Kim Echlin on Love and Death

Jun 29, 2017 by

Kim Echlin on Love and Death


We wanted author Kim Echlin’s thoughts on ‘Love and Death,’ as both figure so prominently in her work. Master story-teller that she is, she came back at us with a story. 

 

I am going to tell you the best story about death and love that I know.

Inanna, the most powerful goddess in Sumerian mythology, is also the first female character in written literature who dares to descend to the underworld to face death.

Inanna had already won the “powers of civilization” in a drinking contest with Enki, the god of wisdom. He toasted her, and gave her power with each toast, and she was able to drink him under the table. When he woke up with the first hangover in literature, he discovered that he had given everything away to this witty goddess. She simply sailed away with them.

In the next song, Inanna has an erotic and tender love affair with Dumuzi, a shepherd who makes love with her in the apple orchard “standing up and lying down.” The descriptions of their courtship and love affair are some of the most beautiful love poetry ever written, and are echoed in the Biblical “Song of Songs.” Dumuzi and Inanna finally marry in a sacred ceremony and make love “fifty times.” But then Dumuzi has had enough and he asks Inanna to ‘let him go.’

Inanna finds that the marriage bed is not wide enough for her. And so she puts on her travelling garb and heads for the underworld. At each of the seven doors, she is asked to remove a garment until she passes through the last door naked to stand before the Queen of the Netherworld.

Finally Inanna has met her match. The Queen of the Netherworld judges her, finds her wanting, kills her and hangs her corpse on a hook.

 

But Inanna has a loyal attendant up above who asks the god of wisdom, Enki, to help. Enki sends some small creatures down to reclaim the body. The Queen of the Netherworld says to them, “What do you want?”

They say, “Only that body hanging on the hook.”

She answers, “That is nothing.”

They say, “But it is what we want.”

And so she gives it to them and they revive Inanna with a bit of water and bread.

But we all know that no one returns to earth from death without a sacrifice.

Inanna is asked to send someone in her place.

Well, she looks everywhere, but everywhere people have mourned her absence—her hairdresser (of course!), her mother, her servants. They have dressed in the rags of mourning and cut their bodies. Searching for someone to sacrifice to the underworld, she goes to the apple orchard and who is sitting on her throne, dressed in royal garments, and not mourning her?

Dumuzi!

Her husband. He took her throne. He did not mourn her.

Inanna says, “You! Why did you not mourn for me? You will take my place in the Netherworld.”

Dumuzi tries to slip away but he cannot.

And then there are two beautiful moments in the story.

Dumuzi’s sister comes to Inanna, and in the first recorded instance of compassion in literature she begs Inanna to take her, in place of her brother. Inanna is moved by the love of the sister and she agrees that they will share the judgement on Dumuzi, and each will go to the underworld for six months every year.

The second moment of exquisite beauty in the story is Inanna’s lament for Dumuzi. She loved him, had a beautiful courtship with him, married him, and then she had to sacrifice him in order to be reborn. But though she sacrificed him, she mourned that sacrifice. And she sings about it in a beautiful song, “I miss you. I miss you. I miss you Dumuzi.”

 

The descent of Inanna begins in a story of erotic love between Inanna and her lover, and moves into the courage of a female character to face the underworld, death, and rebirth. It is a story of continuing to grow and explore her power, of learning about compassion from a sister’s love for her brother. It is about the loyalty that is demanded in mourning. It is about the dream of rebirth after death, and the sacrifice that rebirth requires. It is about power after rebirth.

I cannot think of a more complex and beautiful story about a woman’s experience of love and death. And it is the oldest written story about a female character and her experience of death known to humankind.
 

Kim Echlin’s most recent novel is Under the Visible Life, and her novel The Disappeared has been translated into 20 languages; she has also published a translation from a Sumerian myth called, Inanna: A New English Version.

 

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