Thursday, August 11, 2011

Jung, Inanna and the Harrowing of Hell

Every story worth telling is a story of transformation. As my high school English teacher said when explaining the ideas of plot and narrative arc: "At some point the protagonist experiences some kind of change--usually at the climax of the story." It can be a small thing, and is found (sometimes against the writer's will) everywhere; even in absurdist narratives that seem not to be narratives, like the characters who see leaves growing on a once-barren tree in Waiting for Godot. Other times it is earth-shattering, impossible to miss: Elijah, under the broom tree, is restored from suicidal anguish to a sense of purpose. Jesus rises from the dead after the harrowing of Hell, in which he rescues Adam, Eve, and the other 'righteous heathens' who came before his birth. Cinderella finds her prince, Sleeping Beauty awakes, Little Red Riding Hood is cut from the stomach of the wolf. What is common in these tales of transformation is that one must descend in order to ascend. It is the inverse of the idiom 'what goes up must come down': what would come up must first go down. As Nietzsche wrote at the beginning of Also Sprach Zarathustra, "And so Zarathustra went down."

One of the first written narratives in the world--before Dante, before Jesus, before even the Torah--concerns the descent of the Goddess Inanna (the Sumerian Great Goddess, known as the Queen of Heaven and Earth) into cold dark of the Underworld. The reason for her descent is unclear, but it is clear the trip is necessary. As she passes through the seven gates of the underworld, moving ever closer to the dark Queen Ereshkigal, she is made to relinquish one article of her clothing and jewelry at each stop: her dress, her golden rings, her lapis lazuli necklace. When she finally stands before her sister, the Goddess Ereshkigal, she is stripped of all the material goods that signified her wealth and power. The Queen of Heaven and Earth has been reduced to Her core being, all outside accoutrement and titles given up--all cunning facades removed.

Inanna stands in the presence of Darkness naked and vulnerable; Ereshkigal slays her with a word and hangs her lifeless body from a hook. Meanwhile, in the world above, Inanna's absence means that the vital spark is gone from everything. Crops no longer grow, animals no longer mate, human lovers are no longer drawn into one another's arms. The lush fertility and creativity Inanna represented is gone, replaced by a cold sterility and a sense of hushed waiting. Meanwhile, in the womb of the earth, Inanna--dead--waits too. Yet, as human beings have known from time immemorial, what appears to be an end is in fact a new beginning. She is rescued by two beings sent by the god Enki, restored to life in the world above. Fertility is restored to the land; Inanna returns to her life 'above ground,' but one surmises She must have been transformed by such an experience, with a greater understanding of the dark places in the Universe, the shadows and vast caverns of emptiness which even gods experience. One can imagine that, having tasted utter desolation, Inanna's creative capacities matured still further, through the 'life experience' everyone must accrue. There is more to the story, involving Inanna's mate Dumuzi, but for my purposes it ends there.

Lately such tales have been much on my mind. I've been sick, and I've been reading Jung. Through wrestling with illness--my own and others'--I have been brought into unavoidable contact with the sorts of questions I (and most human beings, I think) try to avoid. What am I if I no longer identify myself by what I do? What would I answer if some prescient individual at a cocktail party were to ask me, "Who are you?" I would give my name, of course, then likely begin rattling off all my activities, roles and qualifications. I'm a medical student, an aspiring psychiatrist, a writer, a mental health and LGBT activist, an artist, a runner. I'm a daughter, an aunt, a friend, a lover.

What, then, if they were to reply (perhaps with a laugh), "No, no, I didn't ask what you do. I asked who you are." I'm a...woman? A human being? A sentient being?
Who are we with our robes, our rings, our doctorates removed?
What is the shadow we have to confront--even if it slays some part of us? The periods in our lives that feel sterile and bereft of life--are they truly? Or is there some part of us waiting, like Inanna on the hook, or a crocus beneath a blanket of snow, for the siren call of an unimagined spring?


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