This article first appeared in SageWoman, Issue 93.
Perhaps a Goddess of Death need not be fierce and murderous with skulls and knives, or a soul-weighing judge of our fate, or a ghostly wind who spirits us off in the night. What if the Underworld, the ancient and shadowy land of the dead where She reigns, is not only a place of mystery where our shades dwell when our bodies no longer inhabit the Earth, but is also a temple we can visit while living where our thoughts and intentions become clear as a drop of water on a rose petal, where we boldly shake off the self-made chains binding us to our past, where we gratefully receive the fortitude and will, like Goddesses, to rule ourselves? What if the Great Below is where we must venture to gain the power to be fully human that we seek and that lovingly seeks us?
Thirty years ago, in a small theater in New York City’s American Museum of Natural History, after closing time when the galleries were abandoned and eerie, author and storyteller Diane Wolkstein performed the myth of Inanna. She made those ancient verses of the great Goddess of Sumer come alive with her inspired tone and gestures just as they may have been experienced by ordinary people like me millennia ago.
I fell in love with the Goddess at that moment, overwhelmed by the deep reverberation of those mighty words in a space within me that I had not known existed. “From the Great Above, the Goddess opened her ear to the Great Below…Inanna abandoned heaven and Earth to descend to the Underworld” (Wolkstein and Kramer, 52). In the very marrow of my bones, I knew that this story of metamorphosis was also my own.
In the myth, Inanna travels to the Underworld to witness the funeral of the husband of her sister, Ereshkigal, Goddess of the Underworld. At each of seven gates she is stripped at Ereshkigal’s command of all the clothes and jewels that are symbols of her station as Queen of heaven and Earth. She is condemned by the judges of the Underworld, then killed by her wrathful sister. After her rotting corpse is hung on a meathook for three days, she is rescued when the God of Wisdom sends two tiny beings to find her and bring her back to life. Inanna ascends to her own realms healed, strong and confident, wise and fearless.
In my own life, portals to the the realm of the Goddess of Death are not grand and gilded gates that I will pass through once at the end of my days, never to return. Rather, they have been small openings that I fall partially into now and again, unawares, only to be ejected back into the world of the living just as unexpectedly. These descents have been sometimes dramatic and often just a bit odd.
Skipping over three just-in-the-nick-of-time emergency surgeries, a gigantic, ancient tree that recently fell a few yards from where I was peeling onions in the kitchen, and other relatively mundane experiences, here are a few of the most memorable escapes. As a teenaged au pair in London in the 1970s, I decided at the last minute not to get on a train that was later bombed by the IRA. In my 20s, now living in New York City, I once calmly walked home from work in the middle of a violent hurricane, learning later that at just that time the eye was passing over the city, keeping me safe in its peaceful, windless silence. A few months later, a skyscraper’s gigantic plate glass window shattered only a few inches away from me when it was blown in by a powerful gust of wind, sending dagger-sharp shards that somehow missed me entirely all over the tiny room. Some years later I walked away unscathed after an airplane I was on barely missed surprise lightning bolts that hit the runway just as the plane was coming in for its landing. “I can’t believe we made it,” said the heroic pilot who had somehow managed to fly the plane almost straight up and out of the way of the storm. A few years after that I again survived without a scratch when a car, spinning wildly on ice, came within inches of smashing head on into the car door next to where I sat.
When the first of these experiences happened in my teens, I came to believe that I was just a little immortal, that nothing could harm me. More importantly, I experienced a sense of freedom that I was, as a result, no longer bound to the expectations and demands of life as a young woman in late 20th century mid-America. If I had actually died, then there would be no Carolyn to act, believe, speak, and live according to what was expected by society. So, since the world should have been bereft of the benefits of my existence anyway, I was now liberated to be exactly and only who I chose. I remember saying to myself “No longer must I justify my decisions, answer the call to be someone I never wanted to be. I can now do exactly and only as I please.” Like Inanna, I had shed the trappings of my station, but for me this meant I could now make my new life however liked.
I became my own Goddess of Creation, taking my sovereignty to not only own and live my life as I desired, but also to create it. I began to dress up my soul, now naked like Inanna, in whatever life circumstances took my fancy. Like an artist creating a masterpiece, I started with a vision of what I would like to look like in this version of my life, what a day would be, what my environment would be like, and how I would make a living, and then set about fashioning and stepping into it.
So, at aged twenty-two I left my staid, secure, suburban midwest home to recreate myself as a punk poet in the East Village of New York City. I inhabited what was to me a delightfully squalid apartment, dressed in a black velvet opera cape and dyed my hair red, and engaged in street poetry performance art. A few years later, taking on a completely different persona, I married, moved to a pristine history-soaked small town in New England, renovated a ramshackle Victorian house, went to grad school and got a professional job, and raised a family. Since then, I have remade myself in smaller ways as often as I wish — changing my hair and wardrobe to fit whatever part I am playing, taking up hand drumming in my late 50s to explore thinking like a musician, being an herb-growing hedge witch on the weekends and a suit-wearing manager on weekdays.
To my youthful self, sovereignty was the ability to make my life be exactly as I wished, and to change it whenever I had a new whim. I have learned over the years that this power to re-create oneself is a gift that is much harder won for many other women who are forced to patch together their existences after violence, illness, or other misfortune steal everything they know. I once spoke to a woman who had lost her family, her village and her country through war, had grown up in a refugee camp and had eventually found her way to the U.S. where she married and now struggles day to day to feed and clothe her family. “I keep on and don’t get angry, what good would that do?” she says, meaning not that she is resigned to the harshness of her life, but that being angry would be an obstacle to making her own fate for herself and her children. Unlike my younger self, who only played at this shallow form of sovereignty, she survives by wresting her own sovereignty out of nothing every day.
