The name Inanna is one of the oldest known recorded names for a divinity worshiped by human kind and the figure of Inanna is one of the oldest and most influential goddesses in human history. She is the holy virgin and the sacred whore and may have initially been named Nin-anna, which is translated as ‘lady of the sky’; she is among the earliest divinities to be associated with the planet Venus, in both the Morning Star and Evening Star aspects.
Inanna is the Sumerian "Lady of the Thousand Offices", a goddess of love and sexuality, of war and bloodshed, of magic and ritual, and of the qualities that define culture. In fact many of her primary sites of worship were centered in the earliest sites of cities and civilization – Uruk chief among them, and her temples there were sites of commerce, craft and worship
Inanna is associated with lions, which even in ancient Sumerian iconography were symbols associated with royalty and power. In art she is often shown standing on one or two lionesses; however there is a possibility that they are in fact not lionesses but hyenas. Hyenas are frequently born as twins (as was Inanna, whose twin brother is Utu) and the stronger will often kill the weaker (perhaps symbolic of Inanna’s sister Erishkigal who rules the Sumerian Underworld) and in ancient lore hyenas (and Inanna) are associated with transvestitism and the shifting of gender roles (the physiology of the female hyena is such that from a distance it is extremely difficult to tell the genders apart).
Inanna is also one of the earliest names that have a written equivalent. In the Sumerian cuneiform system of writing her name was represented by a hook-shaped knot of reeds, a symbol of divine authority (possibly the predecessor of the crozier carried by Catholic bishops). Later her name was represented by an eight-pointed star (the same symbol – ‘dingir’ – was later used as an identifier before the name of any god in their writing). In carvings, especially cylinders-seals on which she appears with great frequency, she often is armed with a bow and arrow, crowned, and dressed in royal robes. In statuary she is shown naked with her arms either folded over or under large breasts (similar in position to the ‘venus’ of Willendorf).
In Sumerian lore, Inanna is the daughter of the moon-god Nanna (named Sin in the Babylonian pantheon) and Nikkal, a moon goddess and in some traditions the granddaughter of the creatrix goddess Nammu. She is the twin sister to Utu (known to the Babylonians as Shamash), who is the god of the sun and of justice and the younger sister of Erishkigal, Lady of Irkalla – the underworld.
Inanna was a prolific lover taking both god and mortal into her bed. The most famous of her consorts is the God-Man Dumuz-id (who has been equated with the Semitic Tummuz). Originally a mortal shepherd-king he became a god associated with the fertility of vegetation and with the divine right of kingship.
It was through the ritual of the Sacred Marriage that this right of kingship was conferred upon mortals. Inanna was the goddess of sexuality and specially trained priestess-followers of hers would engage in acts of ritual prostitution as part of her worship. This sacred sex elevated the participants nearer to the divine and was a cleansing, purifying and, healing act as well as one of worship and celebration. Shamhat, for example, was a sacred whore whose ministrations and teachings tamed the wild-man Enkidu and made him a fit companion for the king, Gilgamesh. The eroticism of this ritual was celebrated in literature and art and some of the earliest known writing deals with the act; Enhenduanna, the first named individual author, was a priestess of Inanna and wrote pomes in her honor that are still celebrated for their beauty.
At the spring equinox the Mesopotamian New Year, or Akitu, was celebrated with the most sacred enactment of the sexual rituals, the high priestess would choose a young man to represent the shepherd Dumuz-id while she herself would take the part of Inanna. Later, it was the king who played the part of the god and through the act the legitimacy of his rule was reaffirmed.
Inanna is able to confer kingship because of her possession of the Mes, the qualities of culture that lift humanity above the animal realm. The Mes included abstractions such as truth and compassion to acts necessary for survival – planning, weaving and prostitution. Originally the Mes were the possession of Enki, the god of wisdom who after Inanna plied with strong beer gave to her hundreds of Mes (though later unsuccessfully attempted to get them back).
