(Warning! Long post! Also, Trigger Warning for discussions of rape, violence, gender, and sexuality!) Ishtar, the ancient Babylonian goddess of love, war, and sex is a complex figure. She evolved from the goddess Inanna in the earliest civilization in the world; ancient Sumer. (Modern day Iraq.) Her figure is at least 5,000 years old and her worship enjoyed popularity throughout all ages of Mesopotamia. (Unlike many other goddesses whose popularity waxed and waned.) She had many aspects, that added to her character over the ages. It was because of this some scholars theorize that Ishtar may have originally been a combination of several local goddess, which explains the complexity of her character.
While the mainstream academic view is that of Ishtar being a spoiled “brat”, trying to get what she wants, and that of a capricious teenager in mythology, this view ignores what could be garnered from modern feminist interpretations. Looking at it from an ancient perspective, Ishtar is an independent woman in patriarchal societies that frowned upon that sort of thing. In a modern perspective, Ishtar stood up for herself when she was raped, back in time when rape wasn’t always a big deal, owned her own sexuality, was independent of men, and remained an important figure of fertility in nature.
It was because Mesopotamians didn’t like demonizing and oppressing their goddesses too much, even if they went out of the gender norm, that the wild aspect of Ishtar’s lust (Killili) and violence seem to have contributed to the myth of Lilith, a more popular feminist figure of the modern age. Lilith (Babylonian Lilitu) became then, and subsequently in cultures who inherited the myth (Israelites), a woman that was used to warn other women about the dangers of being independent woman in a society where women were owned by the males of their respective families. (In fact the Babylonian word for “prostitute” and “independent woman”, both of which Ishtar and Lilith typically identify, are similar for such reasons because both ideals are looked down upon in their respective societies.)
This essay will explore Ishtar’s character and myths in the ancient world, while offering a modern feminist interpretation of such mythology. She can be used a modern symbol of female empowerment, much in the same way her maiden Lilith is used by feminists. (The main reason why Ishtar is not viewed in the same lense of Lilith, is because Lilith enjoyed being interpreted by Romantic artists of the Victorian period and evolved into a symbol of modern Jewish feminism. Whereas, Ishtar became hopelessly lost in the veils of time, mostly.)
It is important to note the historical background of Inanna’s (Ishtar) as it is a necessary component of her character. The goddess Ishtar is probably the most substantial goddess of the Ancient Near East in the Mesopotamian region. She is connected to a plethora of goddess, like the Persian Anahita. But most particularly, she is identified with the Syrian-Canaanite goddess Astarte.
Tradition in the ancient world split Ishtar’s origins in two. In the priestly tradition she was regarded as the daughter of the principle god and ruler of heaven, Anu. (Sumerian An) The folk tradition offers the idea that she is the daughter of the moon god Sin (Sumerian Nanna) and as a consequence, the sister of the solar god Shamash (Utu). In Babylonia, these three made a triad, Sin of the moon, Shamash of the sun, and Ishtar of the earth. Ishtar here, is represented by the eight pointed star, Shamash by the solar disk, and Sin by a crescent moon symbol. She received the title of “Queen of Heaven and Earth” because of this.
Ishtar’s two most important aspects are fertility and war. The Babylonians emphasized her sexual aspects, while the Assyrians chose to focus on her power as a goddess of war. Prior to the rise of Marduk, Ishtar was the main deity of war. (Marduk eventually replaced her in Babylonia.) As the goddess of sex and fertility, Ishtar’s cult was comprised of priestess-prostitutes, in what is called “sacred prostitution”. The goddess herself being the goddess of prostitution. In her war aspect, she vied for power and the battlefield was titled “the playground of Ishtar”.
Inanna’s capital was the city of Uruk. This is where her principal shrine was held. It was named “E-ana” or “House of Heaven”. Here is the origins of her as the daughter of Anu himself. She is also connected to the “morning/evening star” or the planet Venus.
The high priestess and daughter of Sargon of Akkad revered Inanna, and helped raise her to prominence. The priestess’s name is Enheduanna. She is considered the earliest poet in the entire world, who was not anonymous, she was also the first woman to hold the title of EN which was of great political substance. Even though Enheduanna was a priestess of the god Nanna, her most famous works are about Inanna. (It is likely Sargon moved her to the city of Ur to secure power in the Sumerian city-state.) ‘The Exaltation of Inanna’ is her most famous work and this work influenced the conceptions of the goddess.
Ishtar’s popularity continued to grow over the region. Eventually, her cult spread to the Mediterranean. She evolved into the great goddess Aphrodite, where the cult of sacred prostitution spread. Inherited from the Ishtar mythologies, the Greeks began to think of the evening and morning stars as one star, instead of two separate ones. Later, Aphrodite survived as the Roman goddess Venus.
