Grief is a sacred journey

Two Goddesses and the Art of Friendship

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Two Friends

Two Friends, 1894, Henri de Toulouse-Lautre

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.

Inanna and possibly Ninshubur

Inanna and Ninshubur (identified as “another goddess,” Wolkstein and Kramer)

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 EarthHarper 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

Paul Gauguin

Paul Gauguin

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 portrait-001

Jean Raffa

Elaine1-001

Elaine ready to teach a workshop

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.

Elaine w/ Marion Woodman ~2005

Elaine w/ Marion Woodman ~2005

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.

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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.

 

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22 Comments
  1. What a deep joyous read Elaine! I don’t think I will ever tire of reading about, or studying, and unravelling this wonderful Inanna Descent myth. A wonderfully written, treasure trove of an article! I’m so pleased to hear that yours and Jeanie’s Jungian workshop went so well and that along the way your friendship with each other strengthened and deepened.

    ‘To survive, even a goddess needs help from a friend.’ Ah! This is sooo true! Pitch perfect title for post, and great use of lovely images throughout. I really enjoyed how you explore in depth the vital role of Ninshubur in both myth and in one’s personal life. For to have but one ‘Ninshubur’ is one of the greatest joys in life! Thank you for bringing these qualities to light.

    Together with my own blessed circle of female friendships, and my beautiful, goddess ‘Ninshubur’ partner, I also recognize in your article aspects of my role as psychotherapist … where I often feel like the trusted companion who keeps one foot in each world, to accompany others during their dark night of the soul. You’ve given me much to consider. Bright spring wishes, Deborah.

    • Oh, yes, Deborah. Therapist as Ninshubur. Sylvia Perera writes about this. I saw my Jungian dream therapist today after not seeing her for six weeks due to her travel and then my travel. She is an ongoing and reliable Ninshubur figure in my life. If we’re lucky we have a few of these. During our two hour sessions (I need time to dig deep, so see her for longer sessions every other week), she keeps a firm hold on the waking world but accompanies me in the inner realms of dream, myth, grief, shame, and all the other things we carry around in our psyches. I also love to tell her when things are going well, so we share that, too. I was so glad to see her today.

      I didn’t expect to focus on the Ninshubur-Inanna relationship during and after the workshop, but that’s what called me when I began reflecting about the experience. Jeanie and I work together on many levels. Not that it’s always easy. A deep relationship also challenges and asks new things of us. What a gift! I have a few other short pieces in mind related to characters in the myth and my experiences.

  2. I love this post, Elaine. I want to thank you too, for being my Ninshubur as we planned, designed, and presented this speech and workshop. Throughout the entire process it was enormously comforting to me to know that you knew this material so well that if I faltered or stumbled, you’d be there to catch me. Thank you for having my back!

    • Thinking of you, Jeanie. The mutual Ninshubur projection was activated from the beginning of our planning. It was interesting to look at the workshop through that lens. We were there to catch each other. It’s quite a gift to trust that this can happen–a gift that grows. Thank you for sharing an adventure. May there be more.

  3. I am intrigued by your writing on Jungian philosophy and the Inanna stories, both of which I know little to nothing. I recognize a Ninshubur friend in my life who has never faltered in her role, even in my darkest hour. It feels right there is a goddess story that describes this depth of friendship. Thank you for helping me recognize and relate to these ancient mythologies.

    • Thank you, Monica. I know this is a new world for many. Jung has provided my psychological language for many years. I first studied him in a college psychology class and a few years later met a teacher who gave classes on Jung–and meditation and philosophy and some other things that have been vital to my life. I find mythological goddess stories a big help in figuring out what’s going on in this confusing life. I hope to make these ideas helpful to others in my writing, although I’ll also keep writing about grief, health, nature, and other themes. I’ve focused on Inanna because of the workshop, but there are many other great mythological stories that guided me along the way. In my book, I write about the ancient Greek story of Orpheus who grieved over the death of his wife Eurydice.

  4. How lovely to view your experiences with Jeanie through the lens of Ninshubur, Elaine, thank you. Always such a blessing to have a Ninshubur in our lives to catch us when we fall – I THINK and hope I can rely on such a gift if and when necessary and perhaps even more so, that others know that I will be a Ninshubur if and when the need arises …

    • Thank you, Susan. I followed my nose, and after the weekend my nose led me to Ninshubur. In co-leading, we had to master new (even if studied by both of us in the past) material and figure out how to present it in an engaging way. There is the other person to consider at each step. It’s wonderful to work with Jeanie who wanted to share dreams that came up as we worked and understand the psychological dynamics as well as the material. In the end, for me, when dealing with mythology or dreams, the material and the psyche are the same thing.

  5. Diane Wolkstein was at the storytelling conference where I presented my one woman Fringe show, The Sins of the Mothers. She was having back problems at the time, and was lying down on the floor listening to the show. Afterwards, she was very supportive, saying it was both an artful and a risky performance. I was very grateful for her presence; she was one of the founders of the storytelling renaissance. She died very suddenly, sadly, a few months after I met her. It was enjoyable to meet her again here, and to hear of your lovely Innana work with Jean.

    • How wonderful, Paula. I’m glad to hear about Diane Wolkstein’s supportive role in your worlds. I once saw a long video of Diane W doing the Inanna story (a short clip is available by googling and I don’t remember where I saw the longer video). What a storyteller! I’ve learned so much from her writing and the way she handled the Inanna myth. If you haven’t read Inanna: Queen of Heaven and Earth, it’s a storyteller’s delight. She makes the lines sing. Words from nearly five thousand years ago feel immediate and essential right now.

