The Image above is not very good, but it allows us to see the main “attributes” of Ishtar / Inanna: The female form, the helmet, the weapons (arrows on the back, mace or ax in left hand), standing on a wild beast (probably a lion here). As with all ancient deities, it is essential to list those “attributes” properly as they often were the only means to identify a given god or goddess whose representations otherwise might differ widely from place to place and in time. Hindus still proceed in this way in order to identify their own deities.
Referring to Hinduism, let us have a look at a present-day deity still worshiped by Hindus, Durga.
If you look at the attributes, they all are there: female form, helmet, weapons, riding on a wild beast (there are no lions in India so here, it is a tiger). Even some of the weapons are the same: bow and mace. Another similar (but even darker) Hindu goddess is Kali.
Modern Hindus are not conscious that they still are worshiping Ishtar/Inanna under another name. For them, it is Durga and no one else. This kind of phenomenon is not isolated. Scholars in comparative religion have realized for quite some time that what they call “patterns” can be transmitted over long distances and time frames from religion to religion, without the worshipers being aware that what they worship actually is just a reformulation, in their own cultural vocabulary, of a much older or foreign pattern. These ideas give rise to extremely bitter and arcane debates once you examine the details. Suffice it to say here, that the idea of patterns migrating between religions generally is accepted, and that the example above quite likely is such a case.
Now, why would people want to worship a deity with a profile like that of Inanna/Ishtar? When a certain practice is repeated for a long time (more than 5,000 years in this case) and across different civilizations, there must be a reason, even if it is not immediately obvious what that reason (or reasons) might be.
Inanna/Ishtar as a goddess of “love and war”?
If you ask scholars of mythology about how Ishtar was viewed by her worshipers, one often gets answers like this:
“This magnificent myth [Inanna and the Mes] with its particularly charming story involves Inanna, the queen of heaven and Enki, the Lord of Wisdom.” Samuel B. Kramer, Sumerian Mythology, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1961.
Or this one, from the same source:
“Inanna, queen of heaven, the goddess of light and love and life, has set her heart upon visiting the nether world …“
More generally, when characterized in a few words, Inanna/Ishtar is labeled as a “goddess of love and war” as she is, for example, in the Wikipedia articles referenced at the top of the page.
In sum, none of this seems to make much sense. How can a “charming” deity, who appears in “magnificent” myths, be at the same time a goddess of “light, love and life,” on one hand and a goddess of “war” on the other? It might seem more logical to be a goddess of love and peace. But love and war? How can that be?
The answer to this question is that the modern meaning of the word “love” is treacherous. When we see it in a religious context, we tend to interpret it as a synonym of the ancient Greek word “agape,” on which was built the whole Christian idea of divine and brotherly love which still is imprinted deeply into our psyche, even if we are not believers. This type of “love” is the one that goes with peace. But it definitely is not what the worshipers of Ishtar/Inanna had in mind.
Ishtar/Inanna was chiefly a goddess of sexual desire and war. This makes much more sense. Here are a few more excerpts from the already quoted Wikipedia articles:
The goddess of love and war, who was seen swaggering around the streets of her home town, dragging young men out of the taverns to have sex with her. Despite her association with mating and fertility of humans and animals, Inanna was not a mother goddess, and is rarely associated with childbirth. Inanna was also associated with rain and storms and with the planet Venus. She is always depicted with a shaved pubic region.
… as in the image below (of Ishtar):
Here are two passages from Sumerian tablets that make the point even clearer:
- “When the servants let the flocks loose, and when cattle and sheep are returned to cow-pen and sheepfold, then, my lady, like the nameless poor, you wear only a single garment. The pearls of a prostitute are placed around your neck, and you are likely to snatch a man from the tavern. As you hasten to the embrace of your spouse Dumuzid, Inana, then the seven paranymphs share the bedchamber with you.” ETCSL translation: t.4.07.4
- “She stirs confusion and chaos against those who are disobedient to her, speeding carnage and inciting the devastating flood, clothed in terrifying radiance. It is her game to speed conflict and battle, untiring, strapping on her sandals.”
Passage 1 above clarifies what “love” means in the context of Ishtar/Inanna, while passage 2 illustrates “war.”
Now, it seems we have formed a clearer picture of what “goddess of love and war” might have meant to an Ishtar/Inanna worshiper. This picture, however, is rather repellent to us. Why would people have wanted to worship such a goddess if this is how they viewed her?
Of course, it is impossible to know this for sure. However, what we may say is that most known polytheistic gods seem to have had their roots in natural phenomena that were extremely impressive to witness and at the same time unexplained, such as thunder, volcanoes, celestial objects, tempests, etc. We then may assume that ancient Mesopotamians had noticed how powerful a desire could be generated in men by attractive young women, and how many murderous and bitter conflicts could be triggered as a result. Since such conflicts, in an agrarian chieftain-led society, often resulted in even more hardship and destruction than natural disasters, it might have seemed logical to assume that a goddess was at work and therefore needed to be worshiped and appeased.
