Inanna/Ishtar— 2000 B.C., Sumer

The Story of Inanna/Ishtar

There were three Great Goddesses of the Bronze Age— Inanna/Ishtar, Isis, and Cybele.  All three represent the Great Mother. Sumeria is where Inanna was the Great Goddess, and she was there for 4,000 years. Ishtar was her Semitic counterpart in Babylon, and it was she who was so hated in the Old Testament.

Sumeria is very important to modern human culture and myth. It is the source of both Hebrew and Christian myth and culture, and many of our creation myths, such as The Garden of Eden, The Flood, and The Song of Songs. Also from Sumer, came many Greek and Roman myths, the mythology of Hinduism, and the Mahayana Buddhism in India.  It’s a really important place.

We don’t know where the Sumerians or their language come from—it’s not Semitic or Indo- European, but we do know that these people fused with those cultures and also with the indigenous people there, and begat an explosion in development, consciousness, literature, law, mathematics, astronomy, and record keeping.

All the tribes had their own deities who were superimposed on an equally strong, ancient Goddess tradition. The goddess was suppressed, but not extinguished, and the new cosmology was grounded, as always, in images of the old religion. Women were equal for a time, but then they began to be downgraded—socially and politically. They begin to be the wife, sister, or daughter of a god, or even raped by a god, which would have been inconceivable in the old mythology.

The most important event of this time is that human consciousness moved from participating in the cyclical rounds of the earth to an ever-more-precise observation of the cyclical round of the stars in the sky.The Sumerians didn’t invent  the idea of transcendent gods—the heavenly vs. earthly orders, or this huge fracturing of the unity—(this was always visible in the relation of the earth to the sun and moon which accounts for dark and light, and the seasons) but they gave it a mythological framework that influenced all the cultures and myths that followed.

A decisive, enormous leap out of the confines of all local histories and landscapes occurred in Mesopotamia in the fourth millennium BC, during the period of the rise of the ziggurats— those storied temple towers, symbolic of the axis mundi, which are caricatured in the Bible as the Tower of Babel.The leap was from geography to the cosmos beyond the moon. The priestly watchers of the night skies at the time were the first in the world to recognize that there is a mathematical regularity in the celestial passage of the seven visible spheres in the zodiac of the time. And with that, the idea dawned of a cosmic order—mathematically discoverable—which it should be the function of a governing priesthood to translate. They did translate it, into an order of civilized human life. A vast concept took form of the universe as a living being in the likeness of a great mother, within whose womb all the worlds, both of life and of death, had their existence.” (Joseph Campbell)

The poetry of Sumer, written to glorify the goddess, Inanna, is astonishingly beautiful—sexy and juicy and rich and abundant. It was the model for the Garden of Eden.Through their beautiful expressive poetry, we learn about the feelings of these people.

The Sumerian Temple was called the ziggurat. It was crowned by the horns of the crescent moon and the bull. The unity of the heavens, earth, and underworld, seen in the ziggurat, symbolized the unity. With steps and a spiraling pathway—like the megaliths of Old Europe, like the sacred mountain of Silbury Hill, the body of the pregnant goddess. It was as the primordial sacred cosmic mountain of the Hindus that existed before the creation of heaven and earth.

We see that the act of lifting up towards the sky, in spiral stages, is the Megalithic way to approach the divine.  The sanctuary was at the top, where the Sacred Marriage was enacted.  The hollow sanctuary below was the underworld—symbolized as the womb of the goddess— where gestation and regeneration took place. The twin notion of both womb and tomb is an idea dating back to the Paleolithic caves. Here was where the sacrificed god rested in winter sleep, and mythic dramas enacting these mysteries, such as the Descent of Inanna, were performed here by priests and priestesses, as they were for Isis in Egypt.

