All great quests for knowledge start with a broken heart.
The traveler was tired. He could feel and listen to each little creak in his middle-aged joints. All these creaks sang in unison, the chorus of weariness and exhaustion.
He looked around; the red sun was just setting behind the pale mountains, painting the sky in shades of gold, crimson and purple. Above the eastern horizon, the stars had come out – mere pin pricks of light but bursting with the promise of pulsating sparkling.
The mountain under his feet was ancient like all other mountains – its stones witness to billions of years of sadness. He could feel it gently vibrating; almost like it was trying to tell him stories of the days past.
‘If only I could talk to the mountains’, he chuckled to himself.
He checked his leather mushkeeza and greedily sucked upon the few left over drops. The sudden chill in the air seeped into his bones, almost freezing his sweaty brow.
‘I should not have stopped’, he thought.
He looked up. The summit was almost within reach.
‘I can reach it’, he decided determinedly.
‘But what if I do not find the old hermit in his cave? What if he is already dead? What if he was never there in the first place?’
Shaking away the onslaught of negative thoughts, the traveler readjusted the load of his meagre belongings on his shoulder. He strengthened the grip on the gnarled wooden staff and restarted climbing.
He was Venusian, a resident of the ancient city of Becca – visible from the mountain as a collection of twinkling lamp-lights far away, down in the narrow valley, in the middle of the Desert of Paran.
He was not of the Arabian descent. His father was Procopius of Caesarea, a leading late-antique scholar from the ancient region of Levant and a prominent Roman historian for the Roman Emperor Justinian.
It was love which had brought him to that cold and barren mountain range, North of Becca. More appropriately, it was a broken heart which drove his tired steps. But it was not the hope of regaining lost love, which was driving his tired feet. It was instead a perception that the lost love was gradually becoming a symbol of something deeper than love.
Venusian did not weep when she went away. He did not beg her to stay. He just let her fade away in the distance, anxiously awaiting the first jab of cold pain.
He was not a sadist. He was just a man who knew pain brought along so many gifts within its dark fold: the gift of understanding and the gift of awareness. May be that is why the old gods made him love her in the first place like so many before her.
When he reached the top, darkness had already set in. Venusian breathed in deeply the pure mountain air. The cold air felt warm against the coldness of his heart.
The stars glittered across the length and breadth of the ever-stretching galaxy, sparkling like spilled jewels. Towards the west, the sky was still a deep hue of purple, the farewell gift of the long departed sun.
He looked around but could see nothing except dark boulders and a few dry bushes. No hermit or caves were visible. Suddenly he saw a dull orange glow beyond a nearby boulder. He eagerly stepped ahead but then earth vanished beneath his tired feet.
Venusian could hear himself scream and then heard the dull bang of his head hitting a small rock. The night became absolutely dark within seconds.
It seemed only moments had passed when he reopened his eyes and found himself warm and comfortable – lying on a rough bed of thistles. A crackling fire was burning nearby.
Venusian looked up and could see a low ceiling of rough-hewn rock. Dark shadows were dancing on the ceiling, playing hide and seek with the red glow of fire.
He tried to look around and the sudden movement brought back pain. He groaned loudly and delicately felt his head. There was an apricot-sized lump, extremely sore to his touch.
‘It’s nothing but just a bruise. You are quite alright.’ A deep female voice resonated around the cave.
Startled, he looked up. There was a woman sitting cross-legged on the floor besides the fire. That she was a woman, Venusian could only guess from her voice as only her broad back covered with a saffron-coloured monkish robe, was visible.
There were patterns on the robe, made with gold paint. He looked closely. There was an eight-pointed star enclosed within a circle alongside a crescent moon and a rayed solar disk. There were also strange words written on the robe with the same gold paint, in apparently a Babylonian or Sumerian script. Venusian tried sit up in order to look closely at the words and symbols but groaned with pain again.
‘Do not move. Keep on resting. There is no reason to get up. You are safe.’ The robed back spoke again and Venusian ceased all efforts to get up. Within minutes he was asleep again.
Venusian woke up to a brilliant afternoon. The sun was shining brightly and he could catch the sight of wisps of delicate white clouds, from inside the cave. He looked around but there was no sign of anyone else in the cave.
He thankfully sipped from a bowl of fresh sweet water placed near his makeshift bed and then got up with the assistance of his staff.
The cave was a strange place. Its rock walls were decorated with paintings and carvings made by people before the dawn of civilization. There were scenes of hunting and dancing and also of birth and death, all amongst innumerable hand prints. There were also a few rosettes drawn in gold.
