer », she is « the » Goddess par excellence, – one of her symbols is the famous eight-pointed starxiv 𒀭, which is supposed to represent originally the star of the morning and the one of the evening, Venus, but which will end up representing in the Sumerian language the very concept of ‘divinity’.
Inanna is at the same time the daughter of the God of Heaven, An, or, according to other traditions, that of the Moon God, Nanna (or Sin, in Akkadian), the sister of the Sun God, Utu (or Shamash in Akkadian), and the very ambiguous wife of the God ‘Son of Life’ (Dumuzi, in Akkadian Tammuz) whom she will send to death in his place, but she is above all totally free, in love and fickle, aggressive and wise, warrior and benefactress, provocative and seeking justice, taking all risks, including that of confronting her father, the supreme God, the God of Heaven, An, to take his place. She is a feminine and unclassifiable divinity, going far beyond the patterns of the patriarchal societies of then and now.
She is both the goddess of prostitutes and the goddess of marital sexuality, but above all she embodies the (divine) essence of pure desire, she is the goddess of passion that leads unrestrainedly to sexual union and ecstasy, detached from any link with any socially recognized value.
Quite late, in the 17th century B.C., the Babylonian king Ammi-ditana composed a hymn celebrating Inanna/Ishtar, which is one of the most beautiful in all the literature of ancient Mesopotamia:
« Celebrate the Goddess, the most august of Goddesses!
Honored be the Lady of the peoples, the greatest of the gods!
Celebrate Ishtar, the most august of goddesses,
Honored be the Sovereign of women, the greatest of the gods!
– She is joyful and clothed in love.
Full of seduction, venality, voluptuousness!
Ishtar-joyous clothed with love,
Full of seduction, of venality, of voluptuousness!
– Her lips are all honey! Her mouth is alive!
At Her aspect, joy bursts!
She is majestic, head covered with jewels:
Splendid are Her forms; Her eyes, piercing and vigilant!
– She is the goddess to whom one can ask advice
She holds the fate of all things in her hands!
From her contemplation is born joy,
Joy of life, glory, luck, success!
– She loves good understanding, mutual love, happiness,
She holds benevolence!
The girl she calls has found a mother in her:
She points to her in the crowd, She articulates her name!
– Who is it? Who then can equal Her greatness?xv
The most famous myth that has established the reputation of Inanna, in the past and still today, is undoubtedly the story of her descent to Kur xvi, the underground and dark domain, the world below, to try to take possession of this kingdom beyond the grave at the expense of her elder sister Ereshkigal. We have two versions, one Sumerian, the other Akkadian.
Here is the beginning of the Sumerian version:
« One day, from heaven, she wanted to leave for Hell,
From heaven, the goddess wanted to go to Hell,
From heaven, Inanna wanted to go to Hell.
My Lady left heaven and earth to descend to the world below,
Inanna left heaven and earth to descend to the world below.
She gave up her advantages to go down to the world below!
To descend to the world below, she left the E-Anna of Uruk (…)
She equipped herself with the Seven Powers,
After having gathered them and held them in her hand
And having taken them all, in full, to leave!
So she wore the Turban, Crown-of-the-steppe ;
Attached to her forehead the Heart-Catchers;
Grabbed the Module of lazulite;
Adjusted to the neck the lazulite Necklace;
Elegantly placed the Pearl Couplings on her throat;
Passed on his hands the golden Bracelets;
Stretched on his chest the Breast-Cover [called] ‘Man! come! come!’ ;
Wrapped his body with the pala, the royal Cloak,
And made up his eyes with the Blush [called] ‘Let him come! Let him come’. » xvii
The Akkadian version is much darker, and Ishtar, much less coquettish than Inanna…
« In the Land of No Return, the domain of Ereshkigal,
Ishtar, the daughter of Sin, decided to surrender!
She decided to surrender, the daughter of Sin,
To the Dark Abode, the residence of Irkalla,
In the Abode from which never come out those who have entered it,
By the way there is no return,
In the Abode where the arrivals are deprived of light,
subsisting only on humus, fed by earth,
Slumped in darkness, never seeing the day,
Clothed, like birds, in a garment of feathers,
While dust piles up on locks and sashes.
At the sovereign divinity of the Immense Earth, the goddess who sits in the Irkalla,
In Ereshkigal, ruler of the Immense Earth,
The goddess who dwells in the Irkalla, in this very house of Irkalla
From which those who go there no longer return,
This place where there is no light for anyone,
This place where the dead are covered with dust,
This dark abode where the stars never rise. « xviii
The affair turned into a disaster for Inanna/Ishtar (in the true, etymological, sense of the word disaster, the ‘fall of the star’…). Ereshkigal did not take kindly to his sister’s initiative in usurping his kingdom.
« When Ereshkigal heard this address,
His face turned pale like a branch cut from a tamarisk tree,
And, like a splinter of reed, her lips were darkened!
What does she want from me? What else has she imagined?
I want to banquet in person with the Annunaki (She must say to herself);
To feed myself like them with murky water. »xix
Following Ereshkigal’s injunctions, Inanna/Ishatar is sentenced to death by the seven chthonic gods, the Anunnaki. She is executed, and Ereshkigal hangs her corpse on a nail.
But the God Enki, God of Water, (in Akkadian, Ea), mobilizes, and sends to her rescue two creatures explicitly presented as ‘inverts’, who will go and resurrect her with the water of life.
