Inanna’s Descent

An Archetype of Feminine Self-Discovery and Transformation

by Andrea Deagon

Over my years of performing, my preparations have become something of a ritual, a path by which I ready myself for the experience of the dance. The perfumed bath, or long luxurious shower, is a purification from the stresses of the day. I apply my makeup, and transform my face from its ordinary woman-ness to something more expressive, more theatrical, with cleaner, more illustrative lines. I put on, adjust and pin the layers of my costume, which transforms me further into someone very different from whom you’d encounter in the ordinary world. When I take up my tools, the zils and veil, I am mentally, physically and spiritually prepared to enter and create the magical space of the dance. I have both become more myself, and left something of myself behind. This is one of the functions of ritual.

Of course, living as I do in the real world, the ritual process is seldom unbroken. Sometimes I share a cracked mirror with a dozen other dancers, or rush to a party in a cover-up, making last minute adjustments with no mirror and no time. Or I may have to change and re-apply makeup in an non-air-conditioned bathroom in the middle of a heat wave in a southern summer . . .

Mesopotamian Goddess (4th century B.C.E.) identified as Ishtar, considered to be a later incarnation of Inanna.

But through all of this, the power of the ritual remains. Each costuming ritual evokes all the others, until even the most cursory, uncomfortable experience has some element of power. I have seen this ritual state of mind in many other dancers, as they study themselves in the mirror, becoming someone more than who they started as, gathering the energy and presence they will use in the dance. When we costume ourselves, we transform ourselves from ordinary women and men, into dancers who have the power to make the audience forget their problems for a while, who can make them glimpse a sensuous world replete with hope and possibility, who can move their audiences from the plane of time, into a magical place in which time and obligation slip away. This transformation is a journey, and costuming is a path to it. The physical transformation reflects the dancer’s assumption of her spiritual power.

In ancient Mesopotamia, the goddess Inanna goes through a similar process, giving divine and narrative form to the archetype of feminine transformation-into-power.1 Her stories can provide insight for women and men who assume the role of dancer: those who assume, embody and lead others to understand what is sensuous, expressive and fertile in us all.

The Sacred Marriage

Inanna is a very special goddess in Sumerian religion and myth. Daughter of the Moon, and Sister of the Sun, she is herself the goddess of the Morning Star, which aligns her celestially with Aphrodite/Venus, the Greek/Roman goddess of love. She is one of the most popular deities of the Sumerians, with dozens of ritual poems in her honor appearing in the surviving literature. Her primary nature is as a goddess of sensuality and creative fertility; prostitutes and brides were both sacred to her. But she is far more than a love goddess: different hymns portray her as a goddess of warfare, social justice, rainstorms, the communal storehouse of grain and supplies, and of crafty intelligence. The scholar Thorkild Jacobsen describes her as the goddess of “infinite variety.”2

Many Sumerian cities celebrated the ritual of the Sacred Marriage, a New Year’s celebration to bring the community fertility and prosperity in the coming year. In this ritual, the king (representing the human population of the city) celebrated a ritual marriage with a priestess who represented Inanna.3 Through this marriage, the human and divine spheres were joined, their energies intermingled, and their interests combined. The temporal plane of human experience — years lived one at a time, individual lifetimes — were intermingled with the spiritual plane, of one great divine life and one communal “year” that represents all human experience. Through this ritual, the story of Inanna’s marriage becomes a metaphor for all human experiences that lead to personal transformation and fecundity. The ritual itself is a forum in which the community shares its experiences by participating in the same story.

The myth that accompanies the ritual, and serves as a human-scale metaphor for this fertile time, is the story of the marriage of Inanna to the shepherd-god Dumuzi. Inanna is portrayed as a young girl, innocent but showing a firm streak of the self-confidence and willfulness that characterize gods. Though at first she is unwilling to marry Dumuzi, she is persuaded soon enough. She prepares for her wedding:

Inanna, at her mother’s command,

Bathed and annointed herself with scented oil.

She covered her body with the royal white robe.

She readied her dowry.

She arranged her precious lapis beads around her neck.

She took her seal in her hand.4

Having ritually bathed and clothed herself, she meets her husband and becomes eager for his embraces:

My vulva, the horn,

The Boat of Heaven,

Is full of eagerness like the young moon.

My untilled land lies fallow. . . .5

The ancient ritual expresses its sacred nature with both sensuality and humor. Inanna’s sexual desire and eagerness for the consumation of her marriage give a sense of the surging energy of young love. But more than human love is at issue here. Inanna’s marriage means a transformation of the whole world:

At the king’s lap stood the rising cedar.

Plants grew high by their side.

Grains grew high by their side.

Gardens flourished luxuriantly.6

Inanna’s marriage is the story of her own transformation from girl to woman, and as such has a personal meaning for girls who would make that same journey themselves. But it is also about the renewal of the physical world: new life surging up in the spring. Finally, it resonates with any sort of personal transformation into peace, joy and abundance.

