Inanna/Ishtar – A winner or a loser?

Inanna/Ishtar is a Mesopotamian, AkkadianBabylonian, and Assyrian goddess of fertility, ‘sacred’ prostitution¹, war, and politics who came to be associated with the planet Venus as a goddess of love.

One of Inanna/Ishtar’s most famous myths tells of her journey to the underworld in an attempt to gain wisdom and power.

Statue c. 1792 - 1750 BC that represents an an...
BritishMuseum | Old Babylonian, probably 1792 – 1750 BC. The Queen of the Night represents an ancient Babylonian goddess, probably Ishtar or Ereshkigal. It might also represent Lilitu, called Lilith in the Bible – Wikipedia

If thou openest not the gate to let me enter,
I will break the door, I will wrench the lock,
I will smash the door-posts, I will force the doors.
I will bring up the dead to eat the living.
And the dead will outnumber the living.²

During her descent, as Inanna/Ishtar passes through each successive door she is commanded to take off a specific piece of jewelry or clothing. By the time she reaches the abyss she stands entirely naked.

Joseph Campbell says this story has obvious Jungian implications. While attaining knowledge of the so-called inner self (in contrast to the ego), one gains a new perspective on materialism and worldly power.

Unfortunately, Inanna/Ishtar’s sister and underworld queen Ereshkigal imprisons her, she becomes ‘one of the dead’ and does not reemerge victorious and wise. Not at first, anyhow.

Luckily for Inanna/Ishtar, a deal is struck and her lover Dumuzid/Tammuz and his sister replace her in the underworld, alternating their descent through the year, which is said to mirror the seasons.³

A modern illustration depicting Inanna-Ishtar’s descent into the Underworld taken from Lewis Spence’s Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria (1916)

So ultimately Inanna/Ishtar ‘wins’ but at a great price that others must pay.

¹ The idea and practice of  ‘sacred’ or temple prostitution was widespread in the ancient world:

² Parallel myths and different scholarly interpretations of Inanna/Ishtar’s descent to the underworld shed more light (or perhaps create more ambiguity) on this ancient mythic theme:


Related » Nergal

4 thoughts on “Inanna/Ishtar – A winner or a loser?

  1. I don’t know as she was meant to be read as a winner or loser. I’m not even sure her descent was for wisdom. I think Enki was the God for that. I’d imagine the story is meant to symbolise seasonal shifts, with the power dynamic of falling and rising from the underworld being illustrated by the betrayal of Dumuzi to Kur. Although I’ll admit I struggle with the seeming callousness with which Dumuzi was cast down – but I’d guess there were elements we don’t have that would make the myth make sense.

    If anyone’s interested:

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m not sure we can really understand an author’s original intent if that is what we mean by literalism. I’m not even sure authors themselves fully know *why* they say/write things. Combine that with the complicated evolution of most myths, the problem of translation, etc., and we have, IMO, lots of room to say whatever we feel like or whatever we feel is right for a given moment.

    I’ve written about this elsewhere… how so-called specialists and those with knowledge of original languages are not necessarily closer to the truth than are laypersons without such learned abilities. Some scholars’ opinions might, in fact, be further away from any original meanings than those of an intuitive layperson. Wendy Doniger’s work on Hindu myth comes to mind…

    There’s often too much arbitrary elitism in discussions like this. And that’s just another trip, in my view.


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