Ishtar’s Descent into the Underworld
In the Epic of Gilgamesh, Ishtar offers Gilgamesh sex. In which he spurns her advances, citing a long history of her cursing her former lovers:
“For Dumuzi the lover of your youth
You decreed that he should keep weeping year after year.
You loved the colourful allallu-bird,
But you hit him and broke his wing.
He stays in the words crying ‘My wings!’
You loved the lion, whose strength is complete,
But you dug seven and seven pits for him.
You loved the horse, so trustworthy in battle,
But you decreed the whip, goad, and lash for him
You decreed that he should gallop seven leagues (nonstop),
You decreed that he should be overwrought and thirsty,
You decreed endless weeping for his mother Sililu.
You loved the shepherd, herdsman, and chief shepherd
Who was always heaping up the glowing ashes for you,
And cooked ewe-lambs for you every day.
But you hit him and turned him into a wolf,
His own herd-boys hunt him down
And his dogs tear at his haunches.
You loved Ishullanu, your father’s gardener,
Who was always bringing you baskets of dates.
They brightened your table every day;
You lifted your eyes to him and went to him
‘My own Ishullanu, let us enjoy this strength,
So put out your hand and touch our vulva!’
But Ishullanu said to you,
‘Me? What do you want of me?
Did my mother not bake for me, and did I not eat?
What I eat (with you) would be loaves of dishonour and disgrace,
Rushes would be my only covering against the cold.’
You listened as he said this,
And you hit him, turned him into a frog (?),
Left him to stay amid the fruits of his labor.”
– tablet VI, SBV ii
Ishtar is shown as sexually independent and bound to no man, in the texts. This is not normal of Mesopotamian women. However, she tends to curse her many lovers in the end. Gilgamesh enrages Ishtar through his rejection. She sends the Bull of Heaven out at on him and his friend as revenge. Gilgamesh manages to slay the Bull of Heaven, at the cost of his friend’s life.
It is because of this event that leads Ishtar to perform the necessary funeral rites. The Bull of Heaven was the consort of the underworld goddess Ereshkigal–Ishtar’s sister/rival. Thus, Ishtar must descend to the underworld, since she is responsible for her sister’s husband’s death. However, Ishtar’s appearance in the underworld is two-fold. She is after obtaining power over the underworld by seizing Ereshgikal’s throne. This would make Ishtar the Queen of Heaven, the Earth, and the Underworld.
But in order to pass through each seven gates, Ishtar must remove an article of clothing. This is symbolic, as it stands, to show Ishtar’s loss of power as she keep descending to lower levels. Once she passes to the last gate, she is completely naked.
After the final gate, seeing the throne, Ishtar attempts to seize it from Ereshkigal. Angered, Ereskigal and her demons slay Ishtar and hang her corpse on a hook. Ishtar once dead, husbands will not copulate with their wives, animals will not mate, and crops will not grow. It is Ishtar whose power is so great that she is imperative to existence in the world. The gods see this and decide Ishtar must be revived to restore order, so they bargain with Ereshkigal, who demands a replacement for Ishtar.
As Ishtar travels to the surface, newly brought back to life thanks to the other gods, she checks to see who is mourning her. All the gods mourned her except, her husband Tammuz (Dumuzi) is seen enjoying her splendor while she was dead and not mourning her in any way whatsoever. So, she sentences him to death as her replacement in rage. The demons gather their strength up and take Tammuz from Ishtar’s throne. Gestianna, Tammuz’s sister, offers to exchange places with Tammuz every six months to appease Ereshkigal.
Here Ishtar is a great symbol, she attempts to seize power for herself and she removes that which threatens her power. She does not allow those to disrespect her, even if that disrespect comes from her own husband.
She has many lovers and even her relationship to Tammuz can be ambiguous at times. She does not seem to have a permanent mate. Nor are any real children ascribe to her, with a possible exception of Shara. Bound by no man, bound to no children, and certainly she is not bound by traditional family life as the patriarchal Mesopotamian society would have it. She usurps it. She retains this independent character throughout her entire mythology; no children and no permanent lover is a prominent theme. She takes the power she can for herself and she removes all which is a threat to her independence. Not even if the threat is from someone of the same gender.
Ishtar vs Mount Ebih
Ishtar for the record, formerly would bow to Anu. Now she has taken her own path. Swayed by her anger at mount Ebih for dishonoring her. She has decided to take matters into her own hand, even at the cost of disobeying the top god. This makes her wholly independent. She chose this and she takes responsibility for her actions.
