Definitions

Ishtar

Ishtar

[ish-tahr]
Ishtar, ancient fertility deity, the most widely worshiped goddess in Babylonian and Assyrian religion. She was worshiped under various names and forms. Most important as a mother goddess and as a goddess of love, Ishtar was the source of all the generative powers in nature and mankind. However, she was also a goddess of war and as such was capable of unremitting cruelty. Her cult spread throughout W Asia, and she became identified with various other earth goddesses (see Great Mother Goddess). One of the most famous of the Babylonian legends related the trials of her descent into the underworld in search of her lover Tammuz and her triumphant return to earth. In Sumerian religion, where her cult probably originated, she was called Inanna or Innina.

Ishtar, with her cult-animal the lion, and a worshipper, modern impression from a cylinder seal, elipsis

In Mesopotamian religion, the goddess of war and sexual love. Known as Ishtar in Akkadia, she was called Astarte by western Semitic peoples and was identified with Inanna in Sumeria. In early Sumeria she was the goddess of the storehouse as well as of rain and thunderstorms. Once a fertility goddess, she evolved into a deity of contradictory qualities, of joy and sorrow, fair play and enmity. In Akkadia she was associated with the planet Venus and was the patroness of prostitutes and alehouses. Her popularity became universal in the ancient Middle East, and she was called Queen of the Universe.

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Ishtar (DIŠTAR 𒀭𒌋𒁯) is the Assyrian and Babylonian counterpart to the Sumerian Inanna and to the cognate northwest Semitic goddess Astarte.

Characteristics

Ishtar is a goddess of fertility, love, and war. In the Babylonian pantheon, she "was the divine personification of the planet Venus".

Ishtar was above all associated with sexuality: her cult involved sacred prostitution; her holy city Erech was called the "town of the sacred courtesans"; and she herself was the "courtesan of the gods". Ishtar had many lovers; however, as Guirand notes,

Ishtar was the daughter of Sin or Anu. She was particularly worshiped at Nineveh and Arbela (Erbil).

Descent into the underworld

One of the most famous myths about Ishtar describes her descent to the underworld. In this myth, Ishtar approaches the gates of the underworld and demands that the gatekeeper open them: The gatekeeper hurried to tell Ereshkigal, the Queen of the Underworld. Ereshkigal told the gatekeeper to let Ishtar enter, but "according to the ancient decree".

The gatekeeper lets Ishtar into the underworld, opening one gate at a time. At each gate, Ishtar has to shed one article of clothing. When she finally passes the seventh gate, she is naked. In rage, Ishtar throws herself at Ereshkigal, but Ereshkigal orders her servant Namtar to imprison Ishtar and unleash sixty diseases against her.

After Ishtar descends to the underworld, all sexual activity ceases on earth. The god Papsukal reports the situation to Ea, the king of the gods. Ea creates a eunuch called Asu-shu-namir and sends him to Ereshkigal, telling him to invoke "the name of the great gods" against her and to ask for the bag containing the waters of life. Ereshkigal is enraged when she hears Asu-shu-namir's demand, but she has to give him the water of life. Asu-shu-namir sprinkles Ishtar with this water, reviving her. Then Ishtar passes back through the seven gates, getting one article of clothing back at each gate, and is fully clothed as she exits the last gate.

Here there is a break in the text of the myth. The text resumes with the following lines: Formerly, scholars believed that the myth of Ishtar's descent took place after the death of Ishtar's lover, Tammuz: they thought Ishtar had gone to the underworld to rescue Tammuz. However, the discovery of a corresponding myth about Inanna, the Sumerian counterpart of Ishtar, has thrown some light on the myth of Ishtar's descent, including its somewhat enigmatic ending lines. According to the Inanna myth, Inanna can only return from the underworld if she sends someone back in her place. Demons go with her to make sure she sends someone back. However, each time Inanna runs into someone, she finds him to be a friend and lets him go free. When she finally reaches her home, she finds her husband Dumuzi (Babylonian Tammuz) seated on his throne, not mourning her at all. In anger, Inanna has the demons take Dumuzi back to the underworld as her replacement. Dumuzi's sister Geshtinanna is grief-stricken and volunteers to spend half the year in the underworld, during which time Dumuzi can go free. The Ishtar myth presumably has a comparable ending, Belili being the Bablyonian equivalent of Geshtinanna.

Ishtar in the Epic of Gilgamesh

The Epic of Gilgamesh contains an episode involving Ishtar. She asks the hero Gilgamesh to marry her, but he refuses, citing the fate that has befallen all her many lovers: Angered by Gilgamesh's refusal, Ishtar goes up to heaven and complains to the high god Anu. She demands that Anu give her the Bull of Heaven. If he refuses, she warns, she will do exactly what she told the gatekeeper of the underworld she would do if he didn't let her in: Anu gives Ishtar the Bull of Heaven, and Ishtar sends it to attack Gilgamesh and his friend Enkidu. Gilgamesh and Enkidu kill the Bull and offer its heart to the sun-god Shamash.

While Gilgamesh and Enkidu are resting, Ishtar stands upon the walls of the city (which is Uruk) and curses Gilgamesh. Enkidu tears off the Bull's right thigh and throws it in Ishtar's face, saying, "If I could lay my hands on you, it is this I should do to you, and lash your entrails to your side." Then Ishtar called together "her people, the dancing and singing girls, the prostitutes of the temple, the courtesans," and had them mourn for the Bull of Heaven.

Comparisons with other deities

Like Ishtar, the Greek Aphrodite and Northwestern Semitic Astarte were love goddesses who were "as cruel as they were wayward". Donald A. Mackenzie, an early popularizer of mythology, draws a parallel between the love goddess Aphrodite and her "dying god" lover Adonis on one hand, and the love goddess Ishtar and her "dying god" lover Tammuz on the other. Some scholars have suggested that Joseph Campbell, a more recent popularizer of mythology, equates Ishtar, Inanna, and Aphrodite, and he draws a parallel between the violent yet loving Hindu goddess Kali, the Egyptian goddess Isis who nurses Horus, and the Babylonian goddess Ishtar who nurses the god Tammuz.

References

Further reading

  • Powell, Barry. Classical Myth: Fourth Edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2003.

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