Inanna (or Inana) was the paramount goddess of the Sumerian pantheon. Even though she was never considered the “mother goddess” technically, she headed a long line of historical female deities concerned with fertility of the natural world.
Inanna, also a warrior goddess, was the daughter of the moon god Nana, and sister of Utu and Iskur. In alternative tradition she is the daughter of An. Her attendant is the minor goddess Ninsubur, and her champion is the mythical hero Gilgames.
The vegetation god Dumuzi (see Tammaz) is the most significant of her many consorts. Inanna becomes the handmaiden of An, the god of heaven. She is also identified as the younger sister of the underworld goddess Ereskigal. She is the tutelary deity of the southern Mesopotamian city of Unug (Uruk), where her sanctuary is the Eanna temple.
Usually Inanna is depicted wearing a horned headdress and tiered shirt, with wings and with weapon cases at her shoulders.
Her earliest symbol is a bundle of reeds tied in three places and with streamers. Later, in the Sargonic period, her symbol changes to a star or rose. She may be associated with a lion, or lion cub, and often depicted as standing atop a mountain.
Also, she is embodied in the sacred tree of Mesopotamia, which evolved into a stylized totem made of wood and decorated with precious stones and bands of metal.
Originally Inanna may have been the goddess of the date palm, as Dumuzi was the god of the date harvest. Gradually her role extended to wool, meat, and grain, and ultimately to the whole of the natural world.
Also she was perceived as a rain goddess, and as the goddess of the morning and evening stars. Therefore, she was worshipped in the morning with offerings, and in the evening she became the patroness of temple prostitutes when the evening star was a sign of male offerings to the goddess.
In less prominent roles she is goddess of lightening and extinguishing fires, of tears and rejoicing, of enmity and fair dealing and many others, usually conflicting principles.
According to another legend, Enki who lives in a watery abyss or Abzu beneath the city of Eridu, was persuaded when drunk, and through Inanna’s subterfuge, to endow her with more that one hundred divine degrees, which she took back to Urin in her reed boat and which formed the Sumerian cultural constitution.
Inanna is one of three deities involved in the primordial battle of good and evil, the latter personified by the dragon Kur. She is further engaged in an annual conflict, also involving her consort Dumuzi, with Ereskigal.
She descends into “the land without return,” kur-mu-gi-a, situated beneath the sweet waters of the earth, which is a dark realm, a dry, dusty place, belonging to her sister Ereskigal, the mistress of death, who asserts authority there. Before her descent, Inanna dresses in all her finery and leaves orders with Ninshubur, her attendant, to rescue her.
After she enters kur-mu-gi-a, Inanna is stopped of its seven portals and is obliged to take off a garment or ornament until she finally stands naked before Ereskigal and the seven judges of the dead, the Anunnaki. At their cruel command, the defenseless goddess was turned into a corpse that hung on a stake.
After three days and nights had passed Ninshubur became worried about her mistress and sought help of the gods who said that nothing could be done against the decrees of the neither world. But persistently the attendant appealed to Enki, the god of wisdom, who created two sexless beings, Kur-gar-ra and Gala-tur-ra, for whom admission to the land of infertility and death could not be refused.
They obtained access to Inanna’s corpse and resurrected it with the “food of life” and the “water of life.” But unfortunately the resurrected goddess could not escape the ghastly escort of demons, which accompanied her on her wonderings from city to city.
They refused to leave her unless a substitute was found. Thus she returned home to Urug where she finds her consort Dumuzi, the king of nearby Kullab, at a feast. Outraged, she selects him for kur-mu-gi-a, and in spite of two incredible escapes from the eager demons, they take him.
This descent myth reveals two aspects of the mother goddess: Inanna and Ereskigal, the two sisters, light and darkness respectively, represent the antithetical, paradoxical nature of divinity. Although, unfortunately, only a portion of this five-thousand-year-old story remains, it was certainly very near to the origin of the symbols fundamental to thought in West Asia.
Dumuzi does not seem to have a significant role in the myth; perhaps he just makes the goddess seem more human. A.G.H.
Cotterell, Arthur, A Dictionary of World Mythology, New York, G. P. Putman’s Sons, 1980, pp. 35-36
Jordan, Michael, Encyclopedia of Gods, New York, Facts On File, Inc. 1993, pp. 114-115