Chalice Lighting from Andrew Pakula

Afraid of the Dark
by Andrew Pakula

In sightless night, terrors draw near
Nameless fears of talon and tooth
Hopelessness yawns before us—an abyss
Alone and unknown in the gloom, longing for the dawn

O sacred flame blaze forth—wisdom brought to life

Guide us—
With the light of hope
The warmth of love
The beacon of purpose and meaning

Because we are all afraid of the dark
Let there be light


Copyright: The author has given Unitarian Universalist Association member congregations permission to reprint this piece for use in public worship. Any reprints must acknowledge the name of the author.

Darkness: The Descent of Inanna: Light Yields to Darkness

a sermon given on 2 December 2007 by Reverend Gail Seavey of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Nashville, Tennessee.


In The Descent of Inanna, light yields to darkness and is reborn again. Emily Green choose this ancient Mesopotamian myth, four to five thousand years old, as our sacred text for this month of the Winter Solstice and Advent, holidays that help us spiritually live with the literal overpowering darkness of seasonal long dark nights. This myth may be ancient, but it has touched many contemporary women as living scripture, or words that resonate still with our deepest spiritual longings, longings to be fully healthy, whole human beings. But how can a myth, an untrue story, a fantastic tale, touch the lives of post-modern rational human beings?

Myths can touch us from at least four different perspectives: as metaphors for the processes found in the natural world; as descriptions of religious rituals that enable people to grow spiritually; as metaphors for the processes of human psychological growth and integration; and as reflections of large cultural changes. The Descent of Inanna can be viewed through all four of these perspectives.

The Descent of Inanna was a metaphor for rhythmic processes found in the natural world. Inanna was literally the morning and evening star that we now call the planet Venus. That star shines as the evening star for 250 days, descends below the horizon and then rises on the other side of night as the morning star for 236 days. Every year light literally yielded to darkness.

Inanna was associated to other natural processes as well. She was know as the Grain Storehouse, the innovation upon which the Mesopotamian city of Uruk was built upon. Her Descent has been likened to the dwindling and replenishment of the storehouse as the grain was used up, grown, harvested and stored again. These natural rhythms of the stars and agriculture vary from place to place on the globe, but every place moves with natural rhythms of the sky, with its patterns of light and dark, and the land with its patterns of growth from fallow to harvest, that we all relate to. In this place, in this time, we relate the descent to the natural rhythm of the summer light overcome by winter dark, and autumn abundance overcome by winter dormancy.

The Descent of Inanna was a description of a rite of initiation. In the history of Western religion a long tradition of ‘Mystery’ religions refer to the initiates passing through a series of gates or stations where they give up their worldly ideas and are given knowledge of the ultimate reality, including the inevitability of suffering, death and rebirth. From this knowledge comes wisdom. Inanna is the first initiate into the mysteries of death and rebirth. The stations of the cross that Catholics walk during the holy week before Easter is a more modern incarnation of these mystery rites. This ritual has also permeated our culture at its most secular levels. For instance, you may want to watch the movie ‘Apollo’ again someday just to observe how the script writers structure the journey to the moon and possible death around the closing of seven very technological gates, watched over by the gate-keeper, Ed Harris at mission control in Houston.

The Descent of Inanna is a metaphor for the process of human psychological growth and integration. In the Descent to the Goddess: A Way of Initiation for Women, Jungian analyst Sylvia Brinton Perera shows how the symbols in the ancient myth arise in the dreams of modern women who have been taught by a woman-hating culture to repress much of who they are as too ugly, irrational, dirty, bitchy and scary to acknowledge. As these women of the light make a journey inward to their unconscious, leaving behind all the trappings of their success in a male centered world, they meet the scary repressed female who, like Ereshkigal, writhes in pain. When the unacknowledged parts of the woman are finally listened to, the woman rises again, whole and with enormous energy.

