Where’s the Sign Post?

One of the reasons for my interest in the Hero’s Journey is because I think I am living it.  In fact, I think it is a great schemata and metaphor for this journey we call Life.  However, if I am living the Hero’s Journey, then where exactly am I?

Image from http://livinginthetwohearts.wordpress.com/2011/02/

There are indications that I have been at the mid-point turn or “Ordeal” for quite some time; well beyond the three days and three nights of death and resurrection in many myths.  Wouldn’t it be great if I were about to begin the Return?!  Unfortunately, well, at least unfortunately from my ego’s point of view, I may still be in the Descent and have not yet reach the nadir.

In the language of the Hero’s Journey, the choices we face require us to leave the Ordinary World; a world that is familiar although possibly unpleasant.  The content of the “familiar” may be an attitude, a value, a behavior, some stance we hold in our life. Uninvited and unwanted, we feel stirrings. Because of this quickening, these familiar things that we never thought to question become curious, even odd.  In the language of Robert McKee, we reach a point of intolerable imbalance.

There are many ways to cope with this quickening we feel: deny, anesthetize, avoid, or heed. “The real choices in life will always involve the conflict between competing values, each of which has some considerable claim upon us.  Or there would be no difficulty in the first place.” – James Hollis (On This Journey We Call Our Life).

“Choices” and “conflicts”, words common to any screenwriter.  How do we choose between competing values that we hold dear?  Only one of the various coping mechanisms in this crisis of the Call leads us to take the most courageous option: Leave the Ordinary World and head into the Special World; that unknown and therefore frightening world.  To enter the Special World we are called to tolerate higher levels of anxiety, ambivalence and ambiguity.  What do we risk by taking this journey?  Everything.  What do we gain by taking this journey?  Everything.

Well, guess what?  I am very clear that I have passed the first threshold and have entered my version of the Special World.  Wherever I am on this path, I can look back and see growth.  But that growth has been painful, challenging, and confusing.  And, I wouldn’t go back for any price.

“To know what is true for us, to feel what we really feel, to believe what makes sense of our unique journey—this is the essence of living a life of spiritual integrity.  Not easy, not common. Much harm is done when the integrity of one’s personal experience is violated on behalf of the group’s neurosis.  Damage is done to those who are denied permission to take a journey of personal discovery.” – James Hollis (On This Journey We Call Our Life)

Spiritual integrity is a new concept to me, but integrity is not.  In a world where honor is often equated with pride, integrity is losing to efficacy.  If you feel these stirring that I have been talking about, you will intuit the truth of your own spiritual integrity.  You discern that your journey to wholeness demands that you must step back and test the majority opinion.  To quote a famous song title: “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for”.

And equally true: I cannot abandon the search.  Regardless if I am still in the Descent or have completed the Initiation and am about to begin the Return, I must see this through.  It is, after all, my life.

The Hero’s Journey – Descent

The Descent of Inanna: Primary characters:

Inanna – Goddess of Love, aka Queen of Heaven or Great Above
Ereshkigal – Goddess of the Underworld or the Great Below
Enki – God of Wisdom
Ninshubur – faithful companion to Inanna
Dumuzi – shepherd and King
Neti – guardian of the seven gates
Anunnaki – judges of the underworld

Back Story

Through trickery, Inanna takes from Enki the gifts of the me, the arts pertaining to kingship, priesthood, warcraft, speechcraft, lovemaking, agriculture, and the trades or techne necessary for commerce and community.  Enki allows her to keep the me when he sees she has added to it.

The journey to the Great Below is implicitly connected to the rejection of her lover, Dumuzi and his misuse of the me which Inanna has bestowed on him. She departs for the Great Below to restore balance.

Descent

She adorns herself with her queenly robes, jewels, and divine decrees (me) that she fastens at her belt.  She readies herself to enter the “land of no return,” the nether world of death and darkness, governed by her enemy and sister goddess, Ereshkigal.  In fear that her sister might put her to death, Inanna instructs Ninshubur, her messenger, to go to heaven and send out a cry for her in the assembly hall of the gods if after three days she should have failed to return.

