Note: The following is a dramatic reading called The Descent of Ishtar — featuring Asushunamir the two-spirited, intersexed, trickster, that I presented at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration on Stenton Avenue in Philadelphia where I am a lay minister. This skit was part of the Through the Gates:Transformation service that I gave with lay minister Annabel Grote. You can watch the skit on You Tube or read the text below. Unitarian Universalism is a faith that encompasses all religious/spiritual backgrounds (including atheism, agnosticism and Buddhism) in a “free and responsible search for truth and meaning”.
Mythos is defined as “the body of customs, beliefs, stories, and sayings associated with a people, thing, or place.” I think of it as story — and it can be a story or stories of your own invention or reinvention.
Creating our own mythologies is a way of defining ourselves.
We have created a dramatic reading of story based on mythology that is part of a novel that I recently completed.
Mythology is one of the ways that societies over the eons have made sense of their world. In my story, human characteristics of jealousy, of not meeting the norms of society, encountering a “trickster,” and the timeless tale of regeneration and life ever after create an interesting journey.
The novel I wrote is, in part, inspired by the Bible and explores the fluidity of gender. When I was researching it, I was delighted to come across this Babylonian myth with a two-spirited, intersexed (male and female) hero. The myth is based on the earlier myth from ancient Sumer (in 4,000 to 3,100 BCE) where the goddess Inanna descends to the underworld and enters its seven gates.
Inanna is the more ancient counterpart to Ishtar. Ishtar was an important goddess in Babylon which had its first dynasty a thousand or so years later around 2,000 BCE. Babylon was in the part of the world which is now Iraq. The Ishtar gate was the eighth gate to the inner city of Babylon. It was constructed about 575 BCE. It was excavated in the early 20th century. A reconstruction using original bricks is now shown in a museum in Berlin.
There was a lot going on back then including an overlap with Biblical history. It is thought that Moses led the exodus of the Jews from Egypt around 1,312 BCE. My narrator is Tamar — a character from the Hebrew Bible. She is telling this story to her young nephews, who were actually born intersexed, or male and female. In public, they are referred to as male, because their father, Judah, was told that he had “sons.” In those days, boys were valued more than girls. And we’re still changing things.
It is my pleasure to introduce the cast of characters —
Narrator/Janice Rowland Radway as Tamar from the Hebrew Bible
The twins — also from the Hebrew Bible
Pharez — Sarah Skochko
Zarah — Annabel Grote
The Gatekeeper from the myth of Ishtar in ancient Babylon — Allen Radway
“Close your eyes and imagine the long ago city of Babylon, in a land called Mesopotamia, near the mighty Tigris. A gentle wind blew. There was a beautiful Goddess named Ishtar. She was also known as the “Queen of the Night.”
[twin Pharez/ Sarah:]
“What night, Auntie?”
[Pharez is sitting nearby — on the floor up front or in a chair]
“Ishtar was called the Queen of the Night because she was known as the goddess of love and … well of love.”
…Ishtar was the goddess of love, war, fertility, and sexuality. And she may have been a sacred prostitute. But the twins were still too young to hear about war and sex.
[Zarah — Annabel — also sitting on the floor or in a chair up front]
“What did the goddess look like, Auntie?”
[ Zarah looks up with wide eyes.]
“She was tall and beautiful and she had wings. She had wide set eyes shaped like almonds and a high forehead under a crown that was piled very high in ridges like a fancy temple. She held her arms up and grasped two loops of rope that also may have been hand mirrors. Her two pet owls were usually by her side.”
[both Annabel and Sarah/ Zarah and Pharez]:
“Do you have a picture?”
“I have one that we can look at later, but first I want to tell you the story of someone called Asushunamir who was both male and female, just like you. Asushunamir was a spirit guide and a trickster who rescued the Queen of Heaven from eternal death…”
[Zarah/ Annabel ]
“What’s a trickster?”
“A trickster is someone who gets his or her way — or his and her own way — by playing tricks on someone.”
“What’s eternal death?”
“We cease to exist eventually. But don’t worry, it won’t happen for a long, long time. And if you meet a spirit guide, it might not happen at all.” [Different tone of voice] Tamar told herself that lying was okay if it made people feel better — especially children.
“Ishtar had never gone to the underworld where her evil sister, Ereshkigal, ruled. First Ishtar had to ask the other gods if she could go. They ignored so she asked again and then again. Finally, they said she could go.”
“The underworld had many gates. There were seven in total. Ishtar came to the first gate and rang the bell. Claaanggg. There was one ring for the first gate and two for the second gate and so on. Ishtar rang the bell and waited. She tapped her foot. Finally, the gatekeeper came.
[The Gatekeeper is old with a creaky voice]
“Hello [sounds like he is just waking up ] … Who goes there?”