I saw this happen while I was in Divinity School when I was taking a course with the feminist theologian, Carol Christ. Carol began every class by showing archeological evidence of goddesses from a variety of cultures around the world. Many of the women in the class reacted with painful distress. I had to work with some of them for a whole year (supervised by Sharon Welch) to understand what was happening. The women who were so profoundly upset by the ancient images of women had all grown up in religions that taught them that their female bodies, in and of themselves, were evil, the originators and bearers of sin. They were taught that they had to transcend their bodies and become spiritual, which was understood as dualistically opposed to their bodies. They painfully repressed most of their physical reality. When these women looked at ancient sculptures of women, naked, fleshy, bodies of all shapes, ages and sizes, often pregnant or nursing or giving birth, female parts clearly shown, they saw images of evil and shame. When their professor told them that these images of female bodies were idealized as Goddesses, holy and sacred, they were plunged into chaotic confusion. These daughters of dualistic light met up with Ereshkigal for the first time and they were in profound pain. Some of them felt like they were plunged into dark chaos and were dying. Yet, with help, they faced their repressed traits, integrated them and learned to love themselves, body and spirit as one.

The Descent of Inanna is a reflection of large cultural changes. The story originally was written when the very separate city states of Sumer, each with their own city god or goddess who supported their own kings and queens, where building regional alliances, moving toward a unified political entity. In the stories of Inanna we can observe political tensions between the gods and goddesses of different cities that may reflect very real tensions between the different city priests, priestesses, kings and queens. When Inanna returns to heaven she rises full of anger and surrounded by demons. She finds her consort, Dumuzi, instead of grieving her death, sitting on her throne, rather enjoying taking over her rule. She orders the demons to take him to the Great Below.

Many second-wave feminists felt just this way when they became more psychologically whole and started to challenge the culture that had taught them to limit and repress much of their humanity. Boy, were we angry. And in our anger, we demanded that those who expected us to continue limiting our humanity go to the underworld, face their own repressed selves, do their own work. Many of those people did, and they became mutual equal partners capable of loving their full self and the fullness of the women in their lives. And through darkness and light yielding one to the other, another culture began to change.

I have told this story many times and from all four perspectives. I have told it as a story that invites us to participate in the natural rhythms of darkness and light yielding one to the other, helping me become less afraid of the dark and more awake to the beauties of the night. I have observed this myth at retreats as a religious ritual that enabled people to grow spiritually.

In my feminist theology class at Harvard (Sharon again) we invited the class of 200 people to participate in the ritual of the Descent. I enacted Inanna – with a foam Statue of Liberty crown. About five years later, and 1,500 miles away at the World Council of Churches’ Conference on Women and Religion, a whole convent of nuns started running towards me, one of them pointing – “That’s Inanna!” She was one of my classmates, a nun who took this story back to her convent. There they continued to tell the story of the Descent with the natural rhythm of darkness and light yielding one to the other.

I have told this story as a metaphor for the processes of human psychological growth and integration. In my own life I have entered the psychological darkness of the unconscious, acknowledged another scary part of my nature, killed off another lighted delusion of my ego, and come back more integrated, with the cyclical rhythm of the seasons: as the storehouse of grain dwindles, the seed is planted in the dark soil, grows into grain, is harvested, and replenishes the storehouse yet again.

I have told this story as a reflection of large cultural changes; at battered women’s conferences, lectures on contemporary women’s art, and classes on liberation theology — places where what was once culturally despised and repressed can be held up to the light again.

And what I have learned from telling this story is that Erishkigal and Inanna are sisters that need one another. The darkness and light of the sky and the earth must yield to one another for the natural world to continue turning in its cyclical rhythms; the light of the ego must yield to the darkness of death for wisdom to be born; the dark of the flesh and the light of spirit must yield one to the other for the holy to incarnate, the pains felt in the dark by culturally repressed people must yield to the light to give birth to peace.

In this season of long dark nights, we wait for the light. But if we ignore the dark, we wait in vain. For darkness and light need one another. Let them yield one to the other, each distinguished, unique and cherished.


“But I also say this: that light is an invitation to happiness, and that happiness, when it’s done right, is a kind of holiness, palpable and redemptive. ”
― Mary Oliver

Light: Why I Wake Early, by Mary Oliver

Why I Wake Early
by Mary Oliver

Hello, sun in my face.

Hello, you who made the morning

and spread it over the fields

and into the faces of the tulips

and the nodding morning glories,

and into the windows of, even, the

miserable and the crotchety –

best preacher that ever was,

dear star, that just happens

to be where you are in the universe

to keep us from ever-darkness,

to ease us with warm touching,

to hold us in the great hands of light –

good morning, good morning, good morning.

Watch, now, how I start the day

in happiness, in kindness.”
― Mary Oliver