by the Rev. Krista Taves
October 29, 2006
According to the mythical lore of the Ancient Babylonians and Assyrians, there was a Goddess known as Ishtar*. Sometimes you will see her named as Innana. Ishtar’s father was Sin, the Moon God. Her brother was Shamash, the Sun God. Her sister Ereshkigal ruled the Underworld. It was said that once you entered the Underworld, there was no return. And yet Ishtar had this inner longing to see for herself what took place in that deep dark unknown. She expected that her sister would not welcome her in, and she was right. When she arrived at the Gates of the Underworld, the gatekeeper would not open the door. When she threatened to force her way through, the Gatekeeper went to Ereshkigal, who was furious. Why would anyone choose to enter the world of darkness? To come here out of curiosity seemed an insult. She told the Gatekeeper to let Ishtar in, but on the condition that like all the others, she would not be allowed to leave.
When the Gatekeeper brought Ishtar to the first gate, he asked her to take the large crown off her head. "Why,” she asked. And he answered, "Such are the decrees of Ereshkigal." At the second gate he asked her to remove her earrings. Again she asked why, and he replied, “Such are the decrees of Ereshkigal.” And so it went through the seven gates to the Underworld. One by one, she removed her necklace, the ornaments off her breast, a jewel-encrusted girdle, the spangles on her hands and feet, and finally, her loincloth. As she stepped through the seventh and final gate, she arrived unclothed, no sign of rank or status on her body.
Ereshkigal was enraged. She had assumed that her sister would be unable to part with her jewels, and yet here she was, naked and vulnerable and determined. In her rage, Ereshkigal imprisoned Ishtar in the Land of No Return. And when she did this, terrible things began to happen back up in the Land of the Living. The bulls had no interest in their cows. The donkey wanted nothing to do with its mate. And man roamed the streets no longer caring to meet woman. Basically, the very act of procreation was dying. With Ishtar’s imprisonment in the Land of No Return, all of life would die. Ishtar’s father Sin, her brother Shamash, and the King began to plot her release. They decided to send a eunuch down to the Underworld to convince Ereshkigal to release Ishtar. When the Eunuch arrived before her, Ereshkigal was furious. She cursed the eunuch in all manners possible, but he stood firm. What could she do? She ordered her gatekeeper to return Ishtar to the Land of the Living. At the first gate he returned her loin-cloth. At the second gate he returned the spangles of her hands and feet. At the third gate he returned the jewel-encrusted girdle. At the fourth gate he returned the ornaments of her breast. At the fifth gate he returned her necklace. At the sixth gate he returned her earrings. At the seventh and final gate he returned her crown. When she emerged back into the light of the Land of the Living, the bull returned to his cow, the donkey to its mate, and once again man walked the streets in search of woman. And all was right with the world. So ends the story of Ishtar.**
On the night of Samhain, some pagan covens will reenact through ritual Ishtar’s descent into the underworld. They will cast the circle by calling in the four directions, as we did today. This is how every pagan ritual begins. But the Samhain ritual is different from most pagan rituals. In most pagan rituals, once the circle is cast, everything in the circle is done clockwise. This is the action of invoking, for it is the direction the sun appears to travel around the earth. It is a way of moving with the currents of life. But at Samhain, that changes. At Samhain, once you cast the circle, you move counterclockwise. As you reenact the descent of Ishtar into the Underworld, you enact the action of banishing. Ishtar loses piece after piece of what she knew as herself in the Land of the Living, and when she passes through that last gate, she is naked and completely vulnerable.
How many of you have sat at the bed of the dying and watched them slip away? Bit by bit, that person disengages from the body that has held them all their lives. Who they are in this world, is stripped away, like Ishtar’s jewels and finery are stripped from her body. As she passes through those gates, all the surface layers are left behind, and only her naked vulnerable self remains. All that we are, and all that we become, and all the things that we gather around us, cannot come with us when we pass from this life. Where do we go? Well, we don’t know the answer to that question, and that is not a question that Unitarian Universalism tries to answer. We leave that up to your conscience. But what we do know, is that death is irreversible, and you can’t take what you have here, to wherever it is that you go – whether that be to an underworld, to your next life, to heaven, to a grave, or to the place where your ashes are scattered. The story of Ishtar’s descent into the underworld is a mythical representation of what is going to happen to each one of us some day.
The story of Ishtar’s descent is also a mythical representation of much more. What really intrigues me in this story is what happens in the Land of the Living when she leaves it. It intrigues me because we can’t control how we die, when we die, why we die, and what happens to us after we die. We also can’t control how others die, when they die, why they die, and what happens to them after they die. But, we do have some control over how we live. And what this story is about, profoundly, is how we live through death and loss.
On the surface, this appears to be a story about escaping from death and loss. When Ishtar’s brother Shamash realizes she is in the Underworld, he runs to his father, Sin, panicking. Both turn to the King, who weeps when he heard what has happened. And then they begin to plot how to free Ishtar from the grips of the Land of No Return. This would be a story about escaping from death and loss if we chose to look at this story through a literal lens. But myth can rarely be unwrapped using a one dimensional tool. Myth always asks us to go deeper. So let’s go deeper.
