Statuette of a nude woman holding her breasts. Susa, Iran. 2nd half of 2nd millennium BCE. Musée du Louvre, Paris.
- A supposed must read for aspiring screenwriters is Blake Snyder’s 2005 bestseller Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need. In it, Snyder, the son of an Emmy Award winning children’s show producer, claims that movies need proactive heroes. “Everything your hero does,” he writes, “has to spring from his burning desire and his deeply held need to achieve his goal […] Heroes seek, strive, and reach for the stars; they don’t wait for the phone to ring. So if your hero is inactive, tell him to get off the dime!” Snyder uses the “monomyth” or “Hero’s Journey”—a circular narrative structure evidenced in the mid-twentieth century by comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell to repeat throughout history, from the tales of Buddha, Jesus, and Incan myth to The Odyssey, Moby Dick and the works of James Joyce—as his storytelling ideal. The general beats are as follows: a hero is called to adventure; he passes from the known to the unknown, encountering both conflict and aid along his way; a major crisis results in victory, including revelation; the hero, now transformed, returns home. In a Hollywood context, Snyder’s reference to Campbell is not original. George Lucas credited Campbell’s 1949 book on the monomyth, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, as informing his 1977 blockbuster Star Wars. Dozens of sequels, prequels, and spinoffs have followed—not to mention every major Hollywood endeavor that has since sought the same kind of legendary success via the architecture of the “Hero’s Journey.”
The star of arguably the oldest historical record of a Hero’s Journey is an anthropomorphic female deity associated with love, sex, sacred prostitution, beauty, war, power, justice and protection. Hailing from ancient Sumer in the historic region of Mesopotamia (geographically modern Iraq), Inanna was the most important female goddess of her culture. Later identified as the goddess Ishtar, Inanna shares resonances with the Phoenician Astarte, the Greek Aphrodite, and the Roman goddess Venus. Her hymns and legends date to several thousand years Before Christ. The writings on Inanna I am most familiar with come care of folklorist Diane Wolkstein and world-renowned Sumerian expert Samuel Noah Kramer from their 1983 book of translations Inanna Queen of Heaven and Earth: Her Stories and Hymns from Sumer. Recommended to me during a 2015 astrology reading with poet Ariana Reines, the Inanna I got to know in this collection is courageous, ambitious, sensual, and resourceful. As a young daughter, she is eager to claim Godly power from her father. Grown up, she is discerning in marriage courtship, enjoying sexual exchanges with her chosen partner. In the underworld—she is a calculating adventurer and, upon her return, the punisher of a man who betrays her. And while symbolically connected to fecund harvests and womb fertility, she is never herself a mother. Compared with contemporary mythic femininities, this Inanna reads like a rightful femme fatale, more than an Earth goddess and far from a virgin mother.
“Who will plow my vulva?” Inanna asks in her courtship story to the shepherd Dumuzi. “Who will plow my high field? Who will plow my wet ground? Who will station the ox there?” The sexual innuendo of this poetry—and perhaps the fact that in Inanna’s hourglass figure evokes the contemporary feminine ideal epitomized by Kim Kardashian—has led some modern women to read Inanna as a sex positive role model. She gets rolled in with Tantra and Kundalini in certain “goddess worship” circles. “Make your milk sweet and thick, my bridegroom,” the deity suggests: “My shepherd, I will drink your fresh milk / Fill my holy churn with honey cheese / O Dumuzi! Your fullness is my delight.”
Maurizio Cattelan, Stephanie, 2003, wax, pigment, synthetic hair and metal (110 × 65 × 42 cm). Courtesy: Maurizio Cattelan's Archive. Photo: Achim Hatzius.
