Inanna Ascending

Inanna ascendingNever before has anyone left the realm of the dead. After the River God’s little creatures have brought Inanna’s corpse back to life, the judges of the underworld make up a new rule. As Inanna starts to leave, they seize her and declare:

“No one from the underworld ascends unmarked.
If Inanna wishes to return from the underworld,
She must provide someone in her place.”1

In order to make sure she complies, the galla – the demons of the underworld – accompany her as she rises towards the light. These demons are implacable. They have no appetites so they can not be bribed with gifts of food or drink.

They enjoy no lovemaking.
They have no sweet children to kiss.
They tear the wife from the husband’s arms.
They tear the child from the father’s knees.
They steal the bride from her marriage home.2

Some of the demons are small. Others are tall like “reeds the size of high picket fences”. When Inanna finally reaches the surface, she has emerged into full consciousness, but the galla are still with her. One walks in front of her carrying a ruler’s scepter. Another walks behind her holding a warrior’s mace. They are as inescapable as death itself, a constant reminder of her dark sister Ereshkigal.

In my woodcut, as the reborn Inanna reaches for the Great Above, she is trailing demons of her own death. She is barely conscious of them, though they cling to her like children. Since their only food is dust and dirty water3, I made them skeletal. I browsed through a wildlife guide to mammals and borrowed skeletal bits of rodents and raccoons, bats and birds. I didn’t include the larger demons, partly because I couldn’t quite figure out what sort of larger skeleton to give them – animal? human? a mix? Mainly, however, I omitted them for reasons of composition: I didn’t want to have “reed high” galla, maybe as tall as Inanna herself, in visual competition with her resurrected body.

I used a block twice as large as the previous ones in my series. This made it easier to carve details but trickier to ink and print. At the top, you can see where I stopped the path of my brayer (ink roller) to create light above her, so none of my prints are identical when it comes to the edges of “sky”.

inanna-sumerian-god-annunaki-ishtar-owl-medAfter much back-and-forth and half a dozen proofs, I finally carved in lines to suggest uplift. Without them, she seemed to float in the dark rather than ascend. Also, the lines suggest wings and that seemed fitting, In an early Mesopotamian image, Inanna or her counterpart Istar, is depicted with bird feet and wings.

I left in the “noise” (residual carving lines) in her body. After all, she’d been dead for three days! I think of her resurrection as a gradual process, not a sudden restoration. During both birth and death, it is hard to pinpoint the exact moment. Is the time of death when the heart stops or when the brain shuts down? Is the time of birth when the head or the feet emerge – or when the placenta is cut? I like to think that when Inanna steps out into the light of day, the marks of her dark passage will have faded beyond notice and she will appear as her unblemished and youthful self. Nonetheless, her journey has transformed her. Like her sister Ereshkigal, she now possesses the “eye of death”. She must choose someone to replace her in the Underworld. Who will she kill with her fatal gaze? Who will she give to the galla? Her choice is the subject of my next and last woodcut. It’s a surprising end to the story!

1Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth, Wolkstein and Kramer, p.69
3In the Sumerian The Epic of Gilgamesh, written in the same era as the Inanna poems, for the residents of the Underworld, “dust is their fare and clay their food”.