The works of literary critic and philosopher René Girard also may help us get a grasp on why ancient Mesopotamians might have been led to worship Inanna/Ishtar. Without going into too much detail, let us just say that René Girard established, through careful analysis of some key literary works (of Cervantes, Stendhal, Proust and Dostoyevsky), that certain forms of desire are powerful enough to consume the mind of an individual and ultimately lead him into committing the worst acts of violence, including sadomasochism. That desire may lead to violent behavior is hardly a new idea. But what Girard adds to it is that, far from disappearing as man becomes more “civilized,” this phenomenon actually becomes more intense, at least in certain cases (those described in the literary works he uses as material). In so doing, and thus showing how powerful a grasp this desire-induced violence may still have on us, Girard makes it easier, I think, to imagine in what awe ancient Mesopotamians might have held Ishtar/Inanna.
Spread of the Ishtar/Inanna goddess pattern.
Besides Durga in Hinduism, there are many other instances of goddesses that fit the same profile as Inanna/Ishtar:
- The west-semitic goddess Astarte, a near duplicate of Ishtar referred to abundantly in the Bible.
- The Greek/Roman goddess Aphrodite/Venus who, although chiefly being associated with sexuality, still was viewed clearly enough as a warrior goddess in Caesar’s time to be claimed by him as his ancestor under the label “Venus Victrix” (the victory giver) or, in Greek, “Aphrodite Enoplios” (the armed, same root as in “hoplite“). One noteworthy feature of Aphrodite/Venus is her association with Adonis, which generally is considered a duplicate of the god Dumuzi/Tammuz associated with all Semitic forms of Inanna/Ishtar, including Astarte. Tammuz is mentioned in the Bible: Ezekiel 8:14 “Then he brought me to the entrance of the north gate of the house of the Lord, and behold, there sat women weeping for Tammuz” (ESV translation).
- The Greek/Roman Goddess Athena/Minerva often represented helmeted and holding a javelin and shield. In the picture below, notice the weapons, the helmet, and the serpent, an animal also frequently associated with Ishtar/Inanna (as she is with Eve in Genesis).
Though less of a close match, the Greek/Roman goddess Artemis/Diana must also be mentioned here. Though she does not have all the traits of the Ishtar/Inanna pattern, many of the key attributes are present nonetheless :
- Bow and arrows.
- Association with Adonis (see here).
- Association with the Moon. Ishtar/Inanna’s helmet is adorned with horns, which is a Lunar symbol (e.g. Hathor) and she is the daughter of Nannar/Sin, the moon god.
- Involvement in myths in which male gods kill each other out of a desire for her.
We must remember that what we are looking at here is not a process of outright copy, but of semi-conscious pattern borrowing. The result of such a process never is identical to the original, as it mixes pre-existing local material and patterns borrowed from various sources. An example of this is the fact that Diana is a moon goddess, probably as a result of direct Astarte influences on early Roman religion through Etruscan intermediaries, while Artemis, her Greek model, is not originally a moon goddess though it also incorporates west-semitic material (Adonis, desire induced killing). In later times, Artemis ended up being treated as a moon deity as well under a kind of “backward” influence from Diana.
The goddesses of desire
One particularly noticeable difference between the Ishtar/Inanna model and some of its Greek/Roman derivatives deserves mention. While Inanna/Ishtar is described as a “prostitute,” both Athena/Minerva and Artemis/Diana are called “virgins” in their respective mythologies. Is that a real difference or the two faces of the same coin? I believe it is the latter. Ishtar/Inanna no doubt is a goddess of sexuality but above all, she is a goddess of desire and of the destructive power that accompanies desire. Artemis/Diana and Athena/Minerva are barred explicitly from sexuality, yet they are still goddesses of desire. In the myth of Actaeon, for example, the hero is changed into a stag by the goddess (and killed as a result by his own hounds) because he had been spying on her while she was bathing naked in a spring. Athena, for her part, is the target of an incestuous attempted rape by her brother, Hephaestus.
The idea that female virgins attract male desire, maybe even more so than “easier” women, is as old and widespread an idea as desire-induced violence. To understand how deeply the two are linked, I believe it is helpful to present here briefly another of René Girard’s contributions, namely the observation that hiding one’s own desire is the key to making the other party’s desire become stronger, and therefore the best way to place your “opponent” in the “desire battle” in a weaker position. Girard observes that in the 1830s conservative French upper-class milieu described in Sthendal’s “Le Rouge et le Noir,” it pays to be a priest or a young seminarian because, as you are not supposed to have desires for the opposite sex, you are all the more successful because women’s desires for you are inflamed by your apparent impassibility. The same holds in Proust’s “salons” of the 1880s, but people have become more conscious of the phenomenon. Seduction has become a game in which the winner is the one who has been able to hold his breath and simulate indifference the longest. In both cases, Girard uses the term “heroism” to describe the tremendous efforts of self-restraint people are prepared to make in order to elicit desire in others by hiding their own.
Given the above observation, I believe it is fair to say that the virgin Artemis and Athena are a refinement of the original Ishtar/Astarte pattern made by subtle Greeks who, 2,000 years before René Girard, had noticed that projecting an image of impassibility and indifference is the best way to inflame desire in others.