The Sumerian word for sheepfold was the same as that for vulva and womb.  The goddess is personified as a great cow, as in Egypt, who nourishes the village. We see Inanna as a young sexy goddess, but she is also the Great Mother, Queen of Heaven. For the first time in history, She has a story and a name. She is now the living incarnation of the myth of the Great Goddess, as are Isis and Cybele, who share her lunar character as Great Goddesses of the Bronze Age.

Her lunar power balances duality—the giving of life with the taking away. She embodies the cyclical aspect of time, as the goddess of life, death, and fertility. The three phases of the lunar cycle are Inanna’s, and the 4th, dark phase in Sumerian mythology belongs to her sister— Erishkegal, Queen of the Underworld. In Hebrew mythology, Lilith inherits this role of the dark aspect that withdraws life. In Greece she is Hecate, Queen of the Night.

Inanna holds the caduceus (snake on a stick), and the double axe of Crete. She incarnates both love and rage in her personality; she is ever-changing as the moon. She embodies the unity of cycles, and she is ZOE, the life principle, who in the person of her son-lover, Dumuzi, dies as the corn does in fall, and is regenerated as the spring seed. Sheep, cow, stag, lion, and bull are her animals. Lions draw her chariot or sit by her side, or beneath her throne, or under her foot. The sheaves of grain, the reed bundle, and the sacred knot of Minoan Crete remain with her to represent the images of life. The crescent moon becomes associated with her son and consort, and both of them wore headdresses of lunar crescents.

The Sacred Harlot, or Hierodule of Heaven— Inanna and Ishtar were goddesses of sexual love and fertility. The original meaning of the word, “prostitute” was to stand on behalf of—to embody, to represent—in sacred manner.  The priestesses who served in the temples of Inanna and Ishtar were vehicles of the goddess in sexual union with the men who came to the temples to perform the sacred sexual rites. In these, both men and women participated magically in the reverence and generation of the myth of the goddess. It’s hard for us to comprehend this act of ritual participation.

The sexuality that royal men received from priestesses was not their own, but received from The Goddess. The castrated men, who also served the Goddess, offered their sexuality to her as a sacrifice to promote life, a practice that was later transmitted to Cybele and is today reflected in the vow of celibacy of the Roman Catholic priesthood.

The Sacred Marriage took place in the spring, where the role of newly risen vegetation god was enacted by the high priest or king, and Inanna was the high priestess or queen. This is how the king was consecrated, as well—as the bridegroom or son of the goddess. This was the most important ritual for the renewal of the land’s fertility.  Lots of sexy poetry, anticipating the Song of Songs in the Old Testament. The King took the role of the bridegroom in the Sacred Marriage, and perhaps this ritual is the source of the myth that the children born of such rituals were half human and half divine.  Greeks, mostly sired by Zeus and some poor raped mortal bore this mythic role—Achilles, Dionysus, Gilgamesh, Helen of Troy, Heracles, and Perseus were all said to be half human/half divine.

The Sumerians and Babylonians were fascinated by the stars, and both Inanna and Ishtar were worshipped as the Queen of Heaven.  Their principle images for this were the moon and Venus, the morning and evening star, represented by the 8-pointed star. Eight is also the number of the years it took the planet to return to the same point of the zodiac, and the number of the sacred year, celebrated in Sumerian, Egypt, and Greece, when the full moon coincided exactly with the Solstices.

Like Greece, in later history, Sumerians believed in a pantheon of gods and goddesses. These individuals had lives that mirrored a complex, stratified society. The temple was filled with priestesses and castrates, singers and dancers, scribes, judges, and witnesses of legal documents. The human representations of the goddesses and gods were the high priests and priestesses who ruled the main temples in each of the (perhaps 20) Sumerian city-states, each dominated by a many-storied ziggurat-temple.

Some Changes—There was a male god, AN, who ruled like an absolute monarch.  He took over Inanna’s place and he lived in the sky and never came down to earth. There was writing and records in cuneiform— clay tablets inscribed with a reed stylus and rolled, which originally started as pictographs for the purpose of keeping temple accounts. But 5-6,000 were inscribed with literary works—myths, hymns, poems, love songs and laments that reveal the ethical, moral, and spiritual beliefs of the Sumerians.

