Nearly two weeks ago, Jean Raffa and I taught our weekend workshop at the C.G. Jung Society of Sarasota, FL. On Saturday, we worked with the oldest known goddess text, written on clay tablets around 1750 BCE in Sumeria (Mesopotamia, now Southern Iraq). The tablets were excavated from ancient ruins beginning in the late 1800s.
The Descent of Inanna, part of a much larger story, takes Inanna the Goddess of Heaven and Earth (and us) down to the Underworld or Great Below where the goddess faces mortality. She is stripped of her worldly powers and “laid low.” Most of us have experienced that powerless, hopeless place. Perhaps we lost a close friend or a beloved pet, a job or a home. Maybe we lost what seemed essential—our health, our sanity, our sense of meaning and purpose. In this realm, ego desires and powers are useless. We are lost, with no way home.
To survive, even a goddess needs help from a friend.
I first studied Inanna’s stories with my mythology class about fifteen years ago. Knowing how Inanna dealt with loss helped me endure my husband’s death and the roughest period of grief. I’ve written a longer article about the Descent of Inanna and how it guided me during that time, but today I’m thinking about another aspect of the story–the role of trusted friendship in challenging times.
Before leaving for the Underworld, Inanna, speaks to Ninshubur, another goddess who is Inanna’s wise adviser, friend, and sukkal (second in command):
Ninshubur, my constant support,
My sukkal who gives me wise advice,
My warrior who fights by my side,
I am descending … to the underworld.
If I do not return, set up a lament for me…
Weep before Father Enki.
Father Enki, the God of Wisdom, knows the food of life,
He knows the water of life …
Surely he will not let me die. (Diane Wolkstein and Samuel Noah Kramer, Inanna: Queen of Heaven and Earth, Harper and Row, 1983, p. 53)
Ninshubur’s job is to stay in the day world, in life, and help from there. She does not descend herself. Along with other caretakers, I played this role for my husband as he was dying. We might do this for a friend who has lost her way mentally or physically. Someone has to make decisions, watch over the lost one, and, when possible, help that person return to life. Because a friend (male or female) stays in the upper world of waking consciousness, the struggling one is allowed to surrender and work through loss
We aren’t born knowing how to be reliable friends and helpers. We don’t automatically know how to stand by each other, but we learn through experience and we learn from those who support us. When friends told me they would stay with my husband and me until his death, I could allow myself to surrender to the inevitable because there was someone there to catch me if I fell. Later, I could do the same for others. I could witness, hold, and get help.
“Ninshubur” became a code word in our mythology group for a trusted friend who stands by us in time of darkness and difficulty. Ninshubur is the one who remembers. We can count on her or him. To use a well-worn cliché: “Ninshubur has our back.”
Jean and I shared a year-long experience of writing proposals, planning a lecture and workshop, and then delivering our material in a weekend. After the workshop, I considered our experience through the lens of the archetypal friendship of Inanna and Ninshubur. Jean and I had learned to work together, trust each other, and pass leadership back and forth. We learned to solve problems and have patience with each other. The friendship described in the myth had taught me new lessons about witnessing, helping, and trusting.
It takes work and time to build deep friendship. I admired the triumvirate of Marion Woodman, Mary Hamilton, and Ann Skinner in the BodySoul Rhythm workshops. These three had taught together for many years and their ability to rely on each other permeated each workshop.
Jeanie and I developed both a new workshop and a lasting friendship. With a companion like Ninshubur, we can do more than face catastrophe. We can challenge ourselves in new ways, knowing someone is behind us and will catch us if we fall.
Who are the Ninshuburs in your life? Who can you trust to be there and stand by you? Have you been asked to play this role?
As well as thanking Jean Raffa, I want to thank the organizers at the C.G. Jung Society Sarasota, especially Candace Boyd who was enthusiastic about our ideas from the beginning and Lisa Chodrone who provided constant and skilled practical support. For another article about this myth, see Listening to the Dark. Jean Raffa had these reflections on our experience in Following Our Symbols: Healing Our Souls.