Marriage is a central rite of initiation for young women the world over. In many societies, it marks the girl’s first independence from her birth-family’s home, and her assumption of the new responsibilities of adult sexual behavior, incipient motherhood, and managing her own household. The ritual of marriage requires particularly careful preparations, since it is the beginning place of the girl-woman’s adult life. In ancient Greece, girls had a ritual bath, made special sacrifices, and wore special clothing (including a protective veil); in Morocco, the application of henna before the wedding is a central preparatory ritual for the ceremony; in our own society, we have symbolic rituals of dress (which may be dismissed as superstitions): “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.” In short, weddings are rituals of transformation in which dress, and the process of preparing one’s physical appearance with special ritual garments, are essential to defining the nature of the girl’s transition — and in insuring that it takes place with safety, luck and the promise of prosperity.

The woman who moves from girlhood to womanhood, from singleness to marriage, moves into and through a borderland, where her self-image and life-responses undergo a substantial change. As a goddess, Inanna represents this change in larger-than-life form, moving her people from the dead old year into the prosperous new one.

As a dancer, I feel a taste of the transformative experience of Inanna’s marriage when I prepare myself for the stage. When we dancers costume ourselves, we prepare to lead our audience on the same journey from what is ordinary and temporal, to what is magical and beyond ordinary reality. Like a bride, we wear special clothing that makes us outstanding, extraordinary, the center of attention, the focus of everyone’s eyes. Our costumes are at once revealing and protective, they both heighten our individual beauty, and make us one with an archetypal image of sensuous feminine leadership. Where we lead is through the terrain of the soul, invoking, with our own journey, the individual journeys of each member of our audience.

Inanna’s Descent

The Sacred Marriage is one of the two central ritual stories concerning Inanna. The other, far more mysterious, dark and complex, is the story of her descent into the Underworld and her experience of death.

The texts that come down to us are from rituals, as with the Sacred Marriage, but Inanna’s Descent is more puzzling from the start. Why does she decide to go to the Underworld, the world of the dead, a dangerous place even for a goddess? The text begins,

From the Great Above she opened her ear to the Great Below . . .

Inanna abandoned heaven and earth to descend to the underworld.7

No reason is given, no comprehensible purpose, but it seems that, as with all personal journeys, the time simply became right. She noticed what she had never noticed before.8

Inanna’s descent requires everything from her — it requires what is, for most of us, one of the hardest things we can ever do: abandonment of all of the external signs of her status, until she remains simply who she is, naked and alone. The Underworld is protected by seven gates, and at each gate Inanna is told to leave behind some of the jewelry and clothing that mark her as a deity of status and power:

When she entered the first gate,

From her head, the shugurra, the crown of the steppe, was removed.

Inanna asked:

“What is this?”

She was told:

“Quiet, Inanna, the ways of the underworld are perfect.

They may not be questioned” . . .

When she entered the second gate,

From her neck the small lapis beads were removed. . .

When she entered the seventh gate,

From her body the royal robe was removed. . . .

At each gate, Inanna stops and questions, but still she gives up these signs until finally, like any mortal, she experiences death itself:

Inanna was turned into a corpse,

A piece of rotting meat,

and was hung from a hook on the wall.

Inanna, hanging dead and dishonored, suspended between mortal and immortal, life and death, has resonances with other spiritual leaders and transforming gods. The foremost parallel in the Western world is the crucified Jesus, who willingly gave up the appearance of temporal power in order to transform the world through his sufferings. Other parallels include the Norse god Odin, who hung suspended for days in the World Tree in order to uncover the secret of magic runes, and the Native American hero Sequoiah, who hung from a tree in a lightening storm in order to experience oneness with the physical universe. In all of these stories, a person with divine or semi-divine powers submits to sub-human pain and degradation, even death, in order to gain transformative knowledge, or to transform the world. This is Inanna’s experience as well.

Inanna, being a goddess with powerful family and servants, is resurrected and returns to her world of divine privilege. Her husband Dumuzi is forced to take her place in the land of the dead, though his sister, Geshtinanna, substitutes for him for six months of the year. Dumuzi may be a dying god, one whose periodic death and rebirth represents the cycle of crop growth and harvest. Inanna’s descent and triumphant return may be in part a ritual metaphor for the resurgence of new life in the spring (or in the fall, after the hot, dry, barren Mesopotamian summer).

But this story has an even more powerful dimension as a metaphor for personal experience and growth. Through Inanna’s example, we learn that the most profound, most earth-shaking experiences — the ones that come to us as a “death” of the old self and “rebirth” of the new — take immense will and sacrifice to achieve. They come only when we are willing and able to strip all our defenses, all our signs of status, all shields between the images we project, and who we are at the core. When we are willing to do this, the transformations come.

