The Lady of the Underworld


"Lilith", John Maler Collier ( 1850 – 1934), English

In the Mesopotamian mythological landscape there are two sisters, Inanna or Ishtar and Ereshkigal. One is the Queen of Heavens, to who belong many realms. She bestows the kingship to the ruler, she, just like the Egyptian Isis is the very throne on which the King sits. She is the judge who holds a court, she is a warrior of the angry heart: "Is there a god who can vie with me?", she says. She slays a dragon, she walks with lions and she pursues what she wants. She is also a lover who invites a man into her "honey lap", she is the goddess of courtesans and prostitutes, shameless in her sexuality. She, just like Athena and Brünnhilde is often perceived as conditioned by her bond to the Heaven and Fatherworld. Her polar opposite is her sister, Ereshkigal, the cold, the fearsome Queen of the Belows.


In the main myth about the two sisters, Inanna decides to visit the Underworld in order to witness the funereal of Gugalanna, her sister's husband. When Inanna asks for the admission in the Underworld, her sister, Ereshkigal becomes furious, saying that even the big and great goddess of the Upper World, goddess of Heavens, ought to be stripped naked and bare before entering her realm, and pass through the seven gates, just like everyone else had to come in order to meet her. The great goddess of Heaven was no exception to the rule. Ershekigal, in her fury, kills her sister by hanging her on a peg. Inanna's meat turns green and begins to rot. But Inanna is aware of the danger of the Underworld, and before she even entered, she told her assistant Ninshubur to do something if she does not return. After couple of days pass without Inanna's return, Ninshubur brings all gods up on their feet, urging them to bring back the great goddess. Her assistant first goes to the Enlil, the highest god of sky and then to Nanna, the moon god, who is also Inanna's father. Neither would agree to get involved with the affairs of the Underworld. Finally, it is the god Enki, the god of waters and wisdom who agrees to help Inanna. He creates two little mourners from the dirt under his fingernail and sends them to the Underworld to rescue her. They carry the food and water of life that Enki gives them and try to appeal to Ereshkigal who is groaning and mourning over the dead. She hands over the Inanna's corpse, but now Inanna has to find a substitute to take her place. Finally, she finds her consort, Dumzi or Tammuz who she decides to bring to the Underworld. He tries to escape, but failing, offers himself to sacrifice. His sister decides that they shall divide the fate and have each spend half of the year in the Underworld.

The Hidden Goddess

Ghismonda with the Heart of Guiscardo (Detail), Bernardino Mei (1612/15 – 1676)

"She falls easily into the underworld as into a vortex, or she follows a beloved man with psychopathic or psychotic tendencies, who can lead her into the depths. Or she seeks the underworld compulsively, hides from life, often addicted to various modes of dulling the pains of the flow of change which are too much for her fragmented capacity. Or else she may unconsciously identify with what the culture rejects as ineffective and inferior, forcing her to introvert through a negative sense of uniqueness. In identity with Ereshkigal, a woman can feel stuck in a timeless stasis, unable to budge, feeling the bleak despair and the emptiness of one raped by the animus. She may be in identity with the goddess as the great maw, receiving back all life, feeling starved and greedy. Often she suffers somatic symptoms, disturbances related to abdominal organs, to digestion, or to cellular disintegrative processes." - "Descent to the Goddess: A Way of Initiation for Women", Sylvia Brinton Perera


In the woman's path towards wholeness, two are the dominant psychological patterns. One is the lady of the Heavens and the Fatherworld, who, in her quest for wholeness must come down from her lofty heavens, lose the comfort she felt in the Fatherworld and connect with the lower realm. She is like Inanna, and in her journey, the sacrifice is the ego-ideal she has developed of herself as the heroine of the story. Her experience and image of the Heaven and Fatherworld becomes shattered once she sees its cruel face. When she finally sees it, the heavenly maiden feels like Inanna - she is forced into Underworld, her body pegged and torn, her identity shattered. The assertive Valkyrie that flies in the sky shooting her weapon is left with no weapon and with no pride, brutalised by the very world that she thought she belonged to. This assertive and willed maiden must experience depression, sorrow and inertia in order to come back whole and renewed.