There are seven gates through which Inanna must pass. Ereshkigal instructs Neti to open the seven gates to the queen of heaven, but to abide by the custom and remove at each portal a part of her clothing.

“Come, Inanna, enter.”

Upon her entering the first gate,
The shugurra, the “crown of the plain” of her head, was removed
“What, pray, is this?”
“Extraordinarily, O Inanna, have the decrees of the nether world been perfected,
O Inanna, do not question the rites of the nether world.”

Upon her entering the second gate,
The rod of lapis lazuli was removed.
“What, pray, is this?”
“Extraordinarily, O Inanna, have the decrees of the nether world been perfected,
O Inanna, do not question the rites of the nether world.”

Upon her entering the third gate,
The small lapis lazuli stones of her neck were removed.
“What, pray, is this?”
“Extraordinarily, O Inanna, have the decrees of the nether world been perfected,
O Inanna, do not question the rites of the nether world.”

Upon her entering the fourth gate,
The sparkling stones of her breast were removed.
“What, pray, is this?”
“Extraordinarily, O Inanna, have the decrees of the nether world been perfected,
O Inanna, do not question the rites of the nether world.”

Upon her entering the fifth gate,
The gold ring of her hand was removed
“What, pray, is this?”
“Extraordinarily, O Inanna, have the decrees of the nether world been perfected,
O Inanna, do not question the rites of the nether world.”

Upon her entering the sixth gate,
The breastplate of her breast was removed.
“What, pray, is this?”
“Extraordinarily, O Inanna, have the decrees of the nether world been perfected,
O Inanna, do not question the rites of the nether world.”

Upon her entering the seventh gate
All the garments of ladyship of her body were removed.
“What, pray, is this?”
“Extraordinarily, O Inanna, have the decrees of the nether world been perfected,
O Inanna, do not question the rites of the nether world.”

Naked, she was brought before the throne. She bowed low. The seven judges of the nether world, the Anunnaki, sat before the throne of Ereshkigal, and they fastened their eyes upon Inanna; ­the eyes of death.

At their word, the word which tortures the spirit,
The sick woman was turned into a corpse,
The corpse was hung from a stake.

Descent to the Great Below

Descent to the Great Below

The Commentary

The story of the Descent of Inanna exemplifies, in a poetically vivid way, the “descent” of the Hero’s Journey as presented by Christopher Vogler  (click for description).  Imagine being stripped of everything you have; of everything you know about yourself; of every artifact that represents your life as you know it.  This is what Inanna experiences in her descent.  This is what rites of passage successfully do to the initiate.  One phase of life is radically cut away.

If Joseph Campbell is correct and the Hero’s Journey parallels the structure of rites of passage, this portion of the journey is where the hero enters into a womb-like environment to be reborn symbolically; or in rites of passage, the initiate faces a similar descent so as to be reborn psychologically.

The descent is a deepening of the problem of the first threshold and the question is still in balance: Can the ego put itself to death? Inanna arrives naked before the throne of Ereshkigal and the seven judges, the Anunnaki; they fasten their eyes upon her and she is turned into a corpse which is hung upon a stake. She loses everything and is left dead; a naked corpse hanging on a meat hook. That is descent.

Another well known descent is Dante’s Inferno

Inferno

Often, if a meaningful story is well constructed and well told, the hero goes through this process in the course of the narrative intertwined with the plot and theme.  If you use the Hero’s Journey as a tool to structure your story, a comprehensive understanding of what is meant by “descent” will inform and enrich your characters and their actions as they descend in their story.  Stories such as Descent of Inanna and Dante’s Inferno provide a rich resource to assist you in this endeavor.

Post Script

Inanna’s story does not end here.  To finish the story see Descent of Inanna or The Harps that Once…: Sumerian Poetry in Translation.