Babalon, the embodiment of mystery

The focus of this essay, first given as a presentation in Brighton for our Pleasure Dome event on 21st July 2012, is on the goddess known by numerous names and titles: Inanna, Ištar, Astarte, Hierodule of Heaven, the Holy Whore, and in more recent times, Babalon. The nature of the goddess demands an embodied practice. The body as a repository of knowledge is comparable to myth; thus my approach has been to combine a physical praxis with a study of myth and narrative – a mytho-somatic investigation – as they unlock each other’s mysteries and disclose unforeseen vistas across their respective fields. As always, the work begins and ends with the body; its truth is never constrained by ideology or the prevailing currents of enquiry within the academy, but is uniquely defined by its inherent capability and potentials.


Beauty and terror adorn the goddess; she is ambiguity incarnate, as one scholar has described her. [1] Those who have experienced possession by her will be aware of these conflicts. Her character, so fascinating in its complexity, is nonetheless immediately recognisable when she arrives: unrestrained, merciless yet compassionate, destructive, liberating. She exults in taking form, in the carnality of pure being, in sensory intoxication. The issue, how to embody her, this goddess who loves to take form(s) yet destroys form?

Here, my research and devotional praxis have dovetailed, binding the themes of possession and embodiment in both performance and ritual contexts. It is a question of going beyond disembodied ideas, mental chatter – knowledge cannot be realised by the mind alone but is necessarily incarnated. In the context of possession by Babalon, the myths, hymns and iconography of Inanna-Ištar are a rich source for exploration in developing ritual and performance, and in training the body-mind to be receptive to the coming of the goddess, with all the repercussions that can entail. Let us not be under any illusions about the energies she unleashes and the dangers inherent in working with her.

I begin by returning to the earliest attestations of this goddess, and will follow these threads through her myths and the hymns composed to her. In this way, we witness the evolution of a remarkable divinity whose character is riven with paradox and a compelling presence: a striking sense of immediacy that is felt by those who work with her now.

She has been described as a modern, or a Thelemic, and even as a ‘made-up,’ deity – and, in her role as the patroness of courtesans and independent women, why shouldn’t she be made-up? The arts of cosmetics and adornment naturally falls within her domain, and belongs to the complex of ideas of transformation which are central to her identity. It is entirely in keeping too, that she guise herself as she would have us see her now. Yet, these perceptions mask the extreme antiquity of her cultus, the complexity of her personality distilling over a very long prehistory of syncretism and accretion. [2] The earliest attested forms of the goddess Inanna shed light on her nature, which we see is already central to the Mespotamian cosmology and embraces the paradox and polarity that has always marked her. Inanna-hud (Inanna of the Morning), Inanna-sig (Inanna of the Evening), Inanna-kur (Inanna of the Netherworld): these are the earliest attested forms. Her manifestations of the Morning and of the Evening clearly denote the planet Venus, and establish that: the astral identity of Inanna was not the result of late, learned speculations, but indeed a very old and fundamental aspect of the goddess, with roots going back to prehistoric times. [3] The surviving texts are awash with descriptions of her luminous nature.

The underworld form of the goddess is Inanna-kur, and kur is a word of immense significance in Mesopotamian cosmology, singularly expressive of all the oppositions and polarities that girdled the Mesopotamian worldview.

These forms are well established in the archaic period, being mentioned in the records of Uruk and other Mesopotamian sites, and evidence her early prominence in the Sumerian pantheon, which is reflected in the myth – Inanna and Enki – of her stealing the mes, the attributes of divine and mortal authority, and bringing them to her city.

The primordial mountain

It is the Sumerian kur – the primordial mountain – being the totality of the existent universe, which gives us some of the most important keys in unlocking our understanding of Inanna-Ištar. It is at times the theatre for the elemental or atmospheric manifestations of the goddess: she is the storm, she is the tempest, the flood spewing venom and desolation over the land; at other times the kur is the object of her wrath and destructive energies, she says:

I am the devouring fire which rages in the heart of the kur I am flame and the ashes which rain down on my enemies.

It is also the destination to which she returns again and again, whether in the quest for knowledge and power, or to subjugate it and extend her dominion over it.

