Any new book by Judy Grahn is cause for celebration. For decades, Grahn has been a lyrical and passionate poet, author, mythographer, and cultural theorist whose work features both goddess wisdom and contemporary culture centering on women and queer people. Nightboat Books has just published her newest book, Eruptions of Inanna: Justice, Gender, and Erotic Power, which offers ancient yet fresh world views with which to approach such issues as injustice, sexuality and gender, climate change, and more just when we need it most.
In Eruptions of Inanna, she brings what she calls her “poet’s eye” to eight stories featuring the Sumerian goddess Inanna as well as religious practices of those devoted to her. She explores how these have directly influenced our world and, in her words, can continue to “feed our needs and help us take better care of each other and our world.” According to Grahn, Inanna “is a combination of human, creature, erotic and other energetic forces, and civilization. She also inherited very old powers that grew out of women’s rituals” (55). Her essence engenders sovereignty and self-worth, especially in women and queer people. She is a goddess of love, espousing passion and the joy of eroticism as integral to both life and society. She practices an expansive justice that creates positive outcomes in response to horrific acts. She creates a civilization of the arts, beautiful and useful crafts, abundance, and a jubilant communal life. She demands respect for nature and ecological sustainability.
Reading Eruptions of Inanna is to be immersed in a worldview and society that celebrates all Inanna’s qualities. Grahn writes with honesty and poignancy about how Inanna and women associated with her and the power of female beauty and eroticism, including Helen of Troy and Marilyn Monroe, transformed her over decades. By the end of the book, I, too, had a visceral sense of being embraced by the spirit of Inanna so completely was she revealed and enlivened by Grahn’s detailed and spirited retelling of the stories, her in-depth analysis, and her description of ancient Sumer. In many ways, Grahn is our generation’s Enheduanna, the world’s first named poet who wrote hymns celebrating Inanna, elucidating the goddess and her meaning for our own times.
Eruptions of Inanna features Inanna’s expansive dispensation of justice. Through a cycle of five stories, we witness Inanna first gaining the power of judgment and the ability to make decisions about life and death. Inanna’s actions consider not only the impact on individual victims but also how the well being of all of society is harmed by the crimes. Eventually, she comes to seek not just retribution, the focus of so much of our 21st century justice, but responses that actually result in positive outcomes for all. For example, after Dumuzi, her beloved, is murdered she creates a ritual to succor dead souls wandering in the desert. Finally, she joins with other deities representing the forces of nature to ensure that humans respect their primacy.
Grahn explores at length the Babylonian story of Gilgamesh as well as the bibilical story of Job, demonstrating Inanna’s influence on worldwide cultures over the millennia, including our own. The story of Gilgamesh, which features Inanna as Ishtar, offers three views of life and death which we still grapple with today: a female-focused reincarnation and regeneration as part of nature’s cycles, a transcendent paradise, leading to the duality of good and evil, and secular humanism. She convincingly shows that the biblical story of Job had its origin in an earlier story Enheduanna told in her poetry of being dispossessed of her temple and position. A careful exploration demonstrates how Job’s story embraces Inanna’s ideas of justice and how the destructive demonizing of sin, Satan, and sex developed in the biblical worldview. In doing so, Grahn offers a perspective on coping with tragedy that is both healing and provocative.
Grahn has said “Eruptions of Inanna is my opportunity to place both women and LGBTQ people in a sacred context, a poetic tradition that is more than 4,000 years old.” The formidable energy of femaleness and women’s spirituality and eroticism infuses the book through discussions of the power of menstrual blood and their relationship to menstrual taboos, myth and poetry positively portraying women’s sexuality, rituals celebrating the lives of girls and women, and the elevated roles of women and goddesses in ancient Sumer.
We also learn how Inanna’s stories center queer people. Her myths feature same-sex erotic relationships between Inanna and her minister Ninshibur and Gilgamesh and Enkidu. In a “headoverturning” ritual in Inanna’s temple, women and men were given the clothes and tools of the other gender and became shamanic temple officials. Inanna referred to them as “reed marsh” people, placing them back into Sumer’s creation story, which had divided people into binary genders, as reeds in the marshes weave together different elements. “Other Sumerian names for androgynous, cross-dressed, or hermaphroditic people were galaturra and kurgarra; they also performed elegies and lamentations in Inanna’s temple” (118). Inanna was herself androgenous, possessing both the cloak of women and the mace of men, and associated with both female love and beauty through the third brightest evening star, and the male warrior-related third brightest morning star.
Grahn demonstrates that Inanna has never left us, shining through in Greek, Roman, and biblical stories that are the foundation of western culture, our obsession with female beauty, the goddesses Astarte, Ashtoreth, Shekinah, and Aphrodite, stories of Helen of Troy, Simon Magus and Faust, the work of many poets, joyful celebrations and processions such Mardi Gras, and so much more. Inanna’s wisdom, power, and world view is emerging just as we need new ways to reimagine justice, the inherent sacred value of all people, the positive influence of eroticism, the primacy of nature, and the overarching joy and beauty of life. In Judy Grahn’s ending words, “Inanna erupts in new forms periodically. In our era, she’s overdue” (146).
Carolyn Lee Boyd is a writer, student drummer, and herb and native plant gardener who lives in New England. Her essays, short stories, memoirs, reviews, and poetry have been published in, among others, Feminism and Religion, Return to Mago E-Magazine, Sagewoman, The Goddess Pages, Matrifocus, and The Beltane Papers, and various anthologies. She would love for you to visit her at her website, www.goddessinateapot.com where you can find some of her free e-books to download.
Photo: Seal of Inanna, 2350-2150 BCE, Ancient Akkadian cylinder seal depicting Inanna resting her foot on the back of a lion while Ninshubur stands in front of her paying obeisance, c. 2334 – c. 2154 BC. Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, Sailko, CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons