By March 16, 2016 Read More →

Inanna—The Quintessential Femme Fatale, Tikva Frymer-Kensky, BAR 10-05, Sep-Oct 1984.

Inanna—The Quintessential Femme FataleDiane Wolkstein’s Inanna–Queen of Heaven and Earth is a retelling, with commentary, of one of the major texts about the Sumerian goddess Inanna. This is a difficult book for me to review. I could not possibly be more in sympathy with its aims. As a historian of religion, I find ancient mythology a fascinating and important window into the ancestral soul. The mythological gods and goddesses come alive for me, for they are not simply fictional characters, but the embodiments of human fear, anxieties, hopes and passions. Their stories are alive with the multi-level shimmer of poetry and myth, telling the tales of one people, but reverberating with the subconscious of all humanity. Further, there are two ancient peoples to whom I, as a cultural historian, especially resonate—to whose culture I am most attuned, whose ideas fascinate and intrigue me: ancient Israel and the ancient peoples of southern Iraq, the Sumerians first and the Babylonians who followed. To me the Sumerians are alive, and I believe that they not only taught us many lessons at the start of out history five thousand years ago, but that the rediscovery of the Sumerians can continue to infuse our culture with their ancient ideas.

There are additional reasons that I would welcome a book like Wolkstein’s. As a Biblicist, I know that much of the religious development that produced the Bible can be traced to the Sumerians, who developed writing. From earlier times we must speculate from material remains alone. As a Sumerologist, I want to ensure that the work of this great ancient people becomes as much a part of general knowledge as the legacy of the Greeks, so that the names of Enki (lord of wisdom and the subterranean waters), Enlil (lord of the terrestrial realm) and An (the sky god) become as familiar as the times of Zeus, Apollo and Dionysos. And finally, as a feminist and a scholar of women and religion, I understand the need of many women for divine role models, for a sense that there is not only a spark of the divine in every human, but a part of the goddess in every woman.

You can imagine with what excitement I began to read this book. But my eager anticipation soon turned, first to anger, and then to sad dismay. This is not the book that we have been waiting for. In this retelling of the Sumerian stories of Inanna, it is hard to find the Sumerians, and even harder to find the goddess Inanna.

This is especially difficult for me to say because this book is the product of a collaboration between Wolkstein and Samuel Noah Kramer. Kramer is a great Sumerologist who has made it his life-work to sit in museums and painstakingly hand-copy and then match up fragments of Sumerian compositions inscribed on little tablets scattered around the world. He has given us these stories as his great enduring gift to our civilization. Moreover, Kramer has always been interested in reaching out beyond a scholarly audience. He wants all educated people to know about the Sumerians. His books—History Begins at Sumer, The Sumerians, The Sacred Marriage Rite and From the Poetry of Sumer—are thoroughly readable and are meant for the general public as well as for scholars.

Kramer’s self-stated goal in working with Wolkstein on the texts of this book on Inanna was “to provide the reader with an authentic portrait of Sumer’s most beloved and revered deity, the goddess Inanna” (p. xiii). But this is not Wolkstein’s purpose. As she tells us, she was on the trail of the Moon Goddess. Wolkstein was combing through world mythologies “in search of the names of [what she refers to as] moon goddesses: Ishtar … the Shekinah, Lilith, Persephone, Inanna” (p. xv). It is into this framework that Wolkstein tries to fit Inanna. But these are not moon goddesses. The Shekinah is the holy spirit immanent in the world. Lilith is the dangerous contra-woman, the demoness.

Not all goddesses were moon goddesses, and not all moon deities were goddesses. Despite the fashion among certain mythologizers, the moon is not always a woman, and not all women are like the moon. One cannot equate each goddess with every other goddess. To do this robs goddesses of their diversity and, at the same time, robs women of their ability to have different functions and different personalities. In many respects, the ancient goddesses were the projections and reflections of cultural attitudes about women. In their stories can be found the human ambivalence toward and fascination with women in their different roles. To turn all these goddesses into “the moon goddess” does violence to these goddesses and to the cultures that produced them, and at the same time, does violence to all modern people in their quest for knowledge and to modern women in their search for divine symbols.

To Wolkstein, the story of Inanna is the story of the “archetypal Moon Goddess: the young woman who is courted; the ripe woman who enjoys her feminine powers and generously offers her bounty; and the mature woman who meets death in the underworld” (p. xvi). Stories that are fluid and timeless are forced into a linear “biographical,” developmental line. Aspects of the stories and of Inanna that do not fit this straitjacket are ignored. Inanna becomes “Everywoman.”