Some have seen this as an opportunity for a Christ-like interpretation.
« The soul, represented by Inanna, paid for its arrogance in claiming to conquer the netherworld. It ‘died’ in the material world, represented by the netherworld, but was purified and born again. The kurgarra and galaturra (…) correspond to the Gnostic ‛adjuvant’ (helper), or ‛appeal’ sent by the Father (…) to awaken the ‘sleeping’ soul. These adjutants console Ereshkigal in the midst of suffering, which, in reality, is the guilty face of Ishtar (= the fallen soul) who, at that moment, moans ‘like a woman about to give birth’. One of the adjutants pours on the body « the plant that gives life », and the other does the same with « the water that gives life ». The sprinkling of the water of life on Inanna’s body corresponds to the baptism which, in the Exegesis of the Soul, which deals with the Soul, is indispensable for the rebirth and purification of the soul. (…) Inanna, the impure soul, was saved and was able to return to her original state, thus showing the others the way to salvation. In other words, after being « awakened » by the « helpers », she could begin her gradual ascent from death to life, from impurity to purity. And yet, her rescue and resurrection could not have taken place without a savior, someone who could take her place. It is the duty of the good shepherd/king Dumuzi, Inanna’s husband, to play the role of this savior. According to Parpola, Dumuzi’s sacrifice explains why the king, the son of a god and therefore a god himself, had to die. He was sent to earth to be the perfect man, the shepherd, to set an example for his people and guide them on the right path. The king, like Dumuzi, died for the redemption of innocent souls, represented by Inanna. But as Inanna/Ishtar herself was resurrected from death, so too was her savior, Dumuzi the king and perfect man, promised resurrection. « xx
In a forthcoming article, I propose to study the relationship between Inanna and Dumuzi in greater detail by developing this allegory, – elaborated in Sumer over six thousand years ago, this allegory of the fallen soul, wanting to come out of death and seeking resurrection, begging the savior God, Dumuzi, 𒌉𒍣, the God « son of Life (𒌉 from or dumu, ‘son’ and 𒍣 zi, ‘life’ or ‘spirit’) to sacrifice himself for her. ..
iiInanna and Enki. Segment A 1-10, http://etcsl.orinst.ox.ac.uk/cgi-bin/etcsl.cgi?text=t.1.3.1#
iv Inanna and Enki. Segment B 1-5, http://etcsl.orinst.ox.ac.uk/cgi-bin/etcsl.cgi?text=t.1.3.1#
vInanna and Enki. Segment C 27-30, http://etcsl.orinst.ox.ac.uk/cgi-bin/etcsl.cgi?text=t.1.3.1#
viInanna and Enki. Segment D 1-27, http://etcsl.orinst.ox.ac.uk/cgi-bin/etcsl.cgi?text=t.1.3.1#
vii Inanna and Enki. Segment E 5-9, http://etcsl.orinst.ox.ac.uk/cgi-bin/etcsl.cgi?text=t.1.3.1#
viii Kramer, Samuel N. The Sumerians: Their History, Culture, and Character. University of Chicago, 1963, p. 153
ixThorkild Jacobsen. The Treasures of Darkness: A History of Mesopotamian Religion, 1976, p.141 , quoted by F. Vandendorpe, Inanna : analyse de l’efficacité symbolique du mythe, Univ. de Louvain 2010.
xSylvia Brinton Perera, Retour vers la déesse, Ed.Séveyrat, 1990, p. 30, quoted by F. Vandendorpe, Inanna: analysis of the symbolic effectiveness of the myth. Univ. of Leuven 2010
xiFrymer-Kensky,Tikva. In the Wake of the Goddesses: Women, Culture and the Biblical Transformation of Pagan Myth. NY, Free Press, 1992, p.25
xiiFrymer-Kensky,Tikva. In the Wake of the Goddesses: Women, Culture and the Biblical Transformation of Pagan Myth. NY, Free Press, 1992, p.29
xiii Johanna Stuckey, Inanna, Goddess of Infinite Variety, Samhain, 2004, Vol 4-1
xivNote that this star of Inanna is sometimes represented with only six branches, thus prefiguring, by more than two millennia, the Jewish symbol, the ‘Magen David’ or ‘Star of David’, which imposed itself late as a symbol of the Zionist movement at the end of the 19th century of our era.
xvHymn of Ammi-ditana from Babylon to Ishtar, My translation in English from the French translation by J. Bottéro, The oldest religion in the world, in Mesopotamia, Paris, 1998, p.282-285.
xviThe Mesopotamian netherworld had several Sumerian names: Kur, Irkalla, Kukku, Arali, Kigal and in Akkadian, Erṣetu.
xviiJean Bottéro and Samuel Noah Kramer. When the gods made man: Mesopotamian mythology. Gallimard, 1989, p.276-277
xviiiJean Bottéro and Samuel Noah Kramer. When the gods made man: Mesopotamian mythology. Gallimard, 1989, p. 319-325.
xix Jean Bottéro and Samuel Noah Kramer. When the gods made man: Mesopotamian mythology. Gallimard, 1989, p. 320
xx Pirjo Lapinkivi, The Sumerian Sacred Marriage in the Light of Comparative Evidence, State Archives of Assyria Studies XV, Helsinki, University Press, 2004, p.192. Text quoted by F. Vandendorpe, Inanna: analysis of the symbolic effectiveness of the myth. Univ. of Leuven 2010