Inanna and the Creative DescentShare
The goddess Inanna's journey to the underworld can provide key insights into the creative process, and how to make art more meaningful.
I'm delighted to be joining the columnists of The Creativity Post. I'll be writing on topics relating to mythology and it's implications in creative work. In this first post, I'll be discussing the Mesopotamian myth of the goddess Inanna and her journey to the underworld.
In his seminal text The Hero with a Thousand Faces, mythologist Joseph Campbell outlines the steps of the hero's journey, essentially, separation from the community, initiation, and return with a boon. This cyclical nature of myth is also known as the monomyth. This pattern can be identified as a part of the creative process, in which we make a descent into ourselves to access the place where our work is inspired, that deep place feeds our work, and we return with the gift from the deep places that enriches our work. Inanna's story holds wisdom within it about this process, and why the process of the journey to the deepest part of ourselves is painful, but crucial to creative work.
One of the primary issues that artists struggle with is, and should be, how to reach their audience in a meaningful way; how to be the book, or film, or performance that resonates, that touches the soul. It is the power of art to do this that sets the human race apart, and it is, in my opinion, the primary function of art. Carl Jung tells us that when the gods came down out of Mount Olympus, they moved into the body, at the level of the gut, the level of the third chakra. This is that place in the body that art that connects can be felt, that physiological reaction that the body has when art connects with soul. We've all had that experience of seeing a great film, a great performance, reading a great book where we feel the experience of it in our body, at that precise place that Jung describes.
So, the question is, how can an artist, in the process of creating her art, connect with that place? I believe the answer lies in the very descent that is described in the hero's journey. The hero makes a descent into the underworld, and returns with a boon that he brings back to his community. The artist makes that descent into the pool of the collective unconscious, that place where stories live, and returns with a boon as well. It is that descent that sets his work apart, his willingness to make the descent is the key, the thing that separates the great artist apart from those whose work is easily set aside and forgotten. How does this work? I believe this can be illuminated in the story of Inanna.
Inanna is a goddess of ancient Mesopotamia, and her stories are some of the earliest extant myths that we have. She is related to the goddesses Ishtar, Isis and Aphrodite, being the goddess of sex but not marriage. She is also known as “Queen of Heaven and Earth”.
Inanna learns that her sister, Ereshkigal (queen of the underworld), is mourning the death of her husband, Gud-gal-ana. He was the bull killed by Gilgamesh and Enkidu in “The Epic of Gilgamesh”. Before her journey to the underworld, she outfits herself in all her jewels and raiment, seven pieces including crown, jewels, scepter and robes. She begins to descend into the underworld, only to be stopped at 7 gates during the journey. At each gate, she is required to give up another symbol of her status, from her crown and scepter to, at the last gate, her robes. She arrives at Ereshkigal's domain stripped of everything that she was, completely naked. Once she appears before her sister, Ereshkegal kills her, and hangs her body on a meat hook in a corner of her throne room.
However, before she left the upper world, Inanna suspected something might happen, and she sent a message to her grandfather, the king of the gods, that if she did not return in three days, that something has happened. When she does not return, Enki creates two sexless creatures from the dirt underneath his fingernails, who descend to the underworld in search of Inanna. Arriving at Ereshkigal's throne room, they find her in the throes of labor. She says "oh, my back!" They say "oh, your back!" They show compassion for her pain, and she is moved by this. She offers them anything they desire, and they say "we want the corpse hanging from the meat hook in the corner". Ereshkigal is not pleased with being tricked out of her sister's corpse, but she honors her promise and gives them the body.
They sprinkle the food of life and the water of life on Inanna's body, and are able to revive her. She ascends to the upper world, regaining all the regalia of her position at each gate on her return.
This is a very abbreviated version of the story. Please refer to Diane Wolkstein and Samuel Noah Kramer's translation of the myth for more information.
So, why is this story relevant to the creative life, the creative journey? How can the creative artist gain inspiration from this story? There are many stories in myth about descents into the underworld, but the thing that I find interesting about Inanna's story is her death, and being hung on a hook.
“Inanna was turned into a corpse,
A piece of rotting meat,
And was hung from a hook on the wall.” (Wolkstein and Kramer, page 60)
The translation is very specific on this point. So, what is a meat hook used for? Well, in a slaughterhouse, the carcass of the animal is hung on a meat hook to drain the fluids out. Not only was Inanna divested of all of her regalia on her descent, even as far as her clothing, but she gives even more to the underworld on her journey. It is my belief that, in order to return with the boon of authentic work, the artist must leave something of herself behind. She must be willing to make that sacrifice. The journey is a dangerous one, and if we look at the lives of our great artists throughout history, it is full of drug and alcohol addiction, insanity, and suicide. If you give too much, and are given much in return, the price to pay is large. The trick is in finding the balance on the descent, the path is a razor's edge.