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Poetic Symbology of the Heroine’s Journey: Artist Nancy Castille’s Stunning Homage to the Sumerian Proto-Feminist Goddess Inanna

5,000-year-old poems celebrating female sexuality and empowerment, reimagined in a new symbolic language at the nexus of beauty, wonder, and wisdom.

Poetic Symbology of the Heroine’s Journey: Artist Nancy Castille’s Stunning Homage to the Sumerian Proto-Feminist Goddess Inanna

“We die. That may be the meaning of life,” Toni Morrison observed from the Stockholm stage upon becoming the first black woman to win the Nobel Prize. “But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.” A generation before her, Iris Murdoch — another woman of towering genius — wrote in weighing the salvational power of the written word: “The quality of a civilisation depends upon the scope and purity of its language.” Both culturally and biologically, language is the hallmark of our species — it is, as the great 19th-century biologist and anatomist Thomas Huxley noted upon reflecting on Darwin’s greatest legacy, what makes “every generation somewhat wiser than its predecessor” and more attuned to the fundamental truths of the universe.

And yet even the greatest civilizations, along with their languages, die. Whether or not the civilizations that follow manage to grow wiser depends largely on the extent to which they can build upon the wisdom and beauty their predecessors left in the ruins of their fallen empires — legacies of meaning-making encoded almost entirely in language and art.

“The Holy One” (Nancy Castille)

Scholar, artist, seamstress, and violinist Nancy Castille brings an uncommonly inspired lens to this cross-civilizational culvert of meaning in Hieratica: Seven Hymns to the Goddess Inanna — her homage to a series of 5,000-year-old Sumerian poems dedicated to Inanna, the goddess of fertility, daughter of the Sumerian god of wisdom, Queen of Heaven and Earth, later known in Babylonian times as Ishtar.

According to the ancient myth, Inanna was tasked with conceiving the laws of human society and instilling them into the people — a task for which she travels to the Underworld, prevailing over innumerable challenges to emerge triumphant and transformed. It is essentially an empowering framework for the heroine’s journey, furnishing the proto-feminist counterpart to the now-iconic monomyth of the hero’s journey five millennia before Joseph Campbell devised it.

Baked clay relief of Inanna / Ishtar circa 19th-18th century B.C. (British Museum)

Castille writes in her artist statement:

The Sumerian myths are told by ancient peoples, on the cusp of the primitive and the mythic, emerging into a world organized by agriculture and the rise of large city-states. Although they are “only myths”, they tell of a still deeper history — the history of the human spirit as it has traveled through time, trying to make sense of its environment and constantly searching for meaning in life. Our souls are fortified and strengthened when they are exposed to such stories, stories that tell us more about the spirits and souls of our distant ancestors. From them, we derive a wisdom fearless and deep. The heart and soul of mankind shines out from the darkness of the past.

THE LADY OF THE EVENING

At the end of the day,
The great light,
Radiant Star,
The Lady of the Heavens appears.
The people in all lands lift their eyes to her;
The men they purify and the women cleanse Holy Inanna.

All living creatures,
The birds in the heavens,
The fish of the deep
My Lady protects them all.

All living creatures bow before her,
Feed and refresh her.
A young man makes love with his beloved.
The Lady of the Evening
Radiant on the horizon.

The lady looks down
In sweet wonder from heaven.
The people of Sumer
Parade before the holy Inanna.
Inanna, Lady of the Evening,
Radiant.
I sing your praises, holy Inanna.
The Lady of the Evening
Radiant on the horizon.

THE LADY OF THE MORNING

Ornament of heaven,
Joy of the Sun,
You awake and appear like daylight.
The people petition you in their cares.
You render cruel judgment against Evil,
Show kindly eyes
And blessings on the righteous.
Inanna looks down in sweet wonder.
The people of Sumer
Parade before the holy Inanna.
Inanna, Lady of the Morning, radiant.
I sing your praises, holy Inanna.
The Lady of the Morning
Radiant on the horizon.

