Myths and Legends | Ishtar

Audio Episode

What is this episode about?

Learn about a goddess from the Near East, Ishtar, who is perhaps one of the most goddesses in all mythologies in this new Myths and Legends episode from English Plus Podcast.

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Character Overview

In the ancient Near East, Ishtar was an important and widely worshipped mother goddess for many Semitic peoples. The Sumerians called her Inanna, and other groups of the Near East referred to her as Astarte.

A complex figure, Ishtar combined the characteristics—both good and evil—of many different goddesses. As a mother figure, she was considered the mother of gods and humans, as well as the creator of all earthly blessings. In this role, she grieved over human sorrows and served as a protector of marriage and motherhood. People also worshipped Ishtar as the goddess of sexual love and fertility. The more destructive side of Ishtar’s nature emerged primarily in connection with war and storms. As a warrior goddess, she could make even the gods tremble in fear. As a storm goddess, she could bring rain and thunder.

Major Myths

Some myths say that Ishtar was the daughter of the moon god Sin and sister of the sun god Shamash. Others mention the sky god Anu, the moon god Nanna, the water god Ea, or the god Enlil, lord of the earth and the air, as her father.

Ishtar appears in many myths, but two are especially important. The first, part of the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, tells how Ishtar offered to marry the hero-king Gilgamesh because she was impressed by his courage and exploits. According to the epic, Gilgamesh refused her offer and insulted Ishtar, reminding the goddess of all the previous lovers she had harmed. Enraged, Ishtar sent the fierce Bull of Heaven to kill Gilgamesh, but he and his friend Enkidu killed the beast instead.

The other well-known myth of Ishtar concerns her descent to the underworld (land of the dead) and the sacrifice of her husband Tammuz. In this story, Ishtar decided to visit the underworld, which was ruled by her sister Ereshkigal, perhaps to seize power there. Before departing, she instructed her follower Ninshubur to seek the help of the gods if she did not return.

To reach the underworld, Ishtar had to pass through seven gates and remove a symbol of her power—such as an article of clothing or a piece of jewelry—at each one. At the last gate, the goddess, naked and deprived of all her powers, met her sister Ereshkigal, who announced that Ishtar must die. She died immediately, and her corpse was hung on a stake.

Meanwhile, the god Enki learned from Ninshubur that Ishtar was missing and sent two messengers who restored her to life. However, in order to leave the underworld, Ishtar had to substitute another body for her own. The goddess offered her young husband, Tammuz, to take her place. This tale of death and rebirth was associated with fertility and linked to the seasons and agricultural cycles, much like the story of Persephone in Greek mythology. In another version of the story, Ishtar travels to the underworld to rescue Tammuz, who has died, and manages to bring him back—but only for part of each year. Thus the death and rebirth of Tammuz is also linked to fertility and agricultural cycles.

Ishtar in Context

Ishtar and the myths about her provide interesting insight into ancient Near Eastern views on the roles of men and women in society. For example, Ishtar is said to have had many relationships with men, gods, and animals. During those relationships, the males are almost always said to have suffered because they were distracted or weakened by Ishtar’s power over them. This suggests that ancient Babylonians respected and revered women’s reproductive power. The respect given this powerful female goddess translated into respect for women in Babylonian society.

Though Near Eastern rulers were usually men, women were able to hold powerful and prestigious religious and political positions. This changed as the male-dominated Judeo-Christian faiths arose in the Near East, and female-dominated rituals and practices associated with the worship of Ishtar were branded as evil. As the worship of Ishtar faded, women gradually lost their religious, political, legal, and domestic power.

Key Themes and Symbols

Ishtar was believed to be the representation of the planet Venus, and the eight-pointed star is a symbol commonly associated with her. As an extension of her role as the goddess of sexual love, Ishtar was also the protector of prostitutes and alehouses. Prostitution was an important part of her cult, and her holy city Erech was known as the town of the sacred courtesans (prostitutes).

Ishtar in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life

In modern times, Ishtar has benefited from renewed interest in ancient mythologies of the Near East. The 1987 film Ishtar, starring Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman and often cited as one of the biggest boxoffice failures in cinematic history, is not connected with the Babylonian goddess other than by name. The name Ishtar has also been used for characters in numerous video games and Japanese comics, though most do not draw heavily from the mythology of the original goddess.

Discussion Question

In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the hero insults Ishtar by mentioning her many loves and the sad fates they met. Do you think modern females who have a number of romantic relationships are viewed in a similarly negative way today? Do you think this same view applies to males who have several romantic relationships? Why or why not?

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