- My favorite of Inanna’s adventures begins with the young goddess leaning against an apple tree, “rejoicing at her wondrous vulva.” After this call to adventure, she decides to visit her father Enki, a creator God associated with fluids, from water to semen. Upon her arrival, Inanna and Enki drink “more and more beer together” (his idea) until “Enki, swaying with drink,” starts toasting his daughter over and over. With each toast, Enki bestows Inanna with gifts of me, an untranslatable term that means something like, “being, divine properties enabling cosmic activity; office; (cultic) ordinance.” Among the eighty mes Inanna’s father gives her are: truth, descent into the underworld, ascent from the underworld, the art of lovemaking, the kissing of the phallus, the plundering of cities, the art of kindness, travel, the secure dwelling place, fear, procreation, and the art of the hero. Inanna accepts these mes without hesitation or performative humility, even adding a few more of her own: the placing of the garment on the ground, allure, the art of women, and the perfect execution of the mes. In their totality, the mes Inanna leaves her father’s place with account for the vastness of life on Earth, addressing both material (the kindling of fire, the putting out of fire) and immaterial (the making of decisions, the power of attention) needs, as well as pleasures (the art of song). In the long list of mes, seeming opposites are often juxtaposed, such as in the art of speech, which comes in three varieties: forthright, slanderous, and adorning. Or this trifold: the kindling of strife, counseling, and heart-soothing. The mes provide more than divine properties: they bestow agency, free will and protection against dependency. When Enki sobers up and learns his mes are missing, he sends a servant to retrieve them.
“My father has changed his word to me!” Inanna cries when asked to release the mes back to Enki. “He has violated his pledge—broken his promise! Deceitfully my father spoke to me!” A battle between the forces of Inanna and those of Enki follows. She wins, and landing the mes back home in Sumer, her father concedes: “Let the citizens of your city prosper.”
The star of arguably the oldest historical record of a Hero’s Journey is an anthropomorphic female deity associated with love, sex, sacred prostitution, beauty, war, power, justice, and protection. Hailing from ancient Sumer in the historic region of Mesopotamia (geographically modern Iraq), Inanna was the most important female goddess of her culture. Later identified as the goddess Ishtar, Inanna shares resonances with the Phoenician Astarte, the Greek Aphrodite, and the Roman goddess Venus.
- My present-day North American consciousness wants to read this ancient story as an allegory for a femme’s attempt to “have it all.” Raised as a middle-class millennial in Canada, “having it all” was the carrot on a long string-along of cultural messaging that promised freedom and autonomy to privileged girls through images of cigarette smoking, birth control, leather pants to pant suits, breast pumps, and higher education. Growing up, we discovered wage gaps, racism, sexual abuse, and misogyny in the workplace; under-studied mental health side effects of synthetic hormones like the pill; pushing ourselves too hard; and that normative standards of “prosperity” often come by way of exploiting the self, others, and Earth. While Inanna’s furious perseverance after realising the flimsiness of her father’s word is relatable—and her win cathartic as a revenge fantasy—it is the list of mes I return to, to remind myself what all really is. Not a career, a family, and a personal identity quenched by clothes and other consumables, all in the mes is power, agency, the right to pleasure, all affording protection from the volatility of patriarchal norms and augmenting the capacity to create and destroy, to experience every facet of life, including risky acts of free will.
That was an anachronistic projection, and I apologize to the rigorous scholars of the ancient world. In researching Inanna, I spoke with two: Shana Zaia, an Assyriologist at the Department of Near Eastern Studies at the University of Vienna, and Mallory Ann Ditchey, who studied with Zaia in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Yale University. I wanted to know how Inanna (and the story of her mes) might have been conceived of and related to in her day, to contrast with the goddess’s recent appropriations as a feminist and sex positive icon. I also wanted to know why Inanna wasn’t more widely known, compared with other ancient deities.
An ancient relief with a depiction of Inanna’s Knot—a Mesopotamian symbol of fertility and protection.
- One of the answers can be traced, as Ditchey suggested, to the common misconception of the Greeks and Romans as the inventors of civilization; something visible in white supremacists’ use of ancient Greco-Roman (as well as Viking) tropes. In fact, ancient Sumer was home to highly advanced civilizations with art, agriculture, mathematics, and money. Yet what we know of this Middle Eastern history has mostly come from Western studies. The largest holdings of ancient Mesopotamian materials are in France, Germany, the U.K. and the United States, after nineteenth century (post-colonial) excavations. Assyriology as a field was founded in the late 19th century, Zaia told me, because of the Bible: with early ark and flood stories in this ancient culture’s writings, there was interest in studying them as factual evidence of the Bible’s figures and events. Although Sumerian is the first language for which we have written record, its literature the earliest known, much of it remains untranslated. Few are trained in the task and the field is under-funded. Of all figures from ancient Mesopotamia, Inanna aka Ishtar is by far the most famous.