Ishtar/Inanna and Political Power
As we have seen, the destructive potential of desire-induced violence is fearsome, and it therefore is understandable that people might have turned to the goddess representing this potential in an attempt to appease her. However, there is more to the worship of Inanna/Ishtar. From what we know of Mesopotamian history, it seems that its inhabitants turned to her not only as a power to be appeased, but also sometimes in the hope of harnessing her ferocious capabilities for political and military ends.
The neo-Assyrians are famous as being one of the fiercest and most cruel empires of ancient Mesopotamia. A number of texts, inclunding this one, have earned them the nickname “Nazis of Mesopotamia”:
“I built a pillar in front of the gates of the city and I flayed alive all the leading men which had risen against me and I spread their skin on the pillar. Some of them I entombed inside of the pillar. Others I impaled on stakes on top of the pillar. Others I impaled on stakes set around the pillar. I flayed alive many of them across all my country and I draped their skins on the walls.
I burned many prisoners among them. I captured many soldiers alive. Of some I cut the arms or the hands. Of others I cut the nose or the ears. I gouged out the eyes of many soldiers. I made a heap of the living and another heap of severed heads. I hung the heads to trees all around the city. I burned their youngsters, boys and girls alike.” D.D. Luckenbill. Ancient Records of Assyria and Babylonia. I, §443, 445, 472.
But neo-Assyrian Emperors such as Sennacherib or Ashurbanipal were not only merciless killers but also the highly civilized heirs of 3,000 years of Mesopotamian culture. As rulers of Assyria, they had to pay homage first to Ashur, the national God. Aside from this obligation, they were free, as any other Sumero-Akkadian, to choose the gods they particularly would favor in their devotions. Many of the Assyrian Emperors, particularly Ashurbanipal, are described in the sources as enthusiastic Ishtar worshipers. Numerous inscriptions and tablets describe them as praying to Ishtar, donating to Ishtar temples, or receiving premonitory dreams from the goddess. In one such inscription, Ashurbanipal writes how he destroyed the neighboring state of Elam:
“The tombs of their Kings, recent and of old, who had not feared Ishtar my Lady and who had given trouble to the Kings my fathers, I ruined and destroyed them; I exposed them to the sun and I carried away their bones to the country of Ashur” J.-M. Aynard, Le Prisme du Louvre. AO 19.939.
It is difficult, of course, to imagine what Ashurbanipal’s worship of Ishtar might have meant to his contemporaries. One way to get an idea is to attempt to translate its image into modern icons that we know well and that still evoke strong emotions in us. I believe that the picture of an SS officer beside that of a 1940s Lili Marleen singer is not too inaccurate in that respect.
Above: Hannah Schygulla in R.-W. Fassbinder film Lili Marleen (left) and SS-Obergruppenführer Josias Erbprinz zu Waldeck und Pyrmont (right).
Below: 300 BC Alabaster statue of Ishtar (left) and bas-relief of Ashurbanipal from a Nimrud stele (right).
In order to illustrate further the relationship that existed between Ashurbanipal and Ishtar, we may quote passages of contemporary texts such as these:
“The Lady of Nineveh [Ishtar], the mother who bore me, endowed me with unparalleled Kingship.” Hymn K 1290, Court Poetry and Literary Miscellanea, A. Livingstone tr., 1989.
“You were a child Ashurbanipal, when I left you with the Queen of Nineveh [Ishtar]; you were a baby Ashurbanipal, when you sat on the lap of the Queen of Nineveh.” Hymn K 1285, Ibid.
In the passages above, Ashurbanipal quite literally declares himself a “son of a bitch“. In order to understand why an extremely image-conscious Assyrian King might have wanted to paint himself in such colors, we may remember that this most universal of insults (“fils de pute,” in French, “hijo de puta” in Spanish”) is used in a somewhat laudatory fashion, even in our modern language. The video clip below, taken from the TV miniseries Band Of Brothers (Episode 7, final sequence), illustrates one such case:
YouTube Video: http://fr.youtube.com/watch?v=pW2GbZuqyGQ
“Maybe he [indirectly referring to himself] thought there was some value in having the men think he was the meanest toughest son of a bitch in the whole Legion.”
Of course, Cpt. Speirs is not cast here as being like an SS officer. He is, however, described as a somewhat ambiguous character and certainly not the moral equivalent of Major Winters, the main character, who comes out as a devout Christian as well as a very competent military leader. Maybe another way to get a grasp on what the neo-Assyrian Empire was like is to try to imagine how the story told in the series might have played out if Speirs had been assigned as battalion commander instead of Winters.
For a military commander, which is what a neo-Assyrian King was, above all, it pays to be considered a “son of a bitch” by both his men and his enemies. Now we may ask ourselves what kind of moral price one must pay in return for these advantages. I believe that the repeated and strongly worded condemnations found in the Bible (in Ezekiel and Isaiah in particular) of Assyria, and of Israel’s temptation to seek an alliance with it, answer this question.