Sumerian mythology—"Inanna's Descent"

Sumerian mythology—"Inanna's Descent"

Posted by CRS Staff on May 21, 2019 for the OMNIKA project

Formerly located in southern Mesopotamia (Iraq), Sumer was one of the world's first civilizations. Their writing system, cuneiform, is likely the first of its kind. "Inanna's Descent to the Netherworld" is an afterlife myth from circa 2000 BCE and details the narrative of a deity named Inanna. It is, perhaps, one of the oldest recorded depictions of the post-mortem experience. We were interested in better understanding how the work of scholarly translation is done, the role of artifacts, and how scholars come to agree on an authoritative version of a given piece of mythological (religious) literature. The results were both surprising and encouraging with regard to our investigation of ancient human mentality.

Full paper



"Inanna's Descent to the Netherworld": A centennial survey of scholarship, artifacts, and translations

By Boban Dedović on May 21, 2019
Afterlife mythologySumerInannaSumerian religionInanna's descent to the netherworldCuneiform artifactsSamuel N. KramerWilliam R. SladekUniversity of OxfordCDLI

An ancient Sumerian proverb may be read as “good fortune [is embedded in] organisation and wisdom.” The present centennial survey is solely about organizing the last one hundred years of scholarship for a Sumerian afterlife myth named “Inanna’s Descent to the Netherworld.” The initial discovery of artifacts with snippets of the myth can be dated to as early as 1889. English translations of the myth emerged around 1920 and were followed by numerous archaeological expeditions and subsequent translation efforts. Such efforts, by many scholars and institutions, resulted in an authoritative 2001 version of the myth published by the University of Oxford via the Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature (ETCSL). The 2001 version, titled “Inana’s descent to the nether world” is 412 lines long and utilizes over fifty cuneiform artifacts (sources). The impact of this work has been mainstream and interdisciplinary interest in Inanna, the myth, and her role in antiquity. However, the technical nature of studying ancient Sumer may alienate a broader audience. The survey contained herein attempts to organize and explain the key people, concepts, events, and institutions involved with the discovery of “Inanna’s Descent.” Non-technical readers can expect to learn how and why we arrived at the likely complete translation we have today. Light background information and a chronology of scholarly work are followed by a brief discussion on promising areas of further research. The appendix contains a comprehensive catalog of referenced artifact data.

Main findings

  • Many scholars contributed to the translation of this myth
  • Scholars disagree heavily on translations of ancient texts
  • The oldest recorded civilization on our planet, Sumer, has been studied for less than two hundred years
  • Different artifacts are grouped together in singular coherent compositions, despite the fact that they are derived from different languages, and in some cases, almost one thousand years apart in terms of their origin
  • Different versions of the same myth are grouped and reconciled for the sake of consistency
  • Little attention is given to dating methods and provenance with regard to artifacts
  • Most literature from antiquity did not exist until circa 3000 BCE


  • The amount of subjectivity involved with translating Sumerian texts is profound—in some cases, over half of the symbols require extensive guess work
  • Public friendly translations of ancient texts are massively modified from their original translations in order to reconcile contemporary familiarity
  • Little to no attention is given to the influence of distortions related to modern linguistic terms that likely did not exist in antiquity
  • Sumerian people may have been more different than us than we initially realized

Lots more work needs to be done with regard to how we look at mythological stories, particularly as it relates to accurate translations.