Castille arrived at these hymns via a wonderfully improbable path. After an undergraduate degree in theology, an MBA in finance, and a quarter century in banking, she embraced the art of self-renewal and pivoted radically to philology and mythology, growing animated by the search for wisdom through the lens of art and the ancient spiritual traditions. A distributary in her immersion in the Mesopotamian classic Epic of Gilgamesh led her to the myth of Inanna and the millennia-old poems celebrating this confident, authoritative woman, aglow with equal parts wisdom and wonder — an abiding, deeply alive testament to Adrienne Rich’s insistence that “poetry can break open locked chambers of possibility, restore numbed zones to feeling, recharge desire.”

THE JOY OF SUMER: SACRED MARRIAGE RITE

The people of Sumer assemble in the place.
The King builds a throne for the queen.
On this day of rites, a sleeping place is set up for Inanna.
The people arrange a bridal sheet over the bed,
To rejoice the heart and sweeten the loins
Of the goddess and her man.
She sprinkles sweet-smelling cedar on the ground around him.
Tenderly he caresses her and murmurs
My holy jewel, my wondrous Inanna,
As he enters her holy vulva,
And embraces her,
Causing the queen to rejoice.
They shine radiantly joined in abundance, lushness and plenty.
The musicans play for the Queen,
Play songs for Inanna to rejoice the heart.
They reach out for food.
The people spend the day in plenty.
They stand assembled in great joy.
Inanna, First Daughter of the Moon,
Lady of the Evening,
I sing your praises.

Moved by the beauty and wisdom reverberating from these ancient verses across space and time — verses arresting in their unapologetic celebration of female sexuality as a wellspring of strength — Castille first envisioned drawing on her skills as a seamstress in a series of prayer flags that would symbolically represent the poems. Using a technique she developed called “E-quilting,” she scanned a variety of antique fabrics and objects to create an intricate electronic mosaic for each poem. But she soon realized that each collage would need an inscription to link it to the respective poem. Because any modern language seemed to disfigure the historical sensibility of the art, she endeavored to create an entire symbolic language for the inscriptions.

So began a remarkably ambitious project that would take Castille several years as she mined the poems for their most significant words and images, classified them into five core categories — Transcendence, Home, Earth, The Sacred, and Community — and began creating an alphabet of simple, non-pictographic symbols that could easily be traced onto a clay tablet, maintaining a cohesive visual vocabulary across the symbols representing the different words in each category. Something larger emerged from the categorization exercise — a picture of the primary sources of meaning and sanctity in the lives of these ancient people, encoded in their language.

LOUD THUNDERING STORM

Proud Queen of the Earth,
Loud thundering storm,
You pour rain over all the lands,
The heavens tremble,
You throw lightning across the earth,
Your deafening command
splits apart great mountains,
You stalk the heavens like a wild bull.
The riverbanks overflow
with the flood waves of your heart.

To further honor the artistic sensibilities and cultural histories of the region, Castille decided to relinquish her original prayer flag concept in favor of artwork based on Islamic mosaic patterns. She named the project after a cursive ink-on-papyrus writing system the sacred scribes of ancient Egypt devised to speed up the writing process: hieratica, from hieros, Greek for “sacred.”

The result is a beguiling, deeply poetic work of reverence, respect, and rapture at the nexus of beauty, wisdom, and wonder.

THE LADY WHO ASCENDS INTO THE HEAVENS

My lady, Amazement of the Land,
Lone Star, Brave One
Who appears in the heavens,
All lands revere her
And make offerings to her,
Incense like sweet-smelling cedar,
Butter, cheese, dates,
Fruits of all kinds.

Purify the earth for my Lady
Celebrate her in song.
Pour her wine and honey at sunrise,
Feed Inanna in this pure clean place.

My lady looks in sweet wonder from heaven.
The people of Sumer
Parade before the holy Inanna
INanna, the Lady who Ascends into heaven,
Radiant.
I sing your praises, holy Inanna.
The Lady who Ascends like the heavens
Radiant on the horizon.

Complement Castille’s enchanting Hieratica with Argentine artist Mirtha Dermisache’s invented graphic languages and French philosopher Maurice Blanchot on writing, the dual power of language to reveal and to conceal, and what it really means to see, then revisit the story of the invention of zero — that most revolutionary symbol in the native poetry of the universe, mathematics — conceived in the very lands that originated the myth of Inanna.


Published July 24, 2019

https://www.brainpickings.org/2019/07/24/nancy-castille-hieratica-inanna/

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