The Epic of Gilgamesh: Ishtar (Sumerian “Innana”)
Fertility goddess, queen of heaven, goddess of sexual love and also war (think about that one for a minute!), associated with the planet Venus, the second brightest object in the sky (morning star), which rises each morning in the East (East: Isht). Principle goddess of Uruk. Associated with the Greek/Roman goddess Aphrodite/Venus. Along with giving birth to each day, this goddess in her various manifestations is also celebrated each spring, with the rebirth of the year (“Easter” – Ishtar, from the Norse “Oester”); the logic here, of course, is that the day begins or is born in the East and the morning star is the harbinger of the new day, much as spring is the beginning or rebirth of living things (plants) each year.
Like the Greek and Roman fertility goddess or goddesses Demeter and/or Ceres (goddess of grain: cer-eal), Ishtar is also believed to have descended into the Hades, the underworld (as does Gilgamesh); Demeter/Ceres descends to save her daughter Persephone, who was raped and kidnapped by Hades, while Ishtar descends to rescue her lover, Tammuz. In both the Sumerian and Greek/Roman legends, the descent of the goddess marks the death of the year (winter), which is reborn as spring with her annual resurrection.
Fertility cults are perhaps the oldest Indo-European religion, worshipped throughout the Middle East, Africa and Europe before the spread of later patriarchal cultures with dominant male gods*. They often used sacred/sacramental prostitutes (Shammat, in Gilgamesh). These practices continued into the late Roman era; although the Romans later incorporated Vestal Virgins, they also maintained these more ancient forms of worship. (*The so called "Venus of Hohle Fels" fertility statue remains the oldest depiction of a human being, c. 35,000-40,000 years old.)
We’ll follow the Ishtar archetype through most of the semester as it returns in various forms:
1) The stories of Genesis revolve around fertility: The Garden of Eden, Abraham’s covenant with God
2) Like Gilgamesh, the Homeric heroes are guided by a goddess (usually Athena, a virgin)
3) Throughout Europe, temples to Athena often become temples to “the Virgin Mary”
4) Spring resurrection in the New Testament