Erishkigal (pronounced: ay-RESH-kee-gahl / er-esh-KIG-ahl) is the Sumarian Goddess of the Underworld, Irkalla, the land of the dead. It is said that Ereshkigal is the only one who can pass judgment and dictate laws in her queendom. She is all-powerful when it comes to judging our souls there. She stands for a process in soul-awakening—the need to go through specific tests and fulfill certain requirements that become our foundation for growth in Spirit and wisdom.
Ereshkigal is the sister and counterpart of Inanna/Ishtar, the Goddess of sex, love and fertility—Goddess of the warm, life-giving season . Inanna is the Goddess of fertility, of cosmic order, of war and love, of heaven and earth. Inanna is called the Lady of Myriad Offices.
Ereshkigal, like Persephone in the Mediterranean region, reigns over nature during the cold season of the year from the Underworld. Since the ancients saw both sides of a goddess, holding the union of her life-giving and death-dealing image their hearts, we can view Inanna and Ereshkigal as one goddess in two aspects. So, Inanna needs Ereshkigal to weigh and judge how she uses her powers. Ereshkigal’s powers are truth-seeing and judgment, testing and boundaries.
Once worshipped as Ruler of the Underworld from the Euphrates to the Nile, Ereshkigal is now known primarily for her role as Inanna’s adversary in the ancient Sumerian text, The Descent of Inanna.
Thus begins this ancient poem/story/song.
The Great Below is obviously calling to Inanna. In Sumerian, the word for ear means mind and wisdom. Inanna, from the Great Above, set (opened) herself—“her ear, her receptor for Wisdom, to the Great Below.”2
Inanna withdraws her energy and power from her Temples and cities, from all her worshipers, her family and friends. She takes the 7 divine powers in her possession and dresses herself in them. Then she tells her faithful servant, Ninshubur, that if she doesn’t return, to go to the three Father gods and beg them to make sure that she doesn’t die in the Underworld.
Having set her mind, Inanna goes down to the underworld to her sister, Ereshgikal.
When Inanna arrived at the outer gate of the underworld, she pushed aggressively on the door. She shouted aggressively: "Open up, doorman, open up. Open up, Neti, open up. I am all alone and I want to come in."
Neti, the chief doorman of the underworld, answered holy Inanna: "Who are you?" "I am Inanna going to the east." "If you are Inanna going to the east, why have you travelled to the land of no return? How did you set your heart on the road whose traveler never returns?"
Holy Inanna answered him: "Because lord Gugalanna, the Bull of Heaven, the husband of my elder sister holy Ereshkigal, has died. I have come to witness the funeral rites. Let the beer of his funeral rites be poured into the cup. Let it be done!
Neti the gatekeeper goes to his mistress Ereshkigal and tells her that Inanna demands entrance. Ereshkigal goes into a rage (she is unfortunately full of fury, greed, the fear of loss, and even of self-spite) and with a bit of glee orders Neti to bolt the doors and only open them one at a time, as with any soul coming to her land. At each door, Inanna must give up one of her powers. When she protests, Neti tells her to hush and not complain about the divine rules of the Underworld. Those are the rules, made to order by Ereshkigal, who knows the soul’s needs.
And so Inanna enters her sister’s Underworld naked and bowed low. As Inanna crouches before her throne, Ereshkigal looks at her with the ‘eye of death’, pronounces her judgment and Inanna dies. Then Ereshkigal hangs her on a meat-hook to putrefy.
When Ninshubur goes to the father gods, Enlil and Nanna, to ask for their help in restoring Inanna, they refuse to help. They say that the rules are the rules—nobody returns from the Underworld. But Enki (her mother’s father) helps. He creates two little beings from the clay under his fingernails, the kurgarra and galatur, and instructs them to take on Ereshkigal’s anguish—to mourn with her. Then he gives them the food and water of life to give to Inanna.
When the kurgarra and the galatur sneak into the Underworld, they find Ereshkigal doubled over in anguish, moaning and bemoaning both her insides and her outsides, as if in the pangs of childbirth. They echo her moans, witness her pain. The Underworld Goddess complains—and why shouldn’t she? Her pain and rejection is real. It hurts! Enki’s wisdom teaches that suffering is part of reverencing life, and so these beings mirror Ereshkigal’s suffering.
And that changes everything. Ereshkigal is so touched by the attention they offer her that she extends herself and offers them the gifts of fertility and growth. Following Enki’s instructions, they instead ask for Inanna’s rotting body (the body of the Goddess of fertility and growth).
The kurgarra and galatur sprinkle the food and water of life on Inanna’s corpse. And Inanna arose.
As Inanna ascends to the upper worlds, she takes back her powers—and then some. But now she has to send someone down to take her place, for the laws of the Underworld cannot be broken. As she returns to her Temples and cities, her worshippers and her family have mourned her. All except her husband, Dummazi, who has gone on with life as if Inanna’s death was unimportant to him. And so she sets the demonic galla on him. He runs and tries to hide but they find him and carry him off to the Underworld.
To learn: To die. Then be born, live and die again.
Ereshkigal is the power that Inanna must face to be reborn. For Inanna to grow, she must face her dark sister. The laws of the underworld seem harsh to us, but they are the soul’s rules. If we want our souls to grow in spiritual awareness, we have to experience the process. Ereshkigal initiates us into the process.
There is a fierceness in Ereshkigal that is lacking in Inanna, whose open sexuality and creativity are matched and balanced by Ereshkigal’s eye of death and her way of stripping you bare. When Inanna reclaims her power, she carries Ereshkigal with her. She is also fierce, and knows something of sacrifice.
Jungians see Ereshkigal as one of the Shadow aspects of women’s psyches. Ereshkigal is the holder of our pain, just as the Shadow is that part of our personality and needs that we’ve rejected, banished, and repressed in the unconscious.
Ereshkigal is a multi-faceted deity of transformation, boundary-keeping, and passion, a teacher of harsh but necessary lessons. The only way we can meet Ereshkigal is stripped of our persona, stripped down to the skin of who we are. She tests our courage and our commitment to ourselves. Will we be whole? Or will we leave a part of ourselves languishing in loneliness and pain?
What happens to the story when we look at it from Ereshkigal’s viewpoint?
Unfortunately, Ereshkigal was not happy with her assignment. There she is, bound to the Underworld, not able to come up to where life blossoms or even to go to the heavens with the other gods and goddesses. When Inanna comes calling, why should she let that glorious life in, just to make her feel more miserable and jealous by reminding her of what she is denied?
Ereshkigal is stripped bare, down to her essential being. And that’s what she requires of us when we come to pay her a visit. If we come to her domain, she makes the rules. It’s up to us to decide how we’ll deal with her rules. Are we open to our own truth? Or do we hide from ourselves who we really want to be? What we really want to do? Who we really are?
Another Crone Goddess, Ereshkigal is more than just the death aspect of the Goddess. Goddess of Boundaries, Mistress of the Ordeal and the Descent, and the Merciful Blade that lays open the truth of our Shadow, Ereshkigal is the Goddess who initiates us into our truth and wholeness so we can release all that is dead and embrace all that is dark in us.
We stand at the Gate of Samhain, the end and beginning of the Celtic year. The veils between the worlds are thin, and we can travel through them if we dare. Ereshkigal is the Goddess who can guide us to look at ourselves through her ‘eye of death’.
Take the next step in your journey of self-discovery. Travel to Ereshkigal so that the old will die so the new can be born again.