Ishtar (//; cuneiform: 𒀭𒈹 Dištar) was the Mesopotamian goddess of love, beauty, sex, desire, fertility, war, combat, and political power, the East Semitic (Akkadian, Assyrian, and Babylonian) counterpart to the Sumerian Inanna, and a cognate of the Northwest Semitic goddess Astarte and the Armenian goddess Astghik. Ishtar was an important deity in Mesopotamian religion from around 3500 BCE, until its gradual decline between the 1st and 5th centuries CE with the spread of Christianity.
|love, beauty, sex, desire, fertility, war, combat, and political power|
Old Babylonian relief from the early second millennium BCE showing Ishtar wearing a crown and flounced skirt, holding her symbol, currently held in the Louvre Museum
|Symbol||hook-shaped knot of reeds, Star of Ishtar, lion, rod-and-ring symbol, symbolic staff,|
Ishtar's primary symbols were the lion and the eight-pointed star of Ishtar. She was associated with the planet Venus and subsumed many important aspects of her character and her cult from the earlier Sumerian goddess Inanna. Ishtar's most famous myth is the story of her descent into the underworld, which is largely based on an older, more elaborate Sumerian version involving Inanna.
In the standard Akkadian version of the Epic of Gilgamesh, Ishtar is portrayed as a spoiled and hot-headed femme fatale who demands Gilgamesh become her consort. When he refuses, she unleashes the Bull of Heaven, resulting in the death of Enkidu. This stands in sharp contrast with Inanna's radically different portrayal in the earlier Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Netherworld. Ishtar also appears in the Hittite creation myth and in the Neo-Assyrian Birth Legend of Sargon.
Although various publications have claimed that Ishtar's name is the root behind the modern English word Easter, this has been rejected by reputable scholars, and such etymologies are not listed in standard reference works.
Ishtar is a Semitic name of uncertain etymology, possibly derived from a Semitic term meaning "to irrigate". George A. Barton, an early scholar on the subject, suggests that the name stems from "irrigating ditch" and "that which is irrigated by water alone", therefore meaning "she who waters", or "is watered" or "the self-waterer". Regardless of which interpretation is correct, the name seems to derive from irrigation and agricultural fertility.
The name Ishtar occurs as an element in personal names from both the pre-Sargonic and post-Sargonic eras in Akkad, Assyria, and Babylonia. A few scholars believe that Ishtar may have originated as a female form of the god Attar, who is mentioned in inscriptions from Ugarit and southern Arabia. The morning star may have been conceived as a male deity who presided over the arts of war and the evening star may have been conceived as a female deity who presided over the arts of love. Among the Akkadians, Assyrians, and Babylonians, the name of the male god eventually supplanted the name of his female counterpart, but, due to extensive syncretism with the Sumerian goddess Inanna, the deity remained as female, despite the fact that her name was in the masculine form. The Akkadian poetess Enheduanna, the daughter of Sargon, wrote numerous hymns to the Sumerian goddess Inanna in which she identified her with her native goddess Ishtar. This helped to cement the syncretism between the two.
Ishtar was believed to be the daughter of Anu, the god of the sky. Although she was widely venerated, she was particularly worshipped in the Upper Mesopotamian kingdom of Assyria (modern northern Iraq, north east Syria and south east Turkey), particularly at the cities of Nineveh, Ashur and Arbela (modern Erbil), and also in the south Mesopotamian city of Uruk. Ishtar was closely associated with lions and with the eight-pointed star, which were her most common symbols. In the Babylonian pantheon, she "was the divine personification of the planet Venus."
The cult of Ishtar may have involved sacred prostitution, but this is disputed. Hierodules known as ishtaritum are reported to have worked in Ishtar's temples, but it is unclear if such priestesses actually performed any sex acts and several modern scholars have argued that they did not.
Androgynous and hermaphroditic men were heavily involved in the cult of Ishtar. Kurgarrū and assinnu were servants of Ishtar who dressed in female clothing and performed war dances in Ishtar's temples. Several Akkadian proverbs seem to suggest that they may have also engaged in homosexual intercourse. Gwendolyn Leick, an anthropologist known for her writings on Mesopotamia, has compared these individuals to the contemporary Indian hijra. In one Akkadian hymn, Ishtar is described as transforming men into women.
