Family Traditions: Ascent of the Goddess

Last month, my ritual partner and I held my coven’s Ostara sabbat. As ever, holding a sabbat is an exhausting process, but a wonderfully gratifying one.

Queen of the Night, British Museum. Image by BabelStone. CC license 1.0.One reason I remain in love with Wicca is the creativity of ritual. The framework remains the same – the casting of the circle, the invoking of the elements, the Great Rite, and so forth – but everything else can be strikingly different. Your Ostara ritual will be considerably different than mine, but that’s a good thing. We arrive with certain expectations, but most of the fun comes in the surprises.

As I’ve described before, my partner and I have been working our way through the Wheel of the Year in a haphazard fashion, performing each sabbat with a different cultural flavor. Since we are, after all, Wiccans, our methodology isn’t exactly “reconstructionist,” but I have been satisfied with the results – if nothing else, every ritual I’ve written has been an education in the mythology of our chosen culture.

This Ostara was our sixth festival, and unfortunately, we had already used most of the “low-hanging fruit” as far as familiar pantheons go. My childhood was filled with the myths of the Greeks, the Egyptians, and the Norse; these deities had been a vital part of my consciousness since before I could read, when I knew them through stories told by my parents. Although I have never been as invested in Celtic myth, my partner knows it quite well. Thus we had little trouble doing sabbats in those contexts.

But we were stuck this year. We considered a number of approaches – we have been threatening to do a Mayan-inspired ritual for ages, for example, but eventually decided to keep ourselves restricted to the Old World for consistency’s sake. We settled on Babylon and Sumeria, which, although a sensible choice for what we wanted to do, had a problem.

I had no clue about Babylonian mythology.

I hadn’t read more than a smattering of The Epic of Gilgamesh, and knew almost nothing about the deities beyond some of their names. Fortunately, there is one Babylonian myth that virtually everyone who has been involved with Wicca or eclectic Paganism in general is familiar with, since it is one of the most popular myths to reenact in ritual – the Descent of the Goddess.

If by some chance, you don’t know this one already, here is a quick summary: the goddess Ishtar (or Inanna, if you’re of a Sumerian inclination) goes to the underworld. Why? Hard to tell. In the Inanna version, she claims she wants to go to a funeral for the husband of Ereshkigal, the underworld goddess, but she’s probably lying. In the Ishtar version, she might have been trying to free her lover, Tammuz, making this similar to Orpheus’s legend. But, because of lacunae in the text, it’s impossible to claim a definitive motivation. It doesn’t matter; for some reason, she has to go to the world below, and she threatens to break down the walls of the Underworld if they won’t let her in through the gate.

There are seven gates inside the underworld, and at each one, the guards tell Ishtar that she must remove some piece of clothing to proceed, eventually surrending all of her raiment at the last gate. Her clothing represents her divine power, so by the time she reaches Ereshkigal at the bottom of the Underworld, she is powerless. Ereshkigal easily overcomes her. Without Ishtar around, the world above loses all of its lust and passion, and eventually the gods intervene to have her set free. She returns, but the underworld has its price – she has to find somebody to take her place. In the Inanna version, she settles on her no-good husband, who wasn’t even mourning her. Considering Inanna’s husband is cognate to Ishtar’s Tammuz, this makes the idea that she went to the Underworld to “save” him quite troublesome.

It’s a popular myth, and a good one. But there is a problem with the Descent of the Goddess.

I hate Descent rituals.

The most infuriating ritual I’ve ever attended used the Descent of the Goddess for its framework. It invoked the worst kind of careless eclecticism by changing the details of the myth, for one; instead of Ereshkigal, the Goddess (unnamed in this version) met her lover in the underworld, and once she had been stripped of her garments, he ritually “scourged” her. About the only good thing I can say is that the “scourging” had absolutely no heart in it. After that, I believe she won her lover’s hand and they lived happily ever after… Which is about as horrible a “moral” as I can think of for a Pagan ritual. The only thing I could take away from it was that the subjugation of the feminine was just fine, so long as it gives us an excuse for a striptease and some mild S&M play in ritual.

Most Descent rituals that I’m aware of, while not going that far, still seem problematic to me. And I think that’s because of our emphasis on the Descent – the binding of the goddess, the manner in which she is rendered powerless. That was not the narrative I wanted to use – I happen to like my goddesses unbound, thanks.

So instead, while writing my ritual, I decided to focus on the Ascent – Ishtar’s return from the Underworld. In fact, I skipped the Descent entirely; to my thinking, that part of the story is a winter myth, and we were celebrating the coming of blessed Spring.

We began with Ereshkigal standing victorious over Ishtar, celebrating the triumph of thanos over eros: “What was it you said, proud Ishtar? That you would break open the gates of the underworld, that you would make the dead outnumber the living? And now look at what’s become of you.” (I may have gone a little overboard on the gloating, but the coven liked it.)

The story then becomes a recognition of the need for passion, for lust – and yes, for the foolish mistakes and the pain that come from those things. The gods demand Ishtar back even they know she is hardly a perfect being, and that she will inevitably cause trouble for them someday. They need her because without her blessed caprice, the world is a dead and stagnant place. And so dead Ishtar rises, beginning naked and ending clothed and powerful again. Lust – the primal force that drives us to create – lives again. Spring has come.

I didn’t know any of that going in; I knew Ishtar mainly through reputation, and Ereshkigal not at all. Certainly, after my prior experiences of mixing this myth with ritual, I had no expectation of using it as the centerpiece of my own. But that’s the beauty of ritual-writing; in that process of fervent research and nitpicking editing, I find connections to things that I had never noticed before, deep wells of connection to the divine that I had never thought to drink from.

For me, there can be no other description of that process besides “magical.”

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