But he did not open the gate. Ishtar told the gatekeeper that if he didn’t open the gate, she would smash it down.
[Alan / Gatekeeper]
Wait one minute. I’ll go talk to the Queen of the Underworld. I can’t do anything until she tells me what to do.” [muttering]
“The gatekeeper was old and walked with a cane. He was used to dealing with demanding people who came down to the underworld. He decided that Ishtar was not so bad. She was beautiful and he liked looking at her.
“So the gatekeeper went to Ishtar’s evil sister Ereshkigal and told her that Ishtar was coming. Erishkigal was already mad at her sister for being a beautiful goddess. And now she had to deal with her sister coming down to her kingdom.
“Ereshkigal told the gatekeeper that Ishtar could only enter if she agreed to obey the laws of the Underworld. In death all are equal, so the dead who came to the underworld had to leave their possessions behind, including clothing and jewels. Since there was no food, the souls had to eat clay and dust.”
[twins/ Annabel and Sarah:]
“I could never eat clay and dust. My favorite meal is figs and almonds, sometimes locusts and honey.”
[smiles at the children and continues]
“Since Ishtar agreed to obey the laws, she could visit the Underworld even though she wasn’t dead. To pass through the first gate, Ishtar had to take off her crown. She took off her earrings at the second gate and her breast ornaments and her necklace at the fourth and fifth. At the sixth gate, she removed her shining silver bracelets from her arms and her legs. Then at the seventh gate, she removed her white tunic, so she was…”
“We’re not supposed to be naked. Mama told us so.”
“You’re both right. Ishtar was naked. And after she had passed through the sixth gate, her sister confronted her and asked her why she came. ‘If you want to know what it is like to be dead, I can show you,’ said the evil sister.”
[Narrator/Janice raises her eyebrows and unleashes a cackle]
[Narrator/Janice — continued]
“Ereshkigal told her soldiers to torture her sister — by afflicting every part of her body. But Ishtar was favored by the gods and they were watching over her from their thrones in the sky.”
“Just like our God. He lives in the sky.”
“Hmmm. Kind of…but in this story there are many gods and goddesses. Some of the gods decided that as long as Ishtar was in the underworld, the trees and plants would stop bearing fruit. No children or animals would be born either. All of creation would die if Ishtar stayed in the Underworld much longer. The god of all things that grow and the moon god got together and made a plan.”
[Annabel and Sarah in unison]
“And then what happened?”
“Ishtar’s brother was the god of water. From the dirt under his fingernails, he created Asushunamir , a spirit guide. Asushunamir was both male and female and very beautiful. The plan was to send Asushunamir to the underworld so that Ereshkigal would forget about her sister. When Asushunamir knocked on the first gate, the gatekeeper went down and told Ereshkigal that a beautiful man was coming — just for her. Ereshkigal’s right eye drooped. Her cheeks were sunken. And because she was Queen of the Underworld, she wore a drab dress with a large belt buckle that was a skull.”
[Annabel and Sarah in unison /Zarah and Pharez]
“Ooooooh.” [They shrink back]
“Ereshkigal rarely met anyone in the Underworld who wasn’t already dead, so she was very excited about meeting this beautiful man. So the gatekeeper hobbled back up to the first gate.
“I got the go ahead from the boss lady. Come on down!”
“Just as the gods had planned, Ereshkigal forgot all about Ishtar.
Ishtar started coming back up. She left the Underworld and returned through the seventh gate first. Her clothes were given back to her and she put them on so she was no longer naked. At the same time, Asushunamir entered the first gate. Just as Ishtar left the first gate and was given back her crown, Asushunamir passed through the seventh gate and was forced to give up all clothing.
Ereshkigal saw that Asushunamir was a man and a woman, not just a man as she was expecting. She was furious. The gods had tricked her! Ishtar came back from the dead, and the land flourished. Because of Asushunamir, Ishtar was resurrected and lived forever.
“Why was Ereshkigal upset that Asushunamir was a man and woman instead of just a man, Auntie?”
“Because…Ereshkigal liked men better and she wanted one as a… playmate.”
“And what happened to Asushunamir?”
I actually didn’t know. The myth that she had heard just ended with Ishtar coming back from the Underworld. But these two children wanted to know what happened to the spirit guide who was two sexes, like them. I decided to make up a new ending.
“Ishtar had her powers restored. She was a goddess again. She blessed Asushunamir and freed hir from the underworld.”
“Did they live together forever and ever?”
“Yes. They lived together forever and ever, and … Asushunamir was grateful not to have to stay in the Underworld with Ereshkigal.”
“I don’t believe that story. Whoever heard of someone coming back from the dead and living forever — even if she is a goddess!”
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