There were only a few material possessions inside the cave – a rolled up bed in a corner with a few pillows and blankets; a few clay pots and earthenware; and a small collection of dry wood. The whole environment and setup and décor inside the cave were sparse but clean and neat.
Bending on his staff, Venusian delicately put pressure on his legs. They were sore but strong. After a few moments, he grew confident and walked out of the cave.
The cave was located under a bluff and that is why Venusian was unable to detect it. It had a small stone platform in front. There was a large flat stone boulder on the farther end of the platform and beyond that boulder, there was just a stark fall hundreds of feet deep.
The sun was serving the clear blue sky at its post-afternoon appointment and the complete valley was awashed with a golden splendor. But Venusian had no time to look at the valley and the glittering city of Becca in the far distance. Instead his eyes were fixed on another spectacle.
A woman was sitting on the boulder and facing the valley; with a grown lion cradling his massive head in her delicate lap. She was dressed in all leather, though it was unfair to call it a dress. It was more like female battle attire in two pieces, both insufficient to cover her attractive form. Her auburn hair was blowing in the crisp mountain wind.
On hearing Venusian approach, the lion suddenly sprang up to attention, growled and faced him as though protecting his mistress. He was a full grown lion at least four and a half hands in height; and a nose to tail length of approximately eight hands. The lion had a majestic brown-black mane which almost touched the ground between his proudly stretched forelegs.
‘Sit down Gala.’ The woman spoke softly, without turning her head.
‘He is a friend.’
Hearing the gentle but firm command, Gala the lion turned back and sat down on the boulder again with his head in her lap.
After a few more moment of silently studying the valley spread before her, the woman got up gracefully and faced Venusian. He was awed by her beauty and elegance.
She was tall – taller than him and was muscular. There was not an inch of fat anywhere on the finely-toned bronze body. She had a high forehead and deep green eyes flecked with gold. Her eyebrows arched like scimitars each side of an aquiline nose. The nose descended onto full red lips and a round chin.
The scant leather garments were without any adornment but there was a gold rosette-shaped pendant hanging around her lovely neck. She held a twisted knot of reeds lightly in her right hand, while the left was placed casually along the lovely curve of her hip.
‘You look perfectly alright Venusian.’ She smiled at him.
‘How do you know my name?’ He was surprised. Nothing in his belongings betrayed his identity.
‘Between the mighty blue sky and the patient expanse of mother earth, there is very little which I do not know.’ She was still smiling but the smile had shifted from her lips to her eyes.
Venusian shook his head. It all seemed a dream.
‘Who are you and what are you doing here?’
‘I am Inanna of Nippur and I choose to live here.’ She indicated towards the cave.
‘But….but who are you?’ He was perplexed.
‘I am a humble priestess of Ishtaar.’
‘And Gala….?’ Venusian pointed towards the lion who was lazily studying the birds circling high up in the sky.
‘One day I was roaming the forests of Akkadia when a serpent attacked me.’ Inanna closed her eyes for a moment, recalling something important from her past.
‘Gala came to my help. He attacked and killed the serpent. Since that day he has been my companion.’
‘And who is Ishtaar? Is she a goddess? It is strange that I have never heard her name.’ He scratched his head.
Instead of answering him, Inanna turned and climbed the boulder.
‘Come join me.’ She motioned to Venusian.
He hesitatingly climbed up the boulder and stood on it alongside Inanna and facing the valley. He was careful not to step on the tail of the resting lion.
Becca was a beautiful city even from a far distance. It was a city on the lower slopes of a mountain and without any defensive walls. The mud and brick houses appeared to be neatly stacked over each other. The streets looked like threads marking the boundaries of localities and neighbourhoods.
Far below the City and in the valley was located the thousands of year old place of worship – Bakkah. It was not a grand structure – just a small square room built with dark stones, in the middle of a circular courtyard of stone. Very few were able to go inside that room. For most of the populace and the visiting pilgrims, the room itself was holy. But Venusian had been inside that room many a times.
‘What is inside Bakkah?’ Inanna asked him.
‘It is the abode of nine gods. There is Hubal, who presides over Wadd, Suwa’, Yaghuth, Ya’uq and Nasr; and also Al-Lat, Al-Uzza and Manat.’ Venusian dutifully counted the name of the nine deities, six male and three females.
Nobody knew the origin of the deities. Some said they were brought from Egypt and India, while others considered them local.
‘Yes….the nine deities.’ Inanna smiled. ‘And what lies below Bakkah?’
