“Light who Loves her Sister Darkness”

“Yet mystery and manifestions arise from the same source. This source is called darkness” — Tao te ching, (Stephen Mitchell’s translation”)

by Madronna Holden from Parabola ( Summer 2001)

Should living in the light be our highest spiritual goal? Be careful, the ancient myths warn us: there are perhaps as many ways to be lost in the light as to be lost in the dark. From Sumeria, which preceded Judeo-Christian culture in the Middle East, we have a story that exposes the dangers of scorning the darkness.

The people of the city of Uruk take Inanna, Queen of Light, for their monarch, accepting her gifts of agriculture, irrigation, astrology, and mathematics. Inanna revels in her glory, proclaiming her power, wisdom and sexuality, establishing Dumuzi as king of Uruk by selecting him as her consort.

Meanwhile, her people banish Inanna’s elder sister Ereshkigal, formerly the earth goddess, into the unmentionable Underworld of the Dark City. In time, they also capture and kill Ereshkigal’s consort, the Bull of Heaven, who is responsible for the thunderstorms that bring rain to the earth.

Ereshkigal’s cries of mourning at the death of her mate reach Inanna, who resolves to travel to the Underworld to attend the wake of the Bull of Heaven and to reunite with her sister. Before her journey, she asks her trusted companion, Ninshubur to seek help for her if she does not return in three days.

At each of the gates of the Underworld, Inanna must divest herself of some aspect of her heavenly glory. Finally, after passing the seventh gate, she is taken into Ereshkigals inner chamber.  But Ereshkigal is driven by fury, rage and grief at her abandonment and is maddened by Inanna’s glory in the Upper World. She wreaks her revenge by slaying Inanna and hanging her corpse on a peg in the Underworld.

Hearing no word from Inanna after three days, Ninshubur travels to the sacred temple to plead Inanna’s case. She is rebuffed twice and told that no one returns from Ereshkigal’s Dark City. Finally, Ninshubur supplicates the God of Wisdom, Enki, who fashions tiny spirit-helpers from the dirt under his fingernails. These spirits slip under the doors of the Underworld and express their compassion for Ereshkigal, crying with her in her agony. When Ereshkigal finds she is not alone in her suffering, her heart softens and she offers a boon to those who cried with her. They request the release of Inanna. She grants them this boon according to the Laws of the Underworld, which balances the living and the dead, the light and the dark.

Inanna is reborn as the sisters of light and dark are re-united. Inanna takes to herself the powerful and knowing eye of Ereshkigal. And Ereshkigal receives her rightful title: “Holy Ereshkigal, of Great Renown”.

The archetypal interdependence of light and dark, expressed in the sisterhood of Inanna and Ereshkigal, finds echoes everywhere. The rainbow, perennial symbol of hope and renewal, is light that shows its colors by being reflected on the dark dust of the world. In the Taoist symbol of yin and yang, white contains a seed of black and black a seed of white, and these two essences alternate with each other over time, just as day becomes night and night becomes day. Since day and night contain the seeds of one another, there is no darkness unrelieved by the coming dawn, and no stark, sun-ridden day without her stash of mystery. On the mythic Tree of Life, Inanna represents the leaves that reach for the light of heaven, while Ereshkigal represents the roots that lie concealed within the earth. In the physicist’s universe, as in Inanna’s tale, darkness is the elder, birthing force. According to contemporary cosmology the largest portion of our universe is dark matter, just as its original source was a great, dense darkness that created light from within itself as it exploded—and as it continues to expand outward still. In our daily life, as in the immensity of the cosmos, each seed that grows towards the light begins in darkness.

Carl Jung’s notion of the shadow provides another way for us to understand the interdependence of dark and light. The light of consciousness inevitably casts a shadow, as does sunlight in the natural world. For every thing that consciousness enlightens, it darkens something else. The dualistic tendency in Western thought tempts us to see light as good and dark as bad—as the repository of evil. But the light and shadow of consciousness are not good and bad in themselves.  They are aspects of the visible and the invisible. The shadow has tremendous potential for good as well as ill, and exploration of this darkened, fertile part of ourselves has much to teach us. Indeed, the shadow may represent our source of passion: our imprint on life where sun catches us as we touch earth.

In the wisdom of many indigenous traditions, it is understood that every vision contains mystery as well as revelation. According to the Chehalis, the original people of Southwestern Washington in the U.S. Pacific Northwest, it often takes a lifetime to learn, bit by bit, what our visions mean. It serves us little to hail the brilliant flash of inspiration but neglect the unfolding of its mysterious dark roots. In such neglect, as in the banishment of dark Ereshkigal, we throw away both our own creative sources and our safe ground. The Greek myth of the inventor Daedalus  tells of his imprisonment with his son Icarus inside his own creation, the labyrinth. He devises wings for their escape, with Daedalus warning his son to be careful to fly neither too high nor too low.  But Icarus, absorbed in the delight of flying, soars too close to the sun and the wax on his wings melts, causing him to fall to his death in the sea. 

