The poem tells a strange story of the Goddess Inanna’s journey from Her own realm on Earth to the Underworld. Her intention is not stated, but it is clearly to extend Her own domains by usurping the authority of Her Sister Erishkigal, the Goddess of the Underworld.
Inanna gains admission to the Underworld by lying about Her purpose, but at each of the seven gates, the gatekeeper requires Her to remove one of Her articles of sacred regalia. In Sumerian, these are called me (pronounced “may”), which also means “powers”. She arrives in the underworld naked. Not intimidated at all by this symbolic stripping of Her powers, She tries to wrest the throne from Ereshkigal. But this is Ereshkigal’s domain, and She has Inanna seized, killed, and hung on a hook like a slab of meat.
When Inanna does not return, Her servant Ninshubar visits the high Gods as Inanna has foresightedly asked Her to do. She persuades one of the Gods to send rescuers to the underworld. They in turn persuade Ereshkigal to give them the body, and proceed to revive Inanna with the water and grass of life. As Inanna is leaving, however, She is told that no one can leave the Underworld without providing a substitute.
Passing back out the gates, which are apparently in the mountains east of Sumer, Inanna travels back to Her home city. She is accompanied by the pitiless guards of the Underworld, the galla. At several points on the road She meets a friend or ally who has been mourning Her death and is delighted to see Her alive. Each time, the galla demand that Inanna name this person as Her substitute in the Underworld, but She refuses.
Finally She reaches Her own city, only to find that Her husband, the king Dumuzi, has not been mourning. Instead he has been enjoying himself on Her throne. He does not even bow to Her. Enraged, Inanna fixes him with the Eye of Death and tells the galla to seize him. Despite Dumuzi’s desperate attempts to escape and hide, the galla catch him, kill him, and take him to the Underworld.