The kur encompasses all that exists but has not yet manifested in the material world, and all that having attained physical manifestation has been engulfed by the forces of death and destruction. It is at once all that is, that is not yet, and that was. Thus there is a kur of the dead, also called ki-gal (great earth), and a kur that is the source of life, of all existent things – the pure kur, the kur of perfumed cedars. Inanna-kur, Inanna of the netherworld, Inanna of the mountain, is the goddess of creation and destruction. We glimpse through this form the Great Goddess of prehistory – she who gives all and receives all, womb and tomb, both the mountain and the cave within the mountain. Yet she not only risks all, she sacrifices all. She dies.

And the records tell us that she made this journey to the land of the dead many times. For the myth describes the periodic disappearance of Venus, her heliacal setting as the evening star and re-emergence as the morning star. The ability of the goddess to continually renew herself is evidence of her life force, and yet in opposition to this we witness her ambition to extend her control over the land of the Dead, which risks the entire cosmic order and threatens destruction for gods and men alike.

Further, there is the suggestion of a shamanic role played by Inanna-Ištar; and it is entirely possible that a human ancestress would have (been) identified with the star.

And there is also the kur of perfumed cedars; always in the East, it appears as a kind of liminal frontier-paradise between the worlds of gods and men. Remote, yet not totally inaccessible to humans, though only the most audacious, heroic or blessed penetrate this region. When Inanna wishes to journey there, she requests the company of her brother, the Sun: My brother, let us go! I want you to accompany me to the kur… The aim of her journey? To initiate herself into the mysteries of woman, through direct experience; and we glimpse the goddess of love and sex herself undergoing an erotic education:

That which is womanly: man, I know not, That which is womanly: love-making, I know not, That which is womanly: kissing, I know not. … What is in the kur, I want us to eat it What is in the mountain, I want us to eat of What is in the kur of attars, in the kur of cedars, In the kur of cypresses, what is in the kur, I want us to eat of it.

The sexual connotation is deliberate, as it is for the biblical Eve when she eats of the fruit of the tree of knowledge. And they are not so distant, the principal goddess of Babylon and the first woman of the Genesis creation myth. Inanna-Ištar is the first woman, the first whose blood flowed, the first ancestor, and the first shaman.

Eros: conquest in love and war

The sexual innocence she displays when she entreats her brother to accompany her to the kur of perfumed cedars is but one of her faces. She is better known as the hierodule of heaven, the goddess of erotic love. She is the force of eros manifesting in the world, lust, sexuality incarnate. Enthralling all beings, we are bound by and to her, our bodies subject to her passions, our minds fascinated by her inexhaustible infinite variety, by her ruses and artifices.

Eros, which reconciles opposites while holding them in perpetual opposition, occupies the same ambiguous position as the goddess. Indeed, the pre-Socratic philosopher Empedocles regards them as one and the same: the primal generative force of the cosmos.

Like woman herself, her sexuality is unlimited in its potential expressions. It is her ability to continually generate and devour phantasms of flesh in her appetite for erotic fulfilment. Her lovers include gods, men, women, beasts; thus in her love-making she: shatters the boundaries that differentiate the species, those between divine and human, divine and animal, human and animal. [4] How revealing it is when Gilgamesh rejects her that he lists her past conquests and the fates they suffered, [5] and with harsh disapproval rejects her:

And what will happen to me when your heart turns elsewhere and your lust burns out? […] Which of your husbands did you love forever? Which could satisfy your endless desires?

Her desire for power seems never to be sated by the slaking of her desire nor attainment of power: there is always a conquest beyond. A characteristic more typically associated with male than female, and indeed she is androgynous, being both psychologically and physically virile.

Inanna-Ištar’s androgyny passed also to Aphrodite. According to Microbius, there was in Cyprus an image of Venus in which she is represented with a beard, dressed like a woman, but with the stature of a man, and holding a sceptre in her hand. This figure, he adds, was meant to unite the attributes of the two sexes, so that it might be considered at once male and female. Her cultic retinue of transvestite castrati attendants mirror her own ambiguous sexuality.

