INANNA of Uruk Rides Again

England’s National Health Service brought to final demise the Gender Identity Development Service at the Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation last week. The lack of evidence that gender imitative procedures really help, along with the loud lamentation of those “detransitioning” led to this closing of what was once the largest gender imitation clinic in the world. The independent Cass Review also published its final report on Britain’s gender identity services for children and young people this week. It met with condemnation of many in the trans-industry. Even the New York Times allowed this story into discussion.


I have spoken here before of the ancient goddess, Inanna, and her adoring priestess, Enheduanna. I gave them significant attention in my book, Across the Kitchen Table, which, considering the book’s brevity, was generous. Yet, I spent the space to counteract the chrono-centrism that pervades young peoples’ thoughts. They believe that we witness now a truly new understanding of people, that our enlightened age bestows on us a way of understanding those experiencing body alienation of which the Biblical writers couldn’t possibly conceive. In other words, they believe that trans is new.


Seal_of_Inanna_2350-2150_BCE-photo by-Sailko

The Sumerian title of the most celebrated of Enheduanna’s poems, The Exhaltation of Inanna, is Nin me šara, which literally means “Queen of all the me.” People worshiped this goddess to, as they believed, become more of who they thought themselves to be. She was the queen who could make “me” more “me.” The awe attending this goddess came from her supposed power to change the sex of anyone at any time. This same awe England’s Tavistock clinic enjoyed in its prime. The influential author composed her hymns in the 3rd millenium BC. Sophus Helle has discussed other non-binary gender identities from the cuneiform sources. Why is it that the ancient poetry feels so contemporary?


Ancient texts describe processions in honor of Inanna, in which participants would wear female clothes on one side of their body and male clothes on the other. They would brandish weapons (to signify the masculine) along with spindles and distaffs (the feminine). I used to live in Greenwich Village, NYC. Having witnessed many gay pride parades, I can’t help smiling in recognition. Nor can I dismiss an acute feeling of kinship with the ancient Sethites, from before the patriarchal era, the worshippers of El Shaddai, who stood watching one of Inanna’s parades go by.


Enheduanna’s Hymn to Inanna is the composition that really brings out the power and paradoxical nature of Inanna. Its Sumerian title, “Innin ša gura” literally means “Queen of the vast heart.” In it we hear of the imagined power of Inanna to enact the fantasy of changing genders:


To destroy and to create…to turn men into women, to turn women into men are yours, Inanna (lines 119-120).


What’s more, the poem is more specific about how she does this:


She set a great burden on their body, blessed them, and named them pilipili. She snapped a spear and gave it to them, as if they were men (lines 80-82).


The pilpili were gender-subverting individuals involved in the worship of Inanna. In her service, they performed ritual lamentations. Later in the poem, we learn the fate of these “transitioned” ones:


The mystics and the pilpili whom she transformed…exhaust themselves with tears and tears, lamentations (lines 88-90).


We see the reason Tavistock closed. We lament it in the many broken bodies and shattered lives now left from its activity, the fragile bones, the increased cancer, the cardiovascular disease, and worst of all, farther down the road, irreversible infertility. I wonder sometimes about the price Enheduanna paid for her lasting fame. The central requirement for Inanna’s high priestesses was abstinence from childbirth.


Anything sound familiar, here?


    1. Well, I only know about Enheduanna because she was so influential in the ancient world in the area of gender. Even so, for a long time, it was hard to get her different poems/prayers because they weren’t translated except in obscure places. But, for those looking to read more, there is now “Enheduana: The Complete Poems of the World’s First Author”, the 2023 book by Sophus Helle.

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