In the best known of Inanna’s legends she descends to the underworld, is hung up to die, and is resurrected by bread and water. Dating from c. 2112 BC–2004 BC, Inanna's Descent is a quintessential Hero’s Journey. Leaving her home and throne, a post-mes abundant Inanna ventures to the underworld to visit her sister Ereshkigal, whose husband has just died. Ereshkigal, Queen of the Dead, is a harsh host. She has her sister stripped of the seven mes she traveled with then killed and hung up on a hook like meat. Recognizing the danger of her endeavor, Inanna had, in preparing to descend, instructed her servant to bid Inanna’s multiple God fathers for help should Inanna not return. God Enki comes through and Inanna is resurrected thanks to a sprinkle of food and water. But since “No one ascends from the underworld unmarked,” in order to return to life, Inanna must provide someone to take her place in death. The person she selects in the end is her husband Dumuzi, who had taken her place on the throne, decorated with mes, since she’d been gone.
Inanna’s Descent has been taken as an allegory for the moon cycle, menopause, and from one scholar, “extreme PMS”— irrational, vengeful femininity because of what she does to Dumuzi. The most practical interpretations I’ve heard are that Inanna’s descent represents the transit of the planet Venus (including its backwards seeming retrogrades) or the agricultural cycles of ancient Sumer, which went through long arid periods. The most fascinating aspect of the story to me is how Ereshkigal is convinced to release her sister’s corpse: God Enki sends two mystical creatures to the underworld with instructions to echo Ereshkigal’s laments. When she complains of pain, they moan back, recognising her pain. For this, Ereshkigal offers them a choice of any gift. They pick Inanna’s corpse and then revive her. Salvation, in the end, comes through compassion, the art of listening.
“Inanna slash Ishtar is a goddess with four thousand plus years of historical record,” Zaia remarked. “With many manifestations, she is a Goddess of contradictions. It’s hard to typify her. That’s part of the appeal.” Zaia specializes in Neo-Assyrian state texts, written in the Semitic language Akkadian, wherein Ishtar (as she is known in this language) is “basically just a goddess of combat, a figure of imperial propaganda, marching at the side of the king.” What I have sourced from so far is but one set of Sumerian stories published in English in 1983.
Translation is challenging. As Ditchey, who specializes in the Sumerian language, explained to me: “Sumerian is drastically different than the way we understand modern languages. There isn’t a proper system of plurals: you have a singular and a totality. There are only two tenses, present future and a simple past; completed or incomplete action. There is no masculine and feminine in pronouns, but there is an inanimate and animate, and there’s a women’s and a men’s dialect—there were men who dressed as women who spoke in the women’s dialect.” Because of these differences and the very niche nature of the subject, our access to Inanna comes by necessity through translations filled with contemporary projections and artistic liberty. This adds to the difficulty of understanding how Inanna may have been related to in her time.
We know that the cultures of ancient Mesopotamia were patriarchal. While certain women had some power—there were literate women and women who could own property—these societies were led by kings and run by government officials, priests and scholars who were all men. Within their polytheistic religion, there were multiple male and female Godheads. It is unlikely, both Zaia and Ditchey agreed, that Sumerian women would have looked to Inanna as a role model.
To model oneself after heroes, even Gods, who share our physical attributes, may be a contemporary Western phenomenon. Pop culture now is filled with the promise that if everyone can see themselves represented on the page or screen, real social justice and structural equality may trickle down. “It has always been the prime function of mythology and rite to supply the symbols that carry the human spirit forward, in counteraction to those constant human fantasies that tend to tie it back,” wrote Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. The majority of heroes Campbell studied were men, as have been the majority of heroes Hollywood has produced (cis, straight, white too).
Inanna is not only the first journeying hero in documented history, she is a complex deity from a polytheistic theology who experienced multiple different genre-crossing journeys—appearing in politics and poetry; romance, coming of age, family drama, and war stories that we are still discovering. Anachronistic or not, a female deity charged with such independence, intelligence, power, and shame-free sexuality as Inanna serves as a welcome alternative to any-gendered archetypes we have access to now. As Inanna’s star rises, I’m curious to witness what those channelling her force—learning from her paradoxes, her mistakes, desire and courage—might accomplish.