The Easter Season may have passed, but “we are an Easter people.” The Church calls us to make “Alleluia” our song and live out the Paschal mysteries everyday of our lives.
In that vein, let us examine an important Eastery point of discussion from Marcy:
“The story of the death and resurrection of the Sumerian goddess Inanna closely mirrors the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus, yet predates his appearance by more than 3000 years. Discuss.”
This is a great point, leading to a fascinating discussion about a story which many people, Christian and non-Christian, have never even heard of. Marcy has her finger on the pulse of an important debate in Christology, ongoing since the first Christmas. How can we believe the extraordinary Christian claim that Jesus of Nazareth is actually God incarnate?
Non-Christians maintained in the first centuries of the Christian Era (as they do today) that Jesus was merely a man. We see this throughout the Gospels. It was because the Jewish officials saw Jesus as merely a man that they had him crucified; a man, after all, should not claim to be God. Ancient Roman historians, such as Tacitus, referred to Jesus of Nazareth as a man, a real historical figure, but not as a god (though other writers, like Pliny the Younger, note that Christians were worshiping Christ as God in Pliny’s day, before AD 112).
Fast-forward to the Enlightenment, when thinkers held Reason up as an antidote to religious Faith. Critics of Christianity began to propose that the story of Jesus was merely a rehashing of other ancient mythologies adopted by the earliest Christians. Depending on which aspect of Christ’s biography these critics sought to explain or “correct,” Our Lord would be lumped together with mythical heroes born of young maidens, or magical healing gods, or, as in this blogpost, dying and rising gods (we see a similar version of this thought in writers like Joseph Campbell).
The idea of a widespread “dying-and-rising god” myth, of which Christ was just one iteration, came from The Golden Bough by James George Frazer (first published in 1890). Frazer pointed to several examples of gods that “died and rose from the dead,” including Osiris (Egyptian), Dumuzid/Tammuz (Sumerian), and Adonis (Greek). Unfortunately for Frazer’s posterity, as more archaeological discoveries occurred throughout the twentieth century, more historical evidence mounted that Frazer was incorrect about every “dying and rising god” in his study. In their respective myths, these gods either never really died, or they never really rose from the dead.
So in that light, let’s look at the story of Inanna (Ishtar in Assyrian mythology) and see if her story closely resembles that of the Resurrection.
Who is Inanna?
The Sumerians were the first civilization to develop the art of writing. They lived in Ancient Mesopotamia, between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, and had a complicated polytheistic mythology through which they worshiped a pantheon of gods and goddesses. Inanna was a Sumerian fertility goddess, and as such has more than her fair share of sexually explicit stories in Sumerian mythology (she’s the Sumerian equivalent of Aphrodite or Venus). Men and women appealed to her to solve impotency problems and to win spouses; prostitutes made her their patroness, as they played an important role in fertility cults in the ancient world. She was also a goddess who loved war, and was said to “feast” on battles (sex and violence meet again). She was associated with the planet Venus, with its appearance in the morning and the evening. Archaeological evidence indicates that worship of Inanna began around 4000-3000 BC, and that her cult grew to prominence during the reign of Sargon the Great (around 2300 BC).
So far, nothing in Inanna’s story connects to that of Christ’s Resurrection. She seems no different than other mythological fertility goddesses. Now let us examine the story to which Marcy refers, that of Inanna’s descent into the underworld, her “death,” and her “resurrection.” Although there are two variations of this story, we’ll focus on the older and more detailed Sumerian version of The Descent of Inanna (called here Inanna’s Descent to the Nether World), which dates to between 1900 and 1600 BC.
Inanna’s Descent to the Underworld
Inanna decides to travel into the Underworld to tell the queen of the Underworld, her sister Erec-ki-gala, that Erec-ki-gala’s mortal husband had died. Inanna dresses herself attractively with symbols of her power and instructs her minister, Nincubura, what to do if she, Inanna, does not return from the Underworld in three days: appeal to the other gods, for Inanna would be dead and in need of resurrection.
Inanna arrives alone at the gate to the Underworld and demands entrance. Her sister allows her to enter, but sets a trap. As a result, Inanna is stripped of the symbols of her authority and judged by the Anunnaki, the seven judges of the Underworld.
