From the Great Above she opened her ear to the Great BelowI am taking off my red coat. In its pockets are seeds, rosehips, bus tickets, notes from meeetings. The coat has mud on its woollen sleeves where I have dug festival ditches and community gardens, stains where I have poured tea in church halls and slept in protest tents, where I have chopped wood in my garden, a badge on each lapel that says ‘we are the 99%’ and another that declares freedom for Palestine. We can turn the ship around, I have been writing these last six years, we can do it ourselves. We can repair, resolve, remember, restore, re-imagine the world we see before us falling apart.
I stand in the corridor, with the six coats upon their pegs, lined up like so many books on a library shelf: my life laid out in sequence. I wanted to write how it is when you leave the coat on a hook, pulled by a line that was written four thousand years ago.
I wanted to tell you about the first yellow coat, as I walked beside my mother down Queensway, London, how it determines all the others. It’s made of primrose Harris Tweed, signalling that I come from a certain class of beings who live this city. This is my first moment of consciousness. I am me! I declare and in this moment break away from her.
My mother walks onward past the sawdust floors of butchers and the cool leafy interiors of grocers. It is the end of the 50s. I am a small light in a darkened city. This feeling I realise does not come from my mother, or my father who is working in the law courts of the city, defending small murderers and thieves. I know, even though I do not yet have the words, that this existential moment is stronger, more alluring, more meaningful than anything I am surrounded by.
To be free, to awaken, to be your true self, to know the secrets of life you have to let go first of your mother’s hand. To live is to know how to die. But when you have died, you also need to know how to be reborn. And to recognise that moment when it comes.
When Innana tricked her father Enki of the Me that conferred on her the powers of her office the greatest she held was the gift of discernment.
FASHION My adult coat was not always red, or second hand. Once it was tangerine and new and caught the eye of my friend Alexander in Rome.
“Why have you got the hook outside of your coat?” he asked.
“It’s a fashion detail,” I said. “It means the coat is by Jean-Paul Gaultier. It’s his signature."
Alexander laughs. We are on the Spanish steps and my friend the seminarian, quizzes me with all the force of his Jesuit education, I don’t tell him this is the most expensive coat I will ever buy, or why that deep orange embroidered frockcoat was the only colour and shape to be wearing that season. Or that why in spite of all my learning that I am writing about men who design beautiful things.
“Who is he?” he said.
The question you have no answer for, that holds you to account, is what shifts everything.
CLOAK Once the coat was a grey cloak with a scarlet lining with my name stitched is its collar: blue to signify my house, Ridley named after the Christian saint. Inside its deep inner pocket there is a battered copy of Ulysses. a book I will silently devour, while the rest of the chapel will pray to a god who was spent three days in ‘Hell’ before rising to the sky realms. The institution has taught me to sing psalms, recite Shakespearean metre, pronounce French verse, and in moments of disobedience, read Joycean prose without a full stop.
I have learned from these texts that the true power in writing lies not in clever argument, but in listening: but only from the last do I learn its greatest trick of all, which is to break the rules.
FUR When I was twenty, I broke the rules of all my class and education and went to Belfast to be with my first love and he gave me a coat made of soft grey rabbit skins. He had worn it when he was in a rock band. We stood on the Ards pennisula and watched a hundred swans land on the black sea. It was the middle of the 1970s, and all my encounters were ventures in uncharted territory. From my lovers I discovered how it is live in the industrial north, in South Bronx, to be a Jew, to be ashamed of
poverty, to be a policeman, to be sent to the madhouse, to prison, to fight with god - subjects never mentioned in my father’s house.
“How come you are the hero in everything you write?” asked the man I did not sleep with.
I did not know. I was experiencing life by proxy.
The alpaca coat will serve as a blanket in the cold mountain nights in the Andes and Sierra Madre. I don’t fly anymore, or eat in restaurants. When I think of New York now I remember the tramp on Broadway who told you: you have something golden in there in your brain, y’all take care of it, you understan’?
BLACK “I like to see you smiling there,” said my father as he lay dying. and the summer storm raged outside the hospital window. In my hand I was holding a raven feather, now buttonholed in a small black frockcoat I found in a thrift store on our last road trip to Utah.
