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Ishtar was above all associated with sexuality: her cult involved sacred prostitution[dubious ]; her holy city Uruk was called the "town of the sacred courtesans"; and she herself was the "courtesan of the gods". 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.'
Descent into the underworld
One of the most famous myths about Ishtar describes her descent to the underworld. (You can listen to this myth being read aloud in Babylonian at http://www.speechisfire.com/.) 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 lets Ishtar into the underworld, opening one gate at a time. At each gate, Ishtar has to shed one article of clothing. When she finally passes the seventh gate, she is naked. In rage, Ishtar throws herself at Ereshkigal, but Ereshkigal orders her servant Namtar to imprison Ishtar and unleash sixty diseases against her.
After Ishtar descends to the underworld, all sexual activity ceases on earth. The god Papsukal reports the situation to Ea, the king of the gods. Ea creates an intersex creature called Asu-shu-namir and sends him-her to Ereshkigal, telling him-her to invoke "the name of the great gods" against her and to ask for the bag containing the waters of life. Ereshkigal is enraged when she hears Asu-shu-namir's demand, but she has to give him-her the water of life. Asu-shu-namir sprinkles Ishtar with this water, reviving her. Then Ishtar passes back through the seven gates, getting one article of clothing back at each gate, and is fully clothed as she exits the last gate.
Here there is a break in the text of the myth. The text 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 has 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 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 the high god Anu. She demands that Anu give her the Bull of Heaven. If he refuses, she warns, 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." 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
Like Ishtar, the Greek Aphrodite and Northwestern Semitic Astarte were love goddesses who were "as cruel as they were wayward". 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 Babylonia through the 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 popularizer of mythology, equates Ishtar, Inanna, and Aphrodite, and he draws a parallel between the Egyptian goddess Isis who nurses Horus, and the Babylonian goddess Ishtar who nurses the god Tammuz.
- Wilkinson, p. 24
- Guirand, p. 58
- Gods, Demons, and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia: An Illustrated Dictionary by Jeremy Black and Anthony Green (1992, ISBN 0-292-70794-0), p. 156, pp. 169–170.
- Mackenzie, p. 95–98
- Wolkstein and Kramer, p. 52–89
- Kirk, p. 109
- Gilgamesh, p. 85–88
- Gilgamesh, p. 86
- Gilgamesh, p. 87
- Gilgamesh, p. 88
- Mackenzie, p. 103
- Mackenzie, p. 83
- Mackenzie, p. 84
- Campbell, p. 70
- Campbell, Joseph. The Masks of God: Occidental Mythology. New York: Penguin, 1976.
- The Epic of Gilgamesh. Trans. N. K. Sandars. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985.
- Guirand, F. "Assyro-Babylonian Mythology". New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology (trans. Aldington and Ames, London: Hamlyn, 1968), pp. 49–72.
- Jastrow, M. "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: DK, 1998.
- Wolkstein and Kramer. Inanna: Queen of Heaven and Earth. New York: Harper & Row, 1983.
- Powell, Barry. Classical Myth: Fourth Edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2003.