On the Brink

Inanna On-the-BrinkIn this second woodcut, I imagine Inanna on the edge of a downward spiral to the Underworld. It is a journey from which no one has ever returned and as she hesitates on the first steps, she sets up a kind of life-insurance. As told in the ancient Sumerian poem, she turns to her faithful advisor and fellow (female) warrior Ninshubur, and commands that if she, Inanna, fails to return, Ninshubur should go to the temples of the father gods. Dress “in a single garment like a beggar”, Inanna orders. Cry out to them:

“ . . .Do not let your daughter

Be put to death in the underworld.

Do not let your bright silver

Be covered with the dust of the underworld.

Do not let your precious lapis

Be broken into stone for the stoneworker.

Do not let your fragrant boxwood

Be cut into wood for the woodworker. . .”*

She assures Ninshubur that the father gods won’t abandon her. And then down she goes.

Persephone’s Descent

Some thousands of years later, Inanna devolved into the Greek myth of Persephone, a young maiden who also descends into the Underworld. But not of her own free will. One day, while gathering flowers in a sunny meadow, she was abducted and raped by Hades, god of the Underworld, who kept her there as his Queen. I picture Persephone as a Botticelli virgin, lovely as the springtime but entirely passive. There is no mention in the myth that she put up a fight as Inanna surely would have. Moreover, unlike Inanna, Persephone did not engineer her own rescue. She remained Hades’ prisoner until her mother Demeter struck a bargain that allowed her to return to earth for half the year. Thereafter, when she appeared above ground, flowers bloomed and crops flourished. When she returned to Hades, everything died in a winter of grief.

It’s interesting to me that as Inanna aged and morphed over the centuries, she lost power to a male god. In the guise of Persephone, Inanna was no longer her own agent, no longer a feared warrior and lusty love deity. So as much as I’d prefer to identify with Inanna, in fact, during my two big bouts of depression, one when I was young and the other more recently, I really was more of a Persephone. Somehow I found myself in a gray space where the people around me were as insubstantial as shades and nothing mattered. Gradually and with help, I climbed out of that place, step by step, into the blessedly ordinary light of day. Whatever caused my “descent” – brain chemicals? lack of psychic starch? – it was by no means a conscious choice. Only shamans and saints and a very old goddess choose the downward path.

The Spiral

I drew a spiral to represent the descent because when you walk down (or up) an enclosed spiral staircase, it is hard to tell exactly which floor you are on and how far you have to go. The spiral is disorienting. It is also dizzying when you peer down into the vanishing point of its center. A friend commented that my spiral made her think of an inner ear, and that was something I hadn’t thought of but seemed appropriate since it was Inanna’s ear that led her downward. Her stairway is solid stone at the top but the steps become immaterial outlines as they wind downward. Her foot might go right through them. Despite Inanna’s grit and courage, I imagine fear in the pit of her stomach as she peers over the edge at the black hole waiting below.


*Inanna’s Descent, Wolkstein and Kramer