Who is the goddess Ishtar?
You’ve probably heard of the Greek goddess Aphrodite, most known for her role as the goddess of love and beauty. Not unlike her Roman parallel, Venus, Aphrodite has been included in many Western literary works, from Homer’s The Iliad to Pope’s The Rape of the Lock. Because of this, her immense influence on Western history and culture is impossible to ignore. Even if you’ve never encountered Greek mythology before, you’ll certainly have heard of Aphrodite.
Her less popular siblings from Egyptian and Norse mythology have also had their fair share of the limelight in Western culture. Isis (Egyptian goddess of women, children, and all life) and Freyja (Norse goddess of love, beauty, and fertility) have recently emerged in popular films and books. Popular culture, it seems, has used Egyptian, Greek, and Norse mythologies to its advantage, triggering a revival of interest in gods and goddesses from ancient civilizations.
So, what do Isis, Freyja, and Aphrodite have in common? Aside from the fact that they all rule similar realms, it’s likely that they share a common, yet forgotten, ancestor: the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar.
Twin goddesses: Ishtar and Inanna
At first, Ishtar and Inanna were two different goddesses. Ishtar, whose name derives from that of the Semitic god Attar, had a cult of worship focused around the regions of Akkad, Assyria, and Babylonia. Inanna, however, originated in Sumer – her name derives from the Sumerian phrase nin-an-ak (“Lady of Heaven”). Eventually, the two goddesses came to form one entity during the reign of Sargon of Akkad (2334-2279 BCE). Ishtar/Inanna came to possess many titles – including “The Nocturnal”, the “Morning Star”, and the “Mother Goddess”.
Ishtar’s role in Mesopotamian mythology
Unlike her counterparts, Ishtar’s role as goddess is the most difficult to pin down – perhaps because she never ruled one realm alone. In her early history, she was the goddess of the storehouse and all of its contents (dates, wool, meat, and grain). Because her father was the sky god An, she also ruled over the heavens, rain, and thunderstorms.
Ishtar soon evolved to become a fertility goddess. Given the goddess’s involvement with fertility, some academics believe that the cult of Ishtar largely involved sacred prostitution and sex worship. Inanna, her Sumerian form, also became associated with individuals who were involved in “homosexual activities” (according to Akkadian proverbs) or rebelled against the gender binary. Of course, these individuals have existed and made history in other cultures too, both in mythology and in real life. For a more comprehensive overview of these queer histories, click here and here.
Beyond her associations with fertility, Ishtar also ruled over love, in all of its varying forms. Yet, much like Aphrodite, she was prone to swinging from one emotional extreme to another – from love to hatred, and mercy to revenge. This explains why Ishtar was also the goddess of war and justice, delivering retribution whenever the balance between love and hate was tipped. In the illustrations of her that survive, she is often shown winged and bearing arms.
Symbols of the goddess Ishtar
Ishtar’s associations with justice and pride provide an explanation as to why one of her most famous symbols was the lion. Her link to the heavens made the eight-pointed star another important emblem of hers.
Similar to Aphrodite, other symbols of Ishtar include the white dove and the rosette, symbolizing her association with love and fertility. Her connection to the Roman goddess Venus was also literalized through her eventual association with the planet Venus. It was because of this that one of her titles was “The Morning Star”.
Ishtar’s descent into the Underworld
The tale of Ishtar’s descent into the Underworld is one of her most famous myths. Likely motivated by a desire to increase her powers by taking over her sister Ereshkigal’s realm, Ishtar travels to the Underworld. When her sister hears of her arrival, she orders Ishtar to remove an item of clothing at each of the seven gates of the Underworld. This, her sister believes, will weaken Ishtar, whose clothes and jewellery provide her with spiritual protection and power.
Finally, Ishtar arrives naked – and, thus, weakened – before her sister. Deemed guilty of excessive pride by the seven judges of the Underworld, Ishtar is killed and forcibly trapped in the Underworld. After three days have passed, her companion, Ninshubur, pleads with the gods to help her retrieve Ishtar – and all of them but Ea, the god of wisdom, refuse her.
At this point, accounts of the myth begin to diverge. In one account, Ea sends two beings to retrieve Ishtar from the Underworld. At the gates of the Underworld, the Galla (guardians of the Underworld) stop them and force Ishtar’s husband, Tammuz, to take her place for six months of the year. They then force his sister Geshtinanna to remain for the other six months. Similar to the Greek tale of Persephone and Hades, Ancient Mesopotamians would use this myth to explain the changing seasons.
On the other hand, the alternative ending dictates that Ishtar glimpses her husband Tammuz on his throne, invested in celebrations and ceremonies that prove to her that he has hardly noticed her absence. In a fit of sudden, vengeful fury, she decides to send him to the Underworld to take her place.
Other accounts of the goddess Ishtar
The world’s first recorded author, Enheduanna, wrote several of the earliest poems dedicated to the goddess Ishtar. Enheduanna, a priestess of the moon god and daughter of Sargon the Great (2334-2279 BCE), lived in Ur (situated in modern-day Iraq). During her time, Ur was a grand Mesopotamian urban centre, filled with merchant ships, storehouses, and weaving factories. During her life, Enheduanna commissioned the Disk of Enheduanna. This was a relief made from alabaster, inscribed with her dedication to the moon god An.