They looked at her — it was the look of death. They spoke to her — it was the speech of anger. They shouted at her — it was the shout of heavy guilt. The afflicted woman was turned into a corpse. And the corpse was hung on a hook.
Thus her “death.” Interesting that Inanna’s corpse is hung on a hook, and Christ is hung on a cross. But there is more:
Three days pass, and Nincubura travels to the various gods, pleading for their help in saving Inanna. The response of most is identical [to that of Inanna’s father?]:
My daughter craved the great heaven and she craved the great below as well. Inanna craved the great heaven and she craved the great below as well. The divine powers of the underworld are divine powers which should not be craved, for whoever gets them must remain in the underworld. Who, having got to that place, could then expect to come up again?
Only the god Enki is moved by Nincubura’s plea. He creates and sends the gala-tura and the kur-jara (two “sexless” figures, as the Wikipedia article on all of this says) to get the corpse of Inanna from Erec-ki-gala. They arrive at Erec-ki-gala’s throne, and receive the corpse as a gift. After the gala-tura and the kur-jara sprinkle Inanna’s corpse with life-giving water and a life-giving plant, Inanna revives and begins to rise from the Underworld to the realm of the gods. The Anunnaki freak out, so to speak, because no one “has ascended unscathed from the underworld.”
So Inanna, accompanied by the Anunnaki, travel to several people close to Inanna to select a substitute for her. She does not allow any of them to be the substitute, however, for they show true devotion and sorrow at her “death.” Eventually, they find Inanna’s husband Dumuzid, who is not mourning his wife (he’s dressed rather nicely and relaxing under a tree, with some versions of the story depicting him being waited on by slave girls). So Inanna gives him to the Anunnaki as her substitute. Off he goes to the Underworld so she can survive. She cuts a deal with Erec-ki-gala so that she and her husband can see each other for half of the year.
Thus the story of Inanna and her resurrection.
Inanna vs. Christ
Those familiar with Christ’s Resurrection accounts from the four canonical Gospels can already see there are some surface similarities between Inanna’s myth and the story of Christ. Both figures were hung in their death: Inanna on the hook, Christ on the cross. Both figures were dead for “three days,” or at least returned to life on the third day. But the differences run deeper than the similarities. Here are a few of them.
- Inanna is a goddess, one among a pantheon of gods and goddesses, who seeks her own selfish wants and needs. She was forced against her will to become a corpse as a punishment for offending her sister through her pride.
- Christianity is monotheistic, and the Son of God is both man and still completely God (see our recent reflections on the Nicene Creed). His Incarnation occurred not as a punishment but as a willing sacrifice for what WE did (and continue) to do wrong. In becoming incarnate the Son “emptied himself” (Phil. 2:7), not losing anything of His divinity, but in an act of supreme love and humility, Christ took upon Himself our humanity. The Incarnation was an act of humility, the opposite of the pride displayed by Inanna.
- Despite the fact that Inanna becomes a corpse, there is no indication in the story that she first becomes human. She remains merely divine, not human, so one wonders if her “death” is even really death, in the sense that we think of death.
- Christ died like we die. Even skeptics who deny Christ’s divinity argue that he did, indeed, die via crucifixion. Likewise, the consistent teaching of Christianity is that Jesus of Nazareth really died a human death on the cross. Without a real death, there can be no real resurrection. But as God, Jesus could not die; hence the need for Him to be both man and God.
- Inanna returns to life thanks to the efforts of her minister and the god Enki, who uses his own creations to bring about Inanna’s resurrection.
- Christian theology teaches that Christ rose from the dead not because God took pity on Him but because Christ HIMSELF is God, and therefore rose through His own power. He did not rely on or need creation to bring about His resurrection. And there is no pantheon of other gods to restore Christ to life.
- Inanna escapes the Underworld by using her husband as a replacement.
- One of the crucial aspects of Christ’s Paschal Mystery (His suffering, death, Resurrection, and Ascension) is that He underwent the fullest extent of human suffering (physical, emotional, spiritual, etc), died, returned to life, and went to Heaven body and soul (never to die again) all with full consent of His will. No one takes His place; rather, he takes our place, taking upon Himself the guilt for our sins, even though He was innocent of any sin.
The story of Inanna is one of many pagan myths that share some similarities to the Resurrection of Christ. While at first the idea that Christians merely borrowed pagan ideas to flesh out the story of Jesus seems appealing (to the critic) or troubling (to the believer), examining the literary evidence shows that the pagan stories are very different from the Christian one. The key difference between these myths (stories) of paganism and the story of Christianity is, as C. S. Lewis noted, “the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened.” To Lewis, “myth” does not mean something untrue, but something beyond mere reality. Myth gets at the deeper truths beyond the facts, reaching realities the sciences cannot. Most myths are not historically true, of course; they tell a story to educate and entertain. Unlike the myths of paganism, Christianity myth, as Lewis notes, is one of historical reality.
The Incarnation is a story which is simultaneously historically and spiritually true. It teaches us truths greater than the greatest pagan myths, namely that God loves us so much that “He came down from Heaven.” Perhaps one could say the pagan myths borrowed from Christianity, not in time, since the pagan stories usually came first in time, but in truth. Christianity, after all, teaches that Truth came and dwelt among us.
It is a natural to see death as an evil and to desire life eternal. The “dying-and-rising god” motif taps into that desire to conquer death. Perhaps it is an inner remembrance of Eden, when we lived without fear of dying and walked with our God. Under slavery to death, our salvation came not by some manipulative deity’s guile but by the sacrifice of the God who made us, and loves us, at our hands. All of the “dying-and-rising god” myths, each grasping in shadows at this ultimate truth, find their answer on the cross, on the day that death was conquered not by a goddess who sends her husband to die in her place, but by Christ who laid down his life so His Bride, the Church, could live.
The stories of Inanna and other pagan mythological figures are shrouded in mystery. No one believed figures like Inanna or Adonis were originally real, historical men and women. They were gods outside of this mortal world. Christianity is different; ours is a religion deeply drawn from historical truths. The Incarnation, life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus took place in a particular historical place at a particular historical time, and the records come from eyewitness accounts of the historical events, namely the four canonical Gospels.
Christ’s Resurrection and Ascension, c. 400.
Permit a quick equivocal example of what skeptics do in stating that Christians merely applied pagan myths to the life of Christ: Mahatma Gandhi achieved great success in bringing about social change through peaceful, non-violent protests. The story goes that Martin Luther King Jr. achieved the same. Could we just say that followers of King merely took stories of Gandhi and, with the best intentions, applied them to their civil rights leader? Of course not, because there is a historical record of the words and actions of King written by those who lived with him, those who heard him speak, and those who saw him do his peaceful, non-violent deeds. For his part, King was clear about Gandhi’s influence on his own protests. If King was not so upfront, contemporaries of him could have easily remarked that his protests were merely the protest of Gandhi adapted to an American civil rights situation, instead of an India vs. British civil rights situation.
Skeptics millenia from now might incorrectly claim King did not exist, or that his teachings and actions were exaggerated to mimic those of Gandhi, cashing in on the success of the Indian. This sounds ridiculous today, but that is a similar objection to the story of Christ in light of pagan myths. Just as we should honor the memory of both King and Gandhi, so we should likewise honor Christ, who through His Resurrection demonstrated the most profound truth of history, that “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him might not perish but might have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:16-17).
It is truly Good News, a better tale than even the most beautiful pagan dreams.
For Further Reading (beyond the in-text links)
Olson, Carl E. Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?: Questions and Answers about the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ (Ignatius Press, 2016).
Pitre, Brant. The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ (Image, 2016).
Broussard, Karlo. “Why Jesus’ Resurrection Is Not Borrowed from Pagan Myths”
Mark, Joshua J. “Inanna’s Descent: A Sumerian Tale of Injustice.” Ancient History Encyclopedia, February 23, 2011.
Heffron, Yaǧmur. “Inana/Ištar (goddess),” Ancient Mesopotamian Gods and Goddesses, Oracc and the UK Higher Education Academy, 2016