Ishtar (//; Cuneiform: 𒀭𒈹 DMUŠ3) 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|
Ishtar holding her symbol. Statue is at Louvre Museum
|Symbol||Gate guarded by lions, eight-pointed star, Symbolic staff|
Ishtar's primary symbols were the lion and the eight-pointed star. She was associated with the planet Venus and subsumed many important aspects of her character and her cult from the earlier Sumerian goddess Inanna. Nonetheless, she was different from her predecessor in several notable ways. The Babylonian version of the story of her descent into the Underworld is similar to the Sumerian version, but also contains several notable divergences. For instance, her assistant in the story is the male god Papsukkal rather than the female Sumerian Ninshubur. In the standard Akkadian version of the Epic of Gilgamesh, Ishtar is portrayed as a spoiled and hot-headed femme fatale who unleashes the Bull of Heaven, resulting in the death of Enkidu after Gilgamesh rejects her demand that he become her consort. This stands in sharp contrast with Inanna's radically different portrayal in the earlier Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Netherworld.
Although various publications have claimed that Ishtar's name is the root behind the modern English word Easter, reputable linguists have unanimously rejected these putative etymologies as entirely false.
The name Ishtar occurs as an element in personal names from both the pre-Sargonic and post-Sargonic eras. Many 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 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 was often used as one of her symbols. In the Babylonian pantheon, she "was the divine personification of the planet Venus."
Ishtar had many lovers; however, as Guirand notes:
"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.'
Her cult may have involved sacred prostitution, though this is debatable. Guirand referred to her holy city Uruk as the "town of the sacred courtesans" and to her as the "courtesan of the gods."
Descent into the underworld
One of the most famous myths about Ishtar describes her descent to the underworld. At the beginning of the story, Ishtar approaches the gates of the underworld and demands that the gatekeeper open them:
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.
The gatekeeper hurries to tell Ereshkigal, the Queen of the Underworld. Ereshkigal orders 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 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 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. According to the Inanna myth, Inanna can only return from the underworld if someone else is taken to the Underworld in her place. 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 (Babylonian Tammuz) seated on his throne, not mourning her at all. 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 Gilgamesh
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."
Angered by Gilgamesh's refusal, Ishtar goes up to heaven and complains to her father the high god Anu that Gilgamesh has insulted her. She demands that Anu give her the Bull of Heaven. Anu points out that it was her fault for provoking Gilgamesh, but she warns that, if he refuses, she will do exactly what she told the gatekeeper of the underworld she would do if he didn't let her in:
If you refuse to give me the Bull of Heaven [then] I will 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."
While Gilgamesh and Enkidu are resting, Ishtar stands upon 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.) Then Ishtar calls together "her people, the dancing and singing girls, the prostitutes of the temple, the courtesans," and orders them to mourn for the Bull of Heaven.
Birth Legend of Sargon
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.
In Babylonian iconography, the most common symbol of Ishtar is a star design, often found 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. In depictions such as boundary stones and cylinder seals, the star of Ishtar is most often an eight-pointed star, but the exact number of rays occasionally differs from one depiction to another.
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, either gave rise to, or at least heavily influenced, the cult of the Greek goddess Aphrodite. 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
the myth of Adonis was derived in post-Homeric times by the Greeks indirectly from the Eastern Semites of Mesopotamia (Assyria and Babylon), via the Aramean and Canaanite Western Semites, the Semitic title "Adon", meaning "lord", having been mistaken for a proper name. This theory, however, cannot be accepted without qualifications.
Joseph Campbell, a more recent scholar of comparative mythology, equates Ishtar, Inanna, and Aphrodite, and he draws a parallel between the Egyptian goddess Isis who nurses Horus, and the Assyrian-Babylonian goddess Ishtar who nurses the god Tammuz.
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."
Alleged associations with Easter
In his book The Two Babylons, the nineteenth-century pseudohistorian Alexander Hislop attempted to connect the name Ishtar with the word Easter, but the two words are, in fact, totally unrelated. The English word Easter is most likely derived from the name of the Anglo-Saxon goddess Ēostre, who may be a reflex of the Proto-Indo-European dawn goddess *Haéusōs. Although the names of the two goddesses are similar, they are etymologically unrelated; Ishtar is a semitic name of uncertain etymology, possibly derived from a semitic term meaning "to irrigate," whereas 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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The second century equivalent of easter and the paschal Triduum was called by both Greek and Latin writers "Pascha (πάσχα)", a Greek transliteration of the Aramaic form of the Hebrew פֶּסַח, the Passover feast of Ex. 12.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Ishtar.|
- 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