Iif there is one thing that women’s spirituality contributed to popular culture, it is the concept of a Triple Goddess: the Maiden, the Mother, and the Crone. Nevertheless, plenty of Neopagans attempt to expand the triad into four, five or more figures, adding archetypes such as the Nymph, the Amazon, the Queen or the Dark Maiden.

Hekateion, a votive column to Hekate depicting her as three women surrounded by three Kharites, 3rd century BCEThese changes are usually motivated by an attempt to fit the Goddess to women’s lives in a world where even if a woman chooses motherhood, it does not become her sole vocation, filling the period between maidenhood and cronehood.

As you know, I disagree with attempting to transform the Goddess into a template for a woman’s life. I think she is more than that: a person, a woman, a female deity to whom we can relate. Her faces are more properly seen as the roles women could fill in our lives. So why is it that I also feel the need to tell you about the fourth face of the Goddess?

It was the Moon. Tradition has it that the New Moon corresponds to the Maiden, Full Moon to the Mother and the Waning Moon to the Crone. (The ancients saw it differently, dividing the Moon by shape: new, sickle and full, but let’s stay with the modern interpretation.) Immediately you can see the problem: there are four phases, not three. So who is the Goddess of the Dark Moon and why do we not speak of her?

Inanna’s Descent

Cuneiform tablet with the legend of Ishtar's descent to the Underworld © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY 2.5Let’s go back in time, all the way back to Ancient Sumer, whose Goddess Inanna, Queen of Heaven, the Evening Star Venus, is said to have descended to the Underworld to visit her sister Ereshkigal, queen of the Underworld, who was in mourning. (I’ll give you a shortened version here but do look up the full story.) She dressed up in all her royal regalia. As she descended, she was stripped of her possessions, and when she arrived in the Underworld – Ereshkigal turned a baleful eye on her sister, who dropped dead, and her corpse was hung on a hook.

Now, because Inanna was wise, she knew that nobody had ever come back from the Underworld and so she instructed her friend and advisor to ask for help should she not return. Inanna’s father fashioned two creatures of earth, neither man nor woman, and provided them with the water and food of life that would revive Inannna.

The creatures descended to the Underworld and they found Ereshkigal on the bed, suffering. Whenever she cried out in pain, so did the creatures. Oh, my back! cried Ereshkigal. Oh, your back, your back! cried the creatures. Ereshkigal, moved by their behaviour, promised them whatever in the world they wanted. The creatures wished for the dead body of Inanna – and received it. Thus was Inanna revived and returned to the world of the living.

Yet the laws of the Underworld demanded that someone be sent down in her place. Inanna wandered for a long time but could not condemn anyone, overtaken with compassion towards living beings who begged her to save them. And then she arrived to what used to be her palace, where her husband Dumuzi usurped her throne and power and was enjoying himself greatly, having forgotten about his wife and not mourning her at all. Faced with this betrayal, Inanna turned a baleful eye at him and pronounced him dead: and so it was, Dumuzi descended to the Underworld to take Inanna’s place.

The right and the wrong way down

Now, what does this story teach us? Inanna descended into the Underworld brashly, without knowing what she will encounter. In the story she is, in fact, a representative of every other living being that, once it dies, will follow that path as well – always for the first time, never knowing what awaits them. The fact that Inanna dies instructs us that she approached Ereshkigal incorrectly: with pride (initially bedecked in her crown jewels), and perhaps even gloating (Inanna played a part in Ereshkigal’s husband’s death).

The two creatures, meanwhile, are provided as guides for the reader. They lead us out of the dark Underworld of our own ignorance by modelling appropriate behaviour. They instruct us to show empathy and compassion towards suffering. Note that they are created artificially, neither man nor woman; this is the narrator winking to the listener. Look, she whispers, I’ll give you a hint, let you in on my secret: this is my artificial storyteller device, my Deus ex machina, the X that marks the spot.

But what of Inanna’s transformation? First a fool – like a Tarot Fool – merrily descending in the abyss, later she gained the baleful eye, which was originally Ereshkigal’s power. In fact there are many similarities between the sisters at this point: both are queens (of mirror realms), both have suffered physically, both have lost their husbands, both hold the power to pronounce people dead. It is almost as if they are twins, mirror reflections, or two faces of the same Goddess!

The descent, by which we should understand a traumatic experience, suffering and death, transformed Inanna into Ereshkigal (who corresponds in the story to suffering, underworld, and death). Compassion transformed her back into Inanna (who corresponds to love, heaven, and life).

The Hidden Face of the Goddess

This is not an isolated story of a Goddess descending, escaping or hiding herself after experiencing trauma. Kore, Demeter, Amaterasu and others, all experience a period of suffering and develop a Hidden Face. Where the previous faces of the Moon correspond to Sister/Daughter, Mother, Grandmother/Teacher in our lives, the last one, the Hidden Face, is the woman in our lives we don’t want to see. She is the dead woman who we don’t mention. The rape survivor, silenced by blame and shame. The sick woman, excluded by her disability. The woman who miscarried, around whom everyone awkwardly looks the other way. The depressed, the homeless, the jobless, the poor, the immigrant, the rejected.

She is the Other.

Women holding handsThe only thing that can bring her back to the world of living is true compassion – and she herself can give compassion as well because she actually understands what you are going through.

Whenever you find yourself undergoing a personal descent, suffering, lonely, wishing for a companion – she will be right there with you, the only one who truly understands and cries with you: oh, oh, my heart!

She whispers: Even though you feel desolate, forgotten by the world – you are not alone, you will never be alone, because I am here with you, I share your pain and I understand your suffering.

When you suffer, you can always take her hand.

Want to help? I want to talk! Do you agree or disagree with what you read? Have you got any suggestions for more Goddess content? Please comment on the article (below). Alternatively, contact me by email. If you're somewhere around Milton Keynes, UK, I'm up for a chat too!