Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.
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 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.
Ishtar's image is further tarnished in the Epic by her reaction: she complains about Gilgamesh to her father, Anu, and demands that Anu grant her the bull of heaven so that she can send the bull to kill Gilgamesh. Despite Anu's protestations (he, as most parents would do, tactfully points out that Ishtar is being a spoiled brat), he grants Ishtar the bull. Despite this, Ishtar's plans for vengeance are foiled in the end, when Gilgamesh and his friend, Enkidu, kill the bull.
Ishtar played an important role in Babylonian society as the goddess of love and war. Although she was often characterized in Babylonian myth and literature as having an extremely passionate and volatile personality, this is perhaps to be expected in the goddess of two concepts so different yet so important.
Once you are finished, you should be able to:
- Explain who Ishtar was for the ancient Babylonians
- Discuss Ishtar's role in the Epic of Gilgamesh
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