Ishtar was the Assyrian and Babylonian goddess of love and war. She was closely associated with the Sumerian goddess Inanna. Sometimes her father was said to have been Sin, the moon god, but more often she was viewed as the daughter of Anu, the sky god, and Antum, an earth goddess. Her primary consort was Tammuz, the young shepherd who, according to some accounts, was also her son. The ancient city of Babylon, located in modern Iraq, was a main site of Ishtar worship.
Ishtar and Inanna were the most important of the ancient West Asian goddesses worshiped by the Sumerians, Assyrians, and Babylonians. These civilizations were primarily agrarian and arose in the area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers from the fourth millennium BCE onward. It is thought that each local community or settlement had its own mother goddess. Later, as urban civilizations formed, Inanna, with her consort Dumuzi, became the primary Sumerian goddess, particularly in the south. The Babylonian Ishtar, with her consort Tammuz, became dominant later and primarily in the north.
Inanna and Ishtar were similar to the Phoenician goddess Astarte, as well as to goddesses farther afield, such as Isis in Egypt, Tanit in Carthage, Aphrodite in Greece, and Venus in Rome. What all of these goddesses had in common was an association with love, and more specifically with sex. Some of them also had an association with war. This dual role may represent the idea of a goddess who governed both birth and death. Ishtar, in her role as love goddess, was usually depicted as a voluptuous woman, naked or seminaked, with extremely large hips and breasts. When shown as a war goddess, she often had wings and stood on or was joined by lions. Other times she wore a tall, almost mountain-shaped crown on her head as a sign of her most esteemed position as queen of heaven.
Ishtar plays an important part in the middle section of the Epic of Gilgamesh, which dates from around the 18th century BCE and is one of the oldest poems in world literature. The first part of the story is about how Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, and the bull-man Enkidu became best friends and together killed the monster Humbaba. When they returned from this adventure and Gilgamesh had washed off all the grime of battle, Ishtar found the king so handsome that she asked him to be her husband and lover, offering him unlimited riches and power.
Yet Gilgamesh refused her offer. He compared her to a number of useless domestic objects, including a fire that goes out in the cold, a back door that does not keep out the wind and rain, a waterskin that soaks its carrier, and an ill-fitting shoe. He asked, "Which of your lovers have you loved forever?" and then listed all the men she had loved and destroyed, starting with Tammuz, whom she sent to the underworld. Tammuz was followed by a shepherd who offered her cakes and goat kids. She turned him into a wolf who was torn to pieces by his own dogs. Another lover was a gardener named Ishullanu who, like Gilgamesh, rejected her. Ishtar turned the gardener into a frog.
Ishtar, offended by Gilgamesh's words, then flew to the heavens and wept before her parents, Anu and Antum. She demanded that her father avenge Gilgamesh's insult by sending the Bull of Heaven to kill him. Anu did as his daughter requested and released the bull. After the divine animal caused much damage to the world, Gilgamesh and Enkidu finally killed it. The death of the Bull of Heaven greatly angered Ishtar and the other gods, who decreed that Enkidu had to die. Unable to save his friend's life, Gilgamesh roamed the world in grief for years afterward.
Another story concerning Ishtar is about her descent into the underworld. It closely follows an older myth about Inanna's journey to the land of the dead. In both tales, the goddess was stripped of her ornaments and clothing at each of the seven gates of the underworld so that she was naked when she confronted Ereshkigal, the goddess of the underworld. However, from then on the stories diverge.
In Ishtar's myth, her consort, Tammuz, was already dead and her descent was an attempt to get him back. Once in the underworld, however, Ishtar was afflicted with "60 miseries" that attacked each part of her body. The chief god, Ea, sent a substitute to take Ishtar's place as soon as the gods noticed that all sexual activity on earth had ceased. Ishtar and Tammuz were released together in exchange for a eunuch (castrated man).
The other myth involved Inanna's attempt to wrest control of the underworld from Ereshkigal, who was also her sister. In her dominion, however, Ereshkigal was much more powerful than Inanna, whom she turned into rotting meat and left to hang on a wall. Fortunately, Inanna had told her handmaiden to initiate mourning if she did not return and then to try to rescue her. The gods were reluctant to intervene, but they took action when they realized that, without Inanna, all the fertility of the earth would be lost. Inanna returned to earth but had to find a substitute to take her place in the land of the dead; she sent her consort Dumuzi because he alone was not mourning her. Despite these differences, the end result of each myth is the same: fertility was restored to the world.
In addition to the myths of Ishtar, there were also several monuments dedicated to the goddess. The most important of these was the Ishtar Gate in Babylon. It is thought that the gate was used by the Babylonians during processions to the ziggurat (a pyramid-like structure with steps that wound around the outside tiers and led to a temple at the top) of Marduk, who was also known as Lord of the Worlds. The Ishtar Gate was originally built around 575 BCE, during the reign of King Nebuchadrezzar II, and stood over 38 feet (11.6 m) high. It was covered in deep-blue glazed bricks with reliefs of bulls and dragons. Eventually the gateway fell to ruin, but bricks from the original were excavated in the early 20th century and used in a reconstruction of the gate housed in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. In the late 20th century, the Iraqi antiquities department erected its own reconstruction of the gate on or near the original site.
Besides the monuments, there were also important rituals connected to Ishtar, such as the annual celebration and reenactment of the sacred marriage between Tammuz and Ishtar. The ceremony was performed by the king and the high priestess of Babylon, who was often married to the king. They represented Tammuz and Ishtar, and their roles were central to the sacred ritual. The celebration took place in the New Year, which was observed during the spring equinox, and the Babylonians, dressed in their best finery, feasted, danced, and played music over several days. At the height of the celebrations, the king approached the temple bearing gifts. It is thought that the high priestess waited inside the temple, where she would receive the king's gifts. Once together the two would enact the sacred union in the heart of the temple, ensuring fertility and agricultural prosperity for the whole community in the year to come. The Epic of Gilgamesh related how, when Gilgamesh refused to marry Ishtar and perform his part in the fertility union with the goddess, he brought famine on his people.
Other sexual rituals were also performed in honor of Ishtar. The priestesses of Ishtar's temples, like those of Inanna, practiced ritual prostitution. The priestesses were organized into a strict hierarchy. The sexual acts symbolized the sacred union between Tammuz and Ishtar and were intended to promote fertility. Over time, however, their religious significance diminished.
Greek writers Herodotus (c.484–425 BCE) and Lucian (c. 120–c. 180 CE) both refer to a custom that required every woman once in her life to sit in the temple of Ishtar until a man threw a coin in her lap. The man and woman would then go outside the temple and have sex in honor of the goddess; the silver was donated to the temple. Herodotus also points out that attractive women would be claimed quickly, but women who were thought ugly were sometimes forced to wait for years before being chosen, if at all. There are also some references to males acting as homosexual prostitutes in honor of Ishtar.
See also: APHRODITE; ASTARTE; DUMUZI; GILGAMESH, EPIC OF; INANNA; ISIS; MESOPOTAMIA; VENUS; VIRGINITY.
- Black, Jeremy, and Anthony Green. Gods, Demons, and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia: An Illustrated Dictionary. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1992.
- George, Andrew, trans. The Epic of Gilgamesh. New York: Penguin Books, 2003.
- Babylon. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1986. .
- The Cultural Atlas of Mesopotamia and the Ancient Near East. New York: Checkmark Books, 1990. .
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