However, the journey towards wholeness for those women who resemble more the sister, the Ereshkigal, is opposite. They must move from the lower realm towards the higher realm. While the pursuing, active and warrior-like Inanna must bring her weapon down and become inert, attached to a stone, sleeping and waiting, the Ereshkigal must move towards the Heaven in order to come to any concrete sense of self. Being Inanna's opposite, she is inert, passive and incapable of making a decision. She forever looks for those around her to help her navigate the external world, and more importantly, she never experiences herself as a subject nor can come to any knowledge of her own self through being a subject. She must be an object in order to experience her own self. If she is extremely unaware, she becomes nothing but a series of responses to the external circumstances and demands of the external animus. Ereshkigal's own desires and ambitions are unclear to her and she fears to seize any part of her that desires authority. Fearing to pursue anything of her own, she as a mother may often be the one who subconsciously lives her ambitions through her son and as a consequence creates a mother complex in him. If she is no mother, she may try to live out her ambition through her husband, in one way or another, directing him to pursue the things she wished she pursued herself. She is always the acted upon, never an actor, a side character in her own life.

These women have dreams that are quite different from the Heaven's daughter. Their dreams are full of blood, horror and Underworld themes. They often dream of phallic objects being forced into them - knives, branches and other items that resemble a phallus in their shape. In the book referenced here, women mention a dream in which they are being crucified on a phallus and tortured on it. Even assertiveness in women is perceived as masculine - they dream of powerful Amazons who are chasing them and coming to rape them or abuse them. This woman is so removed from any assertiveness that any form of it is identified as the negative animus, even when it comes from a woman. Ereshkigal is afraid of the animus so much that he is an abuser no matter in what form he appears. Because of this, she is prone to relationships in which a man takes her "into the Underworld" - the psychopathic, narcissistic and abusive men. This is the only masculine archetype she can relate to and feel moved by, as her inner abuser is the only form of masculine familiar to her. Unlike her, Inanna can relate to a much wider spectrum of the masculine, usually both the negative and positive. Even if she becomes a femme fatale who uses them as her plaything, she is rarely drawn to the abusive and psychopathic men. The Underworld is where she naturally dwells and even if she is not neurotic, she is still prone to inertia and not interacting with the external world. This world binds her and she does not know her way out of it, until she meets the sister.

The Sister's Eros

"Idyll of the Sea", Abbey Altson (1864 - 1950), British

"Inanna brings differentiated awareness and activity to stir up Ereshkigal's realm, to effect a conscious suffering, perhaps a birth. In return she receives her own death and rebirth, the capacity to witness, and a new strength in introverted presence. Above ground Inanna is like a cornucopia, pouring forth, passionately initiating. Below she is passive, herself an initiate. She is dissolved and the receiver of life's processes decay as an underworld gestation, not of child but of Being itself in its seemingly most negative mode. Simultaneously, Ereshkigal becomes active and aware. The cross-fertilization between the two goddesses has a profound effect on each of them and on their creative capacities; it ultimately changes the relationship between upper and lower worlds and creates a new masculine-feminine balance in the upper world. In the analytic container such profound cross-fertilization between the two goddesses has a profound effect on each of them and on their creative capacities; it ultimately changes the relationship between upper and lower worlds and creates a new masculine-feminine balance in the upper world." - "Descent to the Goddess: A Way of Initiation for Women", Sylvia Brinton Perera


The Heaven's Daughter and the Underworld's Daughter often experience one another as the women of the opposite realms. One runs away from the passivity she has observed in many women, sees it as weak and pitiful, the other sees the fierce, seductive and assertive Heaven's Daughter as the handmaiden of patriarchal values who she, the Underworld's Daughter feels abused by and forced into. Patriarchal values, have both their light and shadow side, but the Underworld's Queen often only sees the negative side of it as she struggles to make it in the external world which is often defined by its values. She does not find a meaning in external, public pursuits that the Queen of Heaven navigates so effortlessly. When they meet, just like the two sisters, they can be disturbed by one another, because they are disturbed by their own shadows.