When Ishtar is imprisoned in the Underworld, nothing in the Land of the Living is right. The animals refuse to mate. Men no longer desire women. Her brother, her father, and the King are immersed in powerful emotions like fear, disbelief, panic, and a strong desire to make everything right. Not unlike the Samhain ritual, everything is in the wrong. Everything is in reverse. And is this not what happens when we lose something we have loved dearly, whether that be a person, a relationship, a way of living, a facet of our lives, or a deeply cherished belief. Panic. Fear. Disbelief. A great emptiness. When something we loved is lost to us, the life we knew no longer makes sense. And not unlike Shamash, Sin and the King, there are times we will do almost anything to try and escape from the pain of the loss, even to the point of sending someone else in to save us from the situation.
When something or someone in our life dies, we become like Ishtar passing through the Gates of the Underworld. You too may have found when going through intense grief, that so much that you thought was intrinsic to who you were, was being stripped away. First your crown, then your earrings, then your necklace, right down to the loincloth that is the last protection you have from the world.
The story of Ishtar’s descent is less about the plight of the dying, and more about the journey that remains for the living. What we are called to do in the face of loss, is to mourn, and that mourning requires descending into that underworld, taking off all those things that hold us to the life we used to know, and then putting them back on in a new way, so that we can return to the Land of the Living.
There are four tasks of mourning***, four tasks that will take us down into the Underworld and then bring us back up.
The first task is to accept the reality of the loss. To come face to face with the reality that the object of your loss is truly lost and is not coming back. Even if you have had some time to prepare for the loss, there is still the need to grapple with this reality. Like Sin and Shamash and the King, we may be in denial about the loss itself, we may be in denial about the meaning of that loss. This is why we have memorials and funerals. They help bring home the reality that this person is truly dead. This is why some people formally recognize divorces and separations. This is why you may burn memorabilia from a time in your life that has had to end. There are all kinds of ways that we accept the reality of loss.
The second task is to work through the pain of grief. There is a saying that the only way to go through pain, is to actually go through it. You have to feel your feelings. It’s not always easy, because the automatic response to pain is to try and find some way to end it. But the thing is, with emotional pain, the only way it ends, is to feel it. To suppress pain is simply to postpone pain, and it will catch up with you. The pain can have so many facets. It all depends on the nature of your relationship to that person, if you were at peace when you parted, if there were unresolved issues between you. Everyone’s pain is different. You have to fully feel that pain so you do not carry it with you the rest of your life.
The third task of mourning is to adjust to an environment where what or who you lost is missing. For instance, when you lose a partner or a parent, your environment changes profoundly, and it can take a long time to get used to living without their physical presence. Any loss, regardless of how small or large, affects us in this way. We have to adjust and learn how to live in a new way without that person. It may mean rebuilding how you understand yourself, because if your identity was deeply tied to that person, when they are gone, that identity cannot stay the same. When Ishtar descended into the Underworld, she removed, piece by piece, that identity. When she ascended back into the World, she put her identity back together.
The fourth task of mourning is to emotionally locate the deceased and move on with life. What this means is that you have less emotional intensity connected to what you have lost. When you get to this place, you can hear that person’s name, or think about the things that have passed on, and not begin to cry, or be pulled back into the past. You may feel a twinge of sadness, perhaps some emotional softness, but not the kind of emotion that controls you. You can keep living your life. It doesn’t mean you forget them or put them away, it does mean that you have found a new place for them in your life and you can be fully present to your life again.
These tasks don’t necessary happen in a neat and clean order. You don’t finish one and work through another. Like most things, everyone grieves in their own way and in their own time. But can you see how these four tasks of mourning – accepting the reality of the loss, feeling the pain, adjusting to a new environment, and moving on – reflect the descent of Ishtar into the Underworld and her journey back up to the Land of the Living. That is what grieving is about. It is about going into those deep painful places, and then slowly but surely, coming back from them stronger and ready to live again.
At Samhain, there is a critical point in the ritual. When Ishtar is freed and begins her ascent back through the Gates, the ritual changes direction. Worshippers shift from going counter clockwise to going clockwise, from banishing to invoking. The energy of the ritual changes, heightens, as Ishtar passes through all seven gates and returns to the Land of the Living, fully adorned with her clothing and her jewels. She will never be the same again, but she has returned, and she is stronger and wiser, and in that moment, all that was wrong with the world is now right.
I have no doubt that each of us has experienced loss and is experiencing loss. For some of you, that loss is keen and immediate. For others, it is more distant. Perhaps you are anticipating loss as it becomes clear that something is coming to an end. We are all in different stages of descending and ascending to and from that Underworld, for the truth of the matter is, that the Underworld is always there, whether it is the specter of physical death or the many small deaths that we experience in the unfolding of our lives. What I hope for each of us is that we can go into those places and come back stronger and wiser. What I hope for each of us is that we can have, even if briefly, those moments when everything feels right with the world. Those moments are hard won and precious. Treasure them.
*Many thanks to my dear friend and Pagan Chaplain at
University of Toronto Dana Shaw, who shared with me this story and its
significance for her. I hope I have done it justice.
** (The story as told here is a synopsis of the poem by M. Jastrow found at this website: http://www.sacred-texts.com/ane/ishtar.htm)
*** These tasks were developed by J. William Worden, Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy: A Handbook for the Mental Health Practitioner. New York: Springer Publishing Company, 1991.