Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Ishtar: The Lady of Heaven

Ishtar, also called Inanna, is the “Lady of Heaven,” a goddess of fertility, love, and war. She was the patron goddess of the city of Uruk, prostitutes, and ale houses. She was worshiped throughout the ancient Middle East in Babylon, Sumer, Assyria, Canaan, Anatolia and elsewhere and was identified with the planet Venus; the brightest object in the night sky. Her symbols are the eight pointed star and the lioness.

Piecing together Ishtar’s history has been a challenge for mythologists over the years as there is no one definitive text that tells her story. Different cultures – each often calling her by a different name – tell various stories about her, some of which overlap. What is so fascinating about Ishtar, however, is how these tales still manage to fit together so nicely, like a puzzle forming a very complete, complex and interesting picture of one of the most powerful and influential goddesses in all of history.

Ishtar: Origins

Ishtar’s divine origins are a bit sketchy. The Sumerians, calling her Inanna, often attributed her parentage to the moon god Sin, but never seemed too sure about this. One reason for this might have been because Ishtar may not have originally been born a goddess. Once upon a time, she may have been a mortal…

According to what Prof. Howard Schwartz describes as a Hebrew “fairy-tale” found within the pages of the Beit ha-Midrash (5:156), Ishtar (Heb: Istahar) was once a mortal woman who lived on earth during the antediluvian period. It was during this time, prior to the Great Flood, that the fallen angels known as Watchers descended upon mankind, having been lured away from Heaven by the beauty of human women. The leader of these rouge angels was Samyaza; one of the Christian Satan’s many Jewish predecessors. Once on Earth, Samyaza soon fell in lust with the woman Ishtar.

Like all the Watchers, Samyaza promised to reveal to Ishtar the “secrets of heaven” if she would only give herself sexually to him. However, Ishtar was more cunning than the other women and desired more than just heavenly wisdom. When Samyaza propositioned her, she in turn requested that Samyaza remove his angelic wings and let her “try them on,” that this was the price of her ‘favors.’ Samyaza, at first, refuses, denying that his wings even come off. Ishtar, in turn, winks and pouts, teases and toys with the angel until he eventually gives in. Samyaza then removes his wings and presents them to Ishtar who then places them on her back and ascends into heaven, escaping the lustful fallen angel.

Ishtar: In Heaven

After ascending to heaven and becoming a “star maiden,” Ishtar finds herself to be a goddess without a purpose, without power. She personifies nothing, is the patron of no one and quickly decides that this must change. In a Sumerian myth dating back to the end of the 3rd-Millenium B.C.E., Ishtar visits the crafty water god Enki at his home in the ancient city of Eridu (located in modern Iraq), with the intention of stealing the me – the primeval source of all civilization – from him.

Once at Enki’s place, Ishtar offers to prepare a grand feast for the god. Enki, of course, gladly accepts the offer of a free home cooked meal from a beautiful goddess and the two soon sit down to a delicious meal that also includes ample alcohol. Soon Enki finds himself so inebriated that he can’t think straight, a state which leads him to simply hand over the sacred me to Ishtar without a second thought.

With the me in her possession and Enki passed out on the floor, Ishtar makes a break for it. Like any good thief, Ishtar has her get away vehicle waiting outside in the form of a splendid “boat of heaven” with her handmaiden Ninshubur at the wheel. It isn’t long before Enki wakes up, sobers up, and realizes what has happened. He quickly sets out with a band of sea monsters to retrieve the me, but Ishtar has a head start. Whenever, Enki and his monsters catch up to Ishtar she quickly gets away from them using either her cunning or magic. The chase ends when Ishtar makes it back to her hometown of Uruk (also located in modern day Iraq) and plants the me there, declaring herself goddess of the city, a fact which Enki is forced to acknowledge.

Ishtar: Sex and Marriage

Ishtar is now the patron goddess of the city of Uruk, but still is unsatisfied. Wishing to understand the mysteries of sex and fertility and to possess power over them Ishtar contacts her brother, the sun god Shamash, who knows of a special plant that can provide her with the knowledge and power she seeks.