When a woman moves from automatic responses towards the Goddess consciousness, she may begin to have homoerotic or lesbian dreams. She can be repulsed by any male companionship even if it was not something she has experienced before. If a woman has never felt attracted to women, it does not have to mean that her sexuality has changed over night - for many women this can be a transitory period during which her own anima becomes whole and conscious. She wants to interact with her own anima by interacting with other women. When this happens, a woman often feels special kind of attraction towards anything related to the archetypal feminine - she dreams of being with nymphs, among nature and arts, without any animus symbols such are military, linear time, rigidity or strict rules. The Ereshkigal who has previously felt victimised by the assertive and pursuing Inanna, can suddenly feel energised by her presence and not see it as threatening. She can see the feminine yang and relate to it easier than she does with the masculine one. She is the "acted upon" object that she often feels comfortable being, yet the space is also created for her to release herself out of the Underworld. Inanna slowly begins to take her from the darkness of her world. A lot of female initiators into the feminine consciousness are Innanas - they are women who consciously pursue things that are not relationships, so they actively interact with the external world. The initiator Innana may be the first positive assertive feminine that the Ereshkigal encounters. Just like the Underworld has helped Inanna become whole and capable of relating and understanding Ereshkigal's struggles, so does Ereshkigal for the first time, recognise a part of herself in the reborn Inanna. Very often it happens, that Ereshkigal women will become infatuated with the Inanna who initiates them into Heavens and guides them towards consciousness. Dreams of sexual or erotic experiences with her may appear. However, when the Inanna in her dream appears in the form of an external woman, the Ereshkigal woman is actually seeing a part of herself. She makes love to herself and welcomes wholeness. As Anne Sexton says in her poem, she becomes: "The cave of the mirror, that double woman who stares at herself". Inanna cannot approach her sister without judgement unless she herself has lost her wings and fallen into Underground. Ereshkigal cannot leave the Underworld until she sees part of herself in the assertive woman. A woman with an Ereshkigal psyche, who has spent her whole life being passive, upon accepting her own desire to stand in her own spot, describes her dream: "I go to get my diagnosis because I am finishing analysis. The doctors tell me I have testes. I thought I had colitis. Now I see I don't have to be a handmaid to everyone. I've got balls and can create what I need. I see that my mother, who is usually like a feminine doll and always puts herself down for her lovers, has also got a penis under her negligee. Now she can make love passionately. She is both woman and man."


As mentioned above, these women's dreams are quite different from those who are dominated by Inanna. Inanna does not see the assertive as phallic or separate from her femaleness. However, the Erehskigal woman does and for her, when the integration comes, she sees hermaphrodites and women "with balls". For her, the growth happens when instead of these women attacking her and chasing her, she herself becomes that woman.

The Journey Towards the Heavens

Without even knowing, the Ershskigal woman kills her own inner Inanna and she must go on a journey her again. Inanna is often dead, left to rot in the Ershkigal's Underworld in women who define their entire identity through their dependence on others. The active libido of Inanna is seen as foreign to her femaleness. They want to be desired because another's desire may temporarily fill the deep emptiness and lack of self within. Looking inside of herself, she cannot see herself, she sees the Underworld. When the Underworld lady moves from the Underworld towards the Heavens, it does not mean that she has to cease to be who she is, it simply means knowing who she is so that she can show up in her own life as a conscious being. Without consciousness, she is an eternal infant, passive and withdrawn, afraid of everything around her. Her extreme passivity may stroke a certain man's ego, but after some time, the cooling, extreme yin energy from which she operates may begin to kill the relationship. It is a part of Inanna's wisdom that in order for one to be truly receptive, one must be active. Inanna is active, she shows desire and interest, she pursues what she wants but she also allows herself to be approached and be made love to. The Ereshkigal woman may, without knowing it, hide behind her passivity and instead of allowing a lover to interact with her, she just lets him interact with his own fantasy. This mode may prevent her from connecting intimately with someone who would cherish and honour her and who she could truly cherish and honour in return. It takes tremendous amount of courage to truly show up in life, because that's when one is the most vulnerable. Hiding behind reclusive passivity, never interacting with life or with herself, is extremely easy and comfortable in comparison. The Heaven's lady must fall down and allow herself to be vulnerable by allowing to be seen as a human, rather than the perfect goddess. Her ego must experience a defeat. Only so she is not a lonely goddess on her throne. The Underworld's lady must allow herself to be a goddess who takes charge and makes demands, who takes look at herself and at the world, and who can say a clear: "Yes" and a clear "No" and stand behind it. In order to be whole and truly alive, each of them must become the other.

Links "Descent to the Goddess: A Way of Initiation for Women", Sylvia Brinton Perera

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