IŠTAR IS certainly the most beloved, and arguably the most culturally important, deity of Mesopotamia as well as the whole ancient Near East. Ištar is the Akkadian name of the planet Venus as the evening star. Her Sumerian name is Inanna. The stories in which she plays a central role are only equalled, or perhaps slightly surpassed by, those of Ea/Enki. But in the number of her hymns, songs, smaller mythic appearances, and iconographic presence, she far outweighs all the other Gods. She has temples in all the cities, and shrines everywhere, but her principal city is Uruk (Sumerian Unug), surnamed "The Sheepfold," with her temple Eanna, the "House of Heaven." Her most famous other incarnations are as "Ištar of Akkad," "Ištar of Babylon," and "Ištar of Nineveh." Since "Ištar" can also be translated "Goddess," perhaps we can read names like the above as simply "The Goddess of Babylon," for example. Either way, her power and her presence are universal.
At one time or another in cuneiform literature all the other Goddesses, and even the Gods, were represented as aspects of her. One Assyrian text says of Ištar that "her upper half is Marduk, her lower half Ninlil;" while the famous "bearded Ištar" reminds us of her unparalleled ability to represent the entire pantheon. This is particularly the case in Assyria, where Ištar could be identified with Tiamat, thus making her the oldest deity of all, the mother of all the other Gods and Goddesses. The God of Assyria, Aššur, is often identified with Anšar, grandson of Tiamat in Enuma Eliš. If we wish, we may read in this epic a Babylonian polemic against Assyria, identified with the Old Gods. Then again, in several Assyrian versions of Enuma Eliš, Aššur replaces Marduk in the role of hero killing Tiamat, so that we cannot overhastily identify the living Ištar with the "dead" Tiamat. Rather, things are simply theologically more difficult than they appear.
She is perhaps also the most paradoxical of the Gods. Her central mystery is that she is the patron of both Love and War. It is tempting to see what Love and War have in common as "Passion," so that in one sense she must also be the Goddess of Hate, which is after all passionate; and she must also be the Goddess of Compassion, which is an aspect of Love. Another way to see it is historically: as the patron of any city, she would obviously be her city's champion in waging war. Besides Passion and the Mistress of Warring Cities, other explanations of her patronage of two apparently contradictory offices have been offered. Those following Merlin Stone and Riane Eisler, for instance, see in the portrayal of Inanna/Ištar's warlike qualities a propagandistic move on the part of textual editors who wanted to promote the "dominator model" of society:
..... force could not be constantly used to exact obedience. It had to be established that the old powers that ruled the universe - as symbolized by the life-giving Chalice - had been replaced by newer and more powerful deities in whose hands the Blade was now supreme. And to to this end one thing above all had to be accomplished: not only her earthly representative - woman - but the Goddess herself had to be pulled down from her exalted place.
In some Middle Eastern myths this is accomplished by a story of how the Goddess is slain. In others she is subdued and humiliated by being raped....
Another common device was to reduce the Goddess to the subordinated status of consort (wife) of a more powerful male god. Still another was to transform her into a martial deity. For example, in Canaan we find the bloodthirsty Ištar, both revered and feared as a goddess of war. Similarly, in Anatolia the Goddess was also transformed into a martial deity, a feature which.....is entirely absent in earlier texts. (The Chalice & the Blade pp. 92-93; emphasis added).
It is difficult to understand how giving Inanna/Ištar the power of war served to "pull women down" or even more, to "reduce (her) to (a) subordinated status." The two objectives would seem to work against one another. On the other hand, transforming Ištar into a warrior (that is assuming she did not always have this quality) could well serve to justify or glorify war - but not at the expense of women. Perhaps we are to understand the ulterior motive for this "transformation" with the following logic: Ištar is a woman. She is also a warrior. Therefore, women should realize that war is divinely ordained, and therefore good. One question raised by this logic is, then: did any woman take Ištar as a model and become a great war leader? The answer is that at least one did - the famous Semiramis, with whom most scholars identify the Assyrian Queen Šammuramat (ruled 811-807 b.c.e.), who, at least according to Greek sources, took Ištar as her model. But, unfortunately, she seems to represent an isolated case. However, the clearest case against the interpretation of patriarchal meddling in Inanna/Ištar's character is in the texts themselves. Contrary to Eisler's assertion, the very earliest texts do indeed represent Inanna/Ištar as a warrior (among her other duties). In every one of the hymns to Inanna in the Collection of the Sumerian Temple Hymns are references to her warring functions:
Your Queen is Inanna, who adorns the woman, who covers (the head of) the man with a helmet.... (STH 16: 204-206)
Your Queen is Inanna,....., The Great Dragon who speaks inimical words to the evil..... who goes against the enemies' land.... (STH 26: 321-323)
