Fall, the time of the Day of the Dead and All Souls Day, is a perfect season for us to contemplate “fearless spirituality” as we face our most essential fear, that of death. Though humans have celebrated these days for millennia, fear with a religious veneer pervades our culture, whether in hate towards women and the LGBTQ community, lies that demonize followers of other religions, terror of eternal punishment and spiritual unworthiness, and more.
When I seek guidance for cultivating spiritual fearlessness, I look to ancient Sumer’s Inanna and her willing descent into death. Her story cycle begins in fear of the Sky and Air gods and her desire to destroy her huluppu-tree, Earth’s first life. Gilgamesh hacks it apart to rid it of a serpent, a bird, and Lilith. The tree’s remains are made into Inanna’s throne and bed. In the next story she takes all the divine powers of her father, Enki, the God of Wisdom, and then joyfully celebrates her body and sexuality in her marriage to Dumuzi.
Finally, she sets out for the Underworld, the land of the dead ruled by her sister Ereshkigal, dressed in her most queenly raiments. She willingly gives these up as a condition of her descent. I am reminded of all the women who sacrifice security and comfort, social acceptance and community, to leave or work for change from within oppressive religious organizations. No longer constrained by the worldview that we are in need of protection by authority or a defined role with its material and social trappings, fearless spirituality shows us that what we once thought made us safe may be keeping us from moving forward.
Inanna kindly went to the Underworld to attend the funeral of Ereshkigal’s husband. Instead of welcoming Inanna, Ereshkigal kills her and hangs her corpse on a meat hook. Enki sends two small beings to rescue her. When Ereshkigal moans in despair, they moan, too, and Ereshkigal is so transformed by their empathy that she frees Inanna. As we see with so many people who endanger their own lives to save strangers, once we no longer fear others, but see everyone as worthy of dignity and life, fearless spirituality requires compassion.
After her rescue, Inanna came back up to life, to the upper world, to once again reign as goddess in Sumer’s everyday world, caring for and watching over her people. In the 21st century, the tasks of averting environmental and humanitarian catastrophe are so immense that hopelessness sometimes seems inevitable. I see in the eyes of those who get up every morning to work one more day in refugee camps, in battered women’s shelters, in activism of all kinds a fearlessness of failure that is sometimes our only hope.
From Inanna, we learn that a fearless spirituality leads to a more balanced way of life for everyone. When Inanna returns to the world, the seasons that support all life are established. All is as it is meant to be. In our own place and time, the banishment of religious fear leaves the way open for new solutions and the confidence to pursue them, for the global relationships that lead to an intolerance of prejudice and hate, for the realization that giving up and retreating into our own Underworld of despair makes no sense.
Inanna’s story shows us that the manifestation in our everyday lives of fearlessness happens when we see and act on truth, when we force ourselves to see the world in new ways. We recognize how we are held captive by accepting without question that what we have been taught to value is what we truly need. We come to understand that the only real power to transform comes from compassion and relationship, not violence and division. We see that the good we do in our everyday lives is sacred and what we are meant to be doing. We begin to bring the world into balance.
Yet, the one essential question that, for me, Inanna’s story does not address is how do we become spiritually fearless? Where do we find the strength and clarity within us to see the truth that leads to the ability to give up what stands in our way, to be compassionate to all, to get up every day and keep on working even when the world’s problems are overwhelming? And what about the destruction of that huluppu-tree? Inanna’s fearlessness seems to instantaneously appear between Gilgamesh hacking the tree apart and her taking to herself her goddess powers.
Diane Wolkstein, in her brilliant translation and interpretation (Wolkstein and Kramer, 1983) describes the serpent, bird, and Lilith as Inanna’s fears of untamable wildness and sexuality. Once civilization, in the form of Gilgamesh, banishes them, Inanna can fearlessly claim her queenship and sexuality. Without doubting that interpretation, perhaps we in the 21st century can learn more from the story by thinking of it differently. Maybe we can view the serpent, the bird, and Lilith as wild and sacred aspects of ourselves that we have lost through millennia worth of “civilization.”What if the serpent, bird, and Lilith do not flee, but rather become a part of Inanna’s divinity through transformation into her throne and bed? Only when we accept into our lives our own sacred wildness, as Inanna did by making her throne and bed from the huluppu-tree, can we leave fear behind.
The leaves have turned from green to crimson and gold here in New England. Soon the branches will be bare and the trees will enter a deathlike time, yet at this moment they are casting off their uniform green to be ever more vibrant and unique. Like Inanna, when we bring the huluppa-tree into ourselves and move beyond fear, we shine brightly, uniquely and powerfully. We illuminate not only our own lives, but those of others as our fearlessness requires us to be more fierce in our pursuit of justice and compassion for all those who suffer in our world.
Wolkstein, Diane and Noah Kramer. Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth, Her Stories and Hymns from Sumer. New York: Harper and Row, 1983.
Carolyn Lee Boyd is a human services administrator, herb gardener, and writer whose work focuses on the sacred in the everyday lives of women. Her essays, short stories, memoirs, reviews and more have been published in numerous print and online publications. You can read more of her work at her blog, http://www.goddessinateapot.com.