The poem “Inanna and Ebih” is very interesting as Anu the sky father, refuses to help Ishtar. Very similar to Yahweh in the Garden of Eden with Eve, the patriarch Anu is not so tolerant of women’s equality even when Ishtar requests aid. But unlike Yahweh, An gives up and breaks his alliance with Ishtar when she disobeys. Anu is typically a key source of Ishtar’s divine power, this act however, seems to shake cosmic order.
O maiden Inanna. I will not set my head with yours against the fiery radiance of the mountain.
An say this to her:
INANNA! PORTENOUS ONE! HOLY! ILL-BODING!
FURY OVERTURNS HER HEART!
When academics look over this characterization between Anu and Ishtar, it is interpreted as Ishtar being a spoiled child to her father and throwing, what could essentially be called, a “hissy fit”. This is how some scholars now see Ishtar, which would be a very classical and patriarchal view. Rather, than looking at it as a woman standing up for herself against one who has dishonored her, to the point of disobeying the head of the pantheon; Anu. She challenges Anu’s patriarchal authority. There is no other goddess in the same mythos that does this. (At least that I know of!)
In Mesopotamian (Ancient Near East) societies, similar to historical biblical ones mentioned in the bible, women were typically owned by the head male (patriarch). Unmarried women would be owned by their fathers. Married women by their husbands, and if they are widowed, then by his brother or their uncle, if there was no male heir. Noble women usually had more freedoms, however, the society was emphasized that women be groomed to be wives, mothers, and caretakers. Men were thought to do this to preserve “legitimate” lineages and to curb adultery.
There are many tales told to women of the dangers of being an independent woman. Ardat lili (Akkadian for Lilitu) was typically used for this gesture. Themes of prostitution, women owning their sexuality, and adultery were commonly told tales of caution. This increasing sexualization of Ardat lili and Lilitu definitely came over from the Ishtar aspect. Despite this matter, Ishtar’s cult thrived and so did prostitution. It is amazing that Ishtar’s mythology preserved a more positive look for women outside of societal norms.
One of the most notable stories about Ishtar is the one that occurred about her rape. It is not just the fact that rape had happened to Ishtar in the story, it is also very note worthy that Ishtar sought to punish the rapist, personally. This was back in an era when rape was identified as offence against a man’s property if a married woman was raped, and when the rape of an unmarried virgin forced the girl to be married to her rapist.
In the code of Hammurabi of the Ancient Near East, the rape of a betrothed virgin woman was a crime punishable by death, but this is more because of the husband. However, if a married woman was raped, this was considered “adultery” and punishable by both the deaths of her and the rapist. Similarly, in Ancient Hebrew law, if the woman was raped within city walls, cries of help would be assumed so someone would help her, if not, then the victim and rapist were executed. Outside the city walls, especially of a virgin, the rapist was required to pay for and marry the victim. There was no justice for the survivors of rape in the Ancient Near East.
This is why this particular story is very important when examining Ishtar as feminist symbol. She sought justice where there was none. She punished what was fleeing from punishment. Even when the water god, Enki (Babylonian Ea) hid the rapist. Ishtar did not give up searching for such a man.
In the setting of the story, Ishtar goes on an adventure to learn justice and falsehood. Soon she becomes wary, and falls asleep underneath a tree. A man takes advantage of this. Ishtar awakes dismayed and filled with vengeance. The man flees with the help of Ea, who helps all those he petition him. Ishtar cannot find this man as she destroys the land. Finally, she too, petitions Enki who revels his location.
“Then the woman was considering what should be destroyed because of her genitals; Inana was considering what should be done because of her genitals. She filled the wells of the Land with blood, so it was blood that the irrigated orchards of the Land yielded, it was blood that the slave who went to collect firewood drank, it was blood that the slavegirl who went out to draw water drew, and it was blood that the black-headed people drank. No one knew when this would end. She said: “I will search everywhere for the man who had intercourse with me”. But nowhere in all the lands could she find the man who had had intercourse with her. – Now, what did one say to another? What further did one add to the other in detail?” – Inana and Shu-kale-tuda: translation 129-138
When he had spoken thus to her, …… hit ……. …… added (?) ……. …… changed (?) him ……. She (?) determined his destiny ……, holy Inana spoke to Cu-kale-tuda: “So! You shall die! What is that to me? Your name, however, shall not be forgotten. Your name shall exist in songs and make the songs sweet. A young singer shall perform them most pleasingly in the king’s palace. A shepherd shall sing them sweetly as he tumbles his butter-churn. A young shepherd shall carry your name to where he grazes the sheep. The palace of the desert shall be your home. – Inana and Shu-kale-tuda: translation 290-310
It is simply wonderful to find a story that is thousands of years old, where a goddess seeks justice for the rape at hand. In many stories, rape is not punished and is somewhat socially acceptable. In some myths, such as Poseidon and Medusa, the victim is punished. (In this case Medusa was punished by Athena.) Even Hera, Queen of the gods in Greek myth, is said to have married her rapist, Zeus, to cover her shame. (Zeus being the epitome of what a man is in Greek culture.)
