BOOK REVIEW – DESCENT TO THE GODDESS: A Way of Initiation for Women

Initiation by the Dark Goddess
Descent to the Goddess: A Way of Initiation for Women, Sylvia Perera, Inner City Books, 1981.
Unlike the Sumerian Goddess Inanna, I did not descend willingly. In 2006, my husband Vic Mansfield was diagnosed with incurable lymphoma. He died in 2008. I watched his struggle, eased his suffering when I could, witnessed and held when I couldn’t, and walked with him to the threshold of death. By the end, he and I were naked and stripped, like Inanna when she enters the Great Below.
A few years earlier, I had studied the myth of Inanna and read Sylvia Perera’s Descent to the Goddess with my women’s mythology class. I also met Perera in a workshop around that time. I did not know my life would soon be headed for an initiation into the Dark Feminine.
In 2015, I return to Descent to the Goddessas I prepare to co-lead a lecture/workshop weekend at C.G. Jung Society of Sarasota, FL with Jungian teacher and author Jean Raffa in March 2016. None of us want to descend, but all of us must. We are mortal. We lose what we love and counted on. Harsh experience taught me the importance of this myth as a guide. Descent to the Goddessand Perera’s unique revelations helped me understand, endure, and emerge.
If you don’t know the story of Inanna’s descent, you’ll find it in Perera’s book or at this link.
Inanna (~3500 BC) is Queen of Heaven and Earth in Ancient Sumeria or Mesopotamia. She is a fully realized goddess, wise like Athena, courageous and wild like Artemis, and erotic like Aphrodite. Her many powers includes warfare and seduction, agriculture and the arts of civilization. Like Aphrodite, she is associated with the planet Venus.
Inanna risks everything to descend to the Great Below or kur, the realm of her sister Ereshkigal, the Goddess of Death. In Perera’s words, Inanna “abandoned heaven, abandoned earth—to the Netherwords she descended” (pg. 9) to attend the funeral of her sister’s husband. Inanna approaches the entry to the Underworld in full queenly regalia, but in case she does not return, she leaves instructions with her trusted female advisor Ninshubar. We all need such a friend.
Ereshkigal is enraged by Inanna’s arrival at her door. The Dark Goddess gives permission—with conditions. The Goddess of Heaven and Earth is stripped of every garment and power as she descends through seven gates. She enters the Great Below “naked and bowed low.” “She descends, submits, and dies,” Perera writes. “This openness to being acted upon is the essence of the experience of the human soul faced with the transpersonal.” (P. 13)
Ereshkigal greets Inanna with the Eye of Wrath and the Eye of Death. Inanna is helpless, passive, and stuck. For three days, she is a hanging corpse. Many of us know these places where all is lost.
According to Perera, an initiation into Ereshkigal’s Eye of Wrath breaks our identification with destructive animus ideals and helps women defend their feminine core. This ruthless power is cold and inhuman, not the related feminine that reassures and comforts. This Dark Feminine forces us to surrender to the reality of life and death as it is, not as we wish it to be.
Perera helps me understand how transformation happens to both Goddesses in this myth. Ereshkigal dwells in unconscious realms, stuck in the agony of grief but also giving birth. When Inanna enters, Ereshkigal’s nakedness is revealed and witnessed. At first, there is deathly statis, the one we experience in deep depression or grief. Only a power stronger than ruthlessness and death can move the situation.
Ninshubur remembers her promise. Responding to Ninshubur’s plea, Enki, the God of Wisdom and Culture and, according to Perera, patron of therapists, fashions two tiny mourners from dirt. These “insignificant” creatures slip unnoticed through the gates. They have one skill: empathy. As Ereshkigal cries out in pain, they mirror her agony. They weep for her and repeat her anguished words in a call and response. They relate to her and witness her suffering. Ereshkigal, the Unloved and Despised, responds by giving the mourners what they want: the body of Inanna. The mourners sprinkle the corpse with the food and water of life. Compassion has opened the way to generosity, rebirth, and a path for a return to Life and Light.
Inanna returns from her initiations demonic, possessed by the shadow side. There is more work to be done and a price to be paid for her release before the initiation is complete, but Inanna now possesses the Eye of Death and the Eye of Wrath. She is empowered by the Dark Feminine and can make the necessary sacrifice.
 It is our human lot to descend many times in a life. We are tested by illness, depression, sorrow, madness, suffering, and loss. Perera shows us how Inanna’s descent brings consciousness and new wisdom and teaches us to honor the wisdom of the Dark.
Inanna’s story brings light to “…the lonely grief-rage of powerlessness and unassuaged loss and longing, a hellish place where all we know to do is useless…. We can only endure, barely conscious, barely surviving the pain and powerlessness, suspended out of life, stuck, until and if, some act of grace with some new wisdom arrives.” (Descent to the Goddess, p. 36)
The feminine opposites touch as Light enters the Great Below and Consciousness of Death enters the Great Above. Inanna is not whole until she knows both Life and Death. Neither are we.
“Holy Ereshkigal! Sweet is your praise.”(P. 10)
Elaine Mansfield’s memoir Leaning into Love: A Spiritual Journey through Grief(2014) won the 2015 Gold Medal IPPY Award (Independent Publisher’s Book Awards) in the category Aging, Death, and Dying. Elaine has been a student of Carl Jung since 1970 and has studied mythology for thirty years. She writes for hospice, facilitates bereavement support groups, and gives workshops and presentations. She also writes a weekly blog about the adventures and lessons of life and loss. To learn more about Elaine’s work, please visit her website. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.
Vic Mansfield (1941-2008) was the author of Synchronicity, Science, and Soul-Making, as well as two other books.