During the Akkadian Period, Ishtar was often depicted as a heavily armed warrior goddess, frequently accompanied by lions, which were among the many symbols Ishtar adopted from the Sumerian goddess Inanna.
In Mesopotamian iconography, the most common symbol of Ishtar is an eight-pointed star, though the exact number of points sometimes varies. Six-pointed stars also occur frequently, but their symbolic meaning is unknown. The eight-pointed star was originally associated with Inanna and seems to have originally borne a general association with the heavens, but, by the Old Babylonian Period, it had come to be specifically associated with the planet Venus, with which Ishtar was identified. Starting during this same period, the star of Ishtar was normally enclosed within a circular disc.
During later times, slaves who worked in Ishtar's temples were sometimes branded with the seal of the eight-pointed star. On boundary stones and cylinder seals, the eight-pointed star is sometimes shown alongside the crescent moon, which was the symbol of Sin, god of the Moon, and the rayed solar disk, which was a symbol of Shamash, the god of the Sun.
The rosette was another important symbol of Ishtar which had originally belonged to Inanna. During the Neo-Assyrian Period, the rosette may have actually eclipsed the eight-pointed star and become Ishtar's primary symbol. The temple of Ishtar in the city of Aššur was adorned with numerous rosettes.
The ancient Mesopotamians worshipped Ishtar as the goddess of both warfare and sexuality. Unlike other gods, whose roles were static and whose domains were limited, the stories of Ishtar describe her as moving from conquest to conquest. She was portrayed as young and impetuous, constantly striving for more power than she had been allotted.
Although she was worshipped as the goddess of love, Ishtar was not the goddess of marriage, nor was she ever viewed as a mother goddess. A description of her from one of her hymns declares, "When the servants let the flocks loose, and when cattle and sheep are returned to cow-pen and sheepfold, then, my lady, like the nameless poor, you wear only a single garment. The pearls of a prostitute are placed around your neck, and you are likely to snatch a man from the tavern." Ishtar had many lovers; Guirand writes:
"Woe to him whom Ishtar had honoured! The fickle goddess treated her passing lovers cruelly, and the unhappy wretches usually paid dearly for the favours heaped on them. Animals, enslaved by love, lost their native vigour: they fell into traps laid by men or were domesticated by them. 'Thou has loved the lion, mighty in strength', says the hero Gilgamesh to Ishtar, 'and thou hast dug for him seven and seven pits! Thou hast loved the steed, proud in battle, and destined him for the halter, the goad and the whip.'
Ishtar was also worshipped as one of the Mesopotamian war deities. One of her hymns declares: "She stirs confusion and chaos against those who are disobedient to her, speeding carnage and inciting the devastating flood, clothed in terrifying radiance. It is her game to speed conflict and battle, untiring, strapping on her sandals."
Descent into the underworldEdit
Ishtar's most famous myth is the story of her descent into the Underworld, which is based on an older Sumerian version involving the goddess Inanna. The Sumerian version of the story is nearly three times the length of the later Akkadian version and contains much greater detail. The Akkadian version begins with Ishtar approaching the gates of the Underworld and demanding the gatekeeper to let her in:
If thou openest not the gate to let me enter,
I will break the door, I will wrench the lock,
I will smash the door-posts, I will force the doors.
I will bring up the dead to eat the living.
And the dead will outnumber the living.
In the Akkadian version, the gatekeeper's name is not given, but in the Sumerian version, his name is Neti. The gatekeeper hurries to tell Ereshkigal, the Queen of the Underworld. Ereshkigal orders the gatekeeper to let Ishtar enter, but tells him to "treat her according to the ancient rites."
The gatekeeper lets Ishtar into the underworld, opening one gate at a time. At each gate, Ishtar is forced to shed one article of clothing. When she finally passes the seventh gate, she is naked. In a 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 Papsukkal, the Akkadian counterpart to the Sumerian goddess Ninshubur, reports the situation to Ea, the god of wisdom and culture. Ea creates an intersex being called Asu-shu-namir and sends them to Ereshkigal, telling them to invoke "the name of the great gods" against her and to ask for the bag containing the waters of life. Ereshkigal becomes enraged when she hears Asu-shu-namir's demand, but she is forced to give them the water of life. Asu-shu-namir sprinkles Ishtar with this water, reviving her. Then, Ishtar passes back through the seven gates, receiving one article of clothing back at each gate, and exiting the final gate fully clothed.