Ishtar is empowering as a Feminist symbol, here, because she refused to be a victim any longer. She didn’t just kill the man, either. She likewise, had the man remembered for all eternity because of the shame he brought on himself for the act. This is why she mentions this, and it should be taught as a lesson. But most of all, as with her other stories, Inanna refuses to take any shit, especially from a man.
Ishtar and gender
One of the most interesting aspects to Ishtar and her cult, was the androgyny/gender crossing in her character. Inanna, in her warrior aspect, takes on the role of a male. She “appropriates” this role by striding into battle, a completely male dominated domain. She is referred when she is off to battle as embodying that of a young man. All the while, she is still considered a woman. But she is far outside the domestic domain of the Ancient Near East, a taboo in and of itself.
This part of it trickled into Ishtar’s cult. Ishtar herself, challenges the social norms. Even to the point of welcoming the “manly woman”, who was usually socially ostracized in Mesopotamian society. There may have been cross dressing women, and men, as a portion of Inanna’s cult. In one poem Ishtar is described:
Inanna… Dressing as a maiden, within the women’s rooms. Embraces with full heart, the young girl’s handsome bearing.
Here, “handsome” was used to explain “cross gendering”, in the translation. One could summarize this is what would be called a “dyke” in modern culture. We cannot say for certain about lesbianism in such a context, because of how ancients defined their own sexuality and how the texts were written. But at least, some of these “handsome women”, were not just simple tomboys or cross dressers.
Many texts exist that make reference to Ishtar’s cult personnel, in temples, as being eunuchs, androgynous, sexually ambivalent, intersexed, or trans because she embraces them. In the poem “Lady of the Largest Heart” we learn that Inanna “turn man to women/woman to man/are yours Inanna”. In this, her cult also challenges the hetero-normative Mesopotamian culture. She breaks sexual boundaries and gender boundaries–all taboo.
Ishtar welcomes all gender identities and sexual identities into her cult. She is a social justice symbol from an era when such a thing never existed. In a time when this sort of thing was shunned and people were socially ostracized for it; Inanna embraced all the social misfits of society. Even the goddess herself crosses gender boundaries, breaks taboos.
As Betty De Shong writes in her book “Inanna: Lady of the Largest Heart“:
Inanna represents the full expression of whole range of possibilities for woman’s identity. That range includes same-sex unions. Inanna is free to travel throughout the landscape of her sexuality, enjoying each scene to the fullest. She sanctions sexuality in its many forms as the surging of the life force itself. To suppress a viable expression of sexuality, such as same-sex unions would be anti-life to Inanna and would go against the creative force of her nature.
Likewise, she is a symbol of justice for rape survivors. She does not stop searching for the perpetrator until she punishes him. The punishment befitting of the crime, for the era, she destroys him. Humiliates him for all time by letting the story circulate as a lesson. She is the refusal to remain a victim, she inspires those to empower themselves against those who committed such injustices.
When she battles the mountain, she is taking on patriarchy itself, symbolically. Not just by the fact that she had disobeyed the authority of the father god An, she also took on the embodiment of a male mountain. The gods, especially An, were in awe of Ebih and fearful. Inanna challenged this as well, she destroyed the mountain that was not respecting her. This could inspire many women to take on their own patriarchal cultures and remove their own mountains. Especially, if they block their paths in life. They too, like Ishtar, can fight to keep their autonomy.
Lastly, in the Descent of Ishtar to the Underworld, she even challenges another female’s domain. Inanna lusts for power, why is this considered a bad thing when so many women suffer from a lack of power in their own lives? Even other women can bring down patriarchal norms on females. Can’t we be like Ishtar and seize the throne ourselves? Why must we lay down? Ishtar is the embodiment of what we should seek; the power we need/want, even at the cost of usurping it from someone else. Though she did not get what she wanted in that particular story, she did get power later from Enki by stealing it successfully for herself and her people. This is how we should be as feminists.
- Inanna Lady of the Largest Heart by Betty De Shong Meador
- The Hebrew Goddess (3rd Enlarged Edition) by R.Patai
- Gods, Demons, and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia by Black and Green
- DR: Ishtar/Inanna
- Herstory on Rape
- Wiki for Greek myths