Goddess Ishtar of Gilgamesh

Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson we explore the ancient Babylonian goddess, Ishtar. The goddess of love and war, Ishtar held an important role in Babylonian society and played key parts in ancient literature.

Tainted Love

Everyone has had that girlfriend or boyfriend of whom they were not necessarily proud. Perhaps you were afraid of the disapproving eyes of your parents, or maybe the person held religious beliefs wildly different from your own. Maybe he or she was just slightly crazy (and not in a cute way), or perhaps he or she had - ahem - first-hand knowledge of the wrong end of our judicial system. Either way, he or she was not the type of person you wanted to take home to your parents, and sooner or later you realized that continuing the relationship could have had disastrous results.

Ishtar, the ancient goddess of love and war, was the divine embodiment of the 'wild child' partner for ancient Babylonians. To understand why, let's explore Ishtar's place in Babylonian society, specifically in literature such as the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Who Was Ishtar?

Daughter of the highest of Babylonian gods, Anu, Ishtar was highly visible in ancient Babylonian society and was often associated with human sexuality. In fact, at Uruk, an ancient city in modern-day Iraq on the banks of the Euphrates River, there were groups of holy prostitutes devoted to the deity. Ishtar was often portrayed in Babylonian myth as a vain and fiery lover, whose lovers often met a disastrous end. For example, in the Epic of Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh claims the former Babylonian farm god Tammuz met his demise because of a previous relationship with Ishtar.

Ishtar, as depicted in a Babylonian stone carving

Ishtar in the Epic of Gilgamesh

The image of Ishtar as a passionate but dangerous girlfriend is further solidified by her portrayal in one of humankind's earliest surviving works of literature, the Epic of Gilgamesh. Throughout the epic poem, Ishtar continually pursues the main character, Gilgamesh, seeking his hand in marriage. Gilgamesh consistently refuses, listing many of Ishtar's former lovers who died after she eventually lost interest and turned on them, including the hapless Tammuz.

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