A seasonal ritual drama

Inanna with Erishkigal

Inanna with Ereshkigal,
by Geraldine McCarthy

Tired of the emphasis on the heterosexual relationship between The Goddess and the Gods in most ritual drama cycles which celebrate the seasonal Wheel of the Year, our Women’s Group has created a mythic cycle which focusses exclusively on different faces of the Goddess and the interplay between Her different aspects.

Over a year we discussed which Goddesses and their myths we associate with each festival. From these we selected stories which lent themselves to ritual drama and created a “script” for that festival’s ritual, with one or more women being honoured to carry (literally, to be possessed by) the Goddess. We were also inspired by the wealth of ancient sites in West Cornwall in which to enact our sacred dramas.

Here in the seventh of our eight-part series we publish our AUTUMN EQUINOX ritual, which enacts the Goddess myth of Inanna and her descent to the Underworld to meet her sister Ereshkigal. We offer these scripts as our contribution to the myriad creative ways to celebrate the Goddess at the seasonal festivals.

We held this ritual at Carn Euny ancient settlement, using the Beehive Hut as the Underworld and the fogou as the entrance to the Underworld, with a small altar to Inanna (consisting of Her costume and para-phernalia) in one of the above-ground huts. We just finished getting everything ready in time to say our personal goodbyes to summer as we watched the sun set, a deep red ball sinking behind the hill in the misty west. Tomorrow and for six months there would be more darkness than light.

We blessed each other with the four elements, drew the circle, and then separated to make our preparations. Each of us invoked the Goddess into ourselves as we put on Her costume, Ereshkigal in the Underworld (the Beehive Hut) and Inanna above-ground. Inanna wore a pretty red flowery dress with a red blanket-shawl, sexy red satin knickers, the crown of sovereignty, a necklace and an expensive bracelet. Carrying a single ear of corn (the hope of rebirth, the symbol of the Eleusinian Mysteries that were held at this time of year) and her staff, she processed regally out into the settlement, then danced a sad goodbye to summer, wistfully holding a last rose and finally tossing it towards the west where the sun had disappeared.

Inanna then gathered her courage and began to make her spiral descent (widdershins) towards the Underworld. She hadn’t gone far before she was challenged by Neti, Ereshkigal’s Gatekeeper, who was dressed all in black: top, skirt, tights, shoes and headscarf. She carried a black bag.

“Stop!” – an authoritative command emphasised by the hand held out, palm out and upwards. “Who are you?”

“I am Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth.” (proudly).

“Where are you going?”

“To the Underworld. I seek my sister Ereshkigal… Queen Ereshkigal.”

“To gain entrance to the Underworld, you must surrender your crown, symbol of your sovereignty.” Inanna is taken aback, surprised, but then she consents. As she unhappily kisses her crown and hands it to Neti, Neti asks: “Do you voluntarily give up your crown?” “I do,” sighs Inanna.

Then you may pass this the first gate to the Underworld”, and Neti gestures for her to proceeed. As she walks on, Inanna comforts herself, “Never mind, I still have my staff”, and by the time she has made another full turn of the spiral she has regained strength and confidence.

Then Neti looms once more out of the gathering gloom in a slightly different place to challenge Inanna again. This time she requires that Inanna gives up her staff. Inanna walks on, missing her staff painfully, especially where she has to climb over a wall and jump down. As she completes another circuit, Neti appears again and demands she give up her precious jewellery, symbol of her richness and wealth. This time her replies are less proud – each loss is a humiliation and makes her feel more vulnerable.

On the fourth challenge Neti asks for her warm shawl, her protection. Inanna is really horrified and protests: “But I shall be so cold!” Implacably Neti informs her that she has no option if she wishes to pass this fourth gate, and again demands to know that this is a voluntary sacrifice. Now Inanna’s spirits sink fast, for she truly is cold and unprotected, which makes her feel miserable as she plods wearily round the fifth circuit. Her humiliation deepens as she is required to hand over her dress, symbolic of her beauty at the fifth gate, and her knickers, symbolic of her sexiness at the sixth gate. It is now quite dark, Inanna is very cold, and her feet are frozen and bruised from the sharp stones she must walk on in her bare feet. At the seventh and final gate she has to hand over her necklace, symbol of the circle of her life itself. She is naked and utterly vulnerable, stripped of all she was and had and identified with. She is then told to wait, and Neti disappears down into the fogou, leaving her cold and fearful. Eventually an unearthly wail from Ereshkigal summons her down into the Underworld.

The Underworld is lit only by a single light coming from a black incense burner which casts eerie shadows. Ereshkigal is forbidding and terrifying, naked and huge under her black cloak. She continues to lament. Inanna greets her tentatively but is ignored and met with eyes of stone. She tries to embrace Ereshkigal and to offer comfort, and flinches as she is repulsed. Ereshkigal struggles with the momentary temptation of comfort, but then quickly rejects it as a false hope. Ereshkigal then advances menacingly on Inanna, holding something in her hand which she shows to Inanna but which Inanna cannot quite see. When the thorns are pressed into her bare shoulder, forcing her downwards, Inanna realises that it is a rose plant – her symbol of summer! -now actually a rosehip and symbol of the end of summer – and that she is about to die. She must now finally accept the inevitable and face her own death, which she has resisted up to this point. Just before Inanna dies, Ereshkigal understands the mystery and whispers: “You had to die so that you could be reborn”. Overcome with grief, she lies down beside Inanna, sobbing and stroking her lifeless body. The ritual drama ends with Ereskigal left to her lonely and intensified grieving.

After a while, both women put down their Goddess aspects and return to their human selves. After a period of quiet meditation, we finished with an abundant thanksgiving feast, talking over the very powerful experiences and emotions of vulnerability and loss that this ritual drama engendered for us.