First there was Nammu, goddess of the ocean, and Tiamat comes from her.  She was a serpent goddess, like the Hindus and the Mahayana Buddhists had, at that same time, to the east. Enlil was the air god who separates Heaven and Earth in this creation story.  H. and E. are his mother and father, and he takes is mother as his wife. “He seizes her, carries her off”. He is more like Zeus than anything that came before. This myth is obviously modified from an earlier one of Zoe and Bios, because the goddess cultures don’t have any woman being seized, carried off, raped.  Here, in this myth, is the sacred number three in Enlil and his parents, which become the Christian family, but originated in the triple goddess, maiden, mother, crone. In all myths, the three emerge from the one. The bible, of course, is missing any imagery of the goddess.  Enki becomes Lord Earth, one of the 3 principle gods of Sumer.

Lilith, the snake, and the bird must all be defeated by the male hero, Gilgamesh, so that Inanna can build her throne and marriage bed, claiming her queenship and her womanhood.  Nature is no longer worshipped directly; Inanna took the tree of life from its free-floating state in nature, and put it in her enclosed garden  to be made into furniture!  The three creatures she defeats would not leave the tree, symbolic of protecting the Neolithic goddess culture, and these became threats to the newly emerging patriarchy.

Lilith is a hybrid bird-woman, guarded by the owl (wisdom) and the lion (power) with the crown, rod, and ring of Sumer authority.

Later Hebrew legend shows her rejecting Adam, insisting on a relationship of equality, and running away to remain forever threatening in the wilderness. She’s seen as a demon-monster of insatiable female sexuality. In Greek art, she is the myth of the sirens and harpies who tempt and trick the heroes. The bird goddess WAS the cosmic creator in old Europe, and Lilith shows the reversal of the symbol’s meaning under patriarchy. Once Lilith, as the Neolithic bird goddess, assisted women in childbirth, and now she’s transformed to a demon who kills babies with her smile.

Nature is no longer sacred. Inanna’s symbols—her throne and her bed, rest on nature, tamed.  The tree must be cut down in order to make these things, this furniture. Yet, her crown is the cone of the sacred mountain—it looks like Silbury Hill, and all the other sacred mountains of the Neolithic temple sites. As the lunar goddess, Inanna incarnates the principal of justice. The Me are the laws, very important to the order and control of Sumer. Inanna is in charge of the laws, The ME. Enki, who somehow becomes her father, gives them to her as a gift. With this piece of the story, the inversion/perversion of her powers as Great Goddess, is complete.

Inanna rules her cult for 4,000 years. In her descent, Inanna is the great life principle that seeks its own sacrifice and is reborn from its own darkness.  She is the Queen of Heaven and Earth.  She gives birth to the solar god of vegetation. She weds him and mourns him. Plant, animal, sexuality, and fertility were all her epiphanies, her showing-forth as the goddess. Inanna’s the first goddess who suffers as if she were human. She’s the storm goddess with thunderbolt and dragon symbols. Sumerians were terrified of storms, and The Biblical Flood is their imagery.  Dragon and flood will become metaphors for war and for the Goddess too.  

Inanna’s’ son/lover is banished to be sacrificed to the underworld, to await regeneration. This is the same story as Ishtar’s son, Dumuzi/Tammuz. Called “The Faithful Son” and “The Green Son”, he becomes the Green Man of the Grail legends. Because of the importance of the sheepfold, the goddess was The Holy Shepardess, and the lamb was who was sacrificed, as Jesus would be later.

