Goddesses of the ancient cultures, especially in Greece, Rome, Egypt and the Middle East, were often both beautiful and cruel. Yet there is something fascinating about them — they seem almost like a double-edged sword, with both their ferocity and beauty. The goddess Ishtar of the Ancient Middle East is an excellent example of this fierceness and beauty.
Ishtar is the goddess of fertility, love and war. She is the patron goddess of the city of Uruk, prostitutes and ale houses. She was worshipped throughout the ancient Middle East and her symbols are the eight-pointed star and the lioness. Different cultures call her by different names and had different myths about her. Some of these myths overlapped.
Ishtar’s origin varies in different cultures. The Sumerians felt that she was born of the moon god, Sin. However, according to the Hebrew tale of “Beit ha-Midrash,” Ishtar, written in Hebrew as “Istahar”, was once a mortal who lived on earth prior to the great flood. During this time, fallen angels would come to earth, lured by the beauty of human women. These fallen angels were called “Watchers.” The leader of these fallen angels was Samyaza, and he lusted after the beautiful woman, Ishtar. He promised that he would reveal to her the “secrets of heaven” if she would have sex with him. Ishtar was not only beautiful, but cunning as well, and when Samayaza made his request, she said instead of the secrets of heaven, she wished to try on his angelic wings. Samyaza told Ishtar that his wings could not come off, but Ishtar, using her feminine wiles, pouted and teased Samayaza until he finally agreed to let her try on the wings. Upon receiving the wings, Ishtar promptly ascended to heaven.
Ishtar thus became a resident of heaven. However, she was a goddess without purpose or title. In the Sumerian myth dated in the third millenium BC, Ishtar visited the crafty water god, Eniki, at his home in the ancient city of Eridu (in modern Iraq). Ishtar wished to steal the “me,” i.e. the source of civilization, from Eniki. She got Eniki very drunk, stole the me, and quickly got away to her hometown of Uruk, where she planted it. Thus, she became the goddess of the city of Uruk.
Ishtar wished to become more powerful, so she asked her brother, the sun god Shamash, for a special plant, which upon eating allowed her to receive the knowledge of sex and fertility. Ishtar thus became goddess of sex and fertility. Ishtar also wished to learn about the nature of good and evil so she explored the underworld in order to do so.
The other gods in heaven felt that, with Ishtar’s new power and position, she required a husband. She chose Dumuzi, god of shepherds, but Dumuzi was not able to keep up with Ishtar’s carnal needs, and he eventually decided to ignore her. Ishtar became a true goddess of fertility, as she took on many extramarital lovers, both mortal and immortal. These liaisons never ended well for her lovers, as at the end of the relationships, Ishtar would often smite them, curse them or otherwise reduce them to rubble. However, Ishtar still never had a lack of lovers and never had a man refuse her — until Gilgamesh.
The Epic of Gilgamesh narrates the story of the famous King Gilgamesh of Uruk. He was a heroic warrior and excellent king. Ishtar took an interest in him and requested him to be one of her consorts. Gilgamesh pointed out that none of her former lovers had met a happy fate and that he would rather not count himself among them. In her anger at this refusal, Ishtar demanded of the sky god Anu to release the Bull of Heaven to kill Gilgamesh. She threatened to halt the natural cycle of fertility if this did not happen.
The Bull of Heaven attacked the city of Uruk, and in an epic battle Gilgamesh and his best friend, Enkidu, killed the beast. Enkidu was livid with Ishtar for threatening his friend’s life, and insulted Ishtar. While Ishtar was not the direct cause, this insult eventually resulted in Enkidu’s death, which devastated Gilgamesh.
Ishtar, in her final myth, grieved the death of the Bull of Heaven and decided to visit the underworld to pay her respects. She decided to dress up for her visit to the underworld and wore beautiful clothes and jewelry. However, Ishtar’s sister, Ereshkigal, Queen of the Underworld, who sat naked upon her throne, took offense to Ishtar’s finery. Ereshkigal believed that Ishtar dressed up to insult her. Thus, she demanded that Ishtar give up her articles of clothing at each of the seven gates of the underworld. When Ishtar finally reached the throne of Ereshkigal, she herself was naked. Ishtar, insulted by Ereshkigal’s attitude, arrived at the throne and leapt at Ereskigal to kill her. However, Ereshkigal defeated Ishtar, and chained her to a stake.
Without the presence of the goddess of fertility and sexuality in heaven, the cycle of fertility everywhere ground to a halt. The gods in heaven asked Ereshkigal to release Ishtar, but Ereshkigal demanded a ransom. Ishtar, in anger at her neglectful husband, suggested Dumuzi as the ransom. Dumuzi hid from the gods, but eventually was found. After some bargaining, it was agreed Ishtar would spend half the year in the underworld and Dumuzi would spend half the year in the underworld. As a result of this arrangement, since the goddess of fertility was supposed to be in the underworld for half the year, the world was unfertile for half the year (fall and winter) and thus the existence of the four seasons was explained in the ancient Middle East.
In popular culture today, the concept of the “sacred feminine” is becoming increasingly common. The idea encompasses all the different sides of the “feminine” — the mother, the whore, the virgin, the warrior, etc.. Ishtar was an ancient example of the ancient Middle East’s version of the “sacred feminine,” and she presents us with a different side of the feminine goddess. She started out as a mortal, gained immortality through cleverness and fulfilled her desires through ambition and initiative. In this way, she does not simply act as either a mother or a figure of chastity, as many other goddesses do, but rather a complex and logical feminine figure.