Ishtar, an ancient Mesopotamian goddess of contrasting traits, was known as the female divine entity of beauty, sex and desire, while at the same time, the symbolic purveyor of war and combat. Her enchanting beauty was the subject of love poetry and her rage likened to a destructive storm. However, in her capacity to shape destinies and fortunes, they are two sides of the same coin. She was known as Inanna in Sumerian and since the Sumerian times, she was the patron goddess of sacred prostitutes. The earlier tales represent her as being sheepishly amorous, uttering bluntly like, ‘who will plow my vulva? Who will plow my wet ground?’(excerpt from a Sumerian poem). (Click Here)
However, the latter Akkadian transformed her into a more assertive personality, which is evident from the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh, where she expressed her desire by saying, ‘let us enjoy your strength, stretch out your hand to me and touch our vulva’.
The ancient city of Erbil, which occupied a strategic position at the foothills of Zagros Mountains, was the centre of worship of Ishtar. In the temple, she was worshipped as the goddess of war and several of the Assyrian kings used to pray in her temple before their military campaigns. Apart from that, the temple was viewed as a fortified sanctuary for the Assyrian queens during their pregnancy and some of the newborn princes were even breastfed by the priestesses of the temple. In the sixth century BC, the great Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II constructed the mammoth Ishtar gate in honour of the goddess.
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According to the Iraqi author and researcher Zaid Khaldon Gamil, Ishtar indicated all the feminine characteristics, physically and emotionally, so she loved and enjoyed sex, betrayed and deceived, danced and laughed, married and beautified the whole universe and the sky. She was frequently described as using cosmetics and wrapping herself in beautiful clothing, before undertaking a battle or meeting a lover.
In Sumerian love poetry, Ishtar was described as a beautiful, young woman and daughter of Nanna, the Mesopotamian Moon god Sin. However, in some other stories, she was depicted as the daughter of Anu, the sky god and Antum, an earth goddess. Ishtar herself was said to be associated with Venus, the celestial body, popularly known as the morning star and evening star. Her primary courting partner was Tammuz (Mesopotamian Dumuzid), who compliments the beauty of her eyes, which has a literary history stretching back around 2100 BC. The story of the young lovers ranks as one of the world’s first love stories, which ended tragically.
Ishtar is also known for her appearance in the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the earliest known works of epic literature, where it is depicted that, one day while Gilgamesh was taking his bath, as well as cleaning his weapons after a fierce battle, Ishtar saw him and was very much attracted by the young king’s physical beauty. As she desperately wanted to make love with him, she proposed marriage and offered some nice inducements to sweeten the deal. However, Gilgamesh was not interested and he harshly rejected her in unflattering terms. Ishtar was enraged at the insult and arranged to send the cosmic Bull of Heaven to kill Gilgamesh and his friend, Enkidu. However, in the ensuing battle, the two heroes killed the great beast and Ishtar mourned over the body of the Bull of Heaven.
The myth of ‘Ishtar’s descent to the Netherworld’ is all about her journey to the underworld, the home of her sister Ereshkigal, apparently to mourn the death of her brother-in-law. However, it was also suggested that, she was motivated by the burning desire to increase her power and intended a hostile takeover. Unfortunately, for her, she was caught in her mission and was killed.
However, her death had terrible consequences, which include cessation of all earthly sexual intimacy and fertility. Finally, as advised by Ishtar’s handmaiden, Ea, the god of wisdom, facilitates a plot to revive Ishtar. The plot succeeded, but there was a problem. Once a space had been created in the underworld, it could not be left blank. Ishtar was, therefore, instructed to ascend the world of living with a band of demons and find her replacement. While the group was searching for a proper replacement on the world above, Ishtar was enraged to find Dumuzi dressed regally and relaxing on her throne, apparently unaffected by her death and instructed the demons to drag him to the underworld.
Ishtar appears in more myths than any other Mesopotamian deity. She took over the Eanna temple from An, the god of the sky. She destroyed the Mount Ebih for having challenged her authority, unleashed her fury upon the gardener Shukaletuda, as he raped her while she was asleep, and tracked down the bandit woman Bilulu and killed her for having murdered Dumuzid. Her cult gradually waned between the first and sixth centuries AD in the wake of Christianity, though it survived in parts of Upper Mesopotamia as late as the eighteenth century. Nevertheless, Ishtar was by far the most complex of all the Mesopotamian deities, displaying contradictory, even paradoxical traits.