The Underworld of Inanna and Ereshkigal
Posted on June 14, 2019
Her name literally means “Queen of the Great Earth.” Maybe you’ve come across her before as Allat or Irkalla, the latter of which is the literal name for the Underworld.
Ereshkigal is the dark sister of much more popular goddess Inanna. While Inanna is associated with the planet Venus and rules over love, sex, beauty, art, and joy, Ereshkigal rules the dead in the underworld and all that lies in shadow. She is passionately in love and married to Nergal, the god of war, plague, and pestilence. Together, they had three children.
In contemporary comparative mythology, Ereshkigal is considered to have equivalency with the Goddess Hecate of the Greek pantheon. Though they are both goddesses of darkness, the underworld, and — of course — magic, the similarities stop there. Hecate had an active role in mythology, was an unwed crone, and traveled to and from the underworld at will. Ereshkigal was, like many ancient deities of Mesopotamia, more mysterious.
Personally, I fall into a school of thought which paints Ereshkigal as a goddess similar to Persephone. In a theoretical perspective, too, Ereshkigal and Inanna could be seen as two halves of the same woman — just as Persephone is split between the upper and lower worlds with Demeter or Hades.
Many versions of Ereshkigal’s myths survive, but I want to focus on one particular myth that opened me up to shadow work for the first time. I came across the story and devoured it again and again. Gradually, it helped me understand the duality inherent in womanhood, the importance of death to life, and how to accept and utilize the dark feminine.
Fear of the Dark Feminine
The myth in question is actually Inanna’s Descent into the Underworld. While Inanna initially seems to be the protagonist — she’s venturing to the Underworld to attend the funeral of Nergal, Ereshkigal’s husband — it becomes clear that she is more of a student in the domain of her sister.
Though Inanna is aware of the dangers in entering the great below, her heart aches to mourn with her sister; indeed, Ereshkigal is a dangerous woman, but Inanna’s love for her sets her on the quest anyway. Inanna takes a few precautions by alerting her confidants of her journey and asks them to fetch her from the underworld if her sister does not allow her to return.
From our modern perspective, the tale can seem strange. Why fear your own sister? But, as anyone walking the path of women’s spirituality has probably learned, there is a lot to fear about ourselves and our nature.
Within us are traumas, sins, dark desires, and ugly inclinations. Shadow work itself is dedicated to unearthing the roots of what poisons us from the inside. For Inanna to take precautions in visiting her dark sister is not unlike someone beside you when in a lucid dream, drunkenness, or delirium from migraine pain. If anything goes wrong or is too intense, someone is there to comfort and soothe the spirit.
The Seven Bolted Gates
In Ereshkigal’s Underworld, there are seven gates which lead to her throne room or palace. When Ereshkigal learns of Inanna’s arrival at the first of the seven gates, she orders them sealed and bolted. For Inanna to reach her, Ereshkigal demands that her sister Inanna unlock the gates through a series of sacrifices.
Essentially, Ereshkigal has closed her domain off from the goddess of love. Yet, she’s given her a choice to enter through sacrifice. These are a series of choices Inanna must make at each gate.
The symbolism of the sacrifice comes in the form of clothing. Inanna must remove an article of clothing at each of the bolted gates to unlock it, but this is decidedly exoteric. Ereshkigal’s seven gates interestingly correspond quite well to the chakra system and, although these two spiritual beliefs are of different cultures, I think placing them side by side can help us analyze the myth in a holistic way so we may analyze ourselves.
For Inanna to pass through her sister’s gates, she sacrifices pieces of herself. I like to think of each gate as the process of chakra and its symbol shutting down; as Inanna descended to the underworld, she is slowly dying. If we begin life from the root chakra upward, it makes sense that as we return to the underworld we would descend from the crown.
And so, at the first gate, the Gate of Authority, Inanna is asked to remove her royal crown. We can understand this as both spiritually and literally symbolic: she is entering the domain of Ereshkigal’s kingdom, and her authority has no place there.
The second gate is the Gate of Perception, corresponding to the brow chakra. Inanna loses her staff, a symbol of wisdom; Ereshkigal’s staff, a snake, is the source of perception in shadow.
The third gate corresponds to the throat chakra. I’ve written before about how the Dark Goddess is particularly potent with the throat chakra. In this legend, at the Gate of Communication Inanna loses her necklace. It is not until the fourth gate, the Gate of Compassion (corresponding to the heart chakra) that Inanna begins to become truly exposed and naked in removing her breastplate.
Further descending into the underworld, Inanna crosses the fifth Gate of Personal Power and removes her ring of power. While the idea of enhanced objects is nothing new, I particularly like the symbolism here. The solar plexus chakra associated with the fifth gate is a swirl of golden light. For her to lose her ring of power, which I would assume to be gold based on both the era and culture, begins to truly give the visual of her chakra system’s lights going out. Inanna is slowly evaporating at the gates of her sister’s kingdom of the below.
The sixth and seventh gates, the Gate of Creativity and the Gate of Manifestation, correspond to the sacral chakra or womb space and the root chakra from which our survival instincts emanate. Inanna first removes her ankle bracelets, a symbol of her sensuality and sexual power, before removing her royal robe.
Ereshkigal has stripped her sister of her power and vestments through a series of choices. At each gate, Inanna could have turned back, but she persisted. Within Ereshkigal’s kingdom, all that is of the Above world does not matter; none of the objects nor the chakras of the living body hold power in Irkalla.
Ereshkigal Kills Inanna
Finally, in the presence of her sister, Inanna is naked, vulnerable, and emptied. There, in the palace, Ereshkigal kills Inanna. She then leaves her sister’s corpse on a hook for three days.
As the third day passes, two beings sent by Enki arrive to rescue Inanna. Ereshkigal possesses the water of life, a magical substance which can resurrect the dead, and uses it to bring her sister back to life.
Inanna departs from the Underworld, returning to her own domain above.
Ereshkigal as Woman and the Legend of Persephone
Though this may seem brutal, Ereshkigal has, through this act, initiated her sister into the mysteries of the dark feminine. Inanna persisted through each gate and, which each of her lights of earthly and heavenly vitality (the chakras) gone, all that remains is life itself.
Through striking her sister down, Ereshkigal delivers unto Inanna deep feminine wisdom and a psychological opportunity for Inanna to meet her own shadow, her own death.
For me, the descent Inanna experiences could be thought of as her gradually becoming Ereshkigal. The idea of this duality and process reminds me of Persephone and her dual nature. Persephone, too, is a goddess who represents the initiation of a maiden through terror and extremes — but learning to hone them, grasp the experiences, and emerge forth with deep wisdom and Queenliness.
Ultimately, Inanna is reborn because of her sister, and is only given the experience of rebirth because she died in the first place.
We as women embody the goddess. Our bodies themselves are reflective blueprints of nature, and the myths we have passed down for thousands of years reflect those very patterns. Just as the planet Venus goes retrograde, dipping below the horizon into the underworld, Inanna descends to meet her sister.
Women do that too. We have the opportunity to descend and meet our inner shadow, our dark sister, our underworld self. We have high pain tolerance, create and destroy, and bleed to make life. We can see ourselves naked, dead, powerless, and in this way recognize all that we are in rebirth.
What is our menses, the cycle of the moon, but a process of death and rebirth? Of coming to know the shadow and, through that process, living the fullness of life with more joy and beauty?
This piece was originally published to Medium. You can read it here.