Nowhere is this clearer than in the related stories of Inanna’s courtship and Inanna’s descent to the netherworld. Wolkstein presents the love poetry between Inanna and her beloved Dumuzi. She interprets this as the tale of a celestial Inanna paired with a human Dumuzi. Although there may have been a king named Dumuzi in the early, legendary days, Dumuzi must be understood primarily as divine. As a god, he had such a powerful hold on human consciousness that his story was remembered and celebrated thousands of years later. In the form of Tammuz, Dumuzi survived into Biblical times. Ezekiel describes the women of Jerusalem weeping for Tammuz (Ezekiel 8:14).

According to Thorkild Jacobsen in Treasures of Darkness, Dumuzi was the personification of the spark of life within all living plants and animals; Inanna (whose symbol is the reed bundle) is the representation of the power of the storehouse. The sacred marriage between them was the coming together of the fertile spark of nature with human husbandry. On the other hand, Wolkstein’s representation of this sacred marriage as the story of a human king who was loved and elevated by a celestial goddess whom he thereafter takes for granted does not take into account these other elements of Inanna’s and Dumuzi’s symbolism. As a result, Wolkstein tells a charming story that gives us no sense of the great ritual drama experienced by the Sumerians when they told and retold and acted and reenacted this story.

In this tale of Everywoman, I miss Inanna. The goddess-woman who emerges from this book is too weak to indicate what it was about Inanna that made her thrive and grow greater in the human imagination even when all the other goddesses began to be eclipsed. The Sumerian Inanna was a fascinating goddess. She personified the male image (an image probably shared by women) of an eternally young, eternally sexually available female. Although two children of Inanna are mentioned, Inanna is not portrayed as a mother goddess. There are other goddesses to fill that role. Inanna does not become middle-aged, does not develop the pendulous breasts and enormous belly and thighs of a Stone Age fertility statue. Inanna stays young and beautiful, unencumbered by too many or too obvious children. She is the goddess of love, interested in sexual adventure.

But sexual attraction is dangerous, and Inanna is volatile, vindictive and ferocious. She is portrayed as the quintessential femme fatale, whose exciting allure can lead males to their doom. As such, she is not only to be loved, but to be feared. Furthermore, since Inanna stays unencumbered, not burdened by the normal female domestic tasks, she is restless and power hungry. Somehow she becomes mistress to the city of Uruk, originally the domain of the sky-god An. When Enki, lord of wisdom, gets drunk while entertaining her, Inanna takes over his role as guardian and dispenser of the mes, the mystical principles of civilization. When Enki sobers up and tries to get back the mes, “sweet” Inanna will not return them.

One must guard against Inanna; she may seduce you to your doom; she may take vengeance if she cannot seduce you; or she may simply wait for the opportunity to take power. Inanna even tries to wrest control of the netherworld from Ereshkigal. We should be careful to note that her direct grab for power—from Ereshkigal—was from another female. Inanna was, however, thwarted.

Much more could be said about the multi-faceted image of this fascinating and dangerous young goddess. When the Babylonians who followed the Sumerians wrote hymns to Inanna, they praised her “manliness.” They were not disturbed by the fact that the attractive, voluptuous female also had “manly” characteristics. She was not the less female for that. Inanna was indeed the “macho” goddess. We may not always like Inanna, but we must respect her. Kramer has written his own portrait of Inanna, “Adoration: A Divine Model of the Liberated Woman,” inFrom the Poetry of Sumer pp. 71–97. I do not fully agree with him, for my own picture of a liberated woman is different from his. But Kramer’s ideas of what liberated women are like may be representative of the ideas that men have held through the ages, and Inanna is to some extent what men have believed that a non-domestic—and non-domesticated—female would be.

Wolkstein has missed all this in her quest for a universal moon goddess. Her Inanna is no more the Inanna of the Sumerians than Freud’s Oedipus was the Oedipus of the Greeks (the Greeks were more concerned with impotence in the face of destiny than with love for their mothers). Her book is essentially a “docudrama,” and it suffers from the dangers of that genre. Docudramas change the facts of a historical or biographical tale to make it more interesting; if successful, they reform the audience’s perception of real events to conform to literary themes. “Truth” or “facts” are only the wellsprings of a tale. Wolkstein should have warned the reader that she was writing a personal version—”My Own Inanna.” But the real tragedy of the book is that the portrait of Inanna that emerges is less interesting, less compelling and less relevant than the real portrait of the charming, flamboyant, volatile and deadly goddess of old.

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