Descent of Inanna

Descent of Inanna – A mythic poem dating from around 1750 BCE, surviving in at least 30 inscribed clay tablets with more than 400 lines of text and rediscovered in the excavation of Nippur, the ancient Sumerian religious and cultural center (now in Iraq). The principal interpreter, Samuel Noah Kramer, worked with folklorist and storyteller Diane Wolkstein to present an evocative understanding of this and other material relating to Inanna, the Sumerian goddess of heaven and earth, also known to the Akkadians as Ishtar. Wolkstein represented the descent according to Mircea Eliade’s assertion that shamanic initiation follows a universal pattern that includes death, dismemberment, and rebirth. Another Inanna myth in which the goddess has a tree made into a throne and a bed has also been interpreted in the light of Eliade’s claims that shamans universally ascend into the upper world via trees or poles. The popularization of this understanding of shamanism particularly follows from the psychology of Carl Jung (himself influential on Eliade). A preeminent example of this is in Sylvia Perera’s popular Descent to the Goddess: A Way of Initiation for Women (1981). Websites promulgating the notion that Inanna’s descent was a shamanic initiation and Jungian integrative process continue to proliferate. However, a straightforward reading of the text shows that Inanna did not return from the underworld changed in any way and did not conduct shamanic rituals. Rather, she descended into the realm of the shadowy dead to witness the funeral of her brother-in-law, the Bull of Heaven. The shamanic initiation theory is an entirely new myth that fits a neo-shamanic understanding perfectly and Sumerian mythology not at all.


Historical Dictionary of Shamanism by Graham Harvey and Robert J. Wallis 2007