Here there is a break in the text of the myth, which resumes with the following lines:
If she (Ishtar) will not grant thee her release,
To Tammuz, the lover of her youth, Pour out pure waters, pour out fine oil; With a festival garment deck him that he may play on the flute of lapis lazuli, That the votaries may cheer his liver. [his spirit] Belili [sister of Tammuz] had gathered the treasure, With precious stones filled her bosom. When Belili heard the lament of her brother, she dropped her treasure, She scattered the precious stones before her, "Oh, my only brother, do not let me perish! On the day when Tammuz plays for me on the flute of lapis lazuli, playing it for me with the porphyry ring. Together with him, play ye for me, ye weepers and lamenting women!That the dead may rise up and inhale the incense."
Formerly, scholars believed that the myth of Ishtar's descent took place after the death of Ishtar's lover Tammuz and that Ishtar had gone to the underworld to rescue him. However, the discovery of a corresponding myth about Inanna, the Sumerian counterpart of Ishtar, has shed some light on the myth of Ishtar's descent, including its somewhat enigmatic ending lines. In the Sumerian version of the story, Inanna can only return from the Underworld if someone else is taken there as her replacement. A horde of galla demons follow her out of the Underworld to ensure this. 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 Dumuzid, the Sumerian equivalent of Tammuz, seated on his throne, not at all grieved by her death. In anger, Inanna allows the demons to take Dumuzid back to the underworld as her replacement. Dumuzid's sister Geshtinanna is grief-stricken and volunteers to spend half the year in the underworld, during which time Dumuzid can go free. The Ishtar myth presumably had a comparable ending, Belili being the Babylonian equivalent of Geshtinanna.
Epic of GilgameshEdit
Attempt to seduce GilgameshEdit
The Epic of Gilgamesh contains an episode involving Ishtar, in which she is portrayed as a femme fatale, who is simultaneously petulant, bad-tempered, and spoiled. She asks the hero Gilgamesh to marry her, but he refuses, citing the fate that has befallen all her many lovers:
Listen to me while I tell the tale of your lovers. There was Tammuz, the lover of your youth, for him you decreed wailing, year after year. You loved the many-coloured Lilac-breasted Roller, but still you struck and broke his wing [...] You have loved the lion tremendous in strength: seven pits you dug for him, and seven. You have loved the stallion magnificent in battle, and for him you decreed the whip and spur and a thong [...] You have loved the shepherd of the flock; he made meal-cake for you day after day, he killed kids for your sake. You struck and turned him into a wolf; now his own herd-boys chase him away, his own hounds worry his flanks."
Infuriated by Gilgamesh's refusal, Ishtar goes to heaven and tells her father Anu that Gilgamesh has insulted her. Anu asks her why she is complaining to him instead of confronting Gilgamesh herself. Ishtar demands that Anu give her the Bull of Heaven and swears that if he does not give it to her, she will, in her own words:
...break in the doors of hell and smash the bolts; there will be confusion [i.e., mixing] of people, those above with those from the lower depths. I shall bring up the dead to eat food like the living; and the hosts of the dead will outnumber the living."
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 Assyro-Babylonian sun-god Shamash. While Gilgamesh and Enkidu are resting, Ishtar stands up on the walls of 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." (Enkidu later dies for this impiety.) Ishtar calls together "the crimped courtesans, prostitutes and harlots" and orders them to mourn for the Bull of Heaven. Meanwhile, Gilgamesh holds a celebration over the Bull of Heaven's defeat.
Later in the epic, Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh the story of the Great Flood, which was sent by the god Enlil to annihilate all life on earth because the humans, who were vastly overpopulated, made too much noise and prevented him from sleeping. Utnapishtim tells how, when the flood came, Ishtar wept and mourned over the destruction of humanity, alongside the Anunnaki. Later, after the flood subsides, Utnapishtim makes an offering to the gods. Ishtar appears to Utnapishtim wearing a lapis lazuli necklace with beads shaped like flies and tells him that Enlil never discussed the flood with any of the other gods. She swears him that she will never allow Enlil to cause another flood and declares her lapis lazuli necklace a sign of her oath. Ishtar invites all the gods except for Enlil to gather around the offering and enjoy.
