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The Goddess Inanna or Ishtar

Updated on February 13, 2013
The Goddess Inanna
The Goddess Inanna


The Sumerian Goddess Inanna, known as Ishatr by the Babylonians, is one of the most beguiling and fascinating goddesses of the ancient world. One of the most prominent female deities of ancient Mesopotamia she inspired many myths, was worshipped Kings such as Sargon of Akkad and destroyed as many men as she seduced.

A fertility goddess, a goddess of love, war and sex, she was a powerful figure, with a large cult and many temples dedicated to her. She is also associated with the idea of scared prostitution, although most scholars dispute the idea that sacred prostitution was widespread in ancient Mesopotamia. There was indeed a sacred marriage rite, performed between the King and the High Priestess though it is unclear whether this actually involved sexual intercourse and there is not evidence that priestess or any women involved in the temples were involved in any form of prostitution or provided sexual services.

Inanna is represented by many symbols, including the lion on which she is often depicted riding, an eight pointed star and her cuneiform sign represented grain and the fertility of the land. She is also associated with the planet Venus, which was seen as unpredictable in nature like Inanna.

Her holy city was Uruk, also home to the famous Gilgamesh, and she was known as 'the courtesan of the gods', she had many lovers and Gilgamesh famously refused her advances in 'The Epic of Gilgamesh' and suffered her famous wrath.

Inanna- Goddess of War

Her warlike nature was well documented, the Sumerian Priestess and Poet Enheduanna describes Inanna

" Be it known that you destroy the rebel lands! Be it known that you roar at the foreign lands! Be it known that you crush heads! Be it known that you devour corpses like a dog! Be it known that your gaze is terrible! Be it known that you lift your terrible gaze! Be it known that you have flashing eyes! Be it known that you are unshakeable and unyielding! Be it known that you always stand triumphant!"

Inanna -Goddess of Love

Despite being the goddess of love she was not associated with marriage, but instead with sexual desire and extra marital affairs, similarly she was not often associated with childbirth or seen as a 'mother goddess'. She was often associated with female sexual pleasure, indeed in Sumerian literature Inanna is known to praise her vulva and many poems and songs about young women about to be married and engage in sexual intercourse call on Inanna, who's experiences as a young bride with Dumuzi were told in many mythical poems.

A Goddess in the Underworld

A goddess, possibly Inanna, flanked by demons in the Underworld, cylinder seal impression c.2330-2150 B.C
A goddess, possibly Inanna, flanked by demons in the Underworld, cylinder seal impression c.2330-2150 B.C | Source

The Myths of Inanna

Perhaps one of the most famous Myths involving Inanna is that of 'Inanna's descent into the Underworld' , Inanna also plays a central role in The Epic of Gilgamesh, perhaps the earliest example of literature that survives today and a precursor to the famous epics of Homer.

Inanna is also the subject of many devotional poems but the Sumerian high priestess and first known Author, Enheduanna, most famously in "The Exaltation of Inanna", in which Enheduanna praises Inanna and vividly describes her characteristics.

Inanna's Descent to the Underworld

Inanna is unique amongst Sumerian gods and goddesses for being the only one to return from the underworld, a place described as ;the land of no return'.

Inanna visits the underworld to attend the funeral of her brother in law, Gulgana. However Inanna's sister Ereshkigal, is consumed with hatred for Inanna, perhaps jealous of her life outside the underworld, which is a desolate place. Ereshkigal has Inanna is stripped naked, and of the jewellery giving her divine powers, and held captive. Inanna's servant, Ninshubur, pleads with the other gods to help her rescue Inanna, however only Enki agreed to help. Enki created two asexual figures named gala-tura and the kur-jara from the dirt under the fingernails of the deities, whom he instructed to ask for the corpse of Inanna. They succeeded and revived Inanna, who was only able to escape the underworld by offering up someone to go in her place. After seeing her husband Dumuzi, sitting happily under a tree wearing lavish clothes; not mourning for her like the others she sends him into the underworld.

It is thought the myth may be a reflection of Inanna's 'dark side' , she is portrayed as a goddess with a fearsome, warlike nature yet it capable of great love and affection. This rounded, contradictory and human portrayal gives her a complex character, accepting of the negative aspects of life and indeed death itself which is essential to life.

Inanna and the Divine Powers - the Mes

Inanna holds the 'mes' the divine powers, having tricked the god of culture Enki into handing them over in by deviously getting him drunk. The Mes represent all aspects of civilisation and make Inanna one of the most powerful gods in the sumerian pantheon.

Inanna on her Throne

Cylinder seal showing Inanna on her throne c.2000-1600 B.C
Cylinder seal showing Inanna on her throne c.2000-1600 B.C | Source
Inanna's eight pointed star symbol
Inanna's eight pointed star symbol

Symbols and Iconology of Inanna

Inanna is usually depicted in long robes, wearing a pointed hat reserved for deities, often with wings and riding on the back of a lion. She is associated with the planet Venus and associated with a eight pointed star or rosette symbol as well as the cuneiform ideogram of a twisted knot of reed, representing a storehouse for grain and thus fertility.


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      Davidwork 4 years ago

      Another very informative hub on an aspect of ancient near eastern civilisation, this time a mythological aspect.

      I shall look up more information about this ancient goddess.