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In the short story Descent of the Goddess Ishtar into the Lower World, Ishtar travels to the underworld, and then returns.

To the land of no return, the land of darkness,
Ishtar, the daughter of Sin directed her thought,

...

Ishtar on arriving at the gate of the land of no return,
To the gatekeeper thus addressed herself:

Unfortunately, I don't understand why she would do that. Can anyone explain?

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The Descent of Inanna (Ishtar) was unearthed from 1889 - 1900, but as far as I can tell, it wasn't really considered that well reconstructed until around the 1940s or later. Early published versions were based on less complete information, and had to make assumptions that turned out incorrect, especially with regards to Dumuzi's (Tammuz) role in the story (See: Kramer's explanation of the decipherment in this print version, and also "Tammuz and the Bible").


I will be using Wolkstein and Kramer's translation of the text, published in 1983. Both because it's excellent and well-explained, and because it's the one sitting on my desk. Full text here.

So, we could take Inanna (Ishtar) at her word. Her overt reason is given:

Inanna answered:
"Because . . . of my older sister, Ereshkigal,
Her husband, Gugulanna, the Bull of Heaven, has died.
I have come to witness the funeral rites.
Let the beer of his funeral rites be poured into the cup.
Let it be done.

That, however, is just the excuse she gives at the gate. It doesn't seem likely this is her real reason for the trip. More likely the real reason is shown here:

From the Great Above she opened her ear to the Great Below.
From the Great Above the goddess opened her ear to the Great Below.
From the Great Above Inanna opened her ear to the Great Below.

Which gives us the hint that she has heard the Great Below, the underworld, in some way. Wolkstein's explanations, however, give us more to go on:

Inanna is the Queen of Heaven and Earth, but she does not know the underworld. Until her ear opens to the Great Below, her understanding is necessarily limited. In Sumerian, the word for ear and wisdom is the same ... In order to fully appreciate or "know" what is said or meant, a great understanding is needed - an understanding of all things. It is the Great Below, and knowledge of death and rebirth, life and stasis, that will make Inanna an "Honored Counselor" and a guide to the land.

So Inanna, already powerful and knowledgeable of Heaven and Earth, needs to acquire knowledge of death and the underworld to be complete in her wisdom. This is further supported later, from the statement of Enlil, when hearing that Inanna has not returned from the underworld:

"My daughter craved the Great Above.
Inanna craved the Great Below.
She who receives the me of the underworld does not return.
She who goes to the Dark City stays there."

Here Enlil (and later, Nanna, in an identical statement) states that Inanna has gone seeking the me of the underworld. me is a tricky word that most translators refuse to translate, and too much can be said about it to address completely here. Suffice to say, the me represent knowledge and wisdom. So, the gods know that she has gone seeking that knowledge that can only be gained in the underworld.


To go just one more step, a very popular interpretation of the text is through a Jungian lens. Just to hit the main points very briefly.

The goal of gaining wisdom of the underworld, to complement the wisdom of the heavens and of the earth, speaks of Inanna becoming complete, but this interpretation views it, instead of her completing her body of knowledge, she is completing herself, developing into a whole person (goddess).

In this light, we see Inanna and her sister Ereshkigal as part of the same whole person. In order to become complete, Inanna must become vulnerable, and face the dark side of herself (Ereshkigal), die and be reborn.

Inanna abandons her temples on the way to the underworld, and has to leave her crown, robe and other vestments (also me. Like I said, complicated) at the gates of the underworld. She arrives naked, powerless and vulnerable. The death and rebirth are fairly clear to be read, but of particular interest is that after Inanna's death, and preparing for rebirth, Ereshkigal is in pain "With the cries of a woman about to give birth." Which does rather speak to the interpretation of being reborn from her darker half.

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Ishtar was the goddess of fertility. She was married to Tammuz and when he died Ishtar was still young. She fell then in love with Gilgamesh (when he was king) but it seems he was not interested in her.

After being rejected by Gilgamesh, Ishtar became depressed and decided she would descend into the Underworld to be with Tammuz

source: Ishtar’s journey into the Underworld

So she goes there due to her sorrow, in order to rejoin with her former husband and lover.

There she goes trough the seven gates that lead to the underworld. As she passes each door she loses her jewels, clothing, etc. The Ruler of the underworld has her striped of her powers and memories (and all memories of her past existence, of her great love Tammuz, disappeared too). Then the other gods must "rescue" her from the underworld to bring back fertility on earth.

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    Not sure what to make of this translation. As I understand the myth, Tammuz is alive in the beginning of it, and is later dragged back to the underworld in Ishtar's place. I'm curious to know if there is more to this version than just poetic license though. – femtoRgon May 16 '15 at 3:19
  • I think I do know what to make of this now, actually. There certainly is more to it than poetic license. Seems to be a kinda quirky retelling of the 1915 translation by Jastrow (linked in the question). I've added a note about the change in our understanding of Dumuzi's role in the story to my answer. – femtoRgon Jun 12 '15 at 21:22
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According to the myth, she "opened her ear to the underworld", and, after prudently arranging for help if it goes wrong, she goes to the doors of the underworld and demands entrance. The other myths about her tell us how she got her power and dominions, in this myth she goes to the one place where she has no power, and survives, just. It seems to be a model of heroic initiation, like Odin hanging on the World Tree.

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    Can I encourage you to cite sources in your answer (other than wikipedia)? – user62 May 16 '15 at 1:55
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    I used the translations in the Penguin Myths from Mespotamia (trans. Stephanie Dalley), and also Inanna:Queen of Heaven and Earth by Diane Wokstein and Samuel Noah Kramer. The latter is very Jungian, and sees Inanna/Ishtar's descent as an initation myth, as I do. – solsdottir May 17 '15 at 15:30
  • Your answer would be much better if you edited it to make it clear which source was the source of of which claim (i.e. It seems to be a model of heroic initiation. As said in [book x], [quote from book x].) Also, welcome to the site: I think it's great that you're reading those detailed analyses of myths, and I hope you continue to contribute (while properly citing sources). – user62 May 17 '15 at 16:42
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An answer can be found by connecting similar mythologies of relating archetypes. If you look at Sophia's journey to the underworld you see it's to collect the shattered fragments of herself and reclaim her power, this is reminiscent of inanna's journey, where she is made to strip as she decends the layers of the underworld and thus removing her ties to materialism and the worldly life. This is know as the dark night of the soul and is represented on the macro in the Venus transits, the path of the evening through to the morning star. It's also the path of the redeemer. I find research of multiple cultures helps fill the blanks of one and create a clearer idea of the whole.

  • Then we come to the path of the redeemer, the Christ who in gnostic texts is quoted as saying I didn't come to save you all but I came to save the one who came to save all. This is where we see the 'gods' intervene and send another (not like them) to help inanna/Sophia raise out of the underworld. here we can find similar connections to the resurrection story for loose correlation. This only makes sense when you read between the lines of multiple sources and verious mythology. – Light Raigne May 16 '17 at 19:13
  • As one of the early comments alludes to this was a journey inanna had to undertake to know all of herself, the darkness is just as important as the light and only through experiencing it and being at ease with it can you truly know it. The need for this goes all the way back to her fall from the pleroma. See Rudolph Steiner's research on Sophia to understand inanna's story. – Light Raigne May 16 '17 at 19:19

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