Hittite Creation storyEdit
Ishtar briefly appears in the Hittite Creation myth as the sister of the Hittite storm god Teshub. In the myth, Ishtar attempts to seduce the monster Ullikummi, but fails because the monster is both blind and deaf and is unable to see or hear her.
Birth Legend of SargonEdit
In a pseudepigraphical Neo-Assyrian text written in the seventh century BCE, but which claims to be the autobiography of Sargon of Akkad, Ishtar is claimed to have appeared to Sargon "surrounded by a cloud of doves" while he was working as a gardener for Akki, the drawer of the water. Ishtar then proclaimed Sargon her lover and allowed him to become the ruler of Sumer and Akkad.
As Ishtar became more prominent, several lesser or regional deities were assimilated into her, including Aja (eastern mountain dawn goddess), Anatu (a goddess, possibly Ishtar's mother), Anunitu (Akkadian light goddess), Agasayam (war goddess), Irnini (goddess of cedar forests in the Lebanese mountains), Kilili or Kulili (symbol of the desirable woman), Sahirtu (messenger of lovers), Kir-gu-lu (bringer of rain), and Sarbanda (power of sovereignty).
The cult of Ishtar gave rise to the later cult of the Phoenician goddess Astarte, which, in turn, gave rise to the cult of the Greek goddess Aphrodite. The myth of Aphrodite and Adonis is likely derived from the myth of Ishtar and Tammuz. The tradition of temple prostitution was also an integral part of the cult of Aphrodite in Corinth and Sicily, and on the islands of Cyprus and Cythera. Joseph Campbell, a scholar of comparative mythology from the late twentieth century, equates Ishtar, Inanna, and Aphrodite; he also draws a parallel between the legend of Ishtar and Tammuz and the Egyptian story of the goddess Isis and her son Horus.
Modern scholars are not alone in associating Ishtar with Aphrodite. Writing in the fifth century BCE, the Greek historian Herodotus reports that the oldest temple to Aphrodite Ourania in the world was located in the city of Ascalon, Syria. In his Description of Greece, the ancient Greek travel writer Pausanias, who lived during the second century CE, affirms Herodotus's report, claiming that the first people to worship Aphrodite Ourania were the "Assyrians."
The Romans also identified Ishtar with their goddess Venus. Cicero, in his treatise On the Nature of the Gods, equates Astarte, the later Phoenician version of Ishtar, with Venus. The later writer Hyginus recounts an otherwise unattested tradition regarding the birth of Venus, demonstrating the syncretism between her and Ishtar:
Into the Euphrates River an egg of wonderful size is said to have fallen, which the fish rolled to the bank. Doves sat on it, and when it was heated, it hatched out Venus, who was later called the Syrian goddess. Since she excelled the rest in justice and uprightness, by a favour granted by Jove, the fish were put among the number of the stars, and because of this the Syrians do not eat fish or doves, considering them as gods.
Alleged associations with EasterEdit
In his book The Two Babylons, the nineteenth-century pseudohistorian Alexander Hislop attempted to connect the name Ishtar with the word Easter. Mainstream scholars have refuted all of Hislop's major claims. The name Easter is, in fact, most likely derived from the name of Ēostre, a Germanic goddess whose Germanic month bears her name (Northumbrian: Ēosturmōnaþ; West Saxon: Ēastermōnaþ; Old High German: Ôstarmânoth ). She is solely attested by Bede in his 8th-century work The Reckoning of Time, where Bede states that during Ēosturmōnaþ (the equivalent of April), pagan Anglo-Saxons had held feasts in Ēostre's honor, but that this tradition had died out by his time, replaced by the Christian Paschal month, a celebration of the resurrection of Jesus.
Ēostre may be a reflex of the Proto-Indo-European dawn goddess *Haéusōs. Although the names Ishtar and Ēostre are similar, they are etymologically unrelated; the name Ēostre is derived from the Proto-Indo-European root *aus-, meaning "dawn." The word for Easter in most European languages is usually some variant of the Greek word Pascha, meaning "Passover."
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- Holy Bible: King James Version. Thomas Nelson Camden, 1972.
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- Ancient Mesopotamian Gods and Goddesses: Inana/Ištar (goddess)
- Assyrian origins: discoveries at Ashur on the Tigris: antiquities in the Vorderasiatisches Museum, Berlin, an exhibition catalog from The Metropolitan Museum of Art Libraries (fully available online as PDF), which contains material on Ishtar