There were seven of the Mes that were considered greater than all others and it was these treasures that Inanna adorned herself with when she wished to express her greatest power. The crown represents her godhead and her connection to heaven. Small lapis earrings symbolized wisdom (in Sumerian, ‘ear’ and ‘wisdom’ were synonymous) and the double strand of beads about her neck is her beauty or ‘rapture of illumination’. Her breastplate called ‘come, man, come’ is the Me of emotions; her hip girdle the Me of ego, and the measuring rod and line the Me of will. Last, the ‘garment of ladyship’ (a breechcloth or robe depending on the myth) represents her sexuality and fertility.
It was these seven Mes that Inanna took with her when she set out to pass through the gates of Irkalla, the Big Land from which no one returns. “From the Great Above Inanna opened her ear to the Great Below” is the opening line of the ancient tablets detailing the decent of Inanna into the underworld. The fact that she ‘opened her ear’ seems to indicate that she performed the decent in search of wisdom and understanding while other myths have her journeying to observe the funeral rights of Gud-gal-ana, the Great bull of Heaven (Erishkigal’s husband) whose death she may have caused by sending him after Enkidu the hunter. Still other myths tell her true intentions are to seize the throne of the underworld and rule over all three kingdoms – heaven, earth and hell – as one.
Before she left she gave instructions to her handmaiden, Ninshubur, that if she did not return the mourning traditions would be performed for her and that the aid of the other gods would be sought to save her.
Inanna was right to fear, the laws of the underworld are sacrosanct and none – not even a goddess as powerful as Inanna could thwart them. The heavenly deities were not permitted entrance into the underworld just as the chthonic gods were not allowed to leave. Inanna was met at each of the seven gates of Irkalla and at each one of the symbols – one of the Mes – of her heavenly and earthly power was stripped from her body and she came before the throne of her sister (who is often described as being the ‘other self’ of Inanna, the dark and hidden subconscious) naked and powerless. For three days and nights (the same time the moon is dark in the sky) Inanna hung upon a hook in the underworld where her body began to rot and the world’s fertility began to die without her to sustain it. Ninshubur enlisted the aid of Enki who created two sexless figures named gala-tura and kur-jara to travel to the Great Below and sprinkle her body with the food and water of life, reviving the goddess (and thus the life of the earth as well). But the laws of the underworld said that none were permitted to leave and that in order for Inanna to ascend one must take her place. The daemons of the gates went with Inanna to find a worthy substitute, but all she came upon mourned the goddess’s death and she could not bear to choose them.
Inanna and the gatekeepers came across Dumuz-id, the king, sitting on his throne dressed in finery, oblivious to his wife’s pain and Inanna told the daemons to take him in her place. Dumuz-id’s sister, Geshtinanna was so distraught with his fate that she offered to take half his punishment on herself. In the fourth month of the Sumerian calendar, at the summer solstice, the heat of the sun would kill the vegetation and harvesting began. This was also the time that the sun began it’s ‘decent’ into the southern hemisphere, the time of sun's greatest power is also its decline. July to December was the period of Geshtianna's life and at each winter solstice Dumuz-id was reborn.
The stories and personality of Inanna has influenced dozens of other deities and myths through history, from Persephone’s abduction by Haides to the Wiccan Wheel-of-the-Year. Inanna became associated with Ishtar by the Babylonians (who took over much of the Sumerian religion with their territory) and later by the Assyrians; she developed into the Semitic goddess Astarte and influenced the Egyptian Isis. The early Hebrews connected her to Ashera and the (later demonized) Ashtoreth and she may be the source of the biblical character Esther. Inanna’s influence can also be seen in the understanding of the Ugaritic Atirat, and the Akkadian As-tar-tú, both of whom were associated with fertility, sexuality, and war. All of these goddesses in turn were some of the early influences upon the worship of the Greek Aphrodite, the Etruscan Turan and the Roman Venus and even the Christian Mary.