After eating the plant and learning the mysteries of sex and fertility, Ishtar decides that she also wants to know about good and evil and descends into the underworld to find out about that. Upon returning from the underworld Ishtar’s head is spinning with all her new knowledge and she decides to lie down in a garden and take a nap. While she is napping a Sumerian man wanders by and spies the beautiful sleeping goddess and decides to take advantage of her. When Ishtar wakes up – that’s right she slept through being raped! – and discovers what has happened she is furious. She attempts to find the man responsible but is unsuccessful and, in the end, decides it would just be easier to smite the entire city of Sumer instead. Ishtar then purifies her body in the sacred abzu spring of Enki and returns to heaven armed with her new knowledge and power and assumes the role of one of the four most powerful deities in all the ancient Middle East.
As part of her new role the other gods tell Ishtar that she must pick a husband. Ishtar accepts this condition and asks for any suitors to come forward. Two gods then present themselves before her: Enkimdu; god of farmers, and Dumuzi; god of shepards. At first Ishtar favors Enkimdu, but Shamash convinces her that Dumuzi is the better pick. Ishtar and Dumuzi are then married and, like any new couple, gladly engage in impassioned lovemaking while on their honeymoon. Nevertheless, the honeymoon comes to an end all to soon for Ishtar, and Dumuzi soon begins complaining that he must “get back to work” and is unable to simply lay around with his bride making love “fifty times” a day.

With Dumuzi now ignoring his wife’s carnal needs, Ishtar’s eyes begin to wander. Soon, Ishtar has contracted over 120 extramarital lovers, some human and some divine, some guys she just randomly hooked up with in bars. Typically, all of these relationships would end badly for the men, with Ishtar either cursing or smiting them. This, however, did nothing to discourage other male suitors. There was no man who Ishtar could not seduce – or so she thought.

Ishtar: Gilgamesh

The Epic of Gilgamesh was first written down circa 1850 B.C.E. It is an epic poem which tales of the exploits of Gilgamesh; the fifth king of the city of Uruk and the most famous hero in all of ancient Middle Eastern lore.

By all accounts Gilgamesh was a good looking guy; buff with long hair, a full beard and a well oiled body, Gilgamesh was faster, stronger and smarter than anyone else. Furthermore, he was a man of action; a king who took the problems of his people seriously and often handled them himself. One such problem was the ogre Humbaba who was terrorizing the cedar forests which supplied the city of Uruk with all of its lumber. Gilgamesh, along with his best friend Enkidu, go into the forest and kill Humbaba, cutting off his head with a sword.

All this macho-male action naturally catches the attention of Ishtar who decides that she would like Gilgamesh as a new lover. So one day as Gilgamesh is getting out of the shower, Ishtar appears before him and attempts to seduce the hero-king. Gilgamesh, however, is privy to who Ishtar is and wants nothing to do with her and politely declines her offer. Ishtar, ever persistent, keeps on trying to woo him. This, in turn, leads Gilgamesh to angrily call Ishtar an “old, fat whore.” Her pride hurt Ishtar storms out of Gilgamesh’s bed chamber and up to the court of the gods where she demands that the sky god Anu release the Bull of Heaven on Gilgamesh so it can kill him. Anu at first refuses but eventually gives into Ishtar demands when she threatens to disrupt the natural cycle on Earth by halting fertility.

The Bull of Heaven attacks the city of Uruk and Gilgamesh and Enkidu fight the beast. It is an epic battle which the heroes finally win when Gilgamesh literally grabs the Bull by the horns, yanking his head back far enough for Enkidu to run under and stab the monster in the throat, killing it. Ishtar, who is standing nearby atop the city walls, is awestruck. Enkidu, on the other hand, is livid that Ishtar would make an attempt on his best friend’s life. In his rage Enkidu rips the Bull’s right thigh off and throws it at Ishtar’s face, threatening to kill her with his own hands. Ishtar, defeated and insulted, calls together her priestesses to mourn the Bull, before returning to heaven. Lastly, it should be noted that though Ishtar was not directly responsible for Enkidu’s later death, the insult he had dealt her would play a part in his coming demise, an incident that would devastate Gilgamesh and forever change the hero’s life.

Ishtar: Decent into the Underworld

Following the events recorded in Gilgamesh, Ishtar’s final tale takes the form of a hymn and tells of her descent into the underworld, the realm of her sister Ereshkigal, where she plans to mourn for the Bull of Heaven. Before descending into the underworld, Ishtar first puts on her mourner’s best: a turban, a lapis lazuli necklace, beads which rest upon her breasts, a fancy dress, a pectoral, a golden ring, and a lapis lazuli measuring rod which she carries.

As Ishtar begins her descent into the underworld, word reaches Ereshkigal of her sister's arrival. Ereshkigal, who always reclines naked upon her throne, is insulted that Ishtar would try to enter her realm decked out in such elaborate clothes. She thinks Ishtar is just trying to show off, or maybe is even thinking about taking over the underworld. Determined to humble her sister, Ereshkigal concocts a plan; as Ishtar descends into the underworld she is stopped at each of the seven gates that lay outside the land of the dead and informed by that gate’s keeper that in order to pass through she must remove one article of clothing.

