This darkly pessimistic view on goddesses is most exemplified in Armstrong’s version of the myths of Inanna. I’ve had the pleasure of reading some rather good translations of these myths, translations which scholars themselves laud. Inanna, the Queen of Heaven and Earth, Love and War, is clearly a goddess of life, death, and rebirth, moving through the cycle of life as surely as does everything on this earth. Nevertheless, to Armstrong the stories of Inanna are only tragedies. Curiously, she asserts this despite stating her sources are incomplete, then insists Inanna’s purpose in descending to the Underworld is:
to usurp her sister Ereshkigal, Queen of Hell… Her [Inanna’s] attempted coup fails… Inanna is, however, rescued by the other gods, and her return to earth, accompanied by a horde of devils, is triumphant and terrible. … What remains most poignantly in the mind is the lament of the women, especially of Dumuzi’s mother… This Mother Goddess is not a redeemer, but the cause of death and sorrow. … The rituals associated with Inanna concentrated on the tragedy of her story and never celebrated her reunion with Dumuzi in the springtime. (52-54)
If that were what the stories actually said, I’d agree they were indeed tragedies. However… they really don’t say that at all. I loved the story which referred to the girl Inanna as “the girl who loved to laugh,” and found her joyous and frankly sexual union with her chosen husband Dumuzi to be a wonderful example of how sacred the loving sexual act can be.
I was also fascinated to read of Inanna’s proud descent as a young woman into the Underworld, in order to comfort her sister Ereshkigal for the death of Ereshkigal’s husband. She goes even though she knows it is her death, and even though she knows no one will come to help her. It is only due to her planning ahead that her sukkal (her vizier) is able to persuade a single deity — Enki, a sort of Wise Trickster — to send clever messengers who bargain with Ereshkigal to release Inanna. The young goddess Inanna clearly matures and grows in power throughout the story as well. Upon her return she rewards all those who remained faithful to her, and though she initially slays Dumuzi — since he is so busy usurping her place and power after her death (i.e. descent into the Underworld) that he does not even bother to mourn for her — she does eventually find mercy in her heart for her beloved husband.
That particular tale seems very hopeful to me, as it offers a deific explanation for the natural cycle of life as one of life, death, and rebirth. The Mother Goddesses of the caves of Lascaux, and the Eleusian Mysteries, also metaphorically exemplify the natural cycles. I am not sure Armstrong — raised as she was in a religious tradition which believes this one short life is all you get to decide your fate for infinity — can see that, however. She does note, concerning the Eleusian Mysteries, that “[d]eath was fearful, frightening, and inevitable, but it was not the end. If you cut a plant, and threw away the dead branch, it gained a new sprout. Agriculture led to a new, if qualified, optimism” (p. 57) — but she seems to deny any such hope for goddesses previous to Demeter. In fact, she appears to emphasize that all the goddesses’ stories are “myth[s] about death” (p. 56), rather than being about rebirth as well. It is as if she cannot see a female deity as allowing for any sort of spiritual resurrection.
This double standard rears its ugly head again when Armstrong discusses newer (and always male) deities replacing older ones: if the replaced deity is male, it’s a terrible act — but if it is a female deity being usurped, somehow this is ennobling and uplifting. For example, she states the story of Ouranos’ castration by his son Kronos “horribly illustrates the impotence of the Sky Gods” (p. 21). Regarding the murder and brutal butchery of Tiamat by her grandson Marduk, however, Armstrong portrays Marduk as “splendid,” and Tiamat as “a lurking danger” (67). Armstrong is similarly admiring of Gilgamesh’s abusive rejection of the offered love of Ishtar, referring to his vicious public slander of the goddess as “a powerful critique of the traditional mythology, which can no longer speak fully to urban men and women,” and to the goddess herself as “a destroyer of culture” (74). I’m sadly not really surprised Armstrong chose to cast this unpleasant myth as a triumphant story of the sensual and egalitarian goddess being ‘righteously conquered’ by male hierarchy and militarism… I’m just surprised she assumes this male-uber-alles myth speaks to women at all.