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Ishtar (English pronunciation /ˈɪʃtɑːr/; Transliteration: DIŠTAR; Akkadian: 𒀭𒈹 ; Sumerian𒀭) is the East Semitic Akkadian, Assyrian and Babylonian goddess of fertility, love, war, and sex. She is the counterpart to the Sumerian Inanna, and the cognate for the Northwest Semitic Aramean goddess Astarte.
Ishtar was the goddess of love, war, fertility, and sexuality.
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. In this myth, 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 hurried to tell Ereshkigal, the Queen of the Underworld. Ereshkigal told the gatekeeper to let Ishtar enter, but “according to the ancient decree”.
The gatekeeper let Ishtar into the underworld, opening one gate at a time. At each gate, Ishtar had to shed one article of clothing. When she finally passed the seventh gate, she was naked. In rage, Ishtar threw herself at Ereshkigal, but Ereshkigal ordered her servant Namtar to imprison Ishtar and unleash sixty diseases against her.
After Ishtar descended to the underworld, all sexual activity ceased on earth. The god Papsukal reported the situation to Ea, the king of the gods. Ea created an intersex being called Asu-shu-namir and sent it to Ereshkigal, telling it to invoke “the name of the great gods” against her and to ask for the bag containing the waters of life. Ereshkigal was enraged when she heard Asu-shu-namir’s demand, but she had to give it the water of life. Asu-shu-namir sprinkled Ishtar with this water, reviving her. Then, Ishtar passed back through the seven gates, getting one article of clothing back at each gate, and was fully clothed as she exited the last gate.
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: they thought Ishtar had gone to the underworld to rescue Tammuz. However, the discovery of a corresponding myth about Inanna, the Sumerian counterpart of Ishtar, has thrown 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 she sends someone back in her place. Demons go with her to make sure she sends someone back. 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 Dumuzi (Babylonian Tammuz) seated on his throne, not mourning her at all. In anger, Inanna has the demons take Dumuzi back to the underworld as her replacement. Dumuzi’s sister Geshtinanna is grief-stricken and volunteers to spend half the year in the underworld, during which time Dumuzi can go free. The Ishtar myth presumably had a comparable ending, Belili being the Babylonian equivalent of Geshtinanna.
Ishtar in the 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 the city (which is 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 called together “her people, the dancing and singing girls, the prostitutes of the temple, the courtesans,” and had them mourn for the Bull of Heaven.
Comparisons with other deities
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Like Ishtar, the Greek Aphrodite and the Aramean Northwestern Semitic Astarte were love goddesses. 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.
In other media
Books, comics and other literature
In the book and movie Generation P by Viktor Pelevin, Ishtar and her legends are one of the main storylines. Ishtar is also a love interest for Destruction of The Endless in Neil Gaiman‘s Sandman comic book series. In the Japanese manga Red River, a young Japanese girl is transported to ancient Hattusa and is mistaken as Ishtar. Ishtar is also seen as a goddess side character helping out the main heroine of the Japanese manga Loose Relation Between Wizard & Apprentice to awaken the protagonist’s sexual desires In Conan, the Barbarian, Ishtar is also mentioned several times.
Ishtar appears in the movies Blood Feast (1963) and Blood Diner (1987), although she is referred to as an Egyptian god. The sequel to Blood Feast, Blood Feast 2: All U Can Eat (2002) also features Ishtar, but it is explained that she is Babylonian, even though “everyone seems to think she’s Egyptian.” In the movie The Mole People (1956), some explorers find an ancient Sumerian people living beneath a mountain, and the people think that Ishtar has sent the explorers. In the movie Venus Wars, the antagonist’s army is called the Ishtar Army, named from the real Venusian continent “Ishtar Terra”. There is also a movie called Ishtar, but the title refers to a fictional country.
- Ishtar (イシュタル, Ishutaru) is a recurring demon/persona in the Japanese Shin Megami Tensei video game series, based on Babylonian lore. She appears in 6 games in the series in different iterations.
- In the video game Catherine, Ishtar appears as the hostess of a program called “Golden Playhouse” and tells the player the tale of Vincent Brooks, starting the game.
- Ishtar is a character in the Namco arcade game The Tower of Druaga and its sequels. She assists the heroes, Gilgamesh and Ki, on their quest.
- Ishtar is a side character that journeys along with Enoch within El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron.
- In the MMORPG Eve Online, the Ishtar is a Heavy Assault Cruiser of the Gallente faction that often draws on mythology for ship names, an advanced combat ship that relies on drones as its primary weapon.
- In the Japanese-exclusive Super Nintendo game Live A Live, Ishtar is a strong monster and a minion of the demon lord in the final chapter, appearing as a blonde-haired, masculine young man, holding a heart and attached at the torso to a snake-like creature that is ingesting (or consummating with) its own tail.
- In the video game Destiny, Ishtar is a name of a map on planet Venus, a statue of Ishtar appears on this map.
- In the Super Nintendo game Fire Emblem: Genealogy of the Holy War, Ishtar is the daughter of Lord Bloom, King of the Manster District, and Duke of Freege. She is renowned as a powerful thunder mage, due to her being a descendant of the Crusader Tordo. Her status led to her betrothal to the nefarious crown prince of Grannvale, Prince Julius.
- Ishtar is the near titular character of the mobile game “Age of Ishtaria” and is a collectible unit who sometimes appears in her own stories.
- Campbell, Joseph. The Masks of God: Occidental Mythology. New York: Penguin Books, 1976.
- The Epic of Gilgamesh. Trans. N. K. Sandars. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985.
- Guirand, Felix. “Assyro-Babylonian Mythology”. New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology (trans. Aldington and Ames, London: Hamlyn, 1968), pp. 49–72.
- Jastrow, Morris. “Descent of the Goddess Ishtar into the Lower World” (The Civilization of Babylonia and Assyria, 1915). Sacred-Texts. 2 June 2002.
- Kirk, G. S. Myth: Its Meaning and Functions in Ancient and Other Cultures. Berkeley: Cambridge UP, 1973.
- Mackenzie, Donald A. Myths of Babylonia and Assyria. London: Gresham, 1915.
- Wilkinson, Philip. Illustrated Dictionary of Mythology. NY: Dorling Kindersley, 1998.
- Wolkstein and Kramer. Inanna: Queen of Heaven and Earth. New York: Harper & Row, 1983.
- Holy Bible: King James Version. Thomas Nelson Camden, 1972.
- Powell, Barry. Classical Myth: Sixth Edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2008.
- The myth of Ishtar’s descent into the underworld being read aloud in Babylonian.