Naturally, by the time Ishtar has passed through the seventh gate and arrived in her sister’s court room she is completely naked. Furious at Ereshkigal for the insult, Ishtar leaps at her sister, determined to kill her. However, while Ishtar is still in mid-flight Ereshkigal releases the “sixty misers” upon her, knocking Ishtar flat on her ass. Ishtar is then bound to a stake for three days and three nights, a prisoner of the underworld. During this time, the natural cycle on Earth comes to a grinding halt as fertility amongst plants, animals and people ceases.

The rapid decline in fertility on Earth naturally alarms the gods who petitions Ereshkigal for Ishtar’s release. Ereshkigal agrees to release her sister, but demands a ransom. As it turns out, Ishtar knows just who the ransom should be; Dumuzi. Word on the street is that Dumuzi, her husband, has rather enjoyed his wife’s absence, not even shedding a tear when he heard she was captured. When Dumuzi hears about Ishtar’s plan to use him as ransom, however, he is none to pleased and refuses. Soon the gods of the Middle East find themselves in the ancient equivalent of a massive hostage negotiation. After much debate and bartering an agreement is finally reached in which Ishtar and Dumuzi will each have to spend half the year in the underworld with Ereshkigal. Naturally, the half of the year that Ishtar is in the underworld will leave the world unfertile (fall and winter), while the half she is free for will be a time of great fertility (spring and summer), thus creating the four seasons.

Ishtar: Conclusions

Worship of Ishtar lasted some 2,000-years in the ancient Middle East, and was practiced by a wide variety of peoples including the Babylonians, Sumerians, Canaanites, Anatolians, Acadians, Hebrews (at one point or another), and possibly even the ancient Greeks and Romans.

Ishtar’s story, as seen above, is by far one of the most fascinating of all the gods of any pantheon. Ishtar stands out as an example of an ambitious and powerful woman, fully in control of her own destiny. She is not without her faults – she has a temper and sleeps around to much for her own good – but for the most part is an example of female strength and cunning.

Many of the myths retold here also have parallels with actual ancient Middle Eastern history. The tale of Ishtar stealing the sacred me from Enki and the city of Eridu and relocating it to her city of Uruk is actually a mythologized record of the decline of the city of Eridu (where Enki’s temple was located) as its population relocated itself to the city of Uruk (where Ishtar’s temple was located). It is also widely accepted today by mythologists and historians that the myth of Ishtar and Dumuzi’s wedding reflects an actual religious ritual practiced by ancient Middle Eastern people in which the king of a city would make love to a priestesses of Ishtar on New Years. On a similar note, some historians have also put forth the theory that both Dumuzi and Gilgamesh were real kings who actually ruled in ancient times. However, while Dumuzi appears to have been a fan of Ishtar worship, historical evidence seems to suggest that King Gilgamesh frowned upon it, a fact that would explain his mythological counterpart’s refusal to sleep with the goddess.

Lastly, all of the myths and stories retold here are not without their own variations. There is an alternate version of the Hebrew tale of Ishtar and Samyaza in which it is not the angel’s wings but the secret name of the Hebrew god which is required for transformation into a goddess. There is also an alternate version of the tale of Gilgamesh and Ishtar which is itself worthy of a blog entry all its own (it involves Ishtar, Gilgamesh, Lilith, and a magic tree). Also I ask readers to keep in mind that Ishtar was a goddess who went by many different names, most notably Inanna, so some of the sources listed below do not refer to Ishtar as Ishtar but rather as Inanna or some other title. Nevertheless, they are all talking about the same amazing goddess.

The History of Hell (1993) by Alice K. Turner, The World of Myth: An Anthology (1990) and Jealous Gods & Chosen People: The Mythology of the Middle East (2004) by David Adams Leeming, Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism (2004) by Howard Schwartz, The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Mythology (2001) by Arthur Cotterell & Rachel Storm, Don’t Know Much about Mythology (2005) by Kenneth C. Davis, Man, Myth & Magic Vol. 10 (1983) edited by Richard Cavendish, & World Mythology: An Anthology of Great Myths and Epics 3rd Ed. (2001) by Donna Rosenberg


Mezcladora said...

Thank you for this fabulous retelling of the Ishtar/Inanna stories.

marjomoore said...

Thanks for this post. You cleared up some things I did not understand after reading Gilga for school

Seymour Hedke said...

very much enjoyed those versions- better than others and well written- also made more sense- thanks!

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