‘Below Bakkah? There is nothing below it.’ He was surprised. He had seen each nook and cranny of the abode of gods but had never seen any other place below the scared chamber.
‘Deep below the chamber of Bakkah, there is another secret chamber – far more sacred and far more significant.’ Inanna said looking at the City of Becca.
‘And what lies inside that chamber?’ Venusian was very curious.
‘Ishtaar lives in that chamber.’ She placed her hand lightly on Venusian’s shoulder and he could feel a strange flow of heat, from her to him.
‘Ishtaar is the most ancient of all the gods and goddesses.
She is the mother who gave birth to everything.
She gave birth to life and she gave birth to death.
She created knowledge and she created wisdom for those who desired for it.
She created light and she created darkness for those who chose to follow it.’
‘But why is she being hidden in that chamber? Why is she not up there alongside Hubal and the other deities?’ It was too thick information for Venusian to digest.
‘Because she is a female and not a male.’ Inanna looked deep into his curious eyes.
‘In the beginning, it was the woman and not the man, who ruled.
Women led their tribes and sat on the tribal councils.
Women rode the stallions and participated in the wars.
And man respected woman.
He respected her for her patience and strength and for her wisdom and intellect.
He respected her for her power to give birth and power to create life out of nothing.
But slowly and gradually, man’s heart was corrupted and his soul went foul.
He looked at the apparent frailness of women and identified somebody who could be objectified.
He looked at the immense value of women and found an instrument to satisfy his greed and lust.
When women lost their power and status, so did Ishtaar.
Ishtaar reminded men of the former glory of the women.
Ishtaar threatened the security of men.
And so men relegated her to the deep secret chambers – hidden from the world for times to come.’
‘But why did not men destroy Ishtaar once and for all?’ Venusian asked Inanna.
‘Because man was afraid of her power and because man knew she was the true holder of power.’
Inanna smiled kindly at her weary guest.
‘Come now!’ She held his hand. ‘Enough talk of Ishtaar and the greed of man. It is time to eat. You must be hungry.’
Venusian spent many days and many nights with Inanna in her cave. Whenever they were hungry, Gala the Lion hunted in the mountains and brought them fresh game. Fresh water came from a well-hidden spring in the mountain.
He learnt so much from her.
She taught him the knowledge of the dark skies full of mysterious stars and also of the treasures hidden deep beneath the earth.
She told him about the days that were and the days which were yet to come along with the terrible events of blood and gore.
She familiarized him with desire and its accompanying darkness and also of lust and its dark folds of insatiable greed.
Then one day Inanna informed Venusian that it was the ‘Night of the Great Loss.’
‘What is the Night of the Great Loss?’ He asked her.
‘It is the celebration of the great loss when Ishtaar lost Shukaletuda.’ Inanna answered while rubbing her bronze body with olive oil.
‘Who was Shukaletuda?’ Venusian had never heard the name before.
‘Shukaletuda was Ishtaar’s lover.’ Inanna looked at him.
‘He was proud and handsome and ruled the heavens with Inanna by her side.
They were like two souls with one body – true soulmates who together, were capable of conquering the universe.
They compensated and complimented each other’s weaknesses and strengths.
Where Shukaletuda was too trusting, Ishtaar was skeptical and experienced.
Where Ishtaar was too energetic and excited, Shukaletuda was patient and observant.
Where Shukaletuda was too careless and forgiving, Ishtaar was careful and meticulous.
And where Ishtaar was too emotionally sensitive, Shukaletuda was comforting and loving.
But Ishtaar became insecure and her insecurities corrupted her love with Shukaletuda.
She started searching for security and one night finally came down to the Underworld of Gilgamesh.
And that was when the Universal Conscience got angry with her and decreed that she be limited to the confines of the earth, while Shukaletuda was bound to the heavens.
It was the Night of the Great Loss.’
‘Universal Conscience? What is that?’ Inanna’s story was beyond Venusian’s comprehension.
‘Universal Conscience is the one true God. It has always been the one true God and it will always be the one true God.’ She smilingly explained to him while brushing her dark tresses.
Thus came the Night of the Great Loss. There was a full moon in the dark blue-black sky and all was silent. It was beautiful but there was a strange heaviness in the night air. Venusian had all his senses on alert. He was aware of something about to happen.
Inanna observed his discomfort and smiled kindly. She prepared an aromatic potion of herbs and made him drink it. The potion had a heady fragrance and thick taste. It calmed Venusian’s nerves and relaxed his body. He sat on the stone boulder and watched Inanna with interest.
