The House of the Adornment of Heaven
The House of the Adornment of Heaven is dedicated to Inana, the Sumerian name for a goddess whose worship has compelled and enchanted people the world over since before the dawn of written records. She is passion and fury, splendour and sensuality, and the records of her adoration weave a tantalising web across the trade routes of the ancient world. She cuts a swathe across history, raising valleys and levelling mountains, whipping up the zealous storm and the purest devotion in her wake.
The Sumerians record her as the daughter of the moon god Nanna (Suen), with the worship of the two frequently bound together in their cult centres, and his consort Ningal, a tutelary goddess of Ur. She is the twin sister of Utu, the sun, with whom she has a common role as an administrator of justice. Her older sister is Ereškigal, the Queen of the Underworld, and the conflict between the two is immortalised in one of the most well-known Mesopotamian stories, Inana's Descent. Her consort is the shepherd god Dumuzi, and their enrapturing love story, mirroring the fertility cycle of the Land of Sumer, is celebrated in some of history’s earliest and most beautiful love songs.
Her raw passion enthralled people all over the ancient world, and her stories plied the foothills, marshes, seas and deserts the known world over. The Babylonians and Assyrians knew her as Ishtar. The Phoenicians, who called her Astarte, carried the tales of her glory across the ancient Mediterranean as far as Britain. Different aspects and domains of hers feed into the coalescing of worship around both Athena and Aphrodite, and an aspect of hers may have reached Egypt under the name Qetesh. The kingdoms of ancient Arabia and the Levant strove to proclaim her the consort of their national gods and enshrine her in a place of high honour, and her worship is known in ancient Israel through Biblical sources. Perhaps more so than any deity of Mesopotamia, she has left a lasting cross-cultural impact on the foundations of the modern world.
Throughout history, she has been worshipped and revered with her own sacred symbolism. Her oldest recorded symbol is exactly the ringed storehouse gatepost, under which she is pictured on the Warka Vase, a depiction of a ritual procession from around 3000 BCE, and from which the cuneiform sign representing her name 𒈹 ultimately derives. An eight-pointed star called the Star of Inana has been a symbol of hers at least since the Uruk period, adorning temples and boundary stones throughout the literate period. She is often portrayed wearing a horned crown and carrying a device of a rod and ring, ancient symbols of divinity and rightly constituted order in Mesopotamia, and most commonly depicted either naked or wearing a long dress called pala, a fine “garment of ladyship”. She bears the title of “Lion of Heaven”, her eminence and power compared to that of a lion, and is sometimes portrayed standing on a collared lion as a symbol of her supremacy and victory.
In this scene from the Warka Vase, a worshipper makes a votive offering to Inana, who is identified by the two ringed gateposts behind her.
She received offerings of grains and legumes, fruits and vegetables, meats, beer and wine in her shrines and holy places, dates being especially sacred to her, as were precious metals and minerals of all sorts, but most prominently gold, silver, lapis lazuli and carnelian; lapis-blue and gold are the colours most associated with her, and her sacred number is 15. Creative works, hymns and compositions have long been written in her honour; some of the most prestigious Sumerian literature is that written by the High Priestess Enheduana, the first recorded author in history, who wrote at length about the countless powers, awesome splendour and mighty deeds of the Goddess. Enheduana's work retains its beauty and lustre through the millennia, and is most famously enshrined in English translation in the book Lady of Largest Heart, by Betty de Shong Meador.
Inana is one of the most complex of the Sumerian deities, owing in part to the breadth and quantity of the domains and powers that are attributed to her, for which she is known by the epithet Ninmešara, “Lady of the Myriad Powers”. Her recorded origins, however, lie in the city of Uruk, where the oldest traces of her worship at a settled site can be found. Uruk was originally An's city, but some time before the beginning of the written record, Inana's temple at Uruk - the House of Heaven - eclipsed An's in preeminence, an early sign of Inana’s lasting ambition and a tale which is enshrined mythologically in "Inana and An".
The conquest of Uruk is archetypal of Inana's sheer force of will and the passion she embodies in victory. Conquest by nothing more than will and passion is characteristic of Inana, dating back to her mythological origins as depicted in "Inana and Enki". It was Enki's responsibility to distribute the functions of the universe amongst the gods, but Inana, lacking any functions, felt she had been slighted. She wept in obeisance to Enki and asked why she, alone, had been denied a domain, but Enki extolled her powers of destruction and creation, of transcendence and liminality, of fury and passion, as beyond any enhancement he could bestow. Inana was not satisfied, and resolved instead to get Enki drunk so as he could be convinced to give the functions of civilisation to her; this he did, and although he gave chase afterwards, Inana carried those functions back to Uruk where they were enshrined in honour at the House of Heaven.