She changes the right side [male] into the left side [female], she changes the left side into the right side, she turns a man into a woman, a woman into a man, she adorns a man as a woman, she adorns a woman as a man.

And her festivals extended this trait into a carnivalesque inversion and rupture of established order. The festivals of the goddess were the time for disorder and antistructure, when reversals in categories of age, species, status and sex all came into play. [6] Her cultic celebrations were institutionalized license; and they were distinguished by a ludic and performative dimension that attests to the close relationship of the goddess to ritualised play, acting, dance and comedy. In fact, the festival is the body of the goddess, an embodiment that incorporates and enacts paradox and liminality.

The ecstasy of the festival mirrors that of the battle, and Inanna-Ištar-Babalon is a goddess of war, the battlefield her body as much as the festival. Whether the mixing of wine or the mingling of blood, we see the irresistible force of eros at work. We speak of a theatre of war, or the dance of battle. And the same musical instruments accompany the warrior as the dancer: flutes and drums. Both festival and battle are scenes of radical transformation. Both are immersive, peak experiences; they both induce an ecstatic altered state of consciousness, heightened awareness in body and mind. Here is fertile ground for consciousness to flower.

Of particular interest is the description of the dance that is given to her. The etiological myth is intriguing, including as it does the creation of a double, called Šaltu, literally Strife, to confront the goddess in battle and tame her anger. [7] Inanna-Ištar is mollified by the institution of an annual whirling dance in her honour. The dance is called guštu, a play on her name in Akkadian (Gušea), and is a dance for men, most likely a war dance. She is said to dance the whirl as a man does, emphasising once more her transgressive and androgynous nature. Let me misquote Socrates: Those who honour the god(es)s most beautifully in dances are best in war.

An erotic eschatology

A final observation here, as I had previously felt that Inanna-Ištar and the earlier forms of Babalon did not possess an explicit concern with eschatology in the same way that her post-Christian manifestations do. I’ve reconsidered. From her first attestations she is connected with the underworld, and with the decreeing of fates and judgments, as well as with fertility, love and pleasure. The sacred marriage in death is the central mystery of her cultus. Eroticism and eschatology are not such incongruous bedfellows: the climax of an individual life, and of cycles of creation, is analogous to the orgasm, la petite mort. Death is the price we pay for sex.

From mythos to methodos

Her mythology gives one a sense of the complexity of the goddess. From her distant origins to the later incarnations, many elements and motifs recur. A distinct personality and picture emerges. Her sphere of influence is not fixed or clearly defined, extending into all aspects of life; her behaviour is unpredictable. She is ruthless, expansive: Woman, most driven, clothed in frightening radiance, records one text. She is, without doubt, the divinity who leads the most dynamic existence; she is continually in the act of churning and whirling up the earth or the heavens. She is still unfolding and evolving, though banished from her exalted place in the pantheon, denied by monotheist ideology. I propose that her mythic corpus is still being written, and that it will be written through and by the body first, before it finds expression in language. As Gunther Zuntz wrote:

The truth of myth is separate from, and beyond, the truth which is grasped and conveyed dia logou. (i.e. through reason/words). [8]

We are too much held hostage by reason, and yet snared by our animal natures. The mythic dimension has receded from our lives and consciousness just as the stars have withdrawn into the infinite depths of the heavens. As the majority of modern people are cut off from this primal relationship with the stars by light pollution, so too we are no longer nourished by the coursing of the mythic through our veins. In the same way, the light of ‘reason’ has obscured the dark wisdom of the body.

The mythic transcends both the reason and the animal. It is divine. It transcends the dichotomy of finite and infinite, of mortal and immortal. Through myth, the divine and the daemonic enter the world, in the body of the player – whether actor, shaman, dancer, priest, bacchante, mænad, or artist. Kenneth Anger understood this, seeing these mythic and divine beings in the circle of artists, bohemians and actors around him and casting them in the circle of his lens.

