Into the Underworld and Beyond.

by Bruce E.R. Thompson


I have a bone to pick with Joseph Campbell, but I’ll get to that in a minute. What I really want to talk about is visits to the underworld.

The best known story of a journey to the underworld is Dante’s Inferno. It is a 14th Century depiction of a universe in which the moral structure is as important as the geographical structure. The souls of the sinful are condemned, by the category of their sin, to appropriate depths of punishment and suffering. Dante’s guide through the underworld is the Roman poet Virgil. Virgil is assigned this onerous task because his poem, the Aenead, also involved a visit to the underworld. Virgil was, in turn, trying to write an epic in the tradition of Homer. Almost all epic heroes visit the underworld. Virgil must have assumed it was a defining feature of the genre. Beowulf enters a realm beneath a lake in order to slay Grendel’s mother. In the Welsh Mabinogion, King Pwyll inadvertently wanders into the underworld and is then required to trade places (temporarily) with its ruler. Odysseus visits the underworld in order to consult the blind seer Tireseus. Orpheus visits the underworld to ransom his bride, Eurydice, from death. Even the Epic of Gilgamesh has a visit to the underworld, although it is Enkidu, not Gilgamesh, who makes the visit—and he does so only in his dreams as he lies dying. But the earliest known visit to the underworld, and the model for all subsequent visits, is the descent of Inanna, as told in an ancient Sumerian poem—older even than the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Inanna is the Sumerian goddess of love and beauty, associated with the planet Venus. Venus orbits the sun on an inner track, faster than the Earth, but moving in the same direction. The result (if one thinks of the Earth as the stationary center of the Universe) is that Venus seems to disappear below the horizon every 1.6 years. She is then gone from the sky for the better part of a year. The outer planets can always be seen high in the night sky at one season or another. Mercury, the only other inner planet, also disappears behind the sun, but it moves so quickly that it reappears almost before it is missed. Only Venus disappears from the sky for such a long time, apparently on an extended visit to the underworld.

The Sumerian poem does not make clear why Inanna decides to visit the underworld. Perhaps she is curious about death. (Who isn’t?) In any case, she dresses herself in her most glorious clothes and her finest jewelry, all tokens of great power. Before leaving, she gives careful instructions to her handmaiden, Ninshubur (associated with the planet Mercury) to call on the other great gods in case she should not return after a few days. This turns out to be a wise precaution.

As in Dante’s inferno, the underworld is depicted as a series of concentric regions, each deeper than the one before, and each defended by a wall. As Inanna approaches, Ereshkigal, the Queen of the Underworld and ruler of the dead, orders the gates to the seven walls closed and bolted. As Inanna passes each gate she is required to give up one of her tokens of power. She removes, in sequence, her traveling cowl, her necklace, her robes, her eye-liner, her bracelet, her girdle, and finally her scepter of lapis lazuli. When at last she stands before the throne of Ereshkigal she is naked and powerless. Despite this she rather impetuously tries to shoo Ereshkigal away from the throne and sit upon it herself. The judges of the underworld cannot let this stand: they cast a spell of death upon Inanna. Ereshkigal seizes the corpse, impales it upon a meat-hook, and hangs it on the throne room wall. The goddess of life and beauty is dead.

When Inanna does not return, Ninshubur follows her instructions and visits the great gods to solicit help. None will help except Enki, the god of rivers. He is the trickster of the Sumerian pantheon. Like the rivers, he is lazy, always taking the easiest path, but he is also devious, getting his way through unexpected twists and turns. To rescue Inanna he creates two golems, using the grit from under his fingernails. He tells them to slip into the underworld, find Ereshkigal, and flatter her until she promises them a reward. They must then accept no reward except the corpse of Inanna, which they shall restore to life using the magical food and water of life that Enki gives them.

Everything goes according to plan except that, once she is restored to life and able to return to the upper world, it is decreed that Inanna must send someone back in her place. This is where I have a beef with Joseph Campbell, who tells the story of Inanna in his well-known treatise, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. He makes Inanna’s descent into an example of what he calls “the hero’s journey,” an allegorical journey into despair and loss, followed by renewal and redemption. Dante’s journey fits the model exactly—indeed, this allegory is just what Dante had in mind. But the journey of Inanna does not fit. Campbell has distorted and cherry-picked the story to make it fit. He tells only the first half, and then omits the most important part.

Inanna’s return to the upper world is far from triumphant and redemptive. She is followed by the relentless Galla-demons who hound her wherever she goes. They will give her no rest until she appoints her replacement. (In Greek mythology these fiends, associated with madness, are called the Furies.) Inanna travels from place to place, but can find no suitable replacement. At last she returns home to find her husband, Dumuzi, resting comfortably under an apple tree. Angry that he is not mourning her absence, she names him.

The Galla-demons attempt to seize him, but he is transformed into a snake and slithers away. Changing into a deer, he dashes off. He hides in tall grasses. He hides in ditches. Finally he is betrayed by a friend. The demons find him, tear him to pieces, and drag him away.

Dumuzi is the god of grains and crops. Without him the earth is sterile. Even Inanna mourns his loss. In desperation Dumuzi’s sister, Geshtinanna, the goddess of fruits—grapes and pomegranates—agrees to take his place. But Ereshkigal agrees only to a compromise. Dumuzi must spend half of each year in the underworld; Geshtinanna may take his place during the other half. Thus Mesopotamia has two growing seasons: in spring the season of grasses and grains, in fall the season of fruit. Each must die so the other can be reborn.

This story is not an allegory about spiritual journeys. It is about the movement of the heavens, the turning of the seasons, the planting, growing, and harvesting of crops. Anyone who has planted a garden, delighted in the sprouts of new life, mourned in the fall as that life withered and died, and been moved almost to tears by the miracle of food, knows these gods and goddesses. Life sacrifices itself to sustain us. We should, from time to time, listen to the story of that sacrifice so that we can remember not to take the earth for granted.

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