This part of Inana's mythological cycle recounts that Uruk is of crucial importance to the human story as the first urban centre and the site of the first great urban revolution, peaking in the late fourth millennium BCE. A buzz of creative power and human solidarity ran through the city, fuelling the greatest technological expansion until the Industrial Revolution. Uruk was the world's first booming metropolis, and the people of Uruk revered Inana for bringing the powers of civilisation into their midst. In the same way that her father Nanna is revered as the great shepherd of the stars, and Dumuzi the shepherd of the fields, Uruk was sometimes known in poetry as the Sheepfold of Inana, and it is therefore she who we look to for righteous guidance as we navigate the legacy of the civilisation that began at Uruk.
Before seizing the powers of civilisation, Inana was revered in Uruk as the divine essence of the storehouse, the womb-shaped exemplar of fecundity that nourished the temple, the people and the administration of the city. The ringed gateposts of the storehouse door are her most ancient attested symbol; fashioned of marsh-reeds, the gateposts place her as the divine numen not only of the harvest but also the flourishing of civilisation the storehouse makes possible. Inana was therefore associated from her earliest days with the goods that piled up in the storehouse: meat, grains and fruits of all sorts, but most notably the date. Because it grew its sweet, refreshing, nourishing fruit year-round, the date palm became a symbol of abundance and fertility to the people of Sumer; Inana's name likely derives from nin-an-ak, "lady of the date-palm clusters". A thriving civilisation requires fertile cities and fertile land, and so Inana naturally came to embody both, the hope for the perpetual abundance of civilisation finding root in her numinous essence.
The more wild natural powers become embodied in civilisation, the more civilisation sets itself apart from nature and gives humanity the power to liberate itself from the burdens of labour. She therefore embodies the powerful contradictory forces that enable civilisation to exist; the constant struggle between humans and the natural world out of which civilisation is raised, and everything that is bizarre, paradoxical and contradictory about the interactions between these opposing forces. Among her domains are lust and warfare, euphoria and catastrophe, but she is truly to be found in the liminal spaces transcending the hostility and reconciliation of these primeval conflicts.
Nowhere is the reinterpretation of the natural through the lens of the human more apparent than in her role as a sexual liberator. Inana stands for not only natural fertility but the distinctly human experience of creative sexuality in all its forms. The hymns and poems of the love and lust that passes between Inana and her husband, Dumuzi, are famed for their candour as well as their passionate expression. She is known as a protector of women's and queer sexuality, delighting in the experience of sexual freedom and expressiveness, and a protector of all those marginalised for their sexuality and expression; a number of her temple personnel are represented as transgressing gender or otherwise blurring the lines of femininity and masculinity, just as Inana herself does.
Inana's virile powers were seen as bestowing of life and authority across Mesopotamia. Dumuzi, as the Good Shepherd, mythopoeically brought about the carrying of the date clusters through the storehouse gates, a sexual metaphor for the nourishing of civilisation provided by the storehouse's numinous essence. However, she will not be bound by anyone else's sexual morae; she goes freely, describing herself as a friend to prostitutes, and when the gardener Šukaletuda sexually assaults her, Inana condemns him to death and writes him into the historical record as a violator; her boundaries are firm, and she will not permit them to be transgressed. The parades held in her honour put her primal, liminal nature, delighting in the overturning of normative expectations, front and centre, featuring cultic functionaries dressed as “male on the right side, female on the left side”, clutching spears and daggers, spattering blood on the procession route to a background of wild drumming and music.
Her passion is a two-edged sword, embodying creative and destructive powers alike, and she stands for the passion of war and the heat of battle just as much as for lust and sensuality. Her conquest of Uruk and of the divine powers from Enki are celebrated as iconic of her warrior's passion, as is her razing of Mount Ebih for refusing to pay due deference to her. She is often depicted armed with ferocious weaponry such as axes, swords and maces, and epic compositions extol the art of battle as the tragic, primal “Dance of Inana”. Astrologically, she is associated with the planet Venus, and her mythological life cycle mirrors the dance of her planet in the sky as planet and goddess both wend between their Morning and Evening Star aspects. Her complex duality is embodied further here as Inana of the Morning represents the masculine, warlike elements of her character, while her fertility-aligned, life-bearing side is represented by Inana of the Evening, with both elements being transcended by her primal passions.
She represents all the ways in which the divine order, in which the natural chaos of the universe is embedded, transcends and permeates the social order created by humans. She roots us in the history of the entire human race and the chaos of the wild nature from which our entire existence springs, reminding us of our duties to the gods and to civilisation, and calls upon us to show courage, forethought and whole-hearted intent in our interactions with the world around us. She is dynamic, never still, ever evolving, always electrifying in her motion and passion, driving us on to dedicate our life’s work to constant improvement and true awe of the Divine. She is life and existence at its purest, most raw, most vulnerable, obliterating barriers, full of all the most passionate, beautiful, fearsome, violent, tumultuous, conflicting, irreconcilable aspects of what it means to be human, and that primordial emotional rawness has drawn seekers and worshippers to her for millennia.
She is Inana, the Queen of Heaven, the Morning and the Evening, who tears down and builds up, who scours the Land and shines light into the darkness. All the passions and chaos of the Universe are contained within her, holy Inana, and her august words will not be countermanded. She is Inana, beloved of An, beloved of all nations - it is sweet to praise her!