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


Greenstone cylinder seal; hunting god (full-face) with a bow and an arrow (?) over his shoulder; a quiver with tassel attched hands on his back. On the left hand mountain stands a small tree and Ishtar (full-face), armed with weapons including an axe and a mace rising from her shoulders, winged and holding a bush-like object probably a bunch of dates above the sun-god's head. The sun-god Shamash with rays, holding a serrated blade, is just begining to emerge from between two square topped moutains. The water god Ea stands to the right with one foot placed on the right hand mountain; he stretches out his right hand towards an eagle, probably the Zu bird who stole the tablets of destiny, a couchant bull lies between his legs and streams of water and fish flow from his shoulders. Behind him stands his two-faced attendant god Usimu with his right hand raised. All wear multiple-horned head-dresses. The male figures are bearded and Usimu has a double beard. He wears a flouched skirt, Ea and Ishtar both wear flouched robes and the fourth complete figure wears a striped skirt which either has a cod-piece or is hitched up in front. This god wears his hair in a long curl down the left side, reminiscent of those worn by bull-men and Ishtar has two similar curls hanging down, one on either side, while Ea and Shamash wear their hair in a triple bun. The scales of the moutain are continued in a horizontal band all round the lower part of the seal and it is on this band that the figures are standing. Terminal, a two line inscription in a frame; a lion pacing towards the right and roaring; slightly concave.

Shamash, the sun god, rising in the morning from the eastern mountains between (left) Ishtar (Sumerian: Inanna), the goddess of the morning star, and (far left) Ninurta, the god of thunderstorms, with his bow and lion, and (right) Ea (Sumerian: Enki), the god of fresh water, with (far right) his vizier, the two-faced Usmu.

Courtesy of the trustees of the British Museum