Returning to the theme of embodiment and possession, as I have said before, she loves to take form. At Uruk, the priestess incarnated the goddess, giving legitimacy to the ruler in the sacred marriage rite. For us, living in a secular society that – if it doesn’t ignore them – largely regards our beliefs as delusional, irrational or evil, the question of embodiment achieves a particular importance. Finding ourselves adrift in a culture that has for millennia defined itself against us, we find ourselves in a paradoxical situation – a splinter embedded within an inimical environment, yet having the freedom, and by extension the responsibility, to be and to express ourselves. The body is central to this. First, as stated above, it is the conduit through which the mythic realm emerges in the material world, it is the very stuff myth is spun from. Second, without an external architecture to support our beliefs, practices and explorations, it remains to the body to draw and execute the full trajectory of our destiny. here I am reminded of Heraclitus, when he writes ‘the name of the bow is life, its work is death,’ with its wordplay on bios, which is both the old word for bow (biós) and the usual word for life (bíos) – depending where the accent is placed. It is an apposite metaphor for the body, for here we have an image that unites the oppositions of life and death, as we have seen with the kur. It also gives us an impulse for physical enquiry: the bow as a metaphor for the body, alternating between tension and release, constraint and ecstasy. Like eros, simulataneously dissolving and preserving oppositions.

Maenad & mania

On a pragmatic level, perhaps we can say that embodiment is an initiatic stage that can prepare one for full possession; in undergoing this kind of physical work one is performing a continual affirmation of one’s union with the divinity. In dance we realise an embodiment of the paradox of the goddess, an aesthetics of transformation – dynamic, fluid, volatile. We can experience, and know, her. As a dancer and choreographer my work encompasses elucidating a chorographic and bodily process that physically grounds the performer and provides points of entrance to communion with the goddess.

My own work has involved studying ancient dance forms, particularly the maenadic dance of Ancient Greece. [9] The writer Lucian traces the origin of dance to the beginning of the creation of the universe and the appearance of Eros; others speak of the cosmic dance of the heavenly bodies, and describe the gods as fathers of the dance. It was not a decorative but a fundamental feature, of life and ritual.

I have recently returned from a research and training intensive in Epidauros. Working with a similar approach as I’ve taken with Inanna-Ištar, we explored the Orphic descent into the role that an actor undergoes. I was struck by the similarities between the ecstatic cult of Dionysos and that of Inanna-Ishtar, and the liminal, paradoxical and liberating nature of both.

The dance of the mænads brings about Plato’s telestike mania, that is, mystic or ritual madness. It is only in this state that we see the signs of full possession – head thrown back and body arched, such as we see in the possession crises of Vodoun, and recognise in descriptions of the possessions of the nuns at Loudun. It is this state of enthousiasmos, of possession by the spirit, that is considered to be initiatic.

There are two characteristics of the maenad’s dance that I have found especially congruous in working with Babalon. The first is the movement pulsing between a position of full expansion with the heart open and the head thrown back, and a sunken closed position with the body bowed. One can see this if one studies images of the bacchantes and mænads in Greek art, as well as in descriptions in the ancient writers. It is this rhythmic alternation which brings about their enraptured engodded state.

The other characteristic of the mænad’s dance which is critical in working with Babalon is the twisting, coiling movement. Again, ancient art and sculpture provides us with examples, and I must acknowledge the research of Lillian B. Lawler in amassing and interpreting an abundance of material on the ancient dances.

This is a process of rediscovery, or anamnesis, not an attempt to stitch together a synthetic art. In this work I have been inspired by the objective drama research of Grotowski, [10] who wrote of the need to discover something which is so old that all distinction between aesthetic genres is no longer of use. He speaks of a type of performing art in which, ‘poetry is not separate from the song, the song is not separated from the movement, the movement is not separated from the dance, the dance is not separated from the acting.’ Such forms of performance are rooted in the period before the separation between art and rite, spectacular and participatory.

Mask & persona

To undergo this transformation, we have recourse to a powerful ritual tool: the mask. Besides the specific physiological effects that different types of mask cause, there is a profound and universal shedding of the self. The act of masking brings about an altered state of consciousness which I have found disinhibits movement. It is quite striking to experience the difference between movement in a masked and an unmasked state. One can explore forms and actions, switching between the two; what quickly becomes apparent is that wearing a mask, even a blank mask, makes one susceptible to irrational influences, the other. By this I mean an external spirit.