Once Inanna had shed her clothes and jewels and entered the Land of the Dead, she was judged and killed, truly facing death. As much as I had thought about my own death over the first 55 years of my life, I was far from prepared to actually confront it. Nevertheless, one bright winter day I found myself unexpectedly lying in my upstairs hallway, slipping into and out of consciousness due to loss of blood from a sudden hemorrhage, wondering if the ambulance would arrive in time. I was oddly calm, as if this would be just another quick trip to the edge of the Underworld. But, instead, in the emergency surgery that followed, cancer was revealed and I, too, had to face the possibility that I would right then be subject to Inanna’s mortal fate.
At first, I desperately clung to my belief in my immortality, trying unsuccessfully to convince myself that I was different from everyone else there in the cancer center waiting room, that I would surely survive because had I not always walked away? Was I not the creator of my own life, sovereign over my fate? However, over time, every infusion bag drained into my body, night spent awake from drug-induced bone pain, radiation burn, emergency ultrasound due to a symptom that could indicate recurrence, and dinner out spent sick in the ladies room wore away my hubris. Like Inanna listening to the charges against her, knowing that her conviction was a foregone conclusion, I finally accepted that I, too, would die one day. My death may not be from cancer, and it may not be soon, but it was inevitable. Not able to simply change my wardrobe or house and overcome this challenge to my sovereignty and life, I became overwhelmed by panic and was not living the days I had left — whether weeks or decades — well. I recognized that I do not have absolute sovereignty over what happens to me, but I also gave away what sovereignty I had over how I would live the years I had left.
For the first few weeks, when I walked into the cancer center where I was treated, I imagined I would be entering a true-to-life Land of the Dead, where everyone would be grim and hushed, resigned, and depressed like me. Yet, most of the people around me who had been in treatment longer than I did not behave as if they were anticipating soon being denizens of the Underworld. Many had large families with them and would sit during the long hours of chemotherapy infusion lunching on pizza and chatting. No one was crying. Most were talking and even laughing, reading magazines or scolding fidgety children. They were acting as if their lives were not on the edge of annihilation. What did they know that I did not?
I thought again of Inanna and what made it possible for her to rise up from the Underworld. Her rescuers were two small beings, tinier than fleas, who had been sent by the God of Wisdom to brave the terrors and dangers of the Underworld to bring Inanna home. They won her release by moaning empathetically with Ereshkigal in her absolute and unrelenting misery, moving her to offer them whatever they wished in gratitude. They asked for Inanna’s corpse, which they brought back to life. Inanna’s ascent to a deeper, wiser divine existence was made possible by the same kind, simple caring for one another that is repeated by humans and other living beings all over the world billions of times a day.
In the days following my diagnosis, I was inundated with love — from my husband who came to any appointment I wished, my sister who travelled 800 miles to weep with me, my work colleagues who banded together to cover for me so I could take the time to recover, and friends and acquaintances who sent cards, letters, and lots of advice. My own rescue into remission was made possible by the hundreds of medical researchers who dedicate their lives to labs and data so they can find cures and my doctors and nurses who carefully devised the right treatments and delivered them in a way that let me know I was more than my disease.
Like Ereshkigal, I was eventually more overcome by the kindness and compassion I was shown in my suffering than by the fear of death. The new trappings of my life — the pain, exhaustion, and uncertainty — were still real, but not what defined it. My sovereignty transformed from the ability to dress up my soul in new lives like a doll, to the deeper, richer power of being part of a web of human connection. I could not determine what would happen to me as an individual, but I could choose to live in a loving way and be part of a human community that has sovereignty over what kind of a world we will all live in. Perhaps those other patients had experienced a similar kind of epiphany, too.
I have received from the Underworld the gift of the understanding that, for mortals, sovereignty does not necessarily mean being always regal like the Goddesses who rule over all the Earth and its beings, the cosmos, and the universe herself. Speaking and acting with the authority we deserve for the wisdom we hold; demanding what is right for ourselves, others, and the Earth is part of our divine mission; honoring and insisting that others respect our spiritual as well as temporal power is how we must go forth if we are to do what we need to in this world on the brink of catastrophe. However, an essential element of our human sovereignty is also finding our real power in quietly nurturing each other in everyday ways, in treasuring each dawn knowing that we have it in our power to make the world better together before we go to sleep again at night, in being grateful for our flesh and blood bodies even as they become more fragile because they are necessary for us to be alive together and relate to one another through speech, touch and other means.
We have a sovereignty beyond that of mere immortal Goddesses. We are human. It is easy to have sovereignty when you are a Goddess, but it takes a deeper courage, caring, and wisdom to be sovereign with others, to determine that we will choose not what trappings of life we will have, but who we will be as people to one another even in the face of vulnerability and an inevitable end to our current form of existence.
I’m now three years into remission, with the chance of recurrence remote and a new immunotherapy for my type of cancer now available. While I no longer contemplate death daily, I still hope to have more visits to the Underworld before my last journey there. But I believe I have come to a time when I no longer need to stumble into the portals because I can find ways to go through them voluntarily — in meditation, in making creative works, in assisting others as they transition to Ereshkigal’s realm — not forever but for just a moment to gain a needed insight, clarity, or understanding. The Underworld is not, I have learned, the place where the last remnants of our true selves go when we are annihilated from the Earth, but is instead a place that is as close as our imaginations and our legacy of Goddess stories, found in the American Museum of Natural History, a hospital room, a street or office, or anywhere we may happen to be at this moment. It is a place that holds the keys to our special human and mortal sovereignty if we will only journey there to seek it.
Wolkstein, Diane, and Samuel Noah Kramer, Inanna: Queen of Heaven and Earth, Her Stories and Hymns from Sumer. New York, Harper and Row Publishers, 1983.