Enki the Wise is the god of fresh water and wisdom. He is a great helper of humankind, and gave to us the Seven Sages, who taught us many arts and skills. To the beautiful Inanna, of whom he is most fond, he gave many gifts as well: wisdom, justice, love, the sacred women, and the fruit of the vine. Inanna is the morning star and the evening star, the rose, and Queen of the Heavens. She is the daughter of Sen, the god of the Moon.
Inanna has a sister named Ereshkigal, who lives and rules in Irkalla, the land of the dead. Though Inanna was always very wise, in her youth she knew nothing of her sister's land, and wanted to learn of it. She asked the permission of the other gods to go. After much hesitation and debate, they granted her wish.
So it was that Inanna went to the gates of Irkalla and petitioned the gatekeeper for entry. Actually, being in the fire of her youth and after all a goddess, she got pretty pushy about it. She said, "Here gatekeeper, open your gate! If you don't open up, I'll smash the door and shatter the bolt! I'll raise up all the dead and they shall come up to Earth and eat the living, until there's more dead than alive!" Well, that certainly got the gatekeeper's attention. He got on the horn to Ereshkigal right away.
Needless to say, Ereshkigal was not amused. "What does she want," Ereshkigal hissed. "For bread I eat clay, for beer I drink muddy water. It is I who must weep for the young men taken from their sweethearts, for the young girls taken from their lovers' laps. It is I who must weep for the infants taken so long before their time. Does she want a piece of that? Or is it the Water of Life she wants?" For it was true, Ereshkigal did keep the Water of Life down there, a most prized possession in such a bleak place. "Go ahead, Gatekeeper, let her in. But treat her to the ancient rites, as all must endure on their way to me."
Back up top, the Gatekeeper smiled feebly and unlocked the gate. "Enter, my lady. May you find joy here. May Irkalla be happy to see you." At that he snatched Inanna's great crown.
Inanna roared in anger. "Return my crown!" Who are you to remove the crown of a goddess?"
"Go forth, my lady," answered the gatekeeper solemnly. "Such are the ancient rites."
Soon they came to another gate. The gatekeeper unlocked it, and as Inanna passed through, he removed her earrings.
"Why have you taken my earrings?" Inanna demanded, a little less indignant this time.
"Such are the ancient rites, my lady," said the gatekeeper. And this went on for several more gates, seven in all. The gatekeeper took her necklace, then her breast pins, her girdle of birthstones, the bangles on her wrists and ankles, and at last her very gown. Finally, after passing through the seventh gate, Inanna found herself standing naked before Ereshkigal.
Ereshkigal had expected Inanna to be frightened and contrite by this point, and although Inanna was a bit flustered, you would have never known it. Indeed, it was Ereshkigal who was trembling, for although Inanna had been stripped of all of her finery, her radiant presence was overwhelming in the dark, musty palace. Ereshkigal motioned to her vizier.
"Namtar!" she cried. "Send out against her the sixty diseases!"
Now Inanna is tough, but sixty diseases from the Queen of the Dead is enough to slow anybody down. Inanna fell to the ground, and Ereshkigal threw her into a lampless cell to die.
Meanwhile, back on Earth, Inanna was beginning to be missed. Without their beautiful goddess of love, the people fell into despair and stopped screwing. The animals in the forests and fields stopped screwing too - even the bees and butterflies stopped pollinating. The world plunged into a terrible winter, and famine began to ravage the land. Finally Papsukkal, Inanna's brother, went to their father the Moon-god and told him of of the tragedies befalling the Earth. Together they went to see Enki the Wise.
Enki the Wise, being of course wise, came up with a plan. He created a being to save Inanna, and to be her close and trusted friend. From the dirt beneath his fingernails he made Asushunamir, whose name means "he/she whose face is brilliant." And being luminescent like the moon, Asushunamir passed directly into the underworld from the overworld, as only the moon can do. In the dark palace of the underworld he appeared before Ereshkigal.
"Oh my my, what have we here!" Ereshkigal cried. She was overtaken with desire at his/her beauty, and became immediately obsessed with taking Asushunamir to her bed. She called a lavish feast in his/her honor, and had her best wine brought to the table. Asushunamir sang in his/her ethereal voice for her, and danced sensually, but was careful not to eat any food prepared by ghosts, and to pour his wine on the floor when Ereshkigal wasn't looking.
When Ereshkigal had at last become very drunk, Asushunamir asked of her, "Oh great and lovely queen... is it not true you keep the Water of Life here? For I have heard it is so, and I have longed to taste it."
"Namtar!" Ereshkigal cried. " Bring me the jug that holds the Water of Life! I shall grant this magnificent creature's wish."
When Ereshkigal finally passed out in a drunken stupor, Asushunamir quietly took the jug to the cell where Inanna lay dying. He/she sprinkled the Water of Life upon her, and Inanna quickly began to revive, her eyes regaining their sparkle and her face flushing pink like a child's. Hurriedly she rose, and bidding Asushunamir to follow, raced upward through the seven gates and back to Earth. As she burst through the final door, the flowers immediately began to open and the grass to green, and the skies cleared at last.
Asushunamir was not so fortunate. Just as he was approaching the seventh gate, Ereshkigal awakened, and no amount of music, dance or flattery could charm her now.
"The food of the gutter shall be your food!" Ereshkigal shrieked. "The drink of the sewer shall be your drink! In the shadows you shall abide."
When Inanna learned of the curse placed upon her friend, she wept and spoke softly to him/her. "The power of Ereshkigal is great," she said. "Even I cannot break her spell. But I may soften her curse upon you.
"For many ages you will suffer. Those who are like you, my assinnu, kalum, kurgarru, and kalaturru, lovers of men, kin to my sacred women, shall be strangers in their own homes. Their families will keep them in the shadows and will leave them nothing. The drunken shall smite their faces, and the mighty shall imprison them.
"But if you will remember me, how you were born from the light of the stars to save me from death, to rid the Earth of winter, then I shall harbor you and your kind. I shall give you the gift of prophecy, the wisdom of the Earth and Moon. You shall banish illness from my children, as you healed me in Irkalla. And when you robe yourself in my robes, I shall dance in your feet and sing in your throats. And no man shall be able to resist your enchantments.
"When the Water of Life is brought up from Irkalla, then lions shall leap in the deserts and you shall be freed from the spell of Ereshkigal. Once more you shall be called Asushunamir. The Shining Ones. Those Who Have Come to Renew the Light. The Blessed Ones of Inanna."
Although virtually unknown until about 150 years ago, the Sumerians had a profound influence on later cultures. Images and events from their mythology appear frequently in both the Old and New Testaments. Although comparatively liberal in terms of their religious mainstream, by the time the Sumerians were in full swing the patriarchal bias born of the "agricultural revolution" was already some 6000 years old; note that Enki the Wise, the creator, is male. In the later years of their culture, the Sumerians became increasingly warlike and less egalitarian in their treatment of the sexes.
Inanna, or Ishtar as she was called in Babylonia and northern Sumeria, was one of the three great goddesses of the Bronze Age, along with Isis of Egypt and Cybele of Anatolia. Besides being served by priestesses, she was also attended by gender variant priests - possibly eunuchs - and by hierodules (sacred prostitutes) of both sexes. Transgendered people of several cultures subsequently served many other goddesses : Athirat, Isis, Hera, Demeter, Ma, Kotys, Astarte/Aphrodite, Atargatis, Artemis/Diana, and especially Cybele, whose priests - called the "Galli" - are very well documented. With the burgeoning patriarchy well underway, these transgendered servants of the Goddess - like the hijras in modern day India - were generally viewed with contempt, and treated with fearful respect.