Ferocious Lion, raging against a Wild Bull, net spreading over the enemies, it makes silence fall upon the hostile land; as long as it is not submissive, poisonous foam is poured out upon it......House of Inanna..... your Princess is an urabu-bird..... arrayed in Battle, beautiful, who handles the utug-weapon, who washes the tools in the 'Blood of Battle,' she opens the 'Door of Battle, the Wise One of Heaven, Inanna.... (STH 40)
while in The Exaltation of Inanna (nin.me.šár.ra), the author gives fulsome praise of her warrior's nature:
Like a dragon you have deposited venom on the land; when you roar at the earth like Thunder, no vegetation can stand up to you. A flood descending from its mountain, Oh foremost One, you are the Inanna of Heaven and Earth! Raining the fanned fire down upon the nation, endowed with me's by An, Lady mounted on a Beast..... Devastatrix of the Lands, you are lent wings by the storm......when mankind comes before you in fear and trembling at your tempestous radiance, they receive from you their just deserts..... In the van of battle everything is struck down by you. Oh my Lady, propelled on you own wings, you peck away at the land. In the guise of a charging storm you charge. With a roaring storm you roar. With Thunder you continually thunder. With all the evil winds you snort. Your feet are filled with restlessness. To (the accompaniment of) the Harp of Sighs you give vent to a dirge....... Who can temper your raging heart? Your malevolent heart is beyond tempering....In the mountain where homage is withheld from you vegetation is accursed..... Blood rises in its rivers for you, its people have nought to drink. It leads its army captive before you of its own accord.... Merciful One, Brilliantly Righteous Woman, I have verily recited your me's for you! (Hallo and van Dijk, The Exaltation of Inanna, selections from lines 9-65)
All of above texts are among the oldest literature in the world, written around 2350 b.c.e. Morevoer, they were written by Enheduanna, a woman - the first known author in history.
My point in belaboring this thesis is simply to emphasize that the tendency to polarize the notions of Love and War is not without its very real difficulties. The challenge of the person of Inanna is not to be resolved simply by claiming that, like all Goddesses, she was originally peaceful and egalitarian, and then (somehow) "transformed" (by Semitic, Asiatic, or Indo-European patriarchal invaders) into a bloodthirsty, tempestous Goddess of War.
Other solutions to the paradox are even less convincing. One author talks of the custom of the girls of Sparta "cheering on their young men to battle" as an explanation for the connection, making Ištar into a sort of cosmic cheerleader. For comparison, H.E. Stapleton makes an allusion to another, albeit interesting, custom of dubious relevance:
"Ištar in her feminine form was both goddess of war and goddess of pleasure - a combination of attributes that recalls one of the customs of the Japanese Samurai, when going into battle, of using as a talisman a small scroll, containing drawings of all the possible forms of coition." ('Chemistry in 'Iraq and Persia in the 10th Century A.D.' Memoirs of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, VIII, no. 6, (1927) p. 402 note 2 last paragraph (ends on p. 403))
Finally, I have heard the thesis that the connection between Love and War in the personality of Inanna is that both Love and War are 'liminal' states, the doorway between two states of being, a condition in which the Gods are taking an active role. Inanna/Ištar is thus the "Goddess of Liminality." This theory has the advantage of explaining the role of one's personal Goddess (one's Ištar), who is portrayed in art and literature as leading her charge into the presence of one of the Great Gods. But one's personal God also intercedes in this way, and he is not called one's Ištar. Therefore, while I like this theory, it strikes me as neglecting the other Gods - as Gods they must also have their share of liminality. The 'liminality' analysis, then, is simply too general to be useful. It is also ultimately derivative of the fact that Inanna is the Goddess of Love and War, and does not attempt to explain how she got that way. I do not believe that the Gods were created as a result of phenomenological analysis in the reed huts of ancient Sumer. On the contrary, the Gods reveal themselves; this is why we must not superimpose any pet cultural theory between the texts of their most devoted servants and our own understanding. We cannot strip Inanna of her warlike aspects to find a cuddly mother who abhors war underneath. To do so does not change her; but it does rob us of a chance to face the challenge of some very real paradoxes in our history and in our personal lives.
Given Inanna/Ištar's complex character, in this chapter I will present two stories. The first is Ištar's Descent to the Underworld, a short but rich Akkadian version of the longer Sumerian Descent of Inanna (beautifully presented in IQH). The second is a Sumerian story, an example of Inanna exercising her martial abilities to subdue an enemy, Inanna against Ebih.
Because she is the Goddess of lovers, I have included a spell for love, which may be the oldest spell of any sort yet known. Two spells for ensuring safety for childbirth are included, and a lullaby.
To demonstrate the important concept of the ME, I have included the list of ME found in the story of Inanna and Enki (see there for bibliography). Since Ištar is also the Goddess of taverns and the business done there I have included a section on the importance of beer, along a recipe and a drinking song and hymn to the Beer Goddess, Ninkasi.