A Tale of Two Sisters (Who Torture Each Other)

In looking for stories about sisters this week, I remembered the Sumerian myth of Inanna’s Descent – though when I read the poem here this time, new things stood out for me, different nuances in the already complex relationship between siblings …

In the myth, Inanna, the goddess of love, beauty, and war, decides to visit her sister Ereshkigal in the Underworld, despite the rule that no one is meant to go there and return. Similarly, Ereshkigal, Queen of the Dead, is never allowed to travel to the Upperworld. Each sister has her own realm and has to stay in her own allotted place.

Then here comes Inanna, who puts on her best outfit, including her lapis lazuli jewelry, her nicest wig and dress, and her come-hither mascara, and goes knocking aggressively at the gates of the Underworld asking to be let in. Ereshkigal bars the seven doors and sends her gatekeeper to inform Inanna that she must remove an article of her finery as she crosses each threshold. The Upperworld goddess complies until finally she arrives naked in front of her sister. She then has to sit on Ereshkigal’s throne, where she is shouted at and condemned by the seven judges of the Underworld; after that she is turned into a corpse and left to hang on a hook for three days and three nights.

But of course, Inanna isn’t stupid – she had a back-up plan in case something like this happened. She told her minister Ninsubar beforehand that if she didn’t return, to importune the gods Enlil, Nanna, and Enki for help. While Inanna is still in the Underworld, Ninsubar goes to each of them; their response is along the lines of “No one can help her now. Inanna knew the rules – what did she expect?” Only Enki agrees to come to her aid. He creates two beings from the dirt beneath his fingernails and instructs them on how to negotiate with Ereshkigal so they can revive Inanna and bring her home.

The plan works – sort of. Ereshkigal gives audience to these new guests and agrees to let them take the resurrected Inanna on the condition that they provide a replacement. When Inanna ascends to the Upperworld, her devoted minister and her royal beautician each offer themselves to take her place, but Inanna sees how they have already suffered in their mourning for her and does not want to punish them. Instead, she sends her husband Dumuzi (who she seems mad at anyway, possibly for enjoying himself during her absence) down to the Underworld.

Here is what I’m left wondering:

Why did Inanna go down to the Underworld in the first place? The ostensible reason she gives at the gate is that she is there for the funeral libations of her sister’s husband, but this is never mentioned again. I can see why Ereshkigal would be skeptical. I imagine her saying something like “Did you just come down here to show off your beauty and torture me with all these fancy Upperworld things that I can never have? Do you even know where you are right now? This is my house. You can leave all that at the door.”

Why does Inanna have to sit on her sister’s throne and be judged? My guess is that this is the only way for her to step into Ereshkigal’s proverbial shoes and experience what it feels like to be her – to be the one who is cast out and relegated to a world of darkness she can never leave. This is the only way she can truly understand her sister.

Why does Ereshkigal agree to let Inanna go? I think part of it has to do with the creatures Enki sent down there and the advice he gave them on how to talk and listen. While Ereshkigal probably enjoys her authority and owns her role, I imagine it’s not easy being Queen of the Dead. In fact, Enki remarks on how haggard she looks with her nails like pickaxes and hair bunched up like leeks, and that she is in constant agony like a woman giving birth. When the new guests arrive, they tell her that they see how troubled she is in heart and body. I bet Ereshkigal would just like to be recognized and have her suffering acknowledged every once in a while.

In the end, I feel like I can’t blame either sister for acting the way they did. I can’t blame Inanna for wanting to go the one place she is forbidden – who doesn’t? The Upperworld gods say of her she craved the great heaven and she craved the powers below as well. Yet just as I can empathize with Inanna for thirsting to expand her world, I also empathize with Ereshkigal for wanting to teach her a lesson: “You can’t just waltz in here like you own the place and act like the rules don’t apply to you.”

There are many interpretations of this myth and they are likely all true insofar as someone believes them. To me, this story speaks to the necessary price that comes with ignoring or invading another person’s boundaries. This is why Inanna must make a sacrifice, first of herself and then of her husband. But what makes me sad is that neither of the sisters chose those boundaries; these were the realms that were predetermined for them. And while they may have previously had a distant mutual respect for each other as queens of their own lands, maybe this was the only way that they could ever meet in person. Should we give credit to Inanna for being the one who was brave (or proud and foolhardy) enough to cross the threshold and visit her sister’s forbidden house? Perhaps for both of them it was worth the price.

Finally, I wonder about the exchange that is made at the end. Maybe this was best way for the sisters to maintain a connection with each other, through sharing Dumuzi. Maybe it can bring them closer. Or at least I hope Ereshkigal can enjoy herself with him and relieve some of her pain. After all, the last line of the poem is in her praise.

This piece is dedicated to sisters everywhere and especially to my sister on her 26th birthday – may we continue to share a happier and more satisfying relationship than this!

Hannah Custis is a teacher, writer, and Ph.D. student at the California Institute of Integral Studies. She is also the Blog Coordinator for the Immanence Journal editorial team.

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