This Sunday the Bristol Goddess Temple welcomed a group of academics and community members from various backgrounds for the last in this year’s series of shared experiences and reflective discussions. Like the other events in this series, this one was supported by assistance from the Brigstow Institute at the University of Bristol.
I asked an experienced Druid (whom I’ll call “Q”) to collaborate with one of the founding members of the BGT (whom I’ll call “RC”) in designing the ceremony, and they decided to recreate the Sumerian descent of Inanna. The story involves the descent to the underworld by a goddess of sovereignty, love, war, and fertility, where she is stripped of all her insignia, condemned, and hung as a corpse on a hook for three days and three nights. Eventually she is able to ascend, thanks to the intercession of various gods and their emissaries. But our ritualists chose to focus solely on Inanna and her dark double in the underworld, Ereshkigal.
After we donned special clothing and were prepared mentally by RC, the BGT’s glorious old building allowed us to literally descent a steep stone staircase to a large, dark room with a hard floor.
There Q, with two assistants, orchestrated our passage through a series of gates, at each of which we surrendered something. After a long period of “trying really hard” to step outside of everyday consciousness, I was surprised–after about the “third gate”–to discover I no longer felt like I was lying on a linoleum floor in an old building in Warmley. The darkness, the repetitive action, and the prolonged silence had put me in a mild trance. I really enjoyed climbing the stairs back up “into the light” of the Temple proper, which was extremely well lit. There RC set a different musical and visual tone, leading an idyllic and dreamy meditation involving an encounter with a healing but mystical power. By then we were drained, hungry, and thirsty, so as we emerged from the meditation, the immediate sensory effect of cherries and warm dates (the “body of the goddess”) was a powerful one.
We concluded the ritual and then enjoyed a hearty lunch of frittatas and fruit salad!
Afterward some of the participants were kind enough to stay around for a discussion of their experience. Next year I hope to write up some research on this theme, so for now I’ll just mention one issue that interests me. To what extent do people intuitively frame their experience of a ceremony like this in terms of (1) encountering some aspects of themselves, which might be described as “unconscious”; (2) feeling more or differently attuned to their co-participants, which could also be expressed as becoming part of a shared “thing” or community; (3) or encountering something outside themselves–a projection, a goddess, or whatever? Of course these three options can interact in all sorts of ways.
Anyways, interpretive questions aside, it was a really enjoyable activity. I’m thankful to everyone who came out on a Sunday morning in midsummer!
The Sumerican text for the Descent of Inanna can be read here. Sumerian religion is well outside my area of specialization, so I’m in not in a good position to cite scholarship on this post. The Assyriologist Stephanie Dalley notes in Myths from Mesopotamia (Oxford, 1998, p. 154) that both the Sumerian and Akkadian versions appear to be associated with annual festivals involving the death of the god Dumuzi/Tammuz. The details of those festivals would undoubtedly be crucial to grasping the historical meaning and effect of the myth in its time and place. By coincidence, I also heard Catriona Miller of Glasgow University offer a Jungian reading of this myth at the Katabasis conference at the Freud Museum last weekend; that should eventually be published in a book to which I also will contribute, on the motif of “Katabasis.”