11 thoughts on “BOOK REVIEW – DESCENT TO THE GODDESS: A Way of Initiation for Women”

  1. Thank you for this clear and succinct summary of an excellent book, Elaine. Because of it I just looked for my copy, originally read in 1990, and am leafing through it for my "underlines." One says of Inanna, "She descends, submits, and dies. This openness to being acted upon is the essence of the experience of the human soul faced with the transpersonal. It is not based upon passivity, but upon an active willingness to receive." What people fail to see about suffering is that it takes enormous courage to accept life's action upon us without trying to escape through denial and addictions. Finding this courage is the key to growth and healing.

    Another underline I especially love: Inanna "is not the feminine as night, but rather she symbolizes consciousness of transition and borders, places of intersection and crossing over that imply creativity and change and all the joys and doubts that go with a human consciousness that is flexible, playful, never certain for long." Feminine strength is not based on rigid rules and firm beliefs, and a full acceptance of life in all its uncertainty! Again, what enormous courage this takes, and how freeing it is.

    These are just two pearls of wisdom from this book. Thank you for reminding me of this gem, Elaine. I look forward to sharing these insights with the attendees at our Sarasota Jung Society in March.


  2. I wrote a comment on this a day or so ago Elaine but it has not appeared, I don't know why. Perera's book which I read many years ago was one of many turning points in my life. I saw an amatuer stage production of it a few years ago and it was as moving as the book and a reminder of the power of the descent.

    Thank you for this excellent review.

  3. Thank you, Susan. My responses aren't posted either, so I hope this will get sorted out. You got through this time. Perara's book was an important part of studying Inanna for me, but it hit me even stronger this time because of my initiation into mortality and grief. There's an interesting 3 minute video, using original translations, of Diane Wolkstein performing Inanna receiving the me from Enki. Magic.

  4. Thanks for your encouraging comment, Jeanie, and for adding more wonderful quotes. It was hard to trim this review down to size because the book is densely packed with insights. Such good fortune for me to read it when I did. It helped me understand my husband's experience as he made his descent toward death, plus I understood the importance of a caregiver who stays in the day world like Ninshubur and protects us as we descend. Finally, the book was a guide for my own grief descent.

  5. What an excellent clear and concise review by Elaine Mansfield. I read Perera's book many years ago and saw a stage production of Inanna's descent more recently … powerful each time. Elaine Mansfield's review brings the depth of this necessary descent into a sharpness and keenness, highlighting the necessity of fully experiencing the stripped down nakedness when life deals us deadly blows.

  6. Superbly written book review by an excellent writer! I’m so enthused and inspired by Elaine Mansfield's article that I’ve decided to look back over my copy of ‘Descent to the Goddess’ Thank you so much Inner City Books for posting such a clear, concise and deeply whole-hearted review. Warm winter wishes, Deborah

  7. It is such a gift to come here and find such an important discussion happening. Thank you so much for sharing your insights into this powerful work, Elaine. And to Susan and Jean, thank you for bringing your ideas. This blog has not been very active for a long time, and it is just such a wonderful surprise to find this conversation. Thank you all! <3

  8. Thank you for your kind comment, Deborah of The Liberated Sheep. It's a perfect time of year to explore the meaning of darkness and what we can gain by listening for wisdom there. It's been wonderful for me to revisit this book, sentence by meaty sentence.

  9. Susan, the comments are sorted out. I'm glad I got to read both of yours and thanks for persistence. I'm glad this piece inspired you to check into this book again. Generous wisdom to guide the descents we all must take in life.

  10. Thank you, Liz J. We're the Jungian Quartet. Our interest in Jung brought Susan, Jean, Deborah, and me together. I look forward to their perspective and work. I'm glad to bring activity to this site. Inner City Books has offered important books for many years.

    In exploring the book for this review, I was most struck by the power of compassion. I learned this during my husband's illness, but there it is in this ancient myth in those two tiny creatures fashioned from dirt. They transform everything! We need more of those.

Comments are closed.

Inner City Books