by Hal Duncan
The Stripping of the Flesh
In "The Descent of Inanna," one of the oldest myths we have of death and rebirth — one with such staying power that modern fantasists such as myself or Catherynne M. Vallente are still drawn to retell it — the Sumerian goddess Inanna, Queen of Heaven, hears the call of the "Great Below" from her throne–room in the "Great Above."A feisty, ambitious girl with a string of abandoned lovers behind her and her gaze set on the destiny in front of her, she gathers her objects of power and, on "the road of no return," descends into the Kur, where Ereshkigal, Queen of the Dead, rules a city of dust and ash.
Like the Greek netherworld, Hades, the Kur has its gates — seven of them — and a keeper to warn away the unwary. Inanna gains entrance to this Hell under false pretences, and as she enters through each gate she is stripped, item by item, of all her symbols of power and royalty until she stands in Ereshkigal’s throne–room, "naked and bowed low," whereupon she is seized by the Anunnaki,chthonic spirits of the ancestral dead, and scourged, hung on a hook like a wineskin.
The ancestors act similarly on shamans of the Siberian Tungus. Joseph Campbell quotes one such shaman, describing the transformation he underwent after lying sick for an entire year: "My ancestors appeared to me and began to shamanize. They stood me up like a block of wood and shot at me with their bows until I lost consciousness. They cut up my flesh, they separated my bones and counted them, and they ate my flesh raw."
The Greek god Dionysus, suffers a similar fate: seized by Titans, torn limb from limb, and boiled in a cauldron to be feasted upon; rescued and restored by his grandmother, Rhea. His epithet Dithyrambus — "Twice-born" — might just as easily relate to this as to the variant tale where his second birth is from Zeus’s thigh. The female followers of Dionysus wreak this same savagery upon any beast or man who crosses their path.King Pentheus, in Euripides’s The Bacchae, spies on their rituals and is ripped apart by his own mother. Orpheus meets the same grim end. While the stories have the latter murdered for preaching against the cult, Robert Graves considered his death a sign that Orpheus represented, originally, the initiate of the Dionysiac mysteries, his ordeal a record of ancient rites that sound not unlike the shamanism described by Campbell.
If we want a modern version of this dismemberment and reconstitution, it’s tempting to look to the Marvel comics character, Wolverine, who, in a hidden base in the wilderness, has his bones removed and replaced with an adamantium skeleton by the unfeeling elders of modern magic — scientists. Surly, cynical and cigar–smoking, his past life tokened with the dogtags of the dead soldier, there’s something of the shaman, perhaps, to that suspect and suspicious outsider.It’s a fanciful idea but isn’t the superhero the flip–side of the vampire, an archetype of rebirth just as the latter is an archetype of death? With the obvious exception of Superman and a few like souls, the superhero usually has their origin story of being transformed, often by some near–death experience. Batman is driven to remake himself by his encounter with death — the death of his parents — at an early age, but better examples can be found in Spiderman or the Hulk.Again and again we see radiation or some similarly lethal force as the cause of the empowering transformation. Where the vampire’s rebirth is incomplete, with the superhero it is the death that is incomplete, their old self not destroyed but living on in tension with the new identity, an emblem of the normalcy they’ve lost.
Buffy seems to carry all these elements of the death–and–rebirth tale. Those elements are out of sequence and revised as the story–arcs progress, but it’s interesting to see how the retro–continuity reconstructs the story towards the underlying myth. Buffy’s superhero status is established with an origin that’s less transformation than awakening; we’re given to understand, at first, that she is born with her powers, the chosen one of her generation, simply unaware of them.Later in the series, however, we learn that these powers are transferred to the new slayer when the old slayer dies (and we learn this, mind, after Buffy herself dies and is brought back to life). Later still we learn that the slayer is herself demonic, when Buffy, in a vision, confronts the ancient elders, the ancestral spirits, who made a deal with the powers of death, binding a demon into the original slayer in a magical ritual. After another death and resurrection we’re even shown a Buffy who identifieswith the very creatures she hunts, her world a living Hell because she is as dead to it as they are, no longer quite human, no longer capable of emotional engagement.
It is as if the simple set–up of a little girl going face–to–face with the forces of darkness is striving to expand into the old pattern, as if the melodramatics of Buffy’s mundane adolescent miseries — of her heartbreaks and hardships — are reaching to become the mythics of Inanna’s flesh being stripped from her body — of her harrowing of Hell.