It is curious to find that, throughout all the academic works that deal with the ancient tale of the Descent of Inanna or Ishtar to the Underworld, no one appears to have mentioned the obvious: communion with the dead.
The extraordinary tale of the Great Queen who abandons this world in order to journey down the 'one-way road' is most compelling perhaps when it is perceived as a spiritual vision quest, rather like Odhinn's shamanic trials, all undertaken for the sake of knowledge and wisdom.
Odhinn hanged himself from the World-Tree Yggdrasil, 'myself a sacrifice to my self'. He pierced his side with his spear, letting the blood flow freely, then spent nine nights on the tree awaiting the moment of Illumination. When it came, 'screaming he took up the Runes'. This is the tale that explains how the Runes came into being.
In another tale, Odhinn travels to the Well of Urdh at the roots of Yggdrasil and asks for a drink of the sacred waters. The price is high: he must pluck out his own eye and offer it as sacrifice. He does so without hesitation. Nowhere is there any tale of Odhinn's cowardice or reluctance in the face of danger. There are those who say that this tale represents an essential truth: that by placing his eye in the Well of Wisdom, he gained vision of the Unseen realms and the world of the unconscious.
In any event, the tale of Inanna's descent represents a personal tale of spiritual enlightenment to most contemporary readers and indeed, like all great myths and fairytales, it can have many different valid interpretations.
At the heart of this tale, however, is an ancient ritual for the dead. In many civilisations, it was believed that the dead were not entirely absent from this world. Even when an afterlife in some Paradise existed, it was believed that the dead could be summoned to communicate with the living.
The tale of Mot and Ba'al depicts the All-father El himself presiding over a funeral feast for the dead. In similar fashion, the ostensible reason for Inanna's journey to the Underworld is in order to attend a funeral ritual for her sister's husband, the 'Bull of Heaven'.
Evidently, there were rituals of preparation that had to occur. As Inanna passed each gate, she was stripped of another piece of regalia, another symbol of power. When she finally arrived at the palace of Ereshkigal, she was naked.
Iceland is a place where old Northern European pagan beliefs endured longer than anywhere else. The practice of 'sitja a haugi' in old Norse ('to sit on a howe') was widespread in the old pagan North but is described mainly in Icelandic sagas.
An old law code of Norway describes the practice of 'útiseta' or útiseta at vekja troll upp': 'to sit out and wake up the dead'. It appears that 'útiseta' was a general shamanic ritual designed to gain esoteric wisdom, but sitting on the howes of one's ancestors was a more specific quest to communicate with the spirits of one's own dead.
I had intended simply to post the old tales on my site, but when I began to think about this ancient almost universal practice, it occurred to me how far and remote we are in contemporary Western society from OUR dead.
Is it any wonder that people are so insecure, so desperate for a guide, when Death has become such a stranger to our daily lives? Some of us do not have any physical access whatsoever to the graves of our ancestors on a regular basis. Travel and 'urban sprawl' have distanced graveyards and cemetaries from the people who have any emotional or familial tie to them.
Gone are the days when the dead were placed in the centre of the parlour or other chamber of a private home for viewing. Death has become a bureaucratic nightmare in Western civilisation for the most part.
In many civilisations, small hills or mountains were constructed as homes for the dead. As part of the Earth and yet apart from the earth, these mounds still dot the landscapes in many different lands. They served to give renown to the family of the deceased, naturally but they had a far greater significance. They were the site of ritual events designed to link this world with the next.
In contemporary Western society, we tend to fear Death. Death is perceived as 'unnatural', a fate to be avoided as long as possible. How can a society based on fear of Death have any valid basis when every single member WILL be obliged to face Death sooner or later?
Governments actually legislate against death, banning suicide and suicide pacts, banning 'mercy killings' and punishing those who dare to act on the principle that quality of life is more important than life itself.
Those who believe truly in a life after Death should not fear Death, for according to most religions, the Afterlife offers something far better than THIS world. Yet most individuals in the West, even when their religions extol the virtues of the Afterlife, are almost desperate to avoid it.
The ancient Romans placed the death masques of their ancestors on their walls. The ancient Celts collected human skulls. The ancient Sumerians, Babylonians and Canaanites held ritual feasts for their dead. If one sups with Death on a regular basis, one cannot fear him too much.
Moreover, there is a certain ineffable peace and stillness in places that are consecrated to the dead. It is no wonder really that poets and philosophers have haunted graveyards and mounds when seeking inspiration.
In the North, government assemblies actually met often on burial mounds. The leader or king would be given the place of honour at the top of the mound. As far as rituals of 'mound sitting' are concerned, however, they essentially involved solitary communion with the spirits of the dead.
When Inanna began her journey to the Underworld, she took leave of her closest companion and servant, giving her detailed instructions as to what she should do should the Queen fail to return. Most shamanic rituals are solitary ones, but there usually is some one who watches over the shaman from a distance, making certain of his/her return.
Inanna took the 'one-way road' fully intending to return. In the tale of Mot and Ba'al, the lord of the Dead visits the living at their banquet, but then commands that the living lord attend him at HIS feast in the Underworld.
These ancient rituals were performed for the benefit of all society. There was a deep sense of connection between the worlds: between the sky, the mountain and the pit beneath the mountain. Like the ancient Egyptians who constructed vast artificial mountains in the forms of pyramids, the ancient mounds were created as a focal point for a meeting of the worlds.
Another reason I believe that the tale of Inanna's descent deals with an ancient mound and a ritual for the dead is the name used for her destination. An Akkadian
version of the tale begins: 'To Kurnugi, land of no return...' The Sumerian version speaks of 'Neti, gatekeeper of the Kur'. Kur originally signified 'Mountain'. Later, it signified the Mountain that was the entrance to the Underworld, through which the 'river of Death' flowed.
The entrance to Mot's palace was in a mountain. In fact, there is an old tale about Canaan that predicts a time in the future when the old god Mot will arise and burst forth from his mountain to destroy the invaders of his land.
In old Europe, it was at the feast of Samhain that the gates between the worlds opened. Hallowe-en originally signified a sacred ritual for the dead, a means by which the living remembered and communicated with their loved ones and ancestors.
What has become of this sense of community? Perhaps contemporary 'alienation' is partly caused by the rift between life and death in our society. Surely an individual who believes himself or herself to be part of an unbroken line that stretches from past to present and into the future cannot ever feel entirely abandoned or alone.
I am not a morbid person by nature but I do envy the Ancients their easy familiarity with Death. After all, any of us could be fated to face Death at any moment.