The mask is efficacious in bridging the gulf between the personal realm and the divine. It is an instrument of transformation, and transition. One’s mundane personality is eclipsed/thrown into darkness, and one is simultaneously provided with an alternative identity. In Greek the words for mask and face are almost identical: prosopon. The mask stands between, or as the etymology of the Greek prosopon implies – before – reconciling antitheses: mundane/sacred, human/divine, animal/man, man/woman &c. In Masks, Transformation and Paradox, David Napier writes, ‘the face, the mask, becomes the intermediary, the arbiter between these two inner and outer oppositions. Being betwixt and between, the mask also signifies liminality.’ [11]

Trance seems to occur immediately with the placing of the mask over one’s face, though it is subtle; the ability to deepen this state increases with familiarity and repetition. The most revelatory work comes after an extended period exploring this terrain. There is no substitute for mental and physical exhaustion. When one has repeatedly gone beyond one’s preconceived limitations the really interesting stuff happens. Fatigue softens the body, and having exhausted the mind – effectively silencing all those rational, social voices – we stop trying to express an idea and instead simply be. What comes through in this time can be very unexpected, the insights one gains are most precious. We all carry so much information, thoughts, ideas with us, and a lot of the preparatory work for us is to methodically discard it, to arrive at an empty state of being, of pure possibility.

Veiling and the ritual application of make-up are also forms of masking that are fruitful to explore, especially when working with Babalon. They also allow the possibility of extending the ritual or performance space into daily life. She is the mask, and all are masks of Babalon. In this context it is interesting to note that the Phoenician ‘Ashtoreth was invoked as the ‘face of the Ba’al.’[12]

In essence then, the person – the body – is also the mask, an extension of the self … this is the state I aim for, when all elements work in harmony, where self-consciousness is surrendered and the body is given as a vehicle for the mythic and divine. Form and force cannot be separated: where there is form, force will come; as force inexorably takes form(s).

In conclusion, to know cannot be grasped by the mind alone. Knowledge is embodied. In the possession state, we face the paradox of a finite human being experiencing infinite being; mystery made flesh.


[1] Rikvah Harris in his study, ‘Inanna-Ishtar as Paradox and a Coincidence of Opposites.’ History of Religions, Vol. 30, No. 3 (Feb., 1991), pp. 261-278. University of Chicago Press.
[2] A. J. Ferrara: … a complex personality which we confront in the sources … The list of attributes should probably be viewed as the cumulative result of accretions over time… ‘In Praise of Ištar.’ A review by A.J. Ferrara of Lob der Ištar: Gebete und Ritual an die altbabylonische Venusgöttin by Brigette R. M. Groneberg. Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol.120, issue 2, pp. 199-205.
[3] Paul-Alain Beaulieu: The Pantheon of Uruk During the Neo-Babylonian Period. Brill, 2003. Page 104.
[4] Rikvah Harris: ‘Inanna-Ishtar as Paradox and a Coincidence of Opposites,’ page 272. See note [1]
[5] Dumuzi (slain on her return from the kur), a bird, a lion, a war-horse, a shepherd (transformed to a wolf) and a gardener.
[6] Rikvah Harris: ‘Inanna-Ishtar as Paradox and a Coincidence of Opposites,’ page 273. See note [1]
[7] An Akkadian myth incorporated into a hymn in praise of Ishtar. Ea (Enki) creates a double of Ishtar from the dirt of his fingernails – as he does the sexless creatures that he sends to the underworld to rescue the goddess.
[8] Gunther Zuntz: Persephone: three essays on religion and thought in Magna Graecia. Clarendon press, 1971.
[9] Notably, the work of Lillian B. Lawler: archaeological, musical, anthropological sources, as well as a first hand understanding of dance.
[10] Lisa Wolford: Grotowski’s Ojective Drama Research, page 115. University Press of Mississippi, 1996.
[11] David A. Napier: Masks, Transformation and Paradox. University of California Press, 1986.
[12] Grey Hubert Skipwith: ‘Ashtoreth, the Goddess of the Zidonians.’ The Jewish Quarterly Review, Vol. 18, No. 4 (Jul., 1906), pp. 715-738. University of Pennsylvania Press.