Art is about telling the truth. If art is true, audiences will catch glimpses of their own true selves within it. The journeys they take with us will be authentic, as well as fanciful and escapist. These journeys will contain an openness to all realms of experience, not just the ones we wish to convey, that we think of with our conscious minds.

To achieve this level of artistry, the dancer must be able to put aside the images of herself that have grown up with and around her for her whole life. Since we are not goddesses like Inanna, not all of our adornments are jewels. Some of our images may be negative: “only a girl,” “overweight,” “comfortable, unexciting mom,” “too sexy to be nice,” “too smart,” “not smart enough,” “too lazy,” “can’t get it together,” “too rigid.” Whatever the images are, we have to explore them and try to see them clearly — and then let them fall away. Positive images too, our lapis jewels and silken gowns, must be left at the gateways. “Successful,” “perfection personified,” “wildly creative,” “always on top of things,” “high energy,” “everybody’s friend” — these positive images can become burdens as well. We become so used to seeing ourselves through these images that sometimes, when we lay them aside, we see deeper, less nurtured truths about ourselves. Or we may receive deeper affirmation of the truth the image represents. In either case, our adornments, like Inanna’s, will be waiting for us when we return through the Seven Gates — if we still want them.

The Edges of Experience

Thorkild Jacobsen observes, “We see [Inanna] as sweetheart, as a happy bride, and as a sorrowing young widow . . . she is never depicted as a wife and helpmate or as a mother.”9 Inanna is a goddess, not a person, and her stories reflect metaphoric reality, not human values. Inanna’s bride/widow status does not mean that she is immature, a femme fatale, or unable to maintain a serious relationship. What it means is that she is not a goddess of the central, stable nature of women’s lives: marriage and motherhood, which would have taken up most of a typical Sumerian woman’s adult life. Instead, Inanna is a goddess of the borderlines, the liminal times in everyone’s life, the times when we leave behind the ordinary world, our ordinary habits, our ordinary perceptions. Not the goddess of day or night, but of dawn or twilight: the in-between times ruled by the morning and evening star.

Consequently, Inanna is a perfect goddess to embody the powers, trials and aspirations of dancers, whose art originates in this extraordinary, borderland state. That is why her two central journeys, the Sacred Marriage and the Descent, have such potential meanings for us. The two journeys are virtual mirror-images: Inanna adorns herself for the Sacred Marriage, a fertile joining with her mate and, metaphorically, her people; she disrobes herself and faces the oblivion of death in the Descent, only to emerge triumphant, though bereft of her husband and alone.

Both processes speak to the dancer. In adorning ourselves for the dance, we lay aside our mundane selves, and embody the passions and desires of the audience, who are metaphorically our lovers. We leave the ordinary world and, in our glory, take the audience with us to what is sensuous, joyful, loving and free.

But we must periodically lay aside all of this, descend into the depths of our souls, experience ourselves without our adornments, shields and voices, and emerge again into a solitary calm that is who we really are. Some of us, in our most focused taqsims, may do this in the dance, and dare to share this most private journey with the audience; others may do it alone, in practice, meditation or prayer.

In the end, we live and grow through this process of Sacred Marriage and Descent, of first joining our “lover,” then leaving to turn inward. For the ancient Sumerians, these rituals were repeated year after year, giving a pattern to the changes of a lifetime. We too, as dancers or simply as human beings, live these processes over and over again, giving shape with our own lives to the cycle of the sacred year.


Andrea Deagon received her Ph.D. in Classical Studies from Duke University in 1984. She currently directs the Classics program at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, where she also teaches Women’s Studies. She has been involved with Middle Eastern Dance since age 17, and taught in New Zealand for three years before returning to the US in 1988. In addition to classwork with the foremost proponents of Middle Eastern Dance in America, she has also studied Ballet, Modern, African and Balinese dance. Currently she is teaching classes and developing workshops for Oriental dancers and the wider dance community on archetypal images as enhancers of both performance and the experience of dancing. (



1. Although this archetype relates most powerfully to feminine process, both men and women can find personal meaning in it, just as both women and men find meaning in masculine archetypes of kings and war heroes. My focus on the feminine aspect of Inanna’s transformations is not meant to exclude men from participating in it.

2. Thorkild Jacobsen, Treasures of Darkness: A History of Mesopotamian Religion. Yale University Press, 1976, p. 135.

3. For a full description of the literature and ritual of the Sacred Marriage, see Samuel Noah Kramer, The Sacred Marriage Rite. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1969.

4. All translations of the Inanna cycle are from Diane Wolkstein and Samuel Noah Kramer, Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth. New York: Harper and Rowe, 1983; p. 35.

5. Wollkstein and Kramer 37.

6. Wolkstein and Kramer 37.

7. Wolkstein and Kramer 52.

8. See Wolkstein’s commentary in Wolkstein and Kramer, 155-69.

9. Jacobsen 141.

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