As well as that, references to Ishtar are made in the Epic of Gilgamesh, a work widely viewed as the first great masterpiece of world literature. In the original version of the poem, Ishtar asks Gilgamesh to become her consort. When he refuses her, she furiously unleashes the Bull of Heaven. As a result, this forces Gilgamesh to come to terms with the fact that he is, like all humans, mortal.
But records of Ishtar’s existence go far beyond poetry. Some argue that the Song of Songs, from the Bible, contains references to Ishtar. This is firstly due to its strong structural similarity to the Sumerian love poems detailing the relationship between Inanna and Dumuzid (the Sumerian versions of Ishtar and Tammuz). Secondly, this is due to its allusions to the sun and the moon, over which Ishtar rules. Even Ezekiel 8:14 references Tammuz by name, describing a group of women mourning his death near a Jerusalem Temple.
Ishtar’s obscurity in cultural history
Ishtar’s stories, mythology, and cult of worship largely shaped the culture and history of Ancient Mesopotamia – to such a degree that some of the most important texts in world history mention her. Given that, one would expect her influence today – or at least, throughout recent history – to rival Aphrodite’s. Why, then, is Ishtar’s influence and mythology so obscure?
The answer may lie in the language barrier, among other causes. For more than 3000 years, the main method of communication throughout Ancient Mesopotamia was cuneiform, a writing system developed by the Ancient Sumerians. By around 400 CE, it fell out of use, for reasons that remain unknown. Due to this, the poems and works detailing Ishtar’s grand history were gradually overlooked in favour of texts written in more easily accessible languages.
Luckily, however, there has recently been a renewal of interest in Ishtar and her many stories. The last 50 years have seen the publication of most of her lesser-known myths. This has allowed the goddess to slowly emerge onto the scene of popular culture, taking her place alongside her Norse, Greek, and Egyptian counterparts.
Ishtar in popular culture: film and media
In the film Blood Feast, the main character, Fuad, is a serial killer who sacrifices his victims to Ishtar. Disappointingly, the film confuses Ishtar with Isis, calling her an Egyptian goddess rather than a Mesopotamian one. Hercules: The Legendary Journeys portrays Ishtar as a soul-eating Egyptian mummy, confusing one history with another once again. The 1987 film Ishtar, alongside being named after the goddess, also includes a character, Shirra, who loosely resembles her.
Several rock and death metal songs, and a John Craton opera, have also referenced the goddess. Allegedly, she has also provided the prototype for the dominatrix archetype in BDSM culture. This archetype is characterized as a powerful female who forces gods and men into submission to her. Of course, given Ishtar’s connections to warfare, violence, and chaos, in addition to her wildly vengeful nature, this comparison is not unfounded.
Ishtar in popular culture: literature and theory
In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir argues that Inanna has been belittled by modern culture in favour of male deities. She argues that Inanna represents the rebellious, wild woman, and uses the goddess to provide an example of the type of woman all women could become, if not for the confines of our culture. This conversation takes place within the wider context of a discussion surrounding other similar goddesses.
The portrayals of Ishtar in modern popular culture are sparse and rare. The few that do exist are flawed, turning her into a shallow parody of her powerful, chaotic self. In doing so, they obscure the dual nature of her character and her power. Yet, they provide a step forward in the inclusion of Mesopotamian mythology into popular culture – and, thus, offer a step towards wider appreciation of the richness and beauty of this ancient civilization, and the many characters, stories, and ideas it has to offer.
Much like other gods and goddesses from other cultures, Ishtar is a flawed figure, capable of intense destruction and vengeance. Rather than putting her on a pedestal, viewing her as an ideal “wild woman” that we should all strive towards – or, worse yet, reducing her to an evil caricature of the violent realm she deals in – we should allow ourselves to explore her stories fully. More importantly, we should seek to use them as examples of the contrast and duality that is so very human.
Cultural significance in anthropology
In Ishtar, we see the ability to realize and unite one’s dual sides – the contrasting emotions of love and hate, or mercy and vengeance. Ishtar teaches us that, by uniting the opposing parts of ourselves, we can create a unique form of power. For female audiences and readers, this is an important takeaway. Ishtar represents a powerful version of the overly emotional, unstable woman – a stereotype that has been used against women for centuries. Rather than feed into this harmful example, her character instead encourages us to recognize women’s emotions as a source of power, rather than an innate flaw.
Aphrodite has been around in Western culture for so long that we have forgotten her fullness. We have reduced her to a goddess of beauty and love, with a pretty face and an intense jealous side. This shallow version of the goddess has been around so long that it has become integral to illustrations of Aphrodite in popular culture. At this point, it is too late to turn back.
But with the emergence of Ishtar in popular culture, and a revival of interest in Ancient Mesopotamian civilization, history, and mythology, we have a chance to start again. The arrival of Ishtar onto the scene of popular culture gives us a new chance to view the beauty in love and war, rather than set them against each other.
The worst thing we can do for the promising cultural figure of Ishtar is to glorify her anger and vengefulness. Her story deserves to be told in full. Her status as a woman of opposites and extremes deserves to be remembered. And the legendary tales of her power – the power that we all possess – are more than worthy of sharing.
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“Ishtar.” New World Encyclopedia, . 6 Mar 2018, 23:20 UTC. 8 Jul 2021, 14:28 <https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org>.