Most people are familiar with the story of Demeter and Persephone and how it relates to the changing of seasons. A little less known, though perhaps not in Pagan circles, is the descent of Inanna to the Netherworld. This Sumerian myth was part of an oral tradition, as the repetition of words and phrases in this translated version shows.
Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth, decides to go to the Netherworld, the realm of her sister Eresjkigal (Erec-ki-gala). It is said that one who goes there cannot return, so Inanna takes precautions and takes the seven divine powers. She wears lapis lazuli beads and has twin egg shaped beads and a ‘Come, man, come’ pectoral on her breast. She wears a turban around her head, a wig for her forehead and she covers her body in the pala dress of ladyship. On her finger she carries a golden ring, in her hand she keeps her lapis lazuli measuring rod and measuring line, her eyes are lined with mascara. In addition to these protective garments, she gives instructions to her maidservant Ninshubur (Nincubura): I will go to the underworld. When I do not return, go to Enlil and ask his help. If he is unwilling to give any, lament before Nanna and ask for help. If he is also unwilling to help, go to the house of Enki. He knows about the life-giving plant and the life-giving water. He will restore me to life. Inanna travels to the entrance of the underworld and dismisses Ninshubur, telling her not to forget her instructions.
Inanna bounces on the door to the underworld aggressively, demanding entrance to visit the funeral of her brother in law, assuring doorman Neti that she is alone. Neti goes to his mistress Eresjkigal and tells her how Inanna stands at the gate of the underworld, demanding entrance, all dressed in protective clothing and amulets. Eresjkigal is furious and tells Neti: Let the seven gates to the underworld be bolted and open up each one separately. She will have to remove a part of her garment until she has crouched down and has all her clothes removed. Neti follows his mistress’ instructions and bolts the gates. He then welcomes Inanna in. At the first gate her turban is taken from her. At the second gate the lapis lazuli beads are removed from her neck. At the third gate the twin egg-shaped beads are removed from her breast. When she enters the fourth gate the pectoral is removed from her breast. At the fifth gate, the golden ring is removed from her hand. Upon entering the sixth gate, her lapis lazuli measuring rod and measuring line are removed from her hand. Finally, at the seventh gate, the pala dress is removed from her body. After she has crouched down and her clothes are removed, they are carried away. She then makes her sister Eresjkigal rise from her throne and sits on it herself. The seven judges of the underworld decided against her and look at her – and it was the look of death. Inanna is turned into a corpse and the corpse is hung on a hook.
Three days and nights later, Ninshubur goes to ask Enlil for help, which he angrily refuses. My daughter has the heaven and tried to take the earth. Whoever goes to the underworld and takes the divine powers, must remain there. Nanshubur then goes to Nanna, who gives the same response. Then finally she goes to Enki, who is concerned for Inanna. He creates two creatures from the dirt under his fingernails and gives one the plant of life and the other the water of life. He orders them: Go to the underworld and pretend to comfort Eresjkigal, but don’t accept any food or drink, only ask for the body of Inanna. When Eresjkigal hands it to you, sprinkle the life-giving plant and the life-giving water over her and resurrect Inanna. The creatures go to the underworld and carry out what they were set out to do. Inanna is alive and intends to ascend from the underworld. The judges stop her: If Inanna is to ascend from the underworld, let her provide a substitute for herself.
Inanna goes home, accompanied by creatures of the underworld to take Inanna’s substitute. She refuses to let any other gods take her place or to let her loyal servant Ninshubur take her place. When she comes home, she finds her husband Dumuzi (Dumuzid) on her throne, untouched by her disapparel and death. Inanna is angry and decides that Dumuzi will take her place. She grieves for him, and she cries, as does Dumuzi’s sister. Then Inanna decides for Dumuzi: You for half the year and your sister for half the year. In that way holy Inanna gave Dumuzi as her substitute… And when his half year in the underworld has come, Inanna grieves and the earth grieves with her.