The Sacred Marriage consecrates the king at the New Year ceremony.  It renews the fertility of the land. Newly institutionalized in Sumer, it is a ritual for the political interests of the state.  The king’s identity merges with Dumuzi, identified with the harvest of the land. His sexual energy is needed to plow the soil (Inanna’s vulva) that she may BE the fertility of the land. In the whole near and middle east, the symbolic mating of the goddess with the king becomes an instrument of state policy, a way to legitimize the king’s rule over the people. He gets his powers from her. Together they free the community from anxiety and fear of starvation – this is the desert—and they celebrate the sacred marriage each year with food and drink. The barley was planted at the new year for beer.  

Inanna is also the first goddess we know of who has a story, who suffers as though she were human, and who can therefore express the mysterious drama of the human condition.

When she became the war goddess, her power to bring death was still balanced by the palm tree—the Tree of Life—and by her son/lover who was sacrificed and descended to the underworld to insure regeneration. Ishtar was the war goddess who rides into battle on the back of a lion, and so does Indian goddess, Durga. She was also seen as the thunderbolt, the dragon, and the flood. This is a profound change in the conception of the goddess. She who incarnated the power of nature has now become the inciter of deadly HUMAN action that destroys her creation. Yahweh will inherit her blood stained mantle and be purely a god of war, for by then, every tribal group was involved in the turbulent wars of the Iron Age. From now on, the power of the goddess is invoked by kings to help them overcome their enemies. We can see a shift in the numinosity of the great Goddess and the ominous rise in the king’s theft of that numinosity.

The Descent of Inanna—The greatest of the Bronze Age myths is a poem, 3,000 years older than the myth of the crucifixion, Jesus’ descent into hell, and his resurrection. Inanna goes down to the dark realm of her shadow sister, Erishkegal.  She removes, piece by piece, the regalia of her office at each of the seven gates of the underworld. Inanna is divested of all her clothes and worldly stuff and comes naked into the presence of the goddess of the underworld. While she is there, a spell is cast on the upper world— fertility is suspended and everything falls asleep. It is the origin of Sleeping Beauty’s image. Erishkegal hangs Inanna’s carcass, all that is left of her, on a hook, for three days. Eriskekal gives birth in that time. Inanna is freed and ascends like the moon, three days after its death, to assume her place once more as the Queen of Heaven. She is forced to appoint someone as a sacrifice in her place, and she chooses her husband, Dumuzi. This great lunar drama was already really old when it was first written down in Sumer.

It’s a metaphor— as if Inanna requires this passage through her own depths in order to be reunited with her underworld aspect. The lunar myth says the light must descend into darkness in order to reappear in the next cycle. The two sisters together represent the whole, the unified face of the Great Mother.

The Sacrifice of the Son Lover—Just as the Sacred Marriage ritualized sexuality and the ecstatic experience, so the sacrifice of the son-lover ritualizes the counter-pole of the human experience of the loss of life. He plays a passive role in the descent, seized against his will and taken down below as a substitute for Inanna. The myth of the sacrificed god has evidence to support the thesis that before 2500 BC, kings were ritually sacrificed every eight years, in The Great Year, as the vegetation god. There are rites of mourning and greeting the risen god all throughout the Near East and Mediterranean. Everywhere the same myth of the virgin goddess who’s son-lover dies a sacrificial death and is reborn after she searches for him in the underworld was ritually celebrated.

Soon the underworld came to be seen as a fearful place, inhabited by demons and evil spirits—a river separated it from the living, and the dead had to go in a boat in into the darkness. This was not a hopeful vision, or a trust in dying. The underworld became everything that was terrifying to human consciousness, as it moved farther and farther away from a sense of the wholeness and sacrality of life. The fear of death was projected onto this space, the known separated from the unknown, the light from the dark, split apart and represented as “good” and “evil”.  The ultimate legacy of this fear is the Hebrew Lilith and the Christian image of the devil. Inanna’s descent and return after submission offers Sumerian culture the paradigm of a Great Below as the essential counterpart to the Great Above. And the dualism deepens, as does the gap of what was once a Unity.

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