I wanted to tell you, how it was when we arrived in Zion Canyon that spring, how it was when my father’s spirit roared into the night, the stories held within the fabric of each of these coats, but each time I go there I run out of words and a small quiff of terror runs through my veins.
I am standing in this corridor, facing the coats and realise they are no longer my store of material: not these childhood nostalgias, these bildungsroman, these young rebellious love stories, these glossy magazine articles, these poems about birds and ancestors, treatises on plant medicine, not even the latest narratives about collaboration and downshift.
What next now that everything is written, now there are no hooks left?
The LineIn the introduction to her retelling of the Innana cycle Diana Wolkstein writes of her first encounter with the Sumerian scholar, Samuel Noah Kramer. Kramer had been working with the 5000 year old inscriptions for 50 years, a cycle of myths and hymns she will describe as “tender, erotic, shocking, and compassionate - the world’s first love story that was recorded and written down.”
From the Great Above she set her mind to the Great Below.
“What exactly does mind mean?” she asked.
“Ear,” Kramer said.
“Yes, the word for ear and wisdom in Sumerian are the same, but mind is what is meant.”
“But - could I say ‘ear’?”
“Well you could.”
“Is it opened her ear or set her ear?”
“Set. Set her ear, like a donkey that sets its ear to a particular sound.”
As Kramer spoke, Wolkstein recalls, a shiver ran through her.
”When taken literally, the text itself announces the story’s direction. From the Great Above the goddess opened (set) her ear, her receptor for wisdom, to the Great Below.”’
‘The Descent of Innana’ is the fourth and final myth in the quartet, and the four together are understood to be the cycle of a complete human being – specifically a female being. This final part records how the Queen of Heaven and Earth goes into the Underworld, where she is killed by its Queen, her sister Erishkeigel, and then is restored to life.
Innana has to go through seven gates before she gets to her dark sister’s throne room. At each gate she has to give up one of her Me, the attributes of civilisation, from her crown to her breechcloth - all seven seats of her physical and material power. She enters the kur, the Underworld, to know the secrets of rebirth housed there, which are not the physical attributes of the middle earth but belong entirely in another dimension.
You shiver, because you know you can’t follow the words of her myth in your mind. You follow her track the way dancers hand down their choreography through time: by imitation.
The Myth and the Story
The myth is not the story. The story is extrinsic. I walk out, fight dragons, lose myself in the forest. I return, get married, live in a castle, inherit the kingdom. I do this, then I do this, then I do this, then I hang up my coat on the back of the door and tell you a story. You listen to my tale, gripped by adventure. It fits into the ordinary world we know. Our lives are built around these stories with their happy or sad endings. We are rewarded or punished, the good triumph, the bad die, or do a far, far better thing and suffer both fates.
But the myth is not this. It demands we open our ears to another wavelength. It is a complex, non-linear, and runs alongside the story of our middle earth lives, with its clawed feet in the underworld and its beaky head in the sky realms. It doesn’t fit what we see around us. It lives in caves and out in the desert wind, and sometimes looms up in the city darkness and tells us to take care of something inside us that we cannot see with our everyday eyes.
When the story loses its sense, the myth emerges like the bones beneath the soil. It promises something that makes sense beyond the endings we predict, yet leaves us puzzled by its inscriptions on stone and clay, with its bird heads, its masks and painted bodies. With the goddess who rides on the back of a lion, who is conquered and then transformed.
The myth is intrinsic. It works from the inside out, looping back on itself and lives in all time. In myths, like our dreams, there are savage things that don’t make sense. You cut off heads of people who seem to be giving you direction, or asking for help. You eat the things you should not, and open the box you should not. You are married to your father and your brother and your son. You are a strange heroine. Discernment is your greatest gift. Curiosity and a thirst for knowledge pulls you where angels fear to go.
Angels don’t lose their clothes, and in the Underworld you lose everything. The clothes are least of it.
I am standing naked, before the hook and my sister’s wrath. The myth will kill me and put my body on the hook for three days, which is the statutory amount of time a soul stays in the Underworld before it returns to the sky realm. My ascent will involve complicated deals with sky fathers and loyal servants, betrayals and praise, and someone I love who will take my place. Nobody goes into the underworld and returns. Except you who breaks the rules.