      I vaguely remembered she had died and searched to find out how. Perhaps a botched emergency surgery, but then at some point, because there is no choice, we can only say it was her time. She was 70, my age now. And her mother was still alive. So hard. Thanks for bringing me a little story about a woman who helped me get through hard times.

  6. Lovely post as always, Elaine. You helped me understand several different kinds of friends I am lucky to have in my life. Probably the ones who come closest to this myth are my “pilgrim sisters”– Janet and Anne. Interestingly, we live far away from each other, talk on the phone quarterly, meet in person a minimum of once/year, and go about our daily lives without other communication except for the unconscious awareness of the others. We also know we have each others’ back — intellectually, physically, spiritually. Thank you for making me aware and grateful for this group and several others I have, each with slightly different composition.

    • Thank you, Shirley. I have four close friends who live on the other side of the country. We’ve been through hard times and joyful times and made deep connections. What a gift it is to have a friendship like that and know the person will show up when you most need them. And, yes, I agree with you that each friendship offers something different.

  7. Sounds as though it was a very successful mission in Florida Elaine. I thoroughly enjoyed this post and all the similar references to life on earth here as compared to Inanna.
    I would definitely have to call myself the ninshubur, and can think of only 2 who would do the same for me. 🙂

    • Sounds like you’re being Ninshubur right now, Debby. At least that’s the role I played when Vic was sick. He needed me to keep the world together for him and for both of us. I hope your husband is getting stronger and you can leave this role behind soon, but many of us play it over and over. I’m in this position now for my brother and my mother-in-law, but I’m grateful there are a few people I can count on for support.

      • Thanks for your wishes Elaine. I certainly am Ninshubur right now. I am keeping our world together, while trying to stay sane.

        I had hoped your brother was doing better. I know from your posts about your mother-in-law situation. I truly believe certain people like us were put on earth to be caregivers. I know I certainly was since childhood. Perhaps that was the intent.

        We don’t complain. We give of ourselves from our hearts. We are the warrior women. 🙂

        • You have to play that role now, Debby, and I hope someone is playing that role for you. I hope you have a minute to support yourself with a sauna, a massage, a walk or talk with a friend. A nap?

          My brother is steady in a few ways and worse in others. He’s frail and thin, but hanging in there. I’ll visit at the end of the month, or possibly before then. My mother-in-law falls often but hasn’t broken anything so far. She usually doesn’t hurt herself. Yesterday, she had a swollen and bruised big toe from a fall the day before. She forgets to use her walker. It’s a mix of memory loss and old habits to charge ahead. Her afternoon health aid picked her up off the floor and iced the foot. One of those falls is going to do some serious damage, but talk about a warrior woman. She’s it.

  8. Thank you for this lovely post, Elaine. I was Ninshubur to my mother during her years of battling Alzheimer’s. I’m thankful that I had dear friends, near and far, who played that role to me when I lost her. They took care of me in both a practical and spiritual sense, supporting me when I didn’t think I had the strength to go on. What a gift… From that, I think I learned a deeper level of compassion, especially toward those who have experienced great loss. Just as life ebbs and flows, so do the roles we find ourselves in. I’m grateful to have people I can count on and it’s equally important for those people to be able to count on me in their time of need.

    • You were, Ann. You never, not for a moment, forgot that your mom was in a dangerous world and couldn’t protect herself. Sometimes we can only witness and do our best to keep them safe, even when we can’t save. I’ve had so many play this role for me, and I keep playing it for others. With the help of health aids, my elderly mother-in-law is still in her own apartment, but with blindness, instability, and short-term memory loss (new this past year and worst part is she forgets to use her walker and falls), the house of cards could go tumbling down at any moment. We have a doctor’s appointment in a few weeks, but he invariably says, “She’s doing great for her age.” And she is. I guess I’m doing great for my age, too. 😉

      • Sending positive thoughts for the upcoming doctor’s appointment. I pray she can stay content in her apartment rather than having to adjust to a new home – made even more difficult with the confusion, memory loss, and blindness. As for you, you’re amazing! I want to be just like you when I grow up. My sweet, wise inspiration! xoxo

        • Oh, Ann. You make me laugh (about wanting to be like me when you grow up, that is). And sometimes your photos make me laugh. 😉 I don’t think the doctor will ever decide to move her unless there is something like a broken hip. It’s up to the senior residence where she lives and so far because of health aids and me, it’s working for her to stay and we just renewed her lease for another year. She falls fairly often (forgets her walker). If she breaks something, then there would probably be rehab which might lead to a nursing home. But if she fades rather than having a big crisis, we can have hospice help at her end of life without moving her anywhere. That’s my hope. Her doctor helped her with papers (it’s called MOLST here) a few years ago so she doesn’t receive any big medical intervention such as chemotherapy in the future. Thanks for your concern and love to you.

  9. How lucky you are to have had a Ninshubur. I’m still waiting and wishing for mine. I feel so alone when it comes to my work. I question everything over and over because there’s no one else to fly it by. What a gift it would be to have a Ninshubur. (I wonder if, one day, I could be a good Ninshubur myself?)

    • Robin, I know you’ve supported many and I’m sure many have supported you. I think your sister played this role in Marika’s illness and probably others did, too. You played this role for Marika. It seems harder to build close relationships when we live alone rather than in community. I also struggle with feeling alone in my writing and deafness adds another layer of isolation. It’s hard to keep relationships going in our too busy worlds. I seem to let friendships lapse in the winter. Then I emerge from my position near the warm wood stove in the spring and begin reaching out again. A walk?

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