Initiation by the Dark Goddess
Descent to the Goddess: A Way of Initiation for Women, Sylvia Perera, Inner City Books, 1981.
Unlike the Sumerian Goddess Inanna, I did not descend willingly. In 2006, my husband Vic Mansfield was diagnosed with incurable lymphoma. He died in 2008. I watched his struggle, eased his suffering when I could, witnessed and held when I couldn’t, and walked with him to the threshold of death. By the end, he and I were naked and stripped, like Inanna when she enters the Great Below.
A few years earlier, I had studied the myth of Inanna and read Sylvia Perera’s Descent to the Goddess with my women’s mythology class. I also met Perera in a workshop around that time. I did not know my life would soon be headed for an initiation into the Dark Feminine.
In 2015, I return to Descent to the Goddess as I prepare to co-lead a lecture/workshop weekend at C.G. Jung Society of Sarasota, FL with Jungian teacher and author Jean Raffa in March 2016. None of us want to descend, but all of us must. We are mortal. We lose what we love and counted on. Harsh experience taught me the importance of this myth as a guide. Descent to the Goddess and Perera’s unique revelations helped me understand, endure, and emerge.
Inanna (~3500 BC) is Queen of Heaven and Earth in Ancient Sumeria or Mesopotamia. She is a fully realized goddess, wise like Athena, courageous and wild like Artemis, and erotic like Aphrodite. Her many powers includes warfare and seduction, agriculture and the arts of civilization. Like Aphrodite, she is associated with the planet Venus.
Inanna risks everything to descend to the Great Below or kur, the realm of her sister Ereshkigal, the Goddess of Death. In Perera’s words, Inanna “abandoned heaven, abandoned earth—to the Netherwords she descended” (pg. 9) to attend the funeral of her sister’s husband. Inanna approaches the entry to the Underworld in full queenly regalia, but in case she does not return, she leaves instructions with her trusted female advisor Ninshubar. We all need such a friend.
Ereshkigal is enraged by Inanna’s arrival at her door. The Dark Goddess gives permission—with conditions. The Goddess of Heaven and Earth is stripped of every garment and power as she descends through seven gates. She enters the Great Below “naked and bowed low.” “She descends, submits, and dies,” Perera writes. “This openness to being acted upon is the essence of the experience of the human soul faced with the transpersonal.” (P. 13)
Ereshkigal greets Inanna with the Eye of Wrath and the Eye of Death. Inanna is helpless, passive, and stuck. For three days, she is a hanging corpse. Many of us know these places where all is lost.
According to Perera, an initiation into Ereshkigal’s Eye of Wrath breaks our identification with destructive animus ideals and helps women defend their feminine core. This ruthless power is cold and inhuman, not the related feminine that reassures and comforts. This Dark Feminine forces us to surrender to the reality of life and death as it is, not as we wish it to be.
Perera helps me understand how transformation happens to both Goddesses in this myth. Ereshkigal dwells in unconscious realms, stuck in the agony of grief but also giving birth. When Inanna enters, Ereshkigal’s nakedness is revealed and witnessed. At first, there is deathly statis, the one we experience in deep depression or grief. Only a power stronger than ruthlessness and death can move the situation.
Ninshubur remembers her promise. Responding to Ninshubur’s plea, Enki, the God of Wisdom and Culture and, according to Perera, patron of therapists, fashions two tiny mourners from dirt. These “insignificant” creatures slip unnoticed through the gates. They have one skill: empathy. As Ereshkigal cries out in pain, they mirror her agony. They weep for her and repeat her anguished words in a call and response. They relate to her and witness her suffering. Ereshkigal, the Unloved and Despised, responds by giving the mourners what they want: the body of Inanna. The mourners sprinkle the corpse with the food and water of life. Compassion has opened the way to generosity, rebirth, and a path for a return to Life and Light.
Inanna returns from her initiations demonic, possessed by the shadow side. There is more work to be done and a price to be paid for her release before the initiation is complete, but Inanna now possesses the Eye of Death and the Eye of Wrath. She is empowered by the Dark Feminine and can make the necessary sacrifice.
It is our human lot to descend many times in a life. We are tested by illness, depression, sorrow, madness, suffering, and loss. Perera shows us how Inanna’s descent brings consciousness and new wisdom and teaches us to honor the wisdom of the Dark.
Inanna’s story brings light to “…the lonely grief-rage of powerlessness and unassuaged loss and longing, a hellish place where all we know to do is useless…. We can only endure, barely conscious, barely surviving the pain and powerlessness, suspended out of life, stuck, until and if, some act of grace with some new wisdom arrives.” (Descent to the Goddess, p. 36)
The feminine opposites touch as Light enters the Great Below and Consciousness of Death enters the Great Above. Inanna is not whole until she knows both Life and Death. Neither are we.
“Holy Ereshkigal! Sweet is your praise.” (P. 10)
Elaine Mansfield’s memoir Leaning into Love: A Spiritual Journey through Grief (2014) won the 2015 Gold Medal IPPY Award (Independent Publisher’s Book Awards) in the category Aging, Death, and Dying. Elaine has been a student of Carl Jung since 1970 and has studied mythology for thirty years. She writes for hospice, facilitates bereavement support groups, and gives workshops and presentations. She also writes a weekly blog about the adventures and lessons of life and loss. To learn more about Elaine’s work, please visit her website. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.
Vic Mansfield (1941-2008) was the author of Synchronicity, Science, and Soul-Making, as well as two other books.