The ways of the Underworld are perfect. The ways of Heaven are perfect.I am imperfect and incomplete. Like all earth creatures I bring change by undergoing change. As a people we can change the law, but only through our own journey which demands we give everything away that up to that point has conferred power upon us.
Mostly you go to meet your sister, whom you have been told, is furious with you. Somewhere buried in this myth from Sumer is a key about the future. And for weeks now I have been waiting for it to appear. The first known piece of writing was written by a woman in 3200BC in praise of this being – who was not a mother goddess, but embodied the morning and evening star, and her myth of descent is the first of the ‘mysteries’ to emerge from the city cultures we call civilisation.
It is hard to imagine a world shaped by such a descent, because we live in a world framed by monotheistic gods, who sacrifice their sons to war and Empire, and sentence their daughters to servitude. You have to go beyond millennia of saints and masters and sages into the strife-torn deserts of modern Iraq to find where Innana first held sway, before she became by association, the whore of Babylon, her alchemical moves reduced to a strip tease of coloured veils, performed for a bored tourist in Istanbul.
Embedded in her myth is a way to go beyond civilisation’s impasse. Because the life ordered by the Underworld is not the life ordered by Empire: it has another structure and practice entirely. As modern people we like to hold the myth philosophically, culturally, psychologically at arm’s length. What we fear is to walk in its tracks, lose control over our lives. We do not like to question our existence at every turn. So we toy with the mythos in our minds, at the end of our typing fingers.
But information is not the myth. Myths are enacted, dramaturgical, protean, existential. You allow the myth to be played out through your being, suffer its effects consciously. The meaning and the expansion it brings happens inside of you, wordlessly. When you stand by the hook, you are scriptless. Libraries disappear, all your smart lingo of Eng Lit and fashion and philosophy. You are in the place without words. The words take you here and then abandon you.
Writers are born with the kind of memory that calls them to go through the gates of the kur. They remember, not just for themselves, but on behalf of the people: we have to undergo change, or we are not people and the Earth is not the Earth. When we make our moves the edifices tumble down, the institutions crack, illusions dissolve like mist.
It comes to me in this moment is that I have run out of the storyline. I don’t know the ending to my own story, or that of anyone around me. And maybe this life isn’t a story anymore. Maybe it’s something else. The future stands before me like an empty quarter, like the desert road, edged with sunflowers, like the twilight in the garden after the rain. I take a deep breath. I am here, I say and step forward.
The hook holds what you most fear, which in my case is meaninglessness. The void hits you like a mallet and you tremble. You break apart like a seed pod. Collapse happens inwardly and suddenly.
At the moment Innana is killed by her sister, Erishkeigel begins her labour. When her servant, Ninshubar goes to heaven to ask Innana’s fathers for help. the first two refuse. Then the third, Enki the god of wisdom, creates two beings made from the clay under his fingernails who slip into the Underworld unnoticed and assist Erishkeigel give birth by sympathising with her pain and glorifying her greatness.
Oh, oh, oh my inside, oh, oh, my outside!
Innana goes into the Underworld because she knows her sister has something more powerful than any of her Me. That’s what pulls her, that’s what pulls us, thousands of years later, caught by the first line. We are hooked on that moment.
Some of us have been so hooked on that moment we forgot what we went down there to find in the first place.
The story of civilisation tells us we will be rewarded if we toe the line: but though some may receive a moment of glory, or own a fine house or dine on meals that slip extravagantly past our lips, none of this will give us kinship with the beasts, or our fellows, or return us whence we came. None will tell us what we need to undergo to become real people – which is to say people who value life on Earth.
The myth tells you if you give everything to life, the Earth will give you everything your heart desires: which if we are writers, means knowledge is given to us – a lineage that stretches back through time, to this moment when our words were first inscribed in clay. That is why we go to the Underworld and face the hook, even at the risk of losing those words that have kept us safe all these years. All those poems and articles, adjectives, and smart lines. All those narratives.
The writer is the one who remembers the myth and keeps telling it to the people. Nothing happens for the better unless we let go and change our forms.
The ways of the Underworld are perfect Innana. Do not question them.
