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Getting back to Sumer: the Sumerians, who devised the world’s first known writing system, began inscribing Inanna’s hymns and stories on clay tablets in the late 3rd millennium BCE, maybe 2600-2200 BCE. When eventually Mesopotamian civilization faded away, the tablets were lost and they lay buried in the sands of abandoned cities for millennia until archeologists began unearthing them beginning in 1899 of our era. This ancient literary trove became scattered across the globe as the aforesaid archeologists hauled their finds back to their home museums. Thanks to international academic efforts since then, many of the texts have been collated and re-assembled, and it is on the basis of that labor that Echlin, a novelist in her own right, has been able to give us Inanna, A New English Version, an excellent translation of 32 relatively complete Inanna poems.
I say “relatively complete” because there are gaps here and there due to so many of the tablets being damaged and broken. And I say “poems” because altho the selections are certainly poetic, they cover a range of genres including laments, hymns, and downright ditties. Some, clearly composed for multiple voices, resemble stage plays. It may be that the spectators chanted and danced along, since with the long oral tradition in those oral times the words would be well known. Other poems commemorate extravaganzas at palaces or temples where beyond a doubt there was mass participation in the performance.
In this passage from “Inanna’s Descent to the Netherworld” (that is, to the underworld, the land of the dead) we have two voices in dialog while another voice (conceivably a chorus) provides narration:
She shouted loudly at the gate
of the Netherworld
Open up, gatekeeper
Open up, Neti
I am all alone
I want to come in
Neti, the chief gatekeeper
of the Netherworld
answered pure Inanna
Who are you
I am Inanna going to the east
If you are Inanna going to the east
why have you traveled
to the place of no return
Why did you set your heart on the road
from which no traveler ever returns
This myth is famous partly because it turns out that in order to gain admission to the underworld Inanna has to remove one item of clothing at each of its seven gates, a sequence which can be read as a strip-tease, or as a metaphor for the soul abandoning its worldly pretences — either way, a must-see show.