As in the story of Daedalus and Icarus, Inanna’s tale shows the danger of technology that is not balanced with conscious respect for the dark sources of the natural world. Inanna brings with her to Uruk marvelous technological gifts that convince the people to crown her as queen. But then the citizens of Uruk attempt to assume power over the whole of nature, casting out the Queen of the Dark. It is an ironic triumph, since her consort is responsible for rainstorms that bring fertility to the Sumerian fields. Like the Sumerians, Western society has chosen a rule of light—indeed, we have so lighted our cities as to confuse millions of birds yearly in their attempted migration by thusly submerged starlight.  Ours is a civilization bent on technological control—but we subdue the chaotic, the uncontrollable elements of the natural world at the price of its fertility, just as we cast out the darkness in ourselves at the price of our own wholeness. Vision must have its humility, its dark ‘humus” in order to be complete. By contrast, vision that lifts us away from this root and too close to the sun is liable to blind us. As with Icarus, one who neglects his or her relationship to the dark may be doomed to drown in its great sea.

After banishing Ereshkigal and killing the Bull of Heaven, the Sumerians are a people in crisis. But at first no one but Ereshkigal herself seems to notice this, for everyone else, including Inanna, are too busy celebrating their glory. Indeed, at this point in the story, Inanna herself is mute on her relationship to her abandoned sister, neglecting her in the way that each of us might neglect our shadow—through absorption in her own light. Inanna’s delight in her closeness to the sun is much like Icarus’s. There is an innocence in it, unconsciousness rather than ill will, yet the results are the same, as her self-absorption concurs with the social opinion that sets herself high and her sister low.

Basking in the glory of light may cause us to lose sight of those who dwell in the Dark City of our society or our consciousness. Such traditions such as Buddhism wisely link enlightenment with compassion that calls on us to see the world as whole, to ally ourselves with the low, the hidden and the dark—and to see the great saints not as those who perfect themselves in this life, but those bodhisattvas who forgo Nirvana to help alleviate the suffering of this world. Like Kuan Yin, the Chinese bodhisattva who “hears the cries of the world”, Inanna finally hears the cries of her sister Ereshkigal and leaves the heavenly realm to go to her.

However, the journey to re-embrace the darkness is fraught with danger. The Dark City is a place of mystery and unknowing and Inanna can travel there only by surrendering her former self. The Queen of Light must give up one of her royal attributes at each of the seven gates to the underworld. As each gate demands yet another surrender, Inanna cannot resist asking: “What is this?” She is met with the only answer the Dark City will give any of us: “Quiet, Inanna, the ways of the Underworld are perfect, they may not be questioned”.

Finally, Inanna is taken into Ereshkigal’s inner chamber, but her abandonment has turned the woman she once knew as sister into the vengeful Queen of Darkness, and Inanna is trapped in the Underworld. Ereshkigal both suffers in agony and rages with fury, while Inanna’s body hangs helpless before her, testament to both Ereshkigal’s anguish and to her own.

This is the most dangerous part of the story and the place where its teachings are most profound. In her journey to the Underworld, Inanna has become totally empty, as paths to enlightenment instruct us to be. At last, she hangs in Ereshkigal’s chamber as a corpse. If we are tempted to think of enlightenment as a means of escape, either from our own shadow or from the conditions of our mortality, the image of Inanna hanging on a peg in the Underworld gives us cause to reconsider. Indeed, Inanna’s final emptying takes her to that place from which there is no escape.

Now we should make an important distinction: the surrender of one’s ego must never be mistaken for the surrender of one’s presence. In fact, in her emptied condition, totally devoid of anything we could call ego, Inanna can be nothing but present. She is inescapably present to the fact that she is, in the words of her story “rotting meat”. But Inanna’s vulnerable presence in the chamber of Ereshkigal has another meaning as well. At each successive gate, Inanna has chosen to be present, paying the price of facing what lies before her rather than abandoning her journey. Once in the chambers of Ereshkigal, she continues her gift of presence. For three days she hangs in silent presence before Ereshkigal’s terrible grief and rage.

If isolation and abandonment lead to an impasse at our bleakest moments, it is compassion that may resolve them. After three days in which she does not hear from Inanna, Ninshubur goes to the Enki, the God of Wisdom, who shapes spirits to go into Ereshkigal’s side and cry with her. It is noteworthy that such spirits of compassion who hold the very power of resurrection, emerge from dark, earthy, unexpected, and seemingly inconsequential places. In this story, their tears soften Ereshkigal’s heart and cause the seeds of light within her to emerge. Thus the Queen of Darkness releases theQueen of Light, allowing her to be reborn.

Writing these words at the Winter Solstice, I think of the ancient ceremonies honoring the re-birth of light in the longest night. Like those ceremonies, Inanna’s journey reminds us the light that emerges from the earth’s own season of darkness. As with Inanna, it is our journey into the darkness that may grant rebirth to the vital light within us. But that journey demands our full personal presence, lest we be marooned in the dark underworld of the psyche or be blinded by the light that shows us only the heights of consciousness but not its depth.

Our journey also demands our compassion. Inanna hears the cries of the abandoned and outcast one not as some distant, strange language but as the cries of a sister who has the claim of blood and roots, of shadow and mystery, within her own psyche.  Inanna’s story is thus the archetypal story of human and natural wholeness.  In it we see how the sky loves the earth, and the light of heaven is bereft without its dark sister. We are reminded that without the darkness of the storm, the sun can call nothing to life.