A dozen years ago, when I was struggling with a fog of depression and Fibromyalgia, at the insistence of a worried friend, I dutifully started seeing his therapist. She is a wonderfully wise and caring woman and in the course of our sessions, she mentioned a Sumerian goddess named Inanna who, like a female Jesus, descended into hell and rose again on the third day. I felt a prickle of interest – a little green shoot in the flatline of my malaise. I began to explore Inanna. She was, it turned out, a powerful fertility goddess who had been worshipped thousands of years ago in the Mesopotamian region of Sumer – today’s Southern Iraq. She was an Aphrodite-Athena combo – a goddess of both love and war. Poems and hymns to her written in cuneiform around 2000 BC had survived on fragmented clay tablets. These were deciphered in the late 1960s by the scholar Samuel Noah Kramer and then later, with his help, published as poetry by Diane Wolkstein in 1983. Her book is called Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth and I very much recommend it. The eroticism in the poems – in one, Innana sings the praises of her vulva – was a surprise for me. I suppose I was guilty of assuming that anything that old couldn’t be hot. But what drew me in most was the poem about Inanna’s descent into the Underworld.
The opening lines of “Inanna’s Descent” tell us that “From the Great Above, Inanna opened her ear to the Great Below.” The cuneiform symbol for wisdom was the ear. This strikes me as an acute insight into the nature wisdom. During my years of work as a hospice patient care volunteer, I learned how very hard it is to listen, to shut off the questions and answers buzzing through my own mind and simply (!) be with someone who is dying. (Actually, I think it’s just as hard to listen to people who are alive and well.) So I wanted to put Inanna’s ear in the center of my portrait. Lacking a model, I used a selfie of my own ear.
In this first woodcut of my (forthcoming) Innana series, I imagine the goddess in a hypnogogic reverie – that twilight zone between waking and sleeping – hence my diagonal divide between the inky black of night and white light of day. We don’t know what Inanna hears that impels her to descend into the “Great Below”. At the beginning of the poem, we know only that whatever she heard caused her to “abandon her holy office of priestess” and leave her temples: seven of them in seven cities: Uruk, Badtibira, Zabalam, Adab, Nippur, Kish, and Akkad.
I surrounded her profile with her emblems. The odd-looking pillars at the sides of the image represent the bundles of reeds that stood at the doorways of her temples. Pictographs of these reed posts were the sign for her name. Since she was called “Morning Star” and “Evening Star”, I cut stars into the triangles between the “rising sun” on the upper border and the “setting sun” on the lower one.
Knives vs. Pencils
This project is a departure from previous work as a botanical artist. Although each plant has its own cyclical story of death and resurrection, “Inanna’s Descent” is a larger, archetypal story that presents the challenge of working more abstractly than traditional botanical art requires. I love the stark boundaries of working only in black and white and the puzzle of figuring out what is to be carved white and what is to be inked black. I also love working with beautiful Japanese tools, wood blocks, and papers. Although I’m still very much a novice at carving, I enjoy working with knives, although it’s not as relaxing as working pencils – in a woodcut, each line an adventure that can not be erased! I carved this first block three different times.
The quality of each print can vary with the amount of ink on the block, the dampness or dryness of the paper, the pressure of the hand on the baren – a bamboo-covered disk used to press the paper into the inked block. Each print pulled from the block is a surprise. For me, it’s still trial and error so I throw away more prints than I save. My editions are small and each print in the edition is unique.