ISHTAR: IN HER PRAISE, IN HER IMAGE
By Pauline Campanelli
(Originally published in Circle Network News, under the column PANTHEON;
She was called Ishtar by the Babylonians, Inanna by the Sumerians,
Astarte by the Greeks, and Ashtoreth by the Hebrews. She is a Goddess of
Love and beauty, The Giver of All Life, The Maiden, The Mother, The Crone.
As the maiden hymns were sung to her beauty and her love:
"Praise the Goddess, most awesome
of the Goddesses,
Let one revere the mistress of the
people, the greatest of the Gods.
Praise Ishtar, the most awesome of
Let one revere the Queen of Women,
the greatest of the Gods.
She is clothed with pleasure and
She is laden with vitality, charm
In lips she is sweet; life is in
At her appearance rejoicing
She is glorious; veils are thrown
over her head.
Her figure is beautiful; her eyes
--from a First Dynasty Babylon text, circa 1600 BCE
TheGoddess has her darkside too. In thisportion of a Sumerian prayer
to Inanna from Ur, circa 2300 BCE, she is the bringer of death. In the
following lines, "the Powers" refer to the powers and duties assigned to
the various cosmic entities at the moment of creation:
"My Queen, You who are guardian
of all the great Powers,
You have lifted the Powers, have
tied them to your hands,
Have gathered the Powers, pressed
them to your breasts.
You have filled the land with
venom like a serpent.
Vegetation ceases when you thunder
You who bring down the flood from
Supreme One who are the Inanna of
Heaven and Earth."
In the Epic of Gilgamesh,it is the word of Ishtar thatcauses Enlil to
bring the Deluge upon her Children, and in the same legend she brings death
not only to her people but her lover too: "When the glorious Ishtar raised
an eye at the beauty of Gilgamesh, she said, 'Come, Gilgamesh, be thou my
lover! Do but grant me thy fruit. Thou shalt be my husband, and I will be
thy wife.'" But the hero refuses her, listing the fates of her other
"For Tamuz, the lover of thy
Thou has ordained wailing year
Having loved the dappled
Thou smotest him, breaking his
In the grove he sits crying, 'My
Then thou lovedst a lion, perfect
Seven pits and seven didst thou
dig for him.
Then a stallion didst Thou love,
famed in battle.
The whip, the spur, the lash Thou
ordainedst for him."
And ratherthan marry Ishtar, Gilgameshwent in searchof immortality on
Images of this Great Goddess from the land of theTigris and Euphrates
appear in many shapes and forms. Some of the earliest may be the clay or
limestone figures discovered at the site known as Mureybit in what is today
Syria. These figurines from hunter-gatherer villages of 8000 BCE range
from the crude and stylized to the highly naturalistic. Like later images
of Ishtar, these female divinities are depicted with their hands to their
breasts. These ancient images of a goddess are not joined by a male God
until a thousand years later and then he remains less important.
One common characteristicof the early imagesof Ishtar is thebird-like
facial features. These features are also seen on images of the Goddess
from the Thracian culture of what is today Bulgaria, the Vinca culture of
the Central Balkans, and the Tisza culture of northeastern Hungary, circa
6000-5000 BCE. This bird Goddess of ancient eastern Europe, and the
closely related Snake Goddess are frequently associated with the baking of
sacred bread. Miniature temples made in the form of the Goddess contain
scenes of baking bread being presided over by a priestess. Later,
miniature Minoan temples contain images of a Goddess with the same
bird-like features. The Greek Aphrodite is often associated with doves
which are her symbol also. Like Aphrodite's consort was the Grain God
Adonis, Ishtar is the consort of Tamuz, God of Grain and of bread. The
"wailing year after year," in the above text refers to the annual death and
subsequent resurrection of Tamuz the Grain God, the Mesopotamian equivalent
of Adonis and Attis.
The pierced crown and earsof figures are also reminiscent ofimages in
bone and clay from Bulgaria that date to 5000 BCE (Similar piercing can be
seen on bird-faced figures of the Machalilla culture of ancient Ecuador and
some of the Chancay "Moon Goddess" figures of central Peru). The pierced
crown is repeated in the headdress of figures from Mycenae Greece. When
Dr. Heinrich Schleimann discovered figures like these, some had their arms
upraised while others had their hands to their hips forming a circular
outline. He thought they might represent two phases of the moon. Dr.
Schleimann was probably right. The arms of the figure from a tomb form the
crescent of the New Moon rising, an ancient symbol of Ishtar in her aspect
as the moon Goddess. They also repeat the design of the Assyrian Moon
Tree. These upraised arms from ancient Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia.
LikeCybele and Attis, Demeterand Persephone, Aphroditeand Adonis, and
Isis and Osiris; Ishtar sought to retrieve her lover from the "house
wherein the entrants are bereft of light, where dust is their fare and clay
their food." When she arrived at the gate She demanded to be let in. The
Gatekeeper at the command of Allatu, Queen of the Underworld and sister of
Ishtar, allowed her to enter. As she passed thru the first gate, however,
she was told she must remove her crown as "that is the custom of Allatu".
At the second gate she had taken the pendants from her ears; at the third
the chains from her neck; at the fourth the ornament from her breast; at
the fifth the Girdle of birthstones from her hips; at the sixth her
bracelets and anklets; and at the seventh she had the garment removed from
Allatu imprisoned Ishtar in teh Underworld and because of her absence
from the World of the living, "the bull springs not upon the cow, the ass
impregnates not the jenny, the man lies in his own chamber and the maiden
lies on her side." Because of this, the God Ea sent a messenger to Allatu
and caused Allatu to sprinkle Ishtar with the waters of life. As Ishtar
passed thru each of the seven gates on her ascent, Her garments and her
jewels were returned to her.
As for Tamuz, her beloved, his fate is not known according to the
Summerian myth because the last tablet of the text is missing. In a
Babylonian version of the myth, however, the Gatekeeper is told "Wash him
with pure water, anoint him with sweet oil, clothe him with a red garment,
and let him play on a flute of lapis." As the knowledge of her brought
death, so death brought resurrection.
"On the day that Tamuz comes up
When with him the lapis flute and
the carnelian ring come up to me,
When with him the wailing men and
the wailing women come up to me,
May the dead rise and smell the
She was worshipped as a Goddess of Loveand Beauty, a bringer of death
and the mother of all life:
"She is sought after among the
Gods, extraordinary is her station,
Respected is her word, it is
supreme over them.
Ishtar among the Gods,
extraordinary is her station.
Respected is her word, it is
supreme over them."
--from a first Dynasty Babylonian text, circa 1600 BCE
Thepriestesses of Her temples were "harlots" detested by the Hebrews,
but, in the words of The Great Goddess, "All acts of love and pleasure are
my rituals." Ishtar is one of the earliest manifestations of The Great
Goddess and the geographic boundaries of her worship may be far greater
than is currently believed.
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