She was robed in saffron again and was fiddling with a metal contraption. It was an eight-pronged frame with a small receptacle at the end of each prong. Inanna carefully placed the fat of some animal in each receptacle and laced it with yellow phosphorous.
Venusian became aware of a strange music. It was floating from nowhere in particular. There were heavy drum beats and some wooden stringed instruments – weeping in unison. The symphony was strange and reminded Venusian of his lost loves.
Suddenly Inanna removed her robe and threw it aside. Her bronze and oiled body gleamed like polished marble in the pale moonlight. She picked up the metal frame and started dancing. Her movements became fast with each passing moment. First there were a few random sparks and then one by one, each small receptacle burst into fire.
Venusian sat entranced. He watched Inanna dance and romance with fire. She twisted and turned in a flowing movement and the mountain danced with her. The burning receptacles drew circles of light in darkness. Slowly and gradually Inanna became the nucleus while the receptacles rotated around her in their respective burning orbits.
Then Inanna started singing:
‘Loss is the key and the doorway;
the doorway beyond which wisdom lies
Loss is the one path and the only way;
it is the darkness beyond which light cries
Loss is the memory from the cruel past;
the broken pieces of a mirror called self
Pick up the pieces, the first and the last;
fingers get cut, blood oozes out itself
Taste each drop of the oozing blood;
their taste reminds you of her mouth
Her body and her secretly hidden bud;
her warm love, her freshness and her couth
Loss is how you understand love and desire;
the essence of lust and the furiously raging fire
Loss is how you understand the world;
its selfishness and its true colours, all unfurled
Loss is how you see the loneliness of God;
his eternal sadness and the glory of God
Loss is the one true legacy of the wise;
seek it, embrace it, until one day you rise’
Inanna kept singing and Venusian kept listening to her words, floating with the mysterious music. Intoxicated, he got up and joined Inanna. They both danced until fatigue overcame their exhausted bodies and they fell down on the platform in each other’s arms.
When Venusian got up the next morning, Inanna had long gone with all her meagre belongings.
He cried her name and roamed the mountain slopes, but there was no Inanna.
He searched each nook and each crevice in each rock, but there was no Inanna.
One day, losing all hope of ever finding Inanna again, Venusian went back to Becca.
‘Tell me O wise and sacred one! Is there a secret chamber deep beneath the Bakkah?’
Venusian remembered what Inanna had told her about Ishtaar. He asked everyone but nobody confirmed the existence of the secret chamber. His last hope rested with the Chief Priest of Bakkah.
‘Why do you ask my son? What is it that you seek?’ The Priest was surprised. It had been ages since he had been asked about the existence of the secret chamber.
‘I have had the strangest of dreams.’ Venusian had no intention of telling the priest about Inanna.
‘I saw that I descended into a deep chamber beneath the Bakkah and found a goddess there.’
‘And what will you give me if I take you to that chamber?’ Greed sparkled in the old eyes of the priest.
‘Anything you want O wise one!’
A deal was struck and that night the priest led Venusian to Bakkah. He opened up the old lock with a heavily engraved and complicated key and took him inside.
Once an oil lamp was lighted, Venusian could see all the nine deities, neatly arranged in their respective nooks in the wall. The priest reached behind the effigy of Hubal. He operated some secret mechanism and secret trap door opened up in the middle of the floor. Stairs could be seen, descending into unending darkness.
Venusian descended the stairs, led by the priest who was holding the oil lamp high in his hand. Venusian tried to count the stairs but lost track after one thousand and still they kept on descending into the bowels of earth. Finally they reached an ancient door.
It was a door like no door Venusian had ever seen. It was half gold and half silver and was intricately engraved. The golden half depicted a terrible place full of demons and misery; while the silver one was rich with scenes of peace and tranquility.
The priest operated a few levers and the door silently swung open. He entered and lighted a few lamps and then called the younger man inside. Venusian took a deep breath and entered the chamber.
It was a large room almost fifty hands in width and hundred in length. There was a central marble-covered walkway, leading from the door to the farthest end of the room. On both sides of the walkway there was a pond of black water. Strangely it was not stagnant and a faint aroma of herbs and spices rose from its surface.
At the end of the walkway, there was a raised platform; and on that platform, on a stone throne, there sat a life-sized effigy of a woman. Venusian walked up to the effigy and smiled at the familiar features. It was a life-like stone statue of Inanna.
On the way back to the surface, the priest was startled to hear Venusian sing. He tried to concentrate on the words:
‘Loss is the one true legacy of the wise;
seek it, embrace it, until one day you rise’