What is hard for our duality-driven minds to comprehend is that Innana and Erishkeigel are the same being, that to turn the ship around we have to follow her mythic track. Rebirth takes place in the Underworld, and in order to reclaim, remember, re-imagine, we have enter its domain.
And we absolutely don’t want to go down there. We want to stay in our cosy colour supplement lives and cling to our ideas of happy families and romantic love, our knowledge of buildings and history, our Shakespearean quotations. We long to keep our shirts perfectly ironed in cedar drawers, to repeat the epithets that fall from the lips of holy men in robes.
Who am I without these coats of class and institution?
Who am I without my work?
Who am I without my new found community?
When Innana returns to the Great Above the person who has not mourned her departure is made to take her place. Her consort, the shepherd Dumuzi, who is also Tammuz and Adonis and Dionysus, and all dying and resurrecting ivy-wreathed gods of the ancient world, and further down the line, the sacrificed man on a cross who does not remember her name. Whose books tell us we don’t have to go there, because he did it all for us.
The rebirth we seek does not happen without our descent. The world becomes flatter, uglier and unkinder, determined by the unconscious mass, the untempered leader, the foolish woman, the words that do not set their ear to the Great Below. Venus, the embodiment of love, beauty and a fair fight, steps into the arena to bring new life. She doesn’t do that by chanting a new mantra or changing her shopping habits, she does that by grabbing you by the throat and pulling you towards everything you have so far refused to see or hear. She takes you towards the unspoken, the missing information in every transaction, each time you have jumped the consequence and refused to hear the beast or child cry out, your sister trapped in a factory a thousand leagues away.
The unconscious snarls back, rages and rants, complains, resents our every intrusion. It is not polite, or reasonable, or forgiving. You have to withstand its every humiliation: inside yourself and outside amongst the people you love and fear.We think to know the facts is enough, that good behaviour is enough, that to write of our wounds and sorrows is enough. But it is not enough.
To let go of earthly power is a real thing. To be conscious within the realms of unconsciousness, is a real thing. To face your raging sister, to move out of the cycle of history, to liberate yourself from your line, to have empathy for the man, for the child, for the tree, for the fish and the barbarian, these are a real things. Not to give up, even when you have given up and the world has turned its back on you.
To die before you die is the core tenet of all the mystery cycles that emerged in the early city states before the father gods took command. It has been a task undertaken by writers in the civilisations that followed - content that we labour conveniently in the Underworld as volunteers and substitutes to carry their shadow and suffer on their behalf.
But Innana’s myth does not end there.
I am on the beach on a warm blue July morning. There is one day a year like this, and today it is here. The sea shimmers and stretches out before us at low tide, and the breeze carries the dusty scent of marram and sea holly. In the sea the currents move around the sandbar, this way and that, and tumble me into the foam. Every time I put my feet down the sand moves too and small fish who lived buried in the seabed. Everything is moving. I am laughing, tossed by the waves. This is how it is on the tip of the future, as you look at the sun on the horizon, as you look at the empty page and don’t know what to write anymore.
I wanted to tell you what that is like when you have done your time in the Underworld, the moment that delivers you into a vast unmapped space, and frees you from the past that has been howling and pawing your coat it seems for centuries. I wanted to say how it was all worth it, though I am left naked on a beach, bookless, featherless, empty-pocketed. Because at this moment I want to be nowhere else but here with the future unwritten before me. Because the golden feeling I had in the core of my self when I was two years old is still with me at 58, and keeping loyal to that awakeness is what I steer by more than anything I see falling apart around me, and I know I am not alone in that. And mostly because I remember what my sister told me before I left the city:
“You have been the anchor, you have kept this house together, you have absolved our father’s guilt, buried our mother with honour, held our hand, listened to us, grieved with us, written our story - now it is my turn.”
I put my feet on the firm wet sand, on the shoreline, on this beautiful day. We are here, I say.
Sophie Mason; Anima by Daniel Mack (DM6) entering the sea, high summer 2014; Inanna - Queen of Heaven and Earth by Diana Wolkstein and Samuel Noah Kramer (Harper & Row). Dark Mountain Issue 6 is available via the DM website.