Descent into the underworld is one of the most persistent themes in mythology. The ancient Greeks told of Orpheus’ attempts to rescue Eurydice from Hades. In Egypt, Osiris drowns in the Nile and is resurrected as god of the dead. In The Mahabharata, King Yudhishthira goes to Naraka to revive his dead brothers. And the Welsh prince Pwyll trades places with Arawn, lord of the otherworldly kingdom of Annwn, for a year and a day. These stories (sometimes referred to as katabasis) are found in nearly every culture.
The Sumerian deity Inanna undergoes her own katabasis. The goddess of love, fertility and warfare (she pre-dates but is a counterpart to the Mesopotamian Ishtar and Astarte), Inanna passes through seven gates to reach the underworld, giving up her clothing and jewelry at each gate until she is finally naked and powerless. “It was that stripping away that interested me,” says Ann Buxie, a storyteller and poet based in Malibu. “What we think we know, what we regard as precious.”
Inanna’s fall into darkness and return to the heavens is the inspiration for a performance art spectacle organized by Buxie and fellow poet and playwright Jean Colonomos and being staged this weekend at Art City. “Inanna: Voices of Descent and Ascent” brings together many local writers to explore the Inanna myth and its meaning in a modern world.
Buxie and Colonomos asked 13 poets to “restring the myth” by contributing original works about their own personal descents — caused by grief, depression, mania or some other source — and their subsequent ascents, and what was learned or gained from the experience. “The descents force us to question ourselves,” Buxie explains. “It seems we cannot rise until we submit to that questioning.” These pieces were then “disassembled into strands and rewoven.” The resulting piece has been described by Colonomos as “something of a spoken-word play.”
Marsha de la O, Judy Brow, Ellen Reich and Ventura County Poet Laureate Phil Taggart are among the many contributors (in addition to Buxie and Colonomos); and other area poets — including Nancy-Jean Pément, Friday Gretchen and Fernando Salinas — will read selections from the play as well. Musician Donna Lynn Caskey will weave sound and music into the production. “We have so many people wanting to do this,” Buxie says.
With a background in Jungian psychology, Buxie has long been fascinated by the Inanna myth and how it continues to be relevant today. “[Inanna] was stripped of these things she valued,” Buxie says. “She came back a different woman. Everybody goes through this. . . . It is present in our lives now. We go up, we go down — and not always willingly.” She believes that the conversation about loss, failure and the dark side — themes integral to Inanna’s descent and ascent — is lacking in modern society. “We’re supposed to ‘get on with our lives.’ We don’t have a ritual to let ourselves go down,” says Buxie. “Movies make hay [of the dark side] but not necessarily in a healthy way.”
Colonomos has been steeped in mythology since her youth, and took to Buxie’s proposed project immediately. “I took a class in Greek mythology in high school, and that was it for me,” she says with a laugh. “I was a professional modern dancer with Martha Graham, and it was a very female-centered experience. We often explored myths from a woman’s point of view.”
The difficulty of creating a narrative from myriad sources appealed to her poetic sensibility as well. “I like to experiment with forms,” Colonomos says. “I want the form to be as original as the content. Inanna was a challenge; this was a spoken-word play, a nonlinear form.”
There were other complications, too. The first draft was promising, but leaned heavily on falls from grace. “There was a lot on the descent — that’s the dramatic part,” Colonomos recalls. “But we really had to find the wholeness.” So they encouraged their writers to take a second look at Inanna’s transcendence from the underworld. “Progress is impossible without change,” Buxie notes. “Descent is when you first notice the change, but it’s in the ascent that you enact change.”
Such an ambitious project deserves an equally remarkable setting, and Art City is a divinely inspired location for the event. With enormous granite rocks rising into the sky (one is 17 feet tall), massive boulders that weigh tens of thousands of pounds, and several stone carvings, Art City is like a Ventura County version of Stonehenge, and the ancient mysticism it invokes is ideal for a night of mythic storytelling. “We hope people will come early to experience the stones and this place,” Buxie says. It’s not the first time Art City’s founder, artist Paul Lindhard, has turned the stunning space over to poets. The sculptor even carved a stone podium for them. “When you get behind it . . . you feel empowered to speechify,” Lindhard acknowledges.
What speakers at “Inanna: Voices of Descent and Ascent” will “speechify” about is a story as relevant today as it was 5,000 years ago in Mesopotamia. “We all fall down. How do we rise again? That journey is an archetypal movement,” Buxie says.
“Inanna: Voices of Descent and Ascent” will be presented on Saturday, July 16, at Art City, 197 Dubbers St., Ventura. Doors open at 7:30 p.m. RSVPs are required; email email@example.com or call 310-457-2385.