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Literature / Inanna's Descent to the Netherworld

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An important piece of Mesopotamian Mythology. One of the oldest written stories in existence, scholars have dated it to as early as the 22nd century BCE. The story is about the goddess Inanna going to visit her sister (and possible alter-ego) Ereshkigal and other gods' attempt to bring her back when she fails to return on time. The tale was later borrowed by the Akkadians, who changed some of the figures' names but otherwise kept everything identical as the Sumerian version.

Tropes in Inanna's Descent to the Netherworld include:

  • Ambiguously Bi: Inanna is married to Dumuzid, but also has the goddess Ninshubur as her consort.
  • Back from the Dead: Inanna. Dumuzid is later allowed to leave the Underworld as per Inanna's request, but only for half a year; the other half, he has to go back.
  • Balancing Death's Books: Inanna is allowed to come back, but needs to find someone to take her place.
  • Clothes Make the Superman: Inanna girds herself with clothes and artifacts before her descent, making her powerful. She passes through seven infernal gates, and at each one, part of her clothing is taken from her. When she reaches the throne room, she is naked and therefore powerless, and she is carried off to be tormented.
  • Faux Action Girl: Inanna has to be rescued by Ninshubur and Enki. However, this may have been a gambit of sorts. She had already sent out word of her demise ahead of time to her most powerful family members, knowing that no one who was in the underworld could break free on their own.
  • Foil: Ereshkigal is a Darker and Edgier version of her younger sister, Inanna. Some scholars believe they were at one point two aspects of the same goddess before becoming separate entities.
  • Gender Flip: In the Akkadian version of the tale, Ninshubur was turned into a male god, Papsukkal, to remove homosexual context from the myth.
  • Hero's Journey: One of the stories Campbell used to argue the existence of the monomyth.
  • I Lied: Inanna clearly was not there for the purpose of Gugalana's funerary rites. She was there to nab Ereshkigal's underworld powers in the same way she grabbed Enki's me.
  • "Just So" Story: Explains why we have winter and summer. Inanna, the fertility goddess, lets everything go dormant when her beloved husband is down in the Underworld, and lets things grow in the summer when he's back and she's happy.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: Inanna loses her husband for half the year because she tried to steal Ereshkigal's husband Gugalana in The Epic of Gilgamesh only for him to get killed by Gilgamesh and Enkidu and tried to steal Ereshkigal's power.
  • MacGuffin: Asu-shu-namir, the asexual creatures that help Inanna be brought back to life.
  • Mirror Character: Inanna and Ereshkigal. This is further supported by the interesting thematic relation of the husbands of both women dying in the story as bookends, as well as the link-up between this story and the story where Gilgamesh kills Inanna's bull of heaven (the exact same bull that is the husband of Ereshkigal).
  • The Mourning After: Inanna's mourning for Dumuzid/Tammuz for six months every year, which explains the cycle of summer/winter. The act eventually became a tradition among some Middle Easterners for quite some time, not just the Sumerians and Akkadians but also later peoples like the Arameans, Canaanites, and Arabs. Notably, it is described in the Book of Ezekiel (c. 6th century BCE) and it was borrowed by the Greeks, whose equivalent of Tammuz was Adonis, the consort of Inanna's counterpart Aphrodite. According to eyewitness accounts, the Mourning for Tammuz survived in Kurdistan until as late as the 18th century CE.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: After Inanna's fury subsides and she realizes the horrible consequences of sicking demons after her husband, she weeps.
  • Nice Guy:
    • Enki, who helps Inanna, despite her earlier stealing his holy me(powers/laws), and the fact she has gone to the underworld nab Ereshkigal's powers in the same way she grabbed Enki's me. Enki in general is the Token Good Teammate Jerkass Gods among gods.
    • Ninshubur, who is very loyal to Inanna, and is one of the only really positive characters in this myth, along with Enki.
  • Oral Tradition: The story was clearly this before it was recorded, as evidenced by the repetition.
  • Our Demons Are Different: When Inanna is escaping from the underworld, Ereshkigal sends demons called galla to pursue her, as she insists that someone from the living world must replace Inanna if she were to leave.
  • Out-of-Clothes Experience: Inanna is stripped of her clothing and jewelry (symbols of her power) to grovel before Ereshkigal.
  • Ow, My Body Part!: Enki tells his servants that when they find Ereshkigal, she will be in pain and moaning things like, "oh, my heart!" and "oh, my liver!" To get on her good side, they are to moan along with her, "oh, your heart!" and "oh, your liver!"
  • Pimped-Out Dress: Inanna wears one during her descent into Irkalla. She's stripped of it partway through by the guards, though, in order to strip her of her power.note 
  • Rescued from the Underworld:
    • Inanna anticipates problems, and instructs her sukkal Ninshubur what to do. Ninshubur and another deity end up going to rescue Inanna.
    • Later, after she comes to regret her decision to send Dumuzid in place of herself, she decrees that he will spend half a year with her in Heaven while his sister Geshtinanna takes his place, while the opposite will be true the other half of the year.
  • Screaming Birth: After having killed Inanna, Ereshkigal is implied to be in a sort of crazed, emptiness-induced state of mental breakdown that resembles a very violent labor.
  • Spin-Off: Takes place just after Gilgamesh and his friend kill Gugalana (The Bull of Heaven) in The Epic of Gilgamesh, but is considered its own separate story. Note that the earliest surviving copy of Descent is older than Epic (the latter is an amalgamation of several stories that are contemporary with Descent, but was compiled during the later Babylonian period).
  • Take Me Instead: When Dumuzid is sent to the Underworld in Inanna's place, his sister, Geshtinanna, begs Inanna to let her go instead. She refuses, but after coming to regret her decision, has Geshtinanna replace Dumuzid in the underworld for half a year.
  • Take Over the World: Inanna's reason for going to Irkalla in the first place? She wants dominion over the heavens, Earth, and the underworld, and everything there. She actually gets it, too, though not in the exact way she wanted it and at some great cost.
  • Villain Protagonist: Inanna assaults her sister in her own home, casually threatens a Zombie Apocalypse, causes biological reproduction to cease altogether in her absence (admittedly, more irresponsibility on her part than outright villainy, as its caused by her being dead or disabled depending on version) and ultimately wants domination over all three realms.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Dumuzid gets one of these for not saliently mourning his wife.
  • Yandere: Inanna has her husband, Tammuz/Dumuzid, dragged off to the Underworld for failing to mourn for her while she was dead (though, this is arguably a case of Values Dissonance, as both the Sumerians and Akkadians considered proper mourning rites to be critical for allowing the dead to rest, lest they turn into demons who would haunt the living and curse them with plagues). Gilgamesh even lists this as one of her defining character traits when refusing her affections, even citing what she did to Tammuz as an example.
    "There was Tammuz, the lover of your youth, for him you decreed wailing, year after year."
  • Zombie